Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Standing up for ourselves at sea

In 1910, Canada formed its own naval defence after the Royal Navy was ordered to patrol water closer to home

To mark the centennial of the Royal Canadian Navy,

Times Colonist editorial page editor Dave Obee is writing a series of retrospectives. This week: The start of Canada's navy.

The Royal Canadian Navy was created on May 4, 1910, when the Naval Service Act became law. It didn't mean all that much to Greater Victoria -- not right away, at least.

But at 10 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 7, 1910, the new navy became a reality when HMCS Rainbow dropped anchor in Esquimalt Harbour, 79 days after leaving Plymouth, England.

The Rainbow was the first Royal Canadian Navy vessel on the Pacific coast, and was destined to become the first Canadian ship to take part in the war that started in August 1914.

The hundreds of people who gathered to watch her arrive on that cold day in November 1910 were, as reported in the Daily Times and the Daily Colonist, delighted with Rainbow, and thrilled to witness the 21-gun salute given by the ship and the answering salute from the shore battery.

The Colonist said Rainbow was just about perfect for her purpose -- to serve as the nucleus for "the Pacific navy of Canada that is to be."

That observation ignored the fact that the Rainbow, which had been designed as a training ship, was already showing its age. Built in 1891 at Jarrow-on-Tyne, it had been well used by the Royal Navy in the intervening years. Sixteen ships similar to Rainbow had been built, and more than half had been decommissioned already.

But the Canadian navy had to start somewhere, after all. At first, it relied on ships, facilities and men from the Royal Navy.

When the Royal Navy was ordered to patrol waters closer to home, that meant that Canada could no longer depend on Britain for its naval defence. The decision was not clear-cut, however, with some Canadians urging the creation of our own navy, and others suggesting that Canada could contract its naval services from Britain.

After the Royal Navy recalled most of its men from the Esquimalt base in 1905, it took a bill proposed by an opposition member of Parliament to bring attention to the matter.

Canada bought Rainbow from Britain for $250,000 in 1909, before the naval service bill had passed through Parliament. A further $27,600 had to be spent to make the ship ready for service.

Another ship, HMCS Niobe, was much larger than the Rainbow. She was delivered to Halifax, giving the new Canadian navy the grand total of one vessel on each coast.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the prime minister of the day, had promised in Parliament that Rainbow would be based in northern British Columbia. He also pledged, however, to improve the Esquimalt dockyard that had been used for many years by the Royal Navy.

Among those who watched Rainbow arrive at Esquimalt were Premier Richard McBride, Lt.-Gov. Thomas Wilson Paterson, Lt.-Col. Arthur Currie, federal Mines Minister William Templeman and many other dignitaries.

The ship's captain, J.D.D. Stewart, said the crew of Rainbow was made up of 204 officers and men, all volunteers. They had been selected from about 600 applicants, and most had experience in the Royal Navy.

It was reported that before leaving Portsmouth, on its way to Plymouth, some of the officers of Rainbow had discovered in an old book store some charts that had been compiled by Capt. James Cook. These treasures were carried on Rainbow to Esquimalt -- a harbour that was not even recorded on the charts, which ignored all of Juan de Fuca Strait.

The arrival of Rainbow was followed, two days later, by another critical moment in the history of the Canadian navy, and of Esquimalt.

At noon on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 1910, under a grey sky and the threat of rain, the Union Jack was hauled down from the flagstaff at the naval base at Esquimalt, and a similar one was hoisted in its place by Petty Officer Tim Ryley. The first flag represented the jurisdiction of the British admiralty, while the second represented the Dominion of Canada.

"This little ceremony, though devoid of spectacular features and witnessed by hardly anyone save those participating in the formalities, nevertheless is of profound historic interest," the Times reported. "With it, there passes from the control of the government of Great Britain every vestige of direct authority over the affairs of the naval base at Esquimalt."

The fact that the new flag looked the same as the old one? "Eloquent testimony to the unity of Empire," the newspaper said.

And the celebration was not over. The next day, the men of Rainbow gathered at the drill hall on Menzies Street for a civic banquet in their honour.

Wellington J. Dowler, the city clerk, read the official address, which included these words:

"The creation of a navy of its own is, perhaps, the final proof, practical and positive, that this country has passed the period of adolescence, and has awakened to the responsibilities and assumed the obligations of an adult among the nations -- of nationhood within an Empire the greatest the world has ever known."

As nice as the reception was, it was not enough to keep all the crew from Rainbow happy. In the years that followed, many of them left, so Rainbow did not have enough men to be sailed. The problem was solved by starting a volunteer reserve.

In 1911, the Conservative government under Prime Minister Robert Borden proposed building three battleships for the navy at a cost of $5 million. The bill authorizing the work was defeated in the Senate, leaving the navy with its two original ships as the war clouds built over Europe.

When the First World War began in August 1914, Rainbow was already at sea. She immediately went south to help escort some Royal Navy ships and to hunt for the German cruiser Leipzig. Rainbow spent much of the war patrolling the coast.

In 1920, HMCS Rainbow was sold to a Seattle company for scrap.

Next week: The First World War

[email protected]