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Hero for Hire

by Dave Yanko

Canadian surgeon Campbell Mellis Douglas earned a Victoria Cross in 1867 for leading a rescue of 17 British sailors attacked by natives on an island in the Bay of Bengal.
The Victoria Cross
- courtesy
The Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth's highest award for gallantry.
But it was Douglas's maritime exploits, on the Canadian prairies, that add a quirky footnote to the story of the Northwest Resistance.

Douglas was born in 1840 at Gros Ilse, Quebec, and joined the South Wales Borderers as an army surgeon one year after graduating from Edinburgh School of Medicine in 1861. He earned his Victoria Cross when he accompanied a contingent of soldiers dispatched to Little Andaman Island to investigate the disappearance of a British naval captain and his landing party.

A barrage of arrows greeted the 18-man search party soon after it reached the island's shoreline, where scattered human remains left little doubt as to the fate of the missing captain and crew.

But a violent squall arising after the searchers landed left them stranded between arrows and impossible seas. Douglas and others aboard ship could do little but watch and pray.

Soon, frustration and concern moved Douglas to act. A lifelong and avid canoeist, the Canadian surgeon took the helm of a rescue rowboat and set off for shore with four soldiers. High, rolling waves thwarted their first effort to reach the besieged soldiers, but a second attempt an hour later succeeded.

"This time the doctor stood in the gig's bows, keeping it on an even keel by shifting his weight from side to side,'' according to information from the Canadian navy.

In two trips to the island, Douglas and crew removed 17 of the stranded soldiers; one drowned in the surf. All five rescuers received the Commonwealth's highest award for gallantry, in spite of the fact the Victoria Cross was normally awarded only during a declared war.

Douglas retired from the British military in 1882 and returned to Canada to launch a private practice in Lakefield, Ontario, where he and Eleanor McMaster married and had four children. When Canada sent troops to quell the Metis uprising on the prairies in 1885, however, officials recruited Douglas to take charge of one of two field hospitals sent for support.

Hospital staff and supplies were transported by rail to Saskatchewan Landing on the South Saskatchewan River, where the famous steamer Northcote waited to ship them downstream to Saskatoon. When the Northcote seemed slow to return after leaving with one contingent, Douglas decided to find out for himself what was keeping her.

The Northcote
- courtesy University of Saskatchewan Libraries and University Archives
A J.W. Craig pencil sketch of the stern wheeler Northcote "wooding up" on the Saskatchewan.

From his personal effects he retrieved a 12-foot, collapsible canoe and launched himself downstream to investigate the case of the missing steamer. It wasn't long before he encountered the Northcote marooned on a large sandbar. Undeterred, he carried on to Saskatoon and arrived just in time to treat the wounded from the May 3 Battle of Fish Creek. He remained in Saskatoon to oversee the care of soldiers wounded during the rebellion's final Battle of Batoche, on May 14.

Douglas retired to England after his work on the prairies, but he wasn't through with his canoe. In 1895, he paddled across the English Channel in the same collapsible craft used to navigate the South Saskatchewan. Douglas, who died in 1909, called his unusual vessel "Saskatoon".

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