Loss of the Brigantine Florencia ended Victoria feud

Cmdr. Robson and his ship had been gone so long that they’d been given up as lost.

Cmdr. Robson and his ship had been gone so long that they’d been given up as lost.

Situated on Vancouver Island’s exposed west coast between Long Beach and Ucluelet, Florencia Bay (known until 1930 as Wreck Bay) marks the final resting place of the Peruvian brigantine of this name.

The Florencia was yet another victim of the infamous “Graveyard of the Pacific.” But she put up a good fight and, some 150-plus years later, hers is a story worth retelling. Callao-bound with a cargo of Washington lumber, Florencia’s agony began at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in December 1860.

Gale-force winds caused her to heel over so far and so violently that Capt. J.P. de Echiandeia, her supercargo, her cook and a passenger were drowned. Only her cargo kept her afloat. As the lumber became waterlogged, the ship righted herself and, caught by prevailing northerly currents, she drifted into Nootka Sound. There her surviving crew anchored, pumped her out — and found the Florencia to be quite sound although dismasted.

Word of her situation was carried to Victoria by a passing yacht and Her Majesty’s Gunboat Forward steamed to the rescue.

Once at Nootka, however, Lt.-Cmdr. Charles Robson learned that the American brig Consort had wrecked near Cape Scott. Deeming her needs to be greater than those of the Florencia, then safely at anchor, Robson sailed north, rescued the Consort’s company, returned to Nootka Sound and took the Florencia in tow for Victoria.

Alas, a boiler malfunction forced Robson to abandon his charge and, despite the heroic efforts of her crew, she crashed ashore on an island in the bay which today bears her name. This time, Florencia was a total loss although her cargo of lumber, the cause of her misfortune, was saved.

Upon the makeshift repairing of her boiler, HMS Forward returned to Esquimalt, having had to circumnavigate Vancouver Island. Cmdr. Robson had yielded to headwinds, rounded Cape Scott and steamed south through the Inside Passage. He and his ship had been gone so long that they’d been given up as lost.

Such was the fate of the good ship Florencia. For the story within a story, we’re indebted to pioneer Victoria journalist D.W. Higgins. In his fascinating book The Mystic Spring and Other Tales…of Wesern Life, published 110 years ago, he recounted the adventures of John Copland, Victoria barrister, city councillor — and one of the capital’s most outrageous characters of all time. John, you see, had something of a temper. Once crossed, it was to battle stations and no quarter given.

Encouraged by his shrewish wife, Copland kept Victorians of the early 1860s entertained with his many joustings in and out of a courtroom.

His ironic involvement in the loss of the Florencia came about in this way. When the invitations to a ball were sent to all the prominent men and women of Victoria, the Coplands weren’t included.

Upon demanding to know why, they were informed that the executive of the Social Guild (which Mrs Copland had founded!) had learned that she had a Past hence she was unworthy of membership and a ticket to the ball!

Mrs. Copland became hysterical and almost fainted. John, ever the man of law (and obviously one who believed in the adage, don’t get mad, get even), announced that he was going to sue the husband of the Social Guild’s president for slander.

Other than his wife being head of the guild, Higgins didn’t state whether Dr. T.B. Baillie — “one of [Victoria’s] oldest and most esteemed residents” — played an active role in “unveiling” Mrs. Copland. It probably didn’t matter to John, anyway; he’d resolved to have satisfaction in court.

Asked by Higgins if they’d accept an apology, Mrs. Copland replied, “Never — never! If he lay dying and asked me to forgive him I never would.”

Less than two weeks later, the popular Dr. Baillie was dead — one of the Florencia’s four victims. Unnerved at the thought of Copland successfully suing him for damages (debtors faced prison if they couldn’t pay up in those days), Baillie had secretly booked passage on the South American bound brigantine. When she was thrown over onto her beam ends off Cape Flattery, Baillie was swept away.

Many Victorians held the Coplands responsible for Baillie’s death.

Because of the doctor’s popularity, that of the battling Coplands, which was already nominal, sank even lower and, as it turned out, beyond redemption.