Detailed Island history a rewarding look at our past

Vancouver Island in the Empire By J.F. Bosher Llumina, 543 pages, $37.95

A couple of years ago, one of the most comprehensive books ever written about the early years of Vancouver Island arrived with a thud.

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At 839 pages, J.F. Bosher's Imperial Vancouver Island was a substantial piece of work. With biographies of 769 people who lived here during the 100 years he called the Imperial century, the book is an essential reference work for anyone digging into our past.

It was an impressive accomplishment, for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, Bosher does not even live here; he is a retired history professor in Ontario who has written books on the French Revolution, French finances and business and religion in New France. But he has roots here, including an ancestor who arrived on a "bride ship" in 1863.

Bosher's father worked at the dominion experimental station in Saanich as an inspector of commercial bulb products, and Bosher spent his early years here.

The other remarkable thing about Bosher's previous Vancouver Island book is that it was not intended to be a book on its own. Bosher had planned for it to be an appendix to another book, but when that idea seemed unworkable, he published the appendix on its own, and assured us that the main book was in the works.

Well, Bosher's primary project has been published. It's Vancouver Island in the Empire, and as we might have expected, it's a massive history, dealing with the impact of people from throughout the British Empire.

For a century, as Bosher notes, the Island attracted Imperial officers, civil servants, medical officers, businessmen and others from the British Isles, India and elsewhere. They came to what was, for decades, the most important British port on the entire Pacific coast.

After traffic started using the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1886, Vancouver gained in importance, claiming from Victoria the status as the top port. Victoria, and to a certain extent the rest of the Island, remained an outpost of the empire, with an Imperial presence that was not to be found elsewhere in Canada.

Vancouver Island in the Empire tells the story of the development of the Island, as seen and influenced by people from the British Empire. That narrow focus means that not every aspect of our history is included, but that work can be left to others.

And besides, it is hard to think of a set of books totalling almost 1,400 pages as having a focus too narrow. Bosher makes it clear that the Imperial influence was felt throughout the Island, and in the day-to-day lives of just about everyone here.

Bosher deals with just about every aspect of life here, from schools and churches to businesses and industries, from the young to the old, from the city to the country.

He argues that people from the British Isles were much more interested in, and much more respectful of, the First Nations in the area than were the Canadians or Americans who arrived here.

Bosher came to this belief based on several sources, including an analysis of history books and their authors, amateur anthropologists and collectors of native artifacts. The latter helped ensure, he says, that these items were preserved to this day.

The author's goal, with this book and his previous effort, was to illustrate the social fabric of people and families linking Vancouver Island to the British Isles and the rest of the Empire.

In reaching for that goal, Bosher explores our history like no others have done. His perspective offers a different view on our past, and gives us a better sense of the forces that helped shape our community.

The publication of Vancouver Island in the Empire marks a dozen years of research, compilation and writing by Bosher. His work is destined to become one of the most important references available to us, for years to come, thanks to Bosher's rich amount of detail.

It's far easier to write in general terms than to chase down every possible fact. It's time-consuming and frustrating to wade through dozens of conflicting sources to verify that the information is correct, and many writers will opt for vague generalities rather than specifics.

Not Bosher. When mentioning a person for the first time, for example, he includes the person's full name, dates of birth and death and, where possible, their street address in Victoria. That's impressive.

It also can be daunting; many readers will be frightened off by Bosher's approach, because this is not light reading. You can't skim quickly through pages that are loaded with detail after detail. You can't read this book in one sitting, so don't even try.

If you slow down and enjoy the ride, however, this book is tremendously rewarding. It will open new doors to our history, and shine a light on events and people who have been hidden for too many years.

Dave Obee is the author of The Library Book: A History of Service to British Columbia.

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