Victoria’s Spanish connection
By Danda Humphreys
The final resting place of many of Victoria’s early white settlers was in a cemetery that initially bore a Spanish sea captain’s name.
Don Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra
Tucked away in a little park on the corner of Belleville and Oswego streets in James Bay, a Spanish sea captain with a musical- sounding name gazes gloomily out across the water.Like other adventurers standing silently at strategic points around our Inner Harbour, Quadra looks suitably sombre—but then, whoever heard of a statue sporting a smile? Perhaps it’s because he is so far away from home...
Long before the Hudson’s Bay Company built a fur-trading post here, on the southeastern tip of Vancouver Island, the Northwest Coast was of interest to countries all over the world. From the 1500s on, Greek, Russian, British and other explorers laid claim to parts of the “new land” for their respective countries. One of those early navigators was Spaniard Don Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, a Creole career naval officer originally from Peru.
Quadra arrived on this coast aboard the Sonora in 1776. The small schooner, about 12 metres long at the waterline—barely big enough to hold Quadra, a hydrographic surveyor, and a 14-man crew—made slow and difficult headway. It can’t have been a comfortable voyage. Sleeping quarters were cramped, there was no room below decks to stand upright, and the sailors suffered from scurvy. Yet the men were in high spirits. After battling their way through heavy seas up to Alaska, then back down this coast past the Queen Charlotte Islands and the mouth of Juan de Fuca Strait, they headed home for Spain with news of their discoveries.
In 1792, Quadra sailed here again, this time to meet Captain George Vancouver, who was conducting a British expedition to the Northwest Coast, at Nootka Sound. Despite their age difference—Quadra was 49 years old, Vancouver was in his mid-30s— and the fact that they couldn’t speak each other’s language, they hit it off immediately. Never mind that they were here to lay rival claims. They shook hands and settled on a name that recognized the rapport between Spaniard and Briton— Quadra and Vancouver’s Island. Today we know it simply as Vancouver Island. (And Quadra has another island named after him.)
More than six decades after Quadra left these shores, the sleepy HBC outpost called Fort Victoria was rudely awakened by an invasion of rowdy gold miners en route to the Fraser River. Some came back here to live...and of course some came back to die. Even before the gold rush, the influx of settlers and sicknesses such as smallpox had already created the need for a larger burying ground. The one on the south side of the ravine north of the fort (now Johnson Street) was woefully inadequate. It was also troubled by vandals, and by cattle and swine that insisted on rooting around in the mud and digging up the corpses. Clearly, something had to be done, so in 1855, a new cemetery was laid out, on the street that bore Quadra’s name. It was divided into sections, so that it could accommodate people of all religions. Then came the job of transferring the already-deceased. Bastion Square Jail prisoners, formed into a chain gang, loaded what remained of the corpses onto carts and moved them from the ravine to their new resting-place on what was then the outskirts of town, beside where Christ Church Cathedral stands today at Quadra and Rockland.
The Street named after Quadra. The former Quadra Street Cemetery is in the centre of the photo.
The new cemetery was on relatively high ground, but it proved surprisingly swampy and difficult to drain. Carts with coffins struggled over the uneven terrain. Gun carriages carrying the remains of naval officers got stuck in the mud as they struggled up the Quadra Street hill. At the burying site itself, the ground was so wet that often a cemetery worker would have to stand on a coffin until enough earth had been shovelled in to weigh it down, so that he could scramble to safety.
Between 1855 and 1872, over 1000 people were buried in the Quadra Street Cemetery, and eventually it too was full. Ross Bay Cemetery was established, and by 1882, the Quadra Street burying ground had fallen into disuse. Prey to vandals, cattle and swine, like the Fort burying ground before it, it was eventually cleared of most of its markers and turned into a park—but not before it had become the final resting place for many of Victoria’s pioneers. They rest there to this day, most in unmarked graves, in what we now know as Pioneer Square.
On our Inner Harbour, Captain Cook perches on a plinth facing the Empress Hotel. Captain Vancouver, clad in 10-carat gold, stands guard over our Legislature. And one block to the west, the disembodied Captain Quadra stares despondently at the water from the middle of a small but pretty park that bears his name.
Danda Humphreys has written several books about the early European settlement of Victoria. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the April 2010 edition of Focus Magazine.