Freeman Tovell, a retired diplomat, has written a definitive biography of the Spanish mariner Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 14, 2009
If history were more fair, Freeman Tovell could say he lived on Quadra’s and Vancouver’s Island.
The largest island on the coast, not to mention the largest metropolis in what is now British Columbia, carries the name of the British mariner George Vancouver.
(That Vancouver is not on Vancouver Island is an historic anomaly that frustrates elementary-school geographers and the occasional witless tourist.)
Mr. Tovell grants Vancouver his due, but has taken as his cause the restoration of the forgotten accomplishments of the Spanish mariner Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra. The Spanish sea captain, known for his hospitality, befriended Chief Maquinna at Nootka Sound, later settling a dispute with his British rival, thus avoiding an international conflict.
“It was Vancouver’s suggestion to use the name ‘the island of Quadra’s and Vancouver’s,’ ” Mr. Tovell said. “Over time, it got worked down to Vancouver’s Island, probably due to the Hudson’s Bay Company traders. Eventually, the ‘apostrophe S’ was dropped.”
These days, the atlas is speckled with the names of Spanish sailors — Haro, Galiano, Malaspina— who visited these waters more than two centuries ago.
Quadra’s name graces a downtown street in Victoria (as does Vancouver’s), as well as a large island near Campbell River. A California bay north of San Francisco is named Bodega.
Mr. Tovell, 91, spent more than two decades researching and writing “At the Far Reaches of Empire” (UBC Press), a definitive biography of the Spanish capitan de navio. He undertook the project “to fill a gap in British Columbia history.”
Looking back, it might appear as though his entire life was preparation for a book that consumed so many years.
As a boy growing up in Ontario, Freeman’s passion for the sea was indulged by his parents, who presented him at age 14 with George William Anderson’s 1784 edition of “Cook’s Voyages,” soon after adding the two oversized volumes of “Harris’s Voyages,” published in 1764. The books remain a treasured part of his library to this day.
The same year in which he received the account of James Cook’s adventures, his mother published her first book. Ruth Massey Tovell’s “The Crime in the Boulevard Raspail” was a mystery novel set in Paris featuring a Canadian heroine investigating fakes of famous paintings by Van Gogh and Cezanne.
She was the daughter of the former Susan Denton and Walter Edward Hart Massey, who was president of Massey-Harris, the leading manufacturer of farm implements in all the British Empire. In 1910, she married Harold Tovell, who became a noted radiologist in Toronto. Their four sons, including Freeman, spent the first years of their lives on the Massey family estate at Dentonia Park in Toronto. (Part of the estate was donated to the city in 1926 and a par-3 public golf course now occupies the site.)
Freeman Tovell earned history degrees from the University of Toronto and Harvard, taking time out from his studies in 1940 to serve as best man at the New Year’s Eve wedding of his good friend, and future George Brown biographer, J.M.S. Careless.
With war raging, Mr. Tovell enlisted in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, an obvious choice of military service for one so enamored with the sea.
He served aboard HMCS Ungava, a minesweeper hunting German U-boats in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. “We had one or two scares,” Mr. Tovell said, “but nothing that amounted to much.”
Posted to the Canadian Naval Mission Overseas, based at London, England, he soon transferred to the external affairs department, where he would remain for many years. During the mid-1950s, he worked in Ottawa as an executive assistant to Lester Pearson, the future prime minister who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in resolving the Suez Crisis.
In 1963, Mr. Tovell was named ambassador to Bolivia and Peru, a fortuitous appointment. His wife, the former Rosita LaSueur, was the daughter of a Canadian oil company executive and a Peruvian mother, so the couple had relatives to welcome them to their new home in Lima. As well, Bodega y Quadra had been born in the city, so Mr. Tovell’s familiarity with the colonial history of what was the viceroyalty of Peru would come in handy when writing his book many years later.
His three years in the post was mostly taken up with pleasant formalities, during which he would be addressed as His Excellency and referred to as “ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of Canada.”
However, in December, 1963, he found himself in the midst of an international crisis, when militant tin miners, described in one account as “bearded young admirers of Cuba’s Fidel Castro,” seized hostages, including four Canadians, four Americans, a West German, a Dutch mine manager, and 12 Bolivian technicians.
Mr. Tovell traveled to La Paz to aid in the negotiations. The Bolivian government sent 4,000 troops to the workers’ Andean stronghold at Catavi. The last of the hostages was released unharmed after a 10-day standoff.
Mr. Tovell’s final act as ambassador was to preside at the opening of a cancer clinic for children donated by Canadians living in Peru.
He settled in Victoria in 1978, teaching at the university and soon after beginning work on a book that received praise on publication. “Splendid,” said the Oregon Historical Quarterly. “Fascinating tales of courage diplomacy, and intrigue when Victoria was still unknown on the far reaches of the Spanish Empire,” trumpeted the Victoria Times Colonist.
Earlier this year, Mr. Tovell was surprised when the Canadian Nautical Research Society, meeting in Victoria, presented him with its prestigious Keith Matthews Award for Best Book.
In an age when it is seen as historically appropriate to return to the official use of Haida Gwaii to describe what had temporarily been known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, perhaps someday Mr. Tovell’s contribution will help restore his subject’s name to a grand island.
Click here to read the first chapter of Freeman Tovell's biography of Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra.