The Man Who Did Nothing - The Tale Of Governor Richard Blanshard

By Norman K Archer


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"Nothing" may be an unfair summary of the first Governor of the colony of Vancouver's Island's achievements, but it comes close. He arrived with a flourish. As the two-masted H.M.S. Driver sailed into port in March 1850, there was a somewhat half-hearted gun salute. This was probably the most impressive event of his short and sour tenure.

Without doubt, Blanshard was deceived. Unquestionably naive and more than a little gullible, he was born on October 19, 1817, the son of a wealthy London merchant. He graduated from Cambridge University with a master of arts degree and completed his training as a lawyer, but never took any interest in pursuing law. In fact, travel was much more to his liking and he served a term in the British Army in India.

At 32, some strings were pulled on his behalf and in July 1849 he was appointed Colonial Governor of Vancouver's Island; a posting that went wrong from the beginning. A series of delays before he set sail meant he did not assume office until almost a year later. He knew there was to be no salary, but the promise of a furnished Governor's Mansion, together with 1,000 acres of farmland would support him comfortably.

His manner was quiet and polite, without any trace of pomposity. This was in marked contrast to the man who was his future archrival in the struggle for power, James Douglas, the Chief Factor for the Hudson's Bay Company Fort. Blanshard, described as a "great smoker and a great sportsman," was a thoroughly decent young man, even if a bit on the dull and melancholy side. He was no match for the conniving of those who were determined to make life difficult for him.

The welcome he received was about as warm as the weather on that cold March day, with a foot of snow on the ground. No one greeted him officially, so he had to scurry around to find some reluctant representatives of the colony to listen to the proclamation announcing his appointment. As soon as it was over, they went back to work. Douglas was visibly displeased because he had wanted the job. Blanshard asked for the whereabouts of the Governor's Mansion and was shown some ground on the corner of what are now Yates and Government Streets. His house would eventually be here, but unfortunately, there were not many skilled craftsmen and they were needed elsewhere, so the building had not yet begun. Clearly disappointed and not even offered a room at the Fort, Blanshard had no alternative but to make his way back to the ship and install himself into the cramped quarters of the cabin he had just vacated.

The ship, however, needed to make a run down the west coast for supplies. Blanshard sailed along with her, and returned accompanied by a flock of sheep and a herd of cattle. This unsatisfactory state of affairs continued for a month, after which, Douglas grudgingly gave him a room at the Fort.

Here he soon discovered the truth of a remark made later by Dr. John Helmcken: "Blanshard had all the authority, but Douglas had all the power."

The Governor had arrived to govern a colony with no colonists, only Hudson's Bay Company employees, who were fiercely loyal to their autocratic Chief Factor. Douglas, encouraged by London to make the situation in the colony conducive to English immigrants, dragged his feet because it was clearly not in his best interests to do so since he would lose the total control he enjoyed over his employees. Furthermore, the Hudson's Bay Company was extremely powerful and well established. Humourists remarked that "HBC" really stood for "Here Before Christ."

Out of his depths and at his wits end, Blanshard made inquiries about the promised 1,000 acres of land. He received vague answers and was shocked that the land was only his to use while he was Governor, after which it would revert to the Hudson's Bay Company. He was also told that there were no farmhands available to work the land, so it was useless to him. Blanshard was unwelcome and made to feel an interloper in a situation that worked perfectly well until he appeared. Douglas consistently ignored his suggestions and spurned his recommendations. After considerable urging by the Governor who was losing patience, the "mansion" was finally completed - all 800 square feet of it! Its four tiny rooms fell far short of expectations and were hopelessly inadequate for any civic receptions. This was the last straw. Blanshard's money was running out, the cost of supplies at the Hudson's Bay Store - the only store in Victoria - was prohibitively high and there was neither income nor adequate housing. Blanshard threw up his hands in frustration and tendered his resignation to London on November 18, 1850, after only seven months in office. But the Colonial Office was in no hurry to accept it.

While awaiting his answer, he was suddenly propelled into a flurry of excitement over a coal mining dispute at Fort Rupert on the northern tip of the Island. The mines, along with every other business, belonged to the Hudson's Bay Company. Miners were leaving to venture to the goldfields in California and disputes escalated; natives murdered two miners. Blanshard hurried to the scene and dealt poorly with the matter, destroying a whole native village and summarily executing those he assumed were the offenders.

When he returned to Victoria, he found a growing restlessness among the settlers tired of the James Douglas' autocratic methods. Realizing Blanshard had issues with Douglas, the disgruntled settlers recruited him as a powerful ally. The situation between the two men became bitter and all Blanshard wanted was to go home. His health was failing. He developed tic douloureux and had recurring bouts of malaria.

Blanshard's inconspicuous career as Governor was fraught with errors and miscalculations and so too was the street named after him. A surveyor's error resulted in two segments of the street not jibing correctly at the intersection with Pandora Avenue. Originally, there was an awkward jog in the road until subsequent planners turned the blunder into a sweeping curve.

Finally in September 1851, he received word from London that his resignation was accepted and he took the first available ship back to England. He carried with him the petitions of the unhappy residents, together with blistering reports he had written, attacking the Hudson's Bay Company, in general, and James Douglas, in particular. The reports were carefully documented and persuasive and left no doubt that, in his opinion, the current state of affairs where Douglas operated, as a virtual dictator, could not be allowed to continue. But his words fell on deaf ears. The next Governor appointed by the Colonial Office was James Douglas.

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