The early days of maritime law and financial order
By David R. Leverton, Executive Director, Maritime Museum of British Columbia
Within a short, five-minute walk between Wharf Street and Bastion Square is the old Victoria Custom House, also referred to as the Malahat Building, and the former Victoria Law Courts — two of the most important historic landmarks that influenced the early years of maritime commerce and shipping in British Columbia. Construction of the Victoria Custom House commenced in 1874 and was declared a National Historic Site of Canada in 1987. Construction of the former Victoria Law Courts started in 1889 and was declared a National Historic Site of Canada in 1980. One has to step back in time to appreciate the significance of these two buildings and the role they played in the administration of maritime law and order and the raising of customs duties and excise taxes once the United Colony of British Columbia became the Dominion of Canada’s youngest province.
The Crown Colony of Vancouver Island was originally created in 1849 and the Mainland Crown Colony of British Columbia in 1858 with the discovery of gold in the Fraser Canyon. The two colonies were eventually united in 1866 and the former capital of the mainland colony was moved from New Westminster to Victoria which had been incorporated in 1862 and was the former capital of the Vancouver Island Colony. At the time of this amalgamation, the newly formed United Colony of British Columbia was heavily in debt due largely to high infrastructure costs associated with the rapid development of several new gold rush communities including Barkerville and Lillooet. The building of the Caribou Wagon Road had in large part bankrupted the United Colony. The United Colony was in desperate need of government-funded services to support this growing inland population and these necessary community outposts. At the time, it was hoped that royalties and licence revenues would help offset some of these burgeoning infrastructure costs.
The Dominion of Canada needed a strategic West Coast continental connection. There was no Panama Canal which meant a voyage of more than 13,000 nautical miles from Halifax to Victoria via Cape Horn for ships sailing from eastern Canada. Most of the tonnage was moved using wooden-hulled sailing ships. Victoria’s shipbuilding industry began in 1859 at the foot of Dallas Road at Laing’s Way. The United Colony eventually established a large ship servicing industry to support imports of much needed bulk cargoes to the expanding number of new settlements and the continued export of natural resources that had started during the early years of the Hudson’s Bay fur trade with local First Nations.
B.C.’s willingness to join the Dominion of Canada depended largely on the completion of a new trans-continental railway; Ottawa’s absorption of the United Colony’s debts and liabilities; and funding for a first-class new graving dock in Esquimalt.
On July 20, 1871, B.C. officially joined the Dominion of Canada. The new deal also meant that the existing provisions of the British North America Act, 1867, would be applicable to B.C. in the same way and to the same extent as they applied to the other Provinces. It was agreed that the existing customs tariff and excise duties would remain in force in B.C. until the railway from the Pacific Coast and the system of railways in Canada were connected. The collection of excise taxes and duties on goods being imported was an important source of much needed revenue since the taxing of individuals and corporations did not begin until the introduction of the Income War Tax Act in 1917. Construction of the Victoria Custom House began in earnest in 1874 and today it is the oldest building of its kind in Western Canada.
The construction of the Victoria Law Courts is another direct result of the new legal agreement between the Dominion of Canada and B.C. due to the importance of maintaining law and order both on land and on water.
The earliest forms of maritime law occurred in areas belonging to what was known as the Continental legal tradition. This formed the basis for the early Admiralty Law of England and is the origin of the common law legal tradition that was responsible for regulating maritime shipping to and from Victoria during the period of 1866 -71. Contemporary maritime law governing the movement of goods is a mixture of ancient doctrines and the English system of Admiralty Law that was inspired by the three arches of modern Admiralty Law — namely the Laws of Visby, the Laws of Hansa Towns and the Laws of Oleron.
Among the traditional principles of Admiralty Law still in use today are marine insurance, general average and salvage. The welfare of the seaman and the ancient concept of ‘maintenance and cure’ are also still in use. The main reason for the continuous use of ancient principles of law is the unchanging nature of the basic hazards associated with seafaring. The original consolidation of maritime laws in the United Kingdom was referred to as the Merchant Shipping Act, 1867.
In 1897, the International Maritime Committee created uniformity within maritime law that included the Hague Rules (International Convention on Bill of Lading), the Visby Amendments (amending the Hague Rules) and the Salvage Convention amongst others. Since 1958, there has been a move towards more uniform maritime laws that are being overseen by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The Canada Shipping Act that is regulated by Transport Canada governs maritime shipping laws within Canadian waters in association with other federal laws regulated by such departments as Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
The British Admiralty courts were established to resolve disputes between merchants and seaman and eventually included the enforcement of customs and criminal charges related to smuggling and piracy on the high seas. British colonies were routinely granted the subsidiary jurisdiction through independent Vice-Admiralty courts. These civil courts were granted the power to interpret colonial legislation provided these interpretations did not conflict with Admiralty Court decisions or British maritime law. The Vice-Admiral courts were juryless and the presiding judges were granted five per cent of the confiscated cargo from any guilty verdicts. The legal concept of the high court was that a defendant was presumed guilty until they proved themselves innocent. Failure to appear as commanded resulted in an automatic guilty verdict. The British Admiralty Courts were domestic in nature however they were also used to solve international disputes and are still used today.
The Vice-Admiralty Court for British Columbia was established in the former Court House Building at 28 Bastion Square. Construction of the new building began in 1887 and the Law Courts were opened in 1889. The new trans-continental railway was finished in 1885.
The Victoria Law Courts were the first major public building constructed by the provincial government after the formal union with Canada. The completion of the new building marked an important step in the evolution of British Columbia’s court system and the start of a new program to construct courthouses in judicial districts throughout B.C. Trials were held in the building until 1962 and played an important role in interpreting maritime law for many decades. The investigation into the tragic sinking of the S.S. Princess Sophia, the largest shipwreck disaster along the Pacific Northwest coast, began in the Vice-Admiralty Court on January 10, 1919. The building was also the home of the Maritime Museum of British Columbia for 50 years from 1964 until 2014.
The next time you’re visiting Victoria, take a five minute stroll along Wharf Street and Bastion Square and imagine what it would’ve been like to have witnessed the construction of these two amazing buildings and the significance they played in administering the rule of law and the raising of customs duties and excise tax revenues during the early days of the province’s entry into Confederation. On July 20, 2021, B.C. will commemorate its 150th Anniversary of becoming Canada’s sixth province.
David R. Leverton has served as Executive Director of the Maritime Museum for the past three years and recently co-authored Those Who Perished: The Unknown Story of the Largest Shipwreck Disaster along the Pacific Northwest Coast. David can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org