By Randy Boswell, Postmedia News
May 4, 2012
One of the earliest known images of Canada's West Coast - a small, 220-year-old sketch showing a village of "friendly Indians" northwest of present-day Vancouver - is set to be sold for up to $50,000 at an auction this month after recently emerging from a private collection in Scotland.
In the early 1800s, the naval artist Thomas Heddington - just a teenager when he joined British explorer George Vancouver's landmark 1792 expedition to the future British Columbia - learned to his dismay that his drawings from the early voyage to the Pacific Coast of North America had been lost by the Royal Navy's hydrographic office.
But his original sketch of the aboriginal village, which was reproduced in Vancouver's published journal in 1798, somehow survived in obscurity for more than two centuries.
Initially valued at just $4,000 before its purchase for $15,000 by a Canadian collector at a British auction in 2010, the 19-x-25-centimetre sketch is now expected to sell for triple that price at a Heffel Fine Art sale in Vancouver on May 17.
"We think it's a really valuable work of art for a number of reasons," said auction house vice-president Robert Heffel. "It's one of the earliest depictions of First Nations life on the northwest coast. It's really quite extraordinary. The layers of stories behind it - it's incredible."
The full title of the ink and grey wash artwork, inscribed below the border of the image, is Village of the Friendly Indians at the Entrance of Bute's Canal. Known today as Bute Inlet, located about 200 kilometres from Vancouver on the southwest coast of mainland B.C., the area was known to be inhabited by nations of the Coast Salish at the time of Vancouver's famous voyage aboard HMS Discovery, accompanied by HMS Chatham.
The expedition was key to Britain's assertion of control over the area during a time when Spanish ships were also exploring Vancouver Island (ultimately named for the British navigator) and the rugged stretch of mainland across the Strait of Georgia.
Remarkably, Vancouver's journal describes in some detail the scene captured by Heddington, who was aboard the Chatham. The encounter took place just weeks after Vancouver had first explored the future site of the B.C. city that would bear his name.
"It was noon on the 30th (July, 1792) before we reached that part of the western shore, which had appeared broken, and on which the fires of the natives had been observed on entering this canal; which I distinguished by the name of 'Bute's Canal,' " Vancouver wrote.
"Here was found an Indian village, situated on the face of a steep rock, containing about one hundred and fifty of the natives, some few of whom had visited our party on their way up the canal, and now many came off in the most civil and friendly manner, with a plentiful supply of fresh herrings and other fish, which they bartered in a fair and honest way for nails."
Accounts of such non-confrontational, mutually beneficial first encounters between European explorers and Canada's aboriginal inhabitants are rare and precious pieces of Canadian history, presaging the relatively good - though not always harmonious - intercultural relations that unfolded in the 19th century in the northern part of North America.
The drawing "depicts wooden structures that First Nations peoples used for drying fish," according to Heffel's auction catalogue. "It is a striking scene with the conical hill topped by the village itself, which clearly commanded a stunning view of the ocean and mountains beyond."
Most original drawings of such vintage "would be in naval museums or archives," the catalogue states.
The indigenous peoples around the Bute Inlet region would not always get along so well with European newcomers. In the 1860s, a scheme by British entrepreneur Alfred Waddington to build a road from the entrance of Bute Inlet to the B.C. interior during the Cariboo Gold Rush resulted in a series of deadly clashes known as the Chilcotin War.