Trained as an officer and mapmaker in the Royal Engineers, Michael Layland of Victoria is president of the Friends of the BC Archives and a member of the Society for the History of Discoveries and the International Map Collectors’ Society. He has eight entries in the two-volume Oxford Companion to World Exploration.
Born in England in 1938, he is a former president of the Victoria Historical Society and is on the committee of the Historical Map Society of B.C. After thirty years in B.C. he published The Land of Heart's Delight: Early Maps and Charts of Vancouver Island (Touchwood 2013). It received second prize in the BC Historical Federation Book Competition for books published in 2013. See review below.
Layland next book, A Perfect Eden: Encounters by Early Explorers of Vancouver Island (Touchwood 2016), was long-listed for a Basil Stuart-Stubbs Award for outstanding scholarly book about B.C.
The Land of Heart's Delight: Early Maps and Charts of Vancouver Island (Touchwood 2013)
A Perfect Eden: Encounters by Early Explorers of Vancouver Island (Touchwood 2016) $39.95 978-1-771511773
Review of the author’s work by BC Studies:
The Land of Heart's Delight: Early Maps and Charts of Vancouver Island
Michael Layland gets the lay of the (is)land.
Many know the dour Scot James Douglas, as Hudson Bay head honcho in 1842, described the southern end of Vancouver Island, at Fort Victoria, as “a perfect Eden” and even the harsh taskmaster George Vancouver called it, “the most lovely country that can be imagined.”
Fewer know Vancouver Island was frequently called “Quadra or Vancouvers Island” [SIC] on various maps after the two sea captains met at Nootka Sound and made a gentlemanly agreement to encourage Spain and England not to go to war over it.
That’s one of the hundreds of fascinating details to be found in Michael Layland’s The Land of Heart’s Delight: Early Maps and Charts of Vancouver Island (Touchwood $39.95), a visual treasure chest for anyone curious to know how British Columbia evolved into a unique society and a political construct.
Layland’s assemblage of obscure maps about “the back of the world”—as Vancouver Island was also called—or “the ragged green edge of the world”—as novelist Jack Hodgins called it—will engage even those for whom the word geography is only slightly less daunting than a trip to the dentist.
Who knew that Chief Maquinna at Nootka Sound once sketched onto a Spanish map a version of the route his men took across the island to trade with the Cheslakees?
Who knew Cornelis de Jode published the first published map focused on the Pacific Northwest in Antwerp in 1595?
Who knew there’s a map from a Russian atlas, dated 1849, that provides a more detailed view of the coast north of Victoria than likely James Douglas had at the time?
A few thousand British Columbians might already know English fur trader John Meares was a nefarious rascal who fudged the truth for self-advancement at every turn, so it’s hardly surprising to learn his map was an attempt to confirm the existence of a Northwest Passage to the Atlantic.
But how many of us know ex-naval officer George Dixon—of Dixon Entrance fame—vehemently refuted Meares with a scathing broadside that likened Meares’ phoney map to “the mould of a good old housewife’s butter pat”?
Beyond the visuals, Layland outlines the history of the British Columbia coastline—as it is revealed chronologically by his array of strange maps from various expeditions and fur traders—with a clarity and seeming ease that is enviable, instructive and wise.
Layland neatly sidesteps the veracity of unproven claims that Sir Francis Drake could have reached Vancouver Island, as outlined in a somewhat fanciful map made by B.C. land surveyor Richard Bishop in 1939.
Similarly, he deftly skims over the more convincing argument that a Greek mariner from the island of Kefalonia, Ioannis Phokas, better known in Spanish as Juan de Fuca, almost certainly was the first European to see Vancouver Island in 1592. (The English letters of Michael Lok, in 1596, record that Juan de Fuca claimed to have discovered “a broad inlet of the sea, between 47 and 48 [degrees],” now called Juan de Fuca Strait.)
Layland is more forthcoming when claiming the Spanish captain Juan Pérez made the first recorded sighting of Vancouver Island by any European on August 5, 1774, at around 49 degrees north, while sailing northward—after Pérez and his crew had met Haida canoes off the north-western tip of the Queen Charlotte Islands/Haida Gwaii two weeks earlier.
Included in The Land of Heart’s Delight is the first map of Vancouver Island to be made using data from a substantiated voyage, “in accordance with observations and surveys of [Pérez].” Drawn by his fellow pilot and explorer Josef de Canizarez, likely based on Pérez’ diary while he was in San Blas between his two voyages, it was only discovered in the US National Archives in 1989.
Back in 1846, American forces had grabbed the map, and accounts of the Pérez voyage, when they invaded Mexico City, and these materials “were overlooked, buried among the viceregal papers, for more than two centuries.”
The Land of Heart’s Delight is sumptuous evidence that multi-award-winning historian Derek Hayes has not cornered the market on gloriously bizarre and fascinating books of maps about British Columbia—and he’s the first to agree.
In his foreword Hayes describes Layland as the foremost map historian of Vancouver Island. Any reader who encounters the sophisticated concision of Layland’s commentary will be hard pressed to imagine otherwise. We get the comfortable feeling that Layland might like maps more than he likes people.
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2013]
A Perfect Eden
REVIEW: A Perfect Eden: Encounters by Early Explorers of Vancouver Island
by Michael Layland
Victoria: TouchWood Editions, 2016. $39.95 / 9781771511773
Reviewed by Robin Fisher
When I returned to the coast after a decade living on the prairies I settled initially on Vancouver Island. Speaking to a friend who had already moved there from Prince George, I asked how much the ferries were a drawback to Island living. His response was that ferry travel was no problem at all because you only had to take it once!
For those who love Vancouver Island the love affair is deep and abiding and there is nowhere else in Canada that they would rather be. It is the early history of this attachment to place that Michael Layland describes in A Perfect Eden.
The book provides an account of the exploration of Vancouver Island by newcomers from the late eighteenth to the middle of the nineteenth century.
It constitutes a second verse in Michael Layland’s paean of praise for Vancouver Island. The first was The Land of Heart’s Delight, an account of the early maps and charts of Vancouver Island.
While they are companion pieces with some overlap between them, the author’s intent is that each will stand alone (p. xv). The first describes the lay of the land and the second the reaction that newcomers had to it.
Much of the exploration of Vancouver Island was carried out by agents of imperialism that had geographic, strategic, scientific, and particularly commercial interests in the area. The Spanish had some involvement in the early going at the end of the eighteenth century, but the exploration described here really begins and ends with the Royal Navy: beginning with James Cook and George Vancouver and ending the with the voyages of George Richards on the Hecate that concluded in 1862.
Cook was the first European to land on Vancouver Island and Vancouver, along with Bodega y Quadra, established that it was an Island. Richards conducted detailed surveys of much of the Island coastline so that by the 1860s Vancouver Island was thoroughly surveyed and mapped.
The Hudson’s Bay Company was another imperial party that had a keen interest in having a clear understanding of the geography of Vancouver Island. Indeed the title of the book comes from a comment made by James Douglas when he came looking for a headquarters for the company on the coast north of the forty-ninth parallel that would be more secure against American expansion.
Douglas thought that the area around what is now Victoria “appears a perfect ‘Eden’.”
Now, it should be noted that Douglas did go on to say that he came to that conclusion about southern Vancouver Island “in the midst of the dreary wilderness of the North West coast, and so different is its general aspect, from the wooded, rugged regions around, that one might be pardoned for supposing it had dropped from the clouds into its present position” (p. 99).
We so often find one place attractive in comparison with another, especially when visiting for the first time, and this was certainly true of early European visitors to the coast. Unlike the rugged coastline to the north, southern Vancouver Island felt more like the places that they had come from in England or Europe.
Indeed, George Vancouver thought that his presence on one part of the coast was so forlorn that he named it Desolation Sound. We now think of it as one of the most beautiful parts of this coast that is now our home.
Surveys around the coast of Vancouver Island were, towards the end of the period covered in this book, supplemented by European exploration of land routes across the Island. In a sense Douglas began this process by carrying out the first serious land exploration as he looked for place for a fort and, of course, the Hudson’s Bay Company needed to know about what resources the Island offered as its operations diversified from the sole focus on fur trading.
Traverses across the Island tended to follow trading routes that the First Nations people had followed for centuries, and that is a reminder that most of the exploration of the northwest coast would have been a lot more difficult if it were not for the support of its first inhabitants.
And all this exploration, which is presented here as a European achievement, was a part of the overall impact of European presence that first enhanced and then diminished First Nations cultures.
In A Perfect Eden, Michael Layland describes the origins of our love affair with Vancouver Island. For much of it he lets those who came here speak for themselves with liberal quotes from their writings. He does not offer a lot of analysis, but rather tells the story of European exploration of, and growing attachment to, this particular part of the world.
His own training as a mapmaker is apparent, for example, in the detail with which he describes the Royal Navy vessels. He tells the story with knowledge and affection and the book is beautifully produced and illustrated.
Though, as it turned out, I have taken the ferry back to the mainland many times since I moved to Vancouver Island, every time I do I ask myself, “is there a better place to be in Canada than Douglas’s perfect Eden.”
Michael Layland certainly knows the answer to that question and reading his book confirms that I would not want to argue with him.