Friday, June 21, 2019

Camping with the Brits: the Pig War, Part 2

A couple weeks ago, I started telling you about the Pig War, an engagement between Britain and the U.S. in my own backyard, and asked you who you’d root for. I must admit I felt more affinity for English Camp than American Camp when I visited San Juan Island recently. Maybe it’s the anglophile in me.

But look at that vista.

English Camp is situated on a sheltered bay at the northwest corner of the island. The beach leads to a wide meadow that served as a parade ground. The British marines and soldiers cleared that ground and built neat white structures such as a commissary, hospital, and enlisted men’s barracks as well as a solid blockhouse that still stands on the very edge of the stony shore. They also built fancier houses for the officers, surgeon, and commander on a bluff overlooking the water.

At one time, the western edge of the meadow contained the enlisted men’s vegetable garden, where they grew potatoes, carrots, and greens. But Captain Delacombe, the second commanding officer, insisted that it be moved elsewhere and replaced it with a traditional English boxwood-hedged garden so his wife could view it from her lofty veranda. One story claims the garden appeased her homesickness for England. She had come with him to these far shores, bringing their three children.

One of the things the Brits found when they first arrived was a huge mound of shells left by the Coast Salish people, who had lived on the space for generations before. The military men ground up the shells and used them to line the paths between buildings, further giving the space a neat, clean appearance. When the Marines proved fractious from the inactivity, their captain set them to work mining limestone and building kilns to burn it into lime, which was shipped back to England for use in making cement, mortar, and fertilizer.

The two sides were remarkably civil to each other. The Brits invited the American soldiers to celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday. The American’s reciprocated with a grand celebration on Independence Day. They’d host athletic contests and treat the community to a dance.

During the 13 years at the site, no men were lost that I have been able to find. But the story was different at American Camp. Come back next week to learn why.

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