Monday, 19 November 2018


Fort Rodd Hill

National historic sites wherever they may be always intrigue me. Though the past is a narrative always distorted by a philosophical prism, ever-shifting perceptions of what was noble then and why it’s criminal now, one nation’s voyage of discovery and exploration is another nation’s colonial yoke, the physical remains are irrefutable: something, whatever it was, happened here once. Rambling around preserved ruins you learn facts and the stories that accompany them while your imagination is free to roam and make things up as you amble along.

Ann and I spent a week on Vancouver Island visiting close relatives and good friends in the environs of Victoria, British Columbia, the provincial capital. Remembrance Day dawned sunny, azure and warm, presenting a serendipitous opportunity to visit one outdated link in the Dominion of Canada’s modest chain of Pacific coast defenses. Ann was patient with me as I kept wandering off to explore and click iPad pictures, leaving her to stand alone on the beaten paths.

Construction of the upper and lower batteries of Fort Rodd Hill began in 1895. The heavy guns atop the cliff overlooked the naval base in Esquimalt Harbour (still active), the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the city of Victoria. The artillery fortification was decommissioned in 1956. In the years in between Fort Rodd Hill was continually upgraded as the nature of warfare changed. Barbed wire entanglements were erected outside its walls already protected by a bombardment-deflecting glacis, sloped earthworks incorporating the site’s bedrock. A third battery of rapid-fire guns was added between the existing heavy emplacements in anticipation of raids by swift torpedo boats. Search lights were installed and camouflaged as a “fisherman’s hut,” along with a telephone exchange. Steel torpedo nets were strung out in the Strait. A plotting room to direct anti-aircraft fire was gerry-built into the cliff underneath the existing structure.

The fort was dug out of and built on Lekwungen territory. It’s believed the first white men these First Nations people encountered were Russian fur traders. Imperial Spain then began nosing around the Pacific island, its expeditions retraced by British naval captains James Cook in 1778 and George Vancouver in 1791. West coast threats to the British Empire and this country have through the life of Fort Rodd Hill included manifest destiny America, the Russians in the wake of the Crimean War, and Imperial Japan (which is why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was permitted to punch the Alaska Highway through sovereign Canadian boreal forest). I can only speculate as to what murderous mischief Stalin might’ve got up to had Hitler not pivoted on their mutual non-aggression pact; the Russians loomed menacingly once again at the height of the Cold War.

The original six-inch guns were mounted on hydraulic platforms. They peeked above the ramparts to fire and were lowered to be reloaded under shelter. The rate of fire was not efficient, about one shell every two minutes. The ammunition magazines were tucked safely away underground, accessed via narrow tunnels of vaulted brick. The right and rear walls of the fortress are pocked with loopholes, horizontal and vertical rifle slits. Quarters, the guardhouses and barracks, were close and Spartan.

Below Fort Rodd Hill on a pinkie-sized peninsula is another national historic site. Erected in 1860, the whitewashed Fisgard lighthouse with its red residence was the first of its kind on Canada’s Pacific coast. Looking back from the lamp, a distance of just a few hundred yards, the fortifications hewn into the promontory were virtually invisible.

Monday evening, mild. The still water in Victoria’s inner harbour was a black mirror. Lights and masts reflected. Ann and I held hands and walked. We took the few steps up from sea level beside the refurbished and green-lit ferry terminal. We crossed the road and lingered by the cenotaph in the grounds of the legislature, its every soaring arch and angle blazing white light. The wreaths on the ground were plastic fir, prickled with red and black Royal Canadian Legion poppies and festooned with purple ribbons imprinted with gold type. The embossed plaques on the plinth commemorate the sacrifices made in two world wars, Korea and Afghanistan - “the graveyard of empires.”

I said to Ann, “They’re running out of room.” And who can recount all the godforsaken places where Canadian forces have been deployed by the United Nations as peacekeepers.

The minor miracle of Canada, in a large part due to its geography, is that since the War of 1812 petered out in 1815, and Fenian Raids ceased in 1871, she has never had to defend her borders from armed invaders. No small boon to date in an ever-changing world. An emplacement like Fort Rodd Hill never once launched an artillery barrage in anger. Lest we forget our country’s good fortune as we remember those who gave their lives, limbs and sanity in service of our allies overseas.          

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