Two years after a force of 1,800 Fenians stormed into unprotected Missisquoi County, Ontario, Fenian eyes were again upon Canada — this time on far-off Vancouver Island.
A century and a-half later, one of the more exciting chapters in B.C. history is virtually forgotten. This is the little-known period of the late 1860s when Vancouver Island authorities feared an invasion by the dreaded Fenian Brotherhood.
The outlawed Irish nationalist society had already attempted to invade eastern Canada two years earlier and, in February 1868, Lieutenant-Governor Fredrick Seymour and Rear Admiral George F. Hastings were informed that a Fenian “emissary” was in their midst, sizing up Victoria-Esquimalt naval base defences.
Admiral Hastings immediately ordered his forces into a state of alert; absurd as the threat may seem to us today, officials then had every reason for anxiety.
For months, newspapers had reported Fenian outrages in the United Kingdom. Beset by terrorist assassinations, kidnappings, bombings and sabotage, Chief Secretary for Ireland, Earl Mayo, had requested Parliament to place Great Britain under a state of martial law.
Named after a legendary band of warriors called ‘Fianns,’ or ‘Feinnes,’ the Fenian Brotherhood was modelled on the French Revolutionary Jacobins and founded in the U.S. in 1858. Its fanatical members swore total obedience to their officers, allegiance to the “Irish Republic, now virtually established,” and to rise in arms when ordered.
Branches of the underground society were soon established in several countries and posed a serious threat to Britain, causing one outcry after another. Its power grew alarmingly with the enlistment of thousands of Irish veterans of the American Civil War. It was then its more fervent leaders formulated plans to conquer Canada for use “as a base of operations against Britain”.
In June 1866, ‘Inspector General’ John O’Neill led 800 armed men into Ontario. He was immediately routed by Canadian militia but, two days later, another force of 1,800 Fenians stormed into unprotected Missisquoi County. After several days of looting the countryside they slipped back into the U.S.
Two years later, Fenian eyes were again upon Canada — this time on far-off Vancouver Island.
Notified that Fenians throughout the U.S. had been placed upon a “war footing,” Admiral Hastings called up the Volunteer Rifle Corps, issued new breech-loading rifles to the San Juan Island garrison, placed armed guards about Victoria banking institutions and strengthened jails and armouries.
While special constables patrolled Victoria streets and Royal Marines took up positions around Government House (this guard wasn’t removed until October 1870), all Pacific Squadron warships in Esquimalt Harbour were readied for action. Man-of-war HMS Zealous patrolled Juan de Fuca Strait while conducting gunnery practice to “discourage” the raiders.
Upon word of the extensive defensive measures taken, the Colonist asserted, “He must be a fool or madman who would attempt an outrage”.
“No doubt is entertained, however, by the authorities that a raid was contemplated by a band of men in California and that an emissary was sent among us to feel the ground. Finding, however, that he was watched, he made himself ‘scarce,’ and has not been seen since the sailing of the Eliza Anderson on Thursday morning last…”
Admiral Hastings assured an uneasy public, “We do not anticipate in the face of the precautions adopted any serious trouble at present.”
Days passed with Victorians excitedly discussing the threat in drawing rooms, in saloons and on street corners. Colonist pages were crammed with references to continued Fenian outrages in England as Irish rebels strove to ignite a full-scale revolution. As British troops poured into Dublin, the Victoria newspaper wryly reported the “brave capture of a Finian!
“A veritable Finian was captured in the outer harbour yesterday. It is supposed he arrived off Race Rocks during Sunday night, intending to run in under cover of the fog in the morning; but the fortunate appearance of the Zealous in Royal Roads, and the sound of her great guns, apparently confused him, and he attempted to escape towards the American side.
“His movements were observed, however, by a patrol boat from this city, which had gone out early in the morning in search of just such characters. Chase was given, and after a pull of some miles the Finian was captured after a stout resistance by the brave fellows in the boat and conveyed to town, where he was ascertained to weigh 122 pounds. He was cut up into halibut stakes [sic] and retailed at one bit per pound by his captors.”
But no one laughed when rumours that the Fenians had actually landed swept Victoria in the early hours of March 6, 1868. Within minutes of the alarm, Royal Marines and militiamen raced to take up their positions.
The alert had been turned in by a special constable. While patrolling Government Street in the pre-dawn darkness, he’d spotted flames in Cleal’s Restaurant. The same unnerving thought seems to have occurred to everyone: Fenians always created a diversion, usually a fire, then struck the banks.
Even as Chief Engineer Kelly and his men of the Tiger Fire Company raced to the blaze, Admiral Hastings had ordered his forces into action. HM Gunboat Forward immediately landed 50 Royal Marines as members of the Volunteer Rifle Corps, special constables and armed civilians stationed themselves about the city.
Meanwhile, the fire raged out of control, completely destroying the restaurant and quickly spreading to adjacent buildings as still more citizens joined the bucket brigade. When, hours later, the fire was extinguished, Chief Kelly poked through the smoking ashes for signs of the fire’s origin. His discovery — arson — was flashed to Admiral Hastings.
Authorities waited apprehensively for the expected attack. But dawn, then late morning passed uneventfully; arson or no, it had been a false alarm.
In the following investigation the restaurant’s owner, who’d lost the same business to fire two years before, was committed for trial. But the arson charge was later dropped for insufficient evidence.
There followed a letter to the Colonist of a plot to sabotage the city’s fire engine, cut the alarm bell ropes and set Victoria ablaze. It was dismissed as the work of “a practical joker”.
So far so good, so far no Fenians. But the alarm wasn’t over and, incredibly, was about to become farce, as we’ll see next week.
(To be continued)