Author Tags: 1700-1800, Women
The first European woman to visit British Columbia was Frances Barkley who arrived with her husband in 1787 at age eighteen. She was also the first woman to write about British Columbia. Almost two centuries later, her memoirs entitled Reminiscences were published within The Remarkable World of Frances Barkley 1769–1845, edited by Beth Hill (Gray’s, 1978).
As well, Frances Barkley has the little-known distinction of being the first woman known to have sailed, openly as a woman, around the world. Jeanne Baret, a Frenchwoman, had accompanied her lover, Philibert de Commerson, a botanist, during the first French expedition to circumnavigate the globe in 1769, but she had to disguise herself as a male valet in order to do so. Her female identity was discovered part way through the scientific voyage that was completed by Louis Antoine de Bougainville.
Similarly, the Frenchwoman Rose de Freycinet successfully conspired with her husband Louis-Claude de Freycinet to accompany him as a stowaway on his scientific voyage around the world on the Uranie in 1817–1820.
Frances Barkley was born in Bridgewater, Somersetshire, England in 1769, as Frances Hornby Trevor, daughter of an English chaplain who had moved his family to Europe in 1775 and become Rector of a new Protestant Church at Ostend in 1783. Educated at a French Catholic convent, she was a student of French who also learned sewing, embroidery and cooking. One of her sisters married Captain James Cook. At age seventeen, she married twenty-six-year-old Charles William Barkley, an East Indian Company sea captain, on October 17, 1786, at Ostend.
The young Captain Barkley opted to sail under the Austrian colours of the Austrian East Indian Company in an attempt to circumvent the high fees demanded by the two English monopolies. These were the East India Company, Charles Barkley’s former employer, and the South Sea Company. The former controlled trade in Asia; the latter controlled the Pacific trade on the West Coast of North America from Cape Horn to the Arctic.
The name of Barkley’s ship, the Loudon, was changed to the Imperial Eagle prior to the couple’s embarkation on November 24, 1786. Despite a bout of rheumatic fever for Captain Barkley, their voyage went well, and they soon reached the Americas at Brazil.
At the Sandwich Islands Frances Barkley took aboard a maidservant, Winée, who became the first Hawaiian or “Kanaka” to reach British Columbia. Few details are known about her life. She sailed with the Barkleys to Nootka Sound, then onto China, but in Macao she wanted to return to Hawaii. She was given return passage to Nootka Sound on a voyage by Captain John Meares in the spring of 1788. He described her as being “in a deep decline.” Winée died en route on February 5, 1788 and her body was committed to the deep.
The Barkleys and Winée arrived in the Imperial Eagle at Nootka Sound in June of 1787. At 400 tons, the Imperial Eagle was the largest ship to enter Friendly Cove but the Indians were likely just as impressed by Frances Barkley’s extraordinary red-gold hair. Legend has it, within Barkley family lore, that her tresses saved the day when the Barkleys were captured by hostile South Sea natives. The story goes that curious women among their captors supposedly loosed her hair “which fell like a shower of gold,” whereupon the astonished onlookers presumed she must be divine and Frances successfully ordered their release. This incident does not appear in any of Frances Barkley’s diary materials. Her cumulative Reminiscences were mostly penned when she was sixty-six.
During their month-long stay at Nootka, Frances Barkley was much impressed by chief Maquinna and his management of the fur trade. The Imperial Eagle acquired 700 prime skins, and many more of inferior quality, worth a great fortune for sale in the Orient. They did so with the assistance of John MacKay, the Irishman who had been left behind at Nootka the summer before due to illness. The Barkleys sailed south and named Barkley Sound, Hornby Peak, Frances Island, Trevor Channel, Loudoun Channel, Cape Beale and Imperial Eagle Channel. In honour of the local chief, Captain Barkley also named Wickinninish Sound, now called Clayoquot Sound. Six of their party were killed by Indians at the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca on July 24, 1787. Depressed by this encounter, the Barkleys set sail for Canton and reached Macao in December.
During formal trading procedures in Macao—which proved successful—the Barkleys bought an ornate bamboo chair that has survived their journeys. This chair is now the property of the Centennial Museum in Vancouver.
Having made a profit of £10,000 for his backers, Captain Barkley proceeded to the island of Mauritius, off Madagascar, where he learned the East India Company was initiating legal action against the owners of the Imperial Eagle. The owners, who included John Meares, decided to sell the Imperial Eagle to avoid legal consequences, thereby breaking their contract with Captain Barkley. The Barkleys stayed for more than a year in the French enclave of Mauritius where Frances Barkley gave birth to their first child, a son. Captain Barkley sailed to India where the Imperial Eagle was confiscated. Having invested much of his own money in properly outfitting the ship, Captain Barkley sued for damages and received an arbitration settlement for the loss of his ten-year contract but this was insufficient consolation.
The devious Meares gained possession of Barkley’s nautical gear as well as his valuable seafaring journal. “Capt. Meares, however, with the greatest effrontery,” Frances Barkley later wrote, “published and claimed the merit of my husband’s discoveries therein contained, besides inventing lies of the most revolting nature tending to vilify the person he thus pilfered.” The likes of Robert Haswell and George Dixon also condemned Meares when his book about his adventures failed to properly credit Captain Barkley’s charts. It was, according to Dixon, “scarcely anything more than a confused heap of contradictions and misrepresentations.” For his part, chief Maquinna, a shrewd judge of character, called Meares “Aita-aita Meares” which means “the lying Meares.” Defrauded by Meares and stranded in Mauritius, having lost the Imperial Eagle, and also burdened with a newborn, the Barkleys tried to return to England on an American ship that was wrecked near Holland where they were left to fend for themselves. They finally reached Portsmouth two years after their embarkation from Ostend.
Undeterred, the Barkleys conceived a second voyage seven months later, to be made to Alaska via India. During their eleven-month voyage to Calcutta aboard the Princess Frederica, Frances Barkley gave birth to a baby girl during a violent gale while rounding the Cape of Good Hope in 1791. “Nothing would be easy in this environment; even washing diapers presented a challenge,” her biographer Beth Hill wrote. “Fresh water was always at a premium so washing in saltwater would be the norm. Salt-encrusted diapers would have caused boils and open sores which do not heal easily, and infection often followed.”
The Barkleys left Calcutta on December 29, 1791, having purchased the 80-ton brig Halcyon and a smaller accompanying vessel, the Venus. Frances Barkley had the option of remaining in Bengal “where I was to have Servants, Palanqueens and every Luxery,” but she resolutely insisted on accompanying her husband, “much to the satisfaction of My Husband, who never thought of being separated from me.” Others called it madness. The infant at her breast would die “and became of the Victim of our folly” during this second voyage. “A Leaden Box was prepared for her remains in order that they be kept until we could Inter her in consicrated ground in some Dutch settlement,” Frances Barkley wrote.
It was no picnic for the crew either. Many sailors died due to scurvy or foul conditions. “Typhus and dysentery were the shore diseases of Europe,” wrote Beth Hill, “and in the tropics the seamen got malaria, yellow fever, hookworm and typhus. Lice and fleas were taken for granted, and the lice carried typhus. Venereal diseases were considered an occupational ailment of sailors and in the 18th century, treatment was ineffective. In port...boatloads of prostitutes were ferried to the ship; the scene below decks can be imagined and it is not surprising that syphilis and gonorrhea were widespread.” Killing someone often meant the guilty party was tied to the victim and thrown overboard.
Attempts to trade in Siberia during this second voyage were stymied by Russian officialdom. They also met resistance when they entered the ancestral waters of the unpredictable and often fearsome Tlingit. Nonetheless Frances Barkley became the first European woman to visit Alaska in, 1792. They wintered at “the island of Oyhee” (Hawaii) but the voyage of the Halycon went from bad to worse.
Having gained fewer pelts than hoped, the Barkleys reached China in March of 1793 and sailed to Mauritius—unaware that France and England were once again at war. The French confiscated the Halcyon and they temporarily became prisoners. An American sailed the Halycon to the United States while the Barkleys remained on Mauritius.
They eventually found a ship to take them to the United States but by then their own ship could not be traced. They reached England in November of 1794 on the Amphion. Learning the Halycon was in Boston, Captain Barkley returned there and regained ownership of the vessel. The Barkleys subsequently raised a family in England where Captain Barkley died on May 16, 1832.
Four years later in 1836, Frances Barkley began writing her fragmented memoirs. The manuscript of Reminiscences—mostly written from memory—is housed at the Provincial Archives in Victoria. Beth Hill discovered the manuscript while researching a book on petroglyphs. At that time Hill knew only that Frances Barkley was eighteen years old when she came to British Columbia on her honeymoon.
Soon she found herself back in the archives, reading the other letters and documents in the Barkley files, the article by Captain Walbran entitled “The Cruise of the Imperial Eagle” and the discussion of the mystery of the missing Diary of Frances Barkley by W. Kaye Lamb in the British Columbia Historical Journal.
“I was surprised that I had read so little of the Barkley story elsewhere,” Beth Hill wrote.
In 1901, Captain John T. Walbran, a coastal surveyor and author of an essential study of place names of B.C., had researched an article for the Victoria Colonist about the first voyage of the Barkleys based on his access to Frances Barkley’s original sea diary—not the Reminiscenses. This diary was presumed to have been burned in a house fire at Westholme on Vancouver Island in 1909, but Hill later uncovered some evidence to suggest it might have existed until about 1953. Walbran’s article provides essential details about Captain Barkley’s explorations that were not included in Frances Barkley’s Reminiscences.
During her two voyages with her husband, Frances Barkley spent a total of six-and-a-half years at sea, losing one child in the process, but there isn’t a single complaint in her memoir about the conditions and disappointments she endured. Her vigour can only be imagined.
She died in 1845.
The Remarkable World of Frances Barkley, 1769-1845 (Gray's Publishing, 1978) by Beth Hill
The Remarkable World of Frances Barkley, 1769-1845 (Heritage, 2003) by Beth Hill and Cathy Converse
Charles W. Barkley's Log of Imperial Eagle, 1786-1787, manuscript
Charles W. Barkley's Log of the Halcyon, 1792, manuscript
[BCBW 2003] "Women" "1700-1800" "Hawaiian"