Heritage Walks Series

Rollicking Boomtown

Sealing Pirates of Victoria

“My first impression...was...of his strength...a strength we are wont to associate with things primitive...” Jack London – The Sea Wolf

The Sealing Schooner Vera Homeward Bound - BC Archives Image B-03114

Take a glimpse into an era that was wild and got even wilder when Gold Rush madness descended on Victoria. There was plenty of drama in a town known for opium smuggling, gambling and prostitution.

Many claim that Wolf Larsen was based on the life of a real sealing captain, Alex MacLean. He was legendary for his prowess at catching seals...and for his brushes with the law. Sealing in the North Pacific was tough and unpredictable, where one could easily win a fortune or lose a life.

In 1886, the American government illegally declared the Bering Sea their territorial waters in order to protect their sealing interests. They began to seize vessels and this became a new hazard for Canadian sealers. The sealers risked losing all their catch and possibly being jailed in Alaska. This is when Alex MacLean’s “outlaw” reputation began.

The fleet continued to grow to 124 ships, most sailing out of Victoria. Many feared that war would break out, but over harvesting soon affected the seal population and industry began to decline.

In 1904, high pelt prices lured MacLean back to sealing and the Americans were after him again! Jack London had just published his novel The Sea Wolf. Once the press learned that the main character was based on the pirate McLean, they went wild. At sea, McLean’s crew lost its resolve and he reluctantly retreated to Canada and gave up sealing for good.

Abridged from Stephen Ruttan, “Tales from the Vault: Wolf Larsen’s Island Connection.” Victoria Times Colonist, December 23, 2012. k

The SS Commodore - BC Archives Image B-02713

Windsor Hotel - City of Victoria Archives 96604-01-4061

Victoria's first Fire Fighters - City of Victoria Archives 96604-01-6477

Miners at Customs House - City of Victoria Archives 98303-296

Samuel Booth - BC Archives Image A-02015

Sealing vessels of Victoria - BC Archives Image C-06120

For 40 years gold rushes put a unique stamp on the complexion of the city, one often forgotten as Victoria assumed its more dignified image.


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Published by the City of Victoria and the Downtown Victoria Business Association. Also available for printing and other formats at www.victoria.ca/tours.