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Tom Hawthorn

A life dedicated to filling a gap in B.C. history Add to ...

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 the city of Vancouver is not on Vancouver Island is a 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 , 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, Mr. Tovell'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.

Mr. Tovell earned history degrees from the University of Toronto and Harvard.

With war raging, Mr. Tovell enlisted in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve, an obvious choice of military service for one so enamoured with the sea.

He served aboard HMCS Ungava, a minesweeper seeking 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, 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 of 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 travelled 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 settled in Victoria in 1978, teaching at the university and beginning work on a book that received high praise on publication.

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 been known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, perhaps some day Mr. Tovell's contribution will help restore his subject's name to a grand island.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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