B.C. author brings 18th century seafarer Frances Barkley back to life in new book

As trailblazers go, Frances Barkley is hard to beat. Along with her husband, the explorer and sea captain Charles Barkley, she would sail around the world twice during an eight-year voyage. In fact, she is the first woman to openly sail around the world and she is also considered to be the first European woman to have ever visited what would become Canada’s West Coast. Now, her incredible life story is being told, in her voice, in the new book Frances Barkley – Eighteenth-century Seafarer.

Frances was barely 17 when she was married off to Captain Charles Barkley, a man 10 years her senior, and just 39 days later they set sail for their first voyage around the world as husband and wife. Victoria-based author and historian Cathy Converse notes that was definitely not the norm for the time.

“Mostly wives stayed ashore,” she explained. “Very few of them went with their husbands. It was too dangerous for them. I think she was just adventurous to start with. They couldn’t afford to stay at home [anyway]. He had to help support this trip. So, she really didn’t have any option, but she really wanted to go.”

Frances was 18 by the time she and her husband arrived on the shores of what would one day be called British Columbia, leaving their mark with a number of place names including Barkley Sound and Frances Island. There is also the MV Frances Barkley, a small passenger and freight vessel which sails between Port Alberni and Bamfield on the West Coast of Vancouver Island.

Converse admits she has long been inspired by strong female figures.

Read more: On Their Own Terms: True Stories of Trailblazing Women of Vancouver Island 

“Primarily, because when my daughter was in Grade 12, which is a long time ago, she came home with an assignment that she had to write something about a woman and she said, ‘There’s no information, Mom! You’ve got to do something about this.’”

Frances Barkley: Eighteenth-century Seafarer is Converse’s seventh book, and her second about Barkley. She has also written books about Agnes Deans Cameron, B.C.’s first female school principal, as well as M. Wylie “Capi” Blanchet, herself a famous pacific seafarer.

Converse uses Barkley’s own reminiscences combined with historical, geographical, and nautical research to come up with a work of first-person creative non-fiction.

“The creative part come in in filling the holes, the gaps, in the story.  And her words are mixed-in with my words,” she said.

The result is a captivating tale about a woman who lived life on her own terms and made history in the process.

“[The book] shows you how to be bold, to be strong, to be flexible,” Converse said. “I think it’s a tremendous love story and it also gives us an insight into maritime trading at that particular time period, which was pretty unscrupulous and cutthroat.”

Read more: Never Say P*g:  The Book of Sailors’ Superstitions

She hopes the reader comes away with a greater appreciation for the role women like Frances Barkley have played in history.

“I really hope that we can get to the stage where we acknowledge that women have been on the forefront of our history all along,” she said.

“When I first started taking this tack to my writing. I thought, you know, [there] may be the odd woman. But it was more common than we realize. I realized she was the first woman to openly sail around the world. But it was still more common than we think about, we just have never written women into our history.”

Frances Barkley – Eighteenth-century Seafarer is part of the Amazing Stories series from Heritage House Publishing.

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