What brought the battle weary warship HMS Tartar to Esquimalt in 1861?
Before the Fraser River gold rush, the Colony of British Columbia did not exist and money rarely changed hands; most of the trade done at the forts was done by barter.
All that changed in the Spring of 1858 when gold seekers stopped at Fort Langley for provisions and $5 mining licences. Miners paid with cash — thus beginning the trend away from a barter-based economy. This was great news for the Hudson’s Bay Company as James Douglas reported in 1858:
“A considerable cash business is now carried on at Fort Langley, the sales are averaging about $1500 a day. The articles sold are principally Flour, Bacon and Beans, and mining tools which we import from San Francisco, together with blankets and woollen clothing …”
The need for currency
Most merchants accepted gold dust as a means of payment for goods but they preferred cash.
It was difficult to assess just how fine the gold was and to agree upon its worth. Both miners and merchants were often cheated. In addition, when it came time for merchants to restock their goods, transactions were being hampered by the lack of currency.
Many gold seekers left to take their gold to the San Francisco Mint to get money in return. This was another loss for merchants in British Columbia as well.
HMS Tartar arrives
As early as April 25, 1859 the Colonial Treasurer Captain William Gosset (of the Royal Engineers) informed Governor Douglas that something should be done about the lack of coins in circulation. He proposed that the Colony of British Columbia import £100,000 worth of coin and sovereigns to be repaid in gold bullion.
Almost exactly two years later, in April, 1861, HMS Tartar brought florins amounting in value to £4,000, shillings amounting to £2,000, sixpences amounting to £800, and threepenny pieces amounting to £100; total, £6,900. The Daily Colonist made a brief note of its arrival from Britain, mentioning that the ship brought a “large amount of silver coin but no copper currency” [small denominations were made of solid copper until 1860]. A week later, The British Columbian newspaper anticipated a warm welcome for the arrival of the coins.
Scarcity of Coin
When these coins were finally brought over there still wasn’t enough to satisfy the demands of the merchants. The lack of a circulating currency continued to be a problem.
On November 7, 1861 the New Westminster paper in an editorial said:—
“Owing to the scarcity of coin in the Treasury here and in the banking-houses in Victoria, miners are compelled to go to San Francisco for the purpose of having their golddust turned into coin. . . . If the coin question is so seriously felt now, to what alarming dimensions will it attain next year with a mining population at least fivefold what it is now, and a corresponding increase in the yield of our mines.”
Later the government offered a premium on sovereigns imported from California, but even that wasn’t enough.