Freeman Tovell in his Victoria apartment in 2009. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 2, 2011
The diplomat Freeman Tovell, who has died, aged 92, once negotiated the release of hostages held by bearded revolutionaries in Bolivia.
The sang-froid displayed in that episode had also been helpful during wartime service aboard a minesweeper in waters under which lurked German submarines.
A long career in the Canadian foreign service was followed by another distinguished period as a teacher at the University of Victoria.
Of all his achievements, Mr. Tovell was proudest of a book for which the research and writing lasted decades. His biography of a Spanish sea captain who charted the waters along the British Columbia coast was well received on publication three years ago, winning a major prize as well as laudatory reviews.
Looking back, the book could be seen as the culmination of a life’s interest in the sea and the men who sailed beyond the horizon to explore its mysteries.
At age 14, his parents presented him with a handsome volume published in leather and marbled boards in 1784. George William Anderson’s book, popularly known as Cook’s Voyages, described James Cook’s three journeys into the unknown. His library soon after expanded with the addition of the two oversized volumes of the 1764 edition of Harris’s Voyages, which included engraved plates of exotic creatures from far-off lands, as well as folding maps.
Freeman Massey Tovey was born on May 9, 1918, to a prominent Toronto family. His father, Dr. Harold Murchison Tovell, the son of a Methodist minister, became a noted radiologist. In 1910, he married Ruth Lillian Massey, the daughter of Walter E.H. Massey, president of the Massey-Harris Company, the leading manufacturer of farm implements in the British Empire. The couple had met through her cousin, Vincent Massey, who, in 1952, became Governor General of Canada.
Freeman and three brothers spent their early years on the 100-hectare Massey family estate and experimental farm at Dentonia Park. The estate took its name from Ruth’s mother, Susan Marie Denton, who donated a substantial portion to the city in 1926 as public parkland. A par-3 golf course occupies part of the site today.
Mr. Tovell graduated from the University of Toronto with a history degree and completed a masters degree from Harvard University. He took a break from his studies in 1941 to serve as the best man at the New Year’s Eve wedding of J.M.S. (Maurice) Careless, the future biographer of George Brown. The two men roomed together at Harvard, where Mr. Tovell could only but admire his classmate’s frenzied, one-hand typing style, learned after losing an arm in a childhood accident.
On occasion, Mr. Tovell’s name appeared in the society pages of Toronto newspapers. One item described his dancing in the Oak Room of the King Edward Hotel with Rosita LeSueur, whose mother was from Peru and whose father was an oil-company executive. The couple later married.
At Harvard, he roomed with longtime friend J.M.S. (Maurice) Careless, whose frenzied manner of one-hand typing he could only admire. (Mr. Careless had lost an arm in a childhood cycling accident.)
Given his own boyhood fascination with maritime exploration, there was not much doubt which service Mr. Tovell wound enter as the war engulfed the world. He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve.
He served aboard HMCS Ungava, a minesweeper tasked with hunting U-boats in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where merchant ships made an easy target. “We had one or two scares,” Mr. Tovell said, “but nothing that amounted to much.”
The young lieutenant was posted to the Canadian Naval Mission Overseas, based at London, though he was soon transferred to external affairs, serving for 35 years through the department’s golden age.
During the mid-1950s, Mr. Tovell worked in Ottawa as executive assistant to external affairs minister Lester Pearson, the future prime minister who won the Nobel Peace prize for helping to resolve the 1956 Suez Crisis. “He was wonderful to work for and with,” Mr. Tovell told me in 2009. “Those were happy years.”
In 1962, he was named Canadian ambassador to Bolivia and Peru, a dual accreditation. He felt at home in Lima, as the Peruvian capital, where his wife’s family made them welcome. He presided over the opening of a cancer clinic for children, sent reports home on the evolution of democracy in the South American lands, and spent time on the party circuit where he was addressed as His Excellency while receiving florid introductions as “ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of Canada.”
In 1963, striking tin miners in Bolivian, described in one account as “bearded young admirers of Cuba’s Fidel Castro,” seized hostages, including four Canadians and four Americans. Among other demands, the miners demanded the release of two jailed Communist union leaders.
Bolivia sent 4,000 troops to the surround the Catavi mine, while U.S. President Lyndon Johnson pledged his support to the Bolivian government. In Ottawa, external affairs minister Paul Martin Sr. told the House of Commons that Mr. Tovell had been dispatched to the Bolivian capital of La Paz to negotiate the freedom of the Canadians.
An ominous undertone to the negotiations was the knowledge that a similar incident 14 years earlier had ended in the murder of four American mining engineers.
In this case, however, the standoff ended peaceably when 3,000 miners voted to release the hostages once the troops were withdrawn.
The Peruvian posting permitted Mr. Tovell to do research on Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, the Peruvian-born diplomat and capitan de navio who had explored the waters off what is now the British Columbia coast in the late 18th-century.
In time, Mr. Tovell arrived in Victoria, where he taught at the university while continuing to work on his project. He noted one of the city’s streets bore Quadra’s name, as did a large island off Campbell River. “No one knew much about him,” he said.
Mr. Tovell took it as his cause the promotion of the forgotten accomplishments of a Spanish mariner known for his hospitality, who had befriended Chief Maquinna at Nootka Sound and who had ended hostilities with his British rivals. It was George Vancouver himself who had suggested the large island that now bears his name be known as Quadra’s and Vancouver’s Island. (In time, the chauvinists of the Hudson’s Bay Company eliminated the Spaniard’s name.)
“Serving on the outer edge of the empire, he lacked the support of an influential patron at the Spanish royal court,” Mr. Tovell. wrote. “Furthermore, as a colonial-born subject from Peru, he was hampered by the governmental prejudice that hindered colonial subjects seeking high rank in the church and government. Despite his constant efforts to be promoted from four-ring captain to flag rank, he was never able to gain full recognition for his achievements from his naval superiors and political masters.”
Two centuries later, Mr. Tovell sought to correct this unfair historical verdict with At the Far Reaches of Empire (UBC Press), the first full English biography of the explorer. The book received strong reviews — “impressively sober, extensively researched,” Alan Twigg wrote in BC Bookworld — and received the Keith Matthews Award as the best book on a Canadian nautical subject in 2009.
His widow recently signed a contract with the University of Oklahoma Press that will see the posthumous publication of Mr. Tovell's translation of Bodega y Quadra's diary.
Mr. Tovell died at his home in Oak Bay, B.C., near Victoria, on March 7. He leaves Rosita, his wife of 69 years; three daughters; a son; four grandchildren; and, his brother, Vincent Massey Tovell, an Order of Canada recipient for contributions to Canadian culture. He was predeceased by brothers Harold, a physician who died in 2002, and Walter, a geologist and a director of the Royal Ontario Museum, who died in 2006.