50 Years, 50 Books: The Reminiscences of Doctor John Sebastian Helmcken

Posted: Wednesday, April 06, 2022


As a way to celebrate our anniversary, Acquisitions Editor Randy Schmidt reached out to fifty UBC Press authors and asked them to talk about their favourite UBC Press book. This is what we heard.

Written by Patricia Roy

Book cover for The Reminisciences of Doctor John Sebastian Helmcken

As UBC Press celebrates its golden anniversary, British Columbia marks the sesquicentennial of being a Canadian province. While the Press publishes books dealing with all parts of the world and eras, British Columbia subjects have always been a strength. Introductions by knowledgeable scholars and extensive annotations complement the memoirs, journals, and correspondence or combinations thereof that form the cores of each of the fifteen Pioneers of British Columbia volumes published between 1975 and 2001. Collectively, they offer details of daily life, observations about the Indigenous population, and descriptions of geography and resources.

In this sesquicentennial, it is appropriate to consider the volumes illustrating British Columbia’s links with the rest of Canada. The writers of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Langley journals, (1827–30) had ties to Canada through participation in the North West Company or with the Bay at Red River. Thomas McMicking described the difficult 1862 overland expedition from Canada West to British Columbia’s goldfields. In the late 1870s, the Dominion government had geologist George Dawson survey the interior and the Queen Charlotte Islands. Once the railway was complete, Canadian settlers came. Alice Barrett Parke arrived near Vernon in 1891 to serve as housekeeper for her uncle and brother. To maintain contact with family in Ontario she mailed home installments of her detailed diary.

My favourite volume, however, is the first: The Reminiscences of Doctor John Sebastian Helmcken, one of British Columbia’s Fathers of Confederation. Helmcken served as an elected member of the Legislative Assembly of Vancouver Island and, after the union of the colonies, the Legislative Council of British Columbia. Elected initially on an anti-Confederation platform, he was re-elected in 1870 as a supporter of Confederation. Character sketches and a sense of humour enliven his accounts of colonial politics. In an appendix, provincial archivist Willard Ireland introduces Helmcken’s diary of negotiating the Terms of Union in Ottawa in 1870.

The Reminiscences, which end with the achievement of Confederation, begin with Helmcken’s childhood, youth, and medical training in London. He arrived in Victoria in 1850 as the Hudson’s Bay Company’s surgeon. As a company officer he moved in Victoria’s elite circles and married a daughter of Sir James Douglas. He describes life in Fort Victoria and his eight-month sojourn as magistrate at Fort Rupert where, after initially fearing the “Indians,” he found them to be “our best friends” (316).

Helmcken’s Reminiscences set a high editorial standard that the series maintained. An extended introduction by former provincial archivist W. Kaye Lamb provides context. The annotations by Dorothy Blakey Smith, the editor of record, are thorough and meticulous. Space limitations preclude mentioning other volumes, but they too document British Columbia’s history and offer pleasurable reading. Many titles are still in print, some in handsome paperbound editions. Alas, the last ‘Pioneer’ appeared twenty years ago. Reviving the series would be a splendid Jubilee project for the Press.

Patricia Roy is professor emeritus of History at the University of Victoria. She has published several books with UBC Press, notably three volumes dealing with “The Oriental Question” in British Columbia and a biography of Premier Richard McBride.

Posted in 50Years50Books
Posted by Megan M.
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