Barry Gough

Fellow of the Society for the History of Discoveries


Perspectives on global history held by a Canadian are likely to differ from those of a person of another nationality, although Barry Gough has worked with an impartial mind girded by research in numerous archives and libraries around the world to avoid the bogus and the cant. His love of history, particularly that of the northwest coast of North America, from San Francisco to the Bering Sea, was enriched by intensive study of the papers of the Hudson’s Bay Company then still housed in the London and, above all, of the Admiralty and Colonial Office papers in the old, cold and damp Public Record Office, Chancery Lane. His book The Royal Navy and the Northwest Coast of North America, 1810-1914 – the first of twenty-two titles – was a study in British maritime ascendancy based on his doctoral thesis, written under the demanding guidance of the Rhodes Professor of Imperial History at King’s College London University, Gerald S. Graham. The work appeared in 1971, at a time when naval history and imperial encounters with peoples of the wider world rubbed against the grain: for, while prevailing scholarship seemed to be working toward decolonization, deconstruction, and exposing the horrors of empire, Gough’s efforts seemed to be going in opposite directions.

While amassing materials upon which his first book was based, he collected a reference file “Gunboats and Natives.” Over the next decade, all the while establishing Canadian Studies programs at Western Washington and then Wilfrid Laurier University, he crafted Gunboat Frontier, published in 1984, a novel study of the interaction of British ships-of-war (duly acting on civil authority) and various Indigenous peoples. The focus was on British Columbia but extended to police actions in Puget Sound and Russian America. Earlier experiences were brought to bear on his scholarship. Undergraduate years at the University of British Columbia and master’s studies at the University of Montana had yielded a wider appreciation of northwest coast history. Even before, his boyhood travels gave him on-the-ground knowledge of such disparate places as the Napa Valley, the Columbia River estuary, the Palouse, Clark’s Fork, Lake Windermere, Mount Ranier, Hell’s Gate of the Fraser River, and the Okanagan Valley. Summertime sailing brought a knowledge of navigation, pilotage, and place names. His father, John, was a central force in all of this, and author of The Story of British Columbia, an introduction for young readers to the compelling complexities of a world in which the great cordillera from the Rocky Mountains to the Cascade ramparts and all the inlets and islands offshore proved an irresistible attraction to the young scholar.

Biographical studies of fur traders followed in rapid succession, complementing oceanic efforts. He edited, in two volumes, The Journal of Alexander Henry the Younger, 1799-1814, for The Champlain Society. He wrote First Across the Continent: Sir Alexander Mackenzie, restoring the importance of the study of personality and character in the motivations, in this case commercial and imperial, of the person who against odds made the overland passage to the Pacific tidewater in 1793. In doing so, the young Scot offered the promise of a transcontinental Canadian dominion. Gough continued with the more complex subject for his next biography, the Connecticut colonial soldier Peter Pond, who as an ensign had been with Amherst at the fall of Montreal. Pond went on to become the administrative brains in the founding of the Northwest Company of Canada, besides being a unique and important cartographer of that vast network of rivers, lakes and portages that stretches from Lake Superior to the upper Mackenzie River. The Elusive Mr. Pond: the Soldier, Fur Trader and Explorer who Opened the Northwest revealed a formidable character – ardent, urgent, and imperative – who guided the commercial destinies of individual traders fighting the rivalry of the Hudson’s Bay Company. This biographical pairing – Mackenzie and Pond – disclosed the Canadian challenge that Thomas Jefferson was all too aware of when he arranged for Lewis and Clark to be sent out to the Pacific on their “passage through the garden.” Another biography followed, this one on the quizzical Juan de Fuca, a Greek pilot in the employ of the King of Spain who told Michael Lok in Venice that he had found a Northwest Passage from the far side of the world. Juan de Fuca’s Strait: Voyages in the Waterway of Forgotten Dreams brings the story to the scientific inquiries two centuries later of Captain George Vancouver of the Royal Navy and Juan Francisco Bodega y Quadra of the Spanish navy, the commissioners sent to implement the Nootka Sound convention.

Other works include The Historical Dictionary of Canada (3rd edition in press), Canada (Modern Nations in Historical Perspective series), two books on the War of 1812 on the Great Lakes, and a study of the famed naval historians of modern British history, Arthur Marder, and Stephen Roskill, entitled Historical Dreadnoughts. This last he regards as his gift to the understanding of the arduous profession as pursued by rival historians.

Pax Britannica: Ruling the Waves and Keeping the Peace before Armageddon won the Mountbatten Literary Award in 2015 “for his significant and comprehensively researched contribution to the history of the British Empire over the period 1815 to 1914. Written in a lucid style, this book demonstrates the immensity of global ambition and the controlling influence of the Royal Navy.” His most recent book, published in 2017, is Churchill and Fisher: Titans at the Admiralty, acclaimed for its coverage of the politics of peace and for exposing the severity of war and bitter infighting to secure the building of the new Dreadnoughts, as well as the threats arising from U-boat operations and the abortive Dardanelles campaign.

Gough was Professor of History, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, for 33 years. On his retirement, in 2004, he returned to his native Victoria and his childhood home. There, he renewed his interest in local and regional history. He is Honourary President of the British Columbia Historical Federation and recipient of numerous honours, prizes and awards, including the Robert Gray Medal of the Washington State Historical Society for sustained historical contributions to Northwest History. For civic contributions, in Ontario and British Columbia respectively, he received the Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Medal and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. He is Fellow of Kings College London and Archives By-Fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge University. Guest lectureships have taken him to Duke, Otago, Singapore, Canberra, Natal, Belfast and other universities. Each provided new windows on an expanding world of scholarship, helping him to shape global history, and imperial and international history in a new guise.

A life member of the Society for the History of Discoveries, Barry has been an article author and a frequent reviewer of books for Terrae Incognitae and is an active member of the Editorial Advisory Board of the Society’s journal.

For his many outstanding publications in Canadian and British imperial and naval history; for his fine record of teaching and mentoring students, particularly at the Wilfrid Laurier University; and for his contributions to the scholarly community of imperial, international and maritime historians, we honor Barry Gough and name him Fellow of the Society for the History of Discoveries.

Sixtieth Annual Meeting of the Society for the History of Discoveries
Gainesville, Florida
November 15, 2019

Prepared by Lauren Beck; photo by Tom Sander

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