Galois, Robert, edit. A Voyage to the North West Side of America: the Journals of James Colnett, 1786-89. Vancouver: UBC Press. 405 pages plus bibligraphy and index. Maps.


Historians come from two camps. The first tries to communicate his or her excitement over people or events or people and events, and proceeds to tell the story.

The other group believes in full documentation first and excitement second or even at the bottom of the list. The groups hate each other and hurl insults from their tents.

The excited group, when it goes bad, becomes writers of popular fiction with a basis of fact. This bunch usually makes far more money than the documenting group, another reason for intense dislike. They like to read reviews that stress “fascinating” and “swift moving”.

The second crowd enjoys documenting absolutely every fact, no matter how marginal. When they go bad they produce extremely boring books. This group takes refuge in producing completely factual material, longing to read reviews that say “the final word” and “will be used by scholars for years”.

Mr. Galois proudly belongs to the second camp. By page four of the introduction he is up to 32 endnotes.

James Colnett, English and a career seaman, was a veteran of Cook’s first two great voyages of discovery, so quite ready to enter the Northwest Coast fur trade. That particular happy lunacy lasted only 18 years, until the Chinese market was flooded, but led to the ouster of the Spanish from Vancouver Island and the later recognition of the Russian control of Alaska.

However, Galois is not content to merely mark footnotes. A professor at the University of British Columbia, he uses his vast knowledge of the Northwest Coast Indians to give their side of the story, not only the early encounters but the cultural reasons behind the hostilities on both sides.

He also points out two Colnett crew members, Johnstone and Menzies, later sailed with Vancouver. Johnstone contributed to Colnett’s excellent charts and his knowledge of the convoluted Northwest Coast surely contributed to the accurate surveys of the latter voyage. The naturalist Menzies was familiar with a number of the plants encountered.

All in all, this is a book that will be used by scholars for years. Galois’s knowledge of Natives and their interaction with the fur traders makes for fascinating reading ; just don’t let the number of footnotes deter you.

D. L.