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Our History: A pioneer on the Island's wild coast

Frances Barkley was just 17 years old in 1786 when she boarded the Imperial Eagle with her husband, the merchant sea trader Captain Charles Barkley.
The Imperial Eagle nears the west coast in a gale, with double-reeled topsails and single-reefed foresail.

Frances Barkley was just 17 years old in 1786 when she boarded the Imperial Eagle with her husband, the merchant sea trader Captain Charles Barkley. Their circumnavigation of the globe over eight years led Frances to be the first European woman to visit the shores of British Columbia, Alaska and Hawaii. Barkley kept a diary of her travels that she later worked into a memoir she called Reminiscences. Nearly 200 years later, Saltspring Island author Beth Hill came upon the memoir in the B.C. Archives and incorporated the stories into The Remarkable World of Frances Barkley, 1769-1845, an enchanting account of a young bride and mother’s ground-breaking adventures at sea.


When Frances married Captain Charles Barkley and stepped aboard the Imperial Eagle, she was at the vanguard of a small but growing number of wives who accompanied their husbands sailing in the merchant trade. Her life had changed abruptly. The sheltering convent walls had vanished and Frances Barkley found herself married to a man she hardly knew, aboard a small ship bound for unknown coasts, on a voyage that might last 10 years.

Frances could not have foreseen the hardships she would endure, but she must have known something about the challenges that faced her; from a previous voyage she knew that she did not get seasick. But why would a young woman have been prepared to make such accommodations in her life? Something about a seafaring life obviously appealed to Frances. Possibly she was intrigued by adventure and sailing to exotic ports. Then too, for Frances to stay at home would have meant not being with her husband for a number of years and, as correspondence was spotty, it might be years before she found out if she had been widowed. Also, as captain, Charles was expected to invest a substantial sum of his own money in the venture, which would mean he would not have sufficient funds to set Frances up in her own house; she would have had to live off the largesse of her family. For Frances and others like her, there was no option of staying ashore, no matter the challenges.

In June of 1787 the Imperial Eagle was the first European ship to sail into Nootka Sound that season. Surrounded by masses of islands, uncharted shoals, strong currents, extreme tides and fog-laced shores, the sound was tricky to navigate, particularly for a large Indiaman like the Imperial Eagle. At 400 tons, she was the largest ship to enter these waters. Most ships that visited were the smaller 100- to 300-ton, two-masted, square-rigged vessels like snows or brigs. Her size may have kept Captain Barkley from exploring the small coves of the coast, but not the inlet 71 nautical miles south of Nootka Sound, to which he gave his name, or the larger, fabled Juan de Fuca Strait, the entrance to the mainland coast.

Covering an area of approximately 800 square kilometres, Barkley Sound is the soul of the west coast of Vancouver Island, exposed as it is to the full sweep of the Pacific Ocean. Rough seas and heavy swells are the norm. Today, some 200 years after the Barkleys’ visit, the sound is enjoyed by kayakers, boaters, campers and hikers, many of whom do not know of Captain Barkley and his discovery. Yet the reminders are there: Loudoun Channel, Imperial Eagle Channel, Trevor Channel and Cape Beale, named after the ship’s purser, John Beale, who was killed on a trading expedition up the coast. All bear testimony to the silent footsteps of a man, a woman and a voyage long ago.

Frances was now at the outer edges of the trading world, with little information available to guide her in her approach to the First Peoples of this coast. As the first European woman to reach these shores, how would she be perceived? She may or may not have read Cook’s writings about the people who populated this coast. If she did, she did not give any indication.

Frances writes little in her Reminiscences about their first voyage to the Northwest Coast. Much of what is known is from the writing of Capt. John Walbran, who apparently had access to the original diary. Walbran, in command of the Canadian government steamship Quadra, spent 12 years, from 1892 to 1904, exploring the British Columbia coastline.

The Victoria Colonist, on March 3, 1901, published Walbran’s account of the trading voyage of the Imperial Eagle, “taken chiefly from the original diary kept by his young wife, Frances Hornby Barkley (née Trevor), the first white woman to visit the shores of what is now Vancouver Island.” Walbran related the facts about the voyage from Ostend to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii):

“… And from thence the ship steered for Nootka Sound. No other vessels were in the sound, and apparently none in the immediate vicinity, consequently Capt. Barkley did extremely well with his trade and soon procured, mainly though the following circumstance, all the furs the Indians had for sale.”

Walbran’s article continues:

“Shortly after the ship had moored in Friendly Cove, a Canoe was paddled alongside and a man in every respect like an Indian and a very dirty one at that, clothed in a greasy sea-otter skin, came on board, and to the utter astonishment of Capt. and Mrs. Barkley, introduced himself as Dr. John Mackey, late surgeon of the trading brig Captain Cook. This visitor informed them that he had been living at Nootka amongst the Indians for the previous 12 months, during which time he had completely conformed himself to their habits and customs ….

“Mrs. Barkley notes that in King George’s Sound, as she always called Nootka, the climate was about the same as in Scotland, with perhaps a little more rain, and that the fruit they got ripened at a much more advanced season than the same berries did in England, or even in Scotland. She speaks well of the two chiefs, Maquilla and his brother Callecum; these men seemed to her more intelligent than the other Indians and also more active and enterprising.

“Readers of Meares’ Voyage will recollect this chief Callecum was barbarously shot by the Spaniards in Friendly Cove about two years after the visit of the Imperial Eagle. After a stay of a month in Friendly Cove, the cruise along the unknown coast to the south eastward was commenced, Mrs. Barkley noting in her diary that her husband was the first person to examine closely this shoreline.”

The high adventures of the voyages are long past, their achievements forgotten. Yet the Barkleys are surely worthy of greater fame, for their adventures bring together all the different places and peoples of the world at a time when coastlines were being charted, islands discovered and trade was opening up contact with new ideologies and cultures.

One can imagine the Imperial Eagle lunging forward with the spray flying, sparkling in the sun, the sails taut in the wind and the sea running. A thin line of jagged peaks lies along the horizon, a new land one day to be named Canada. The Imperial Eagle heels a little, the green sea curling white under her bows, and on her deck a woman stands braced against the joyous wind as she looks toward the distant coast, a woman with red-gold hair who deserves to be remembered.

Excerpted from The Remarkable World of Frances Barkley, 1769-1845, TouchWood Editions © 2003 Beth Hill and Cathy Converse.

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