At Sea and by Land: The Reminiscences of William Balfour Macdonald, R.N.


136 pages
Contains Illustrations, Index
ISBN 0-919203-05-1





Edited by S.W. Jackman
Reviewed by Barry M. Gough

Barry M. Gough is a history professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and
author of The Northwest Coast: British Navigation, Trade, and
Discoveries to 1812.


Of several Canadians who won a secure and successful place in the Royal Navy, very few have left any sort of autobiographical report of their services. For that reason alone, Victoria-born William Balfour Macdonald’s memoir is a treasured document. Born 1870 to a prominent British Columbia family, he entered the Royal Navy through his “connexions,” served as cadet and midshipman, and was commissioned lieutenant. His experiences on the Pacific and Australian Stations provide very good, even exciting, reading, and they show the hazards of sailing in still uncharted seas where the natives were not always friendly. When in 1910 the Royal Canadian Navy was constituted, Macdonald assumed command of H.M.C.S. Niobe, and he had the embarrassing experience of colliding with Sable Island rocks. In 1914 he was back in the Royal Navy and beginning a sterling wartime career. On his retirement in 1920 he was Commander Macdonald, R.N., D.S.O., and recipient of the Order of the Sword from the King of Sweden and Order of the Golden Eagle by the German emperor Wilhelm II. Macdonald was modest and unassuming. However, his narrative bubbles with a welcome, engaging, dry humour: as he says, his purpose in writing his memoirs was a temptation “to write down adventures and happenings that can never occur again to anyone, for in this modern world sailing ships and cannibals are out of date” (p.19).

To Professor S.W. Jackman of the University of Victoria goes full credit for bringing this record into the public realm. The editor’s introduction nicely complements the text, and nine photographs (from public and private sources) bring additional appreciation to the narrative. This is altogether a handsome paperback volume, and Macdonald would have been proud at the editor’s and publisher’s work in bringing his work to light. When at some distant date the book is written on Canadians who served the Empire in the Mother Country’s fleets, armies, and flying corps, Macdonald will take his full and proper place.


Macdonald, William Balfour, “At Sea and by Land: The Reminiscences of William Balfour Macdonald, R.N.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 19, 2024,