Seraphim Joe Fortes – How A Black Sailor From Barbados Became A Legend In Vancouver Canada


UPDATED: July 29, 2010

Thanks to one of our regular friends, we’ve just learned of a wonderful video on YouTube all about Seraphim Joe Fortes. (link below) It is really worth a few minutes of your time to learn about this famous Bajan who was loved so much in Vancouver that almost 90 years after his death his name lives on. In 1996 he was named “Citizen of the Century”.

How could a flat-broke black sailor from Barbados arrive in Vancouver in 1885 and still be loved over a hundred years later? It is quite a story…

Seraphim Joe Fortes Became A Favourite Son Of Vancouver Canada

Huge Public Funeral In 1922 – Monument Erected, Library Named In His Honour

In 1922, the largest public funeral in Vancouver’s history was held for a black man from Barbados. “Tens of thousands” lined his funeral procession.

YouTube video: Famous British Columbia People – Joe Fortes

Seraphim “Joe” Fortes arrived in Vancouver in 1885 on the foundering vessel Robert Kerr – sailing from England where he had been a bath attendant and swimming instructor for a few years.

According to the available materials (linked below), Fortes swam in English Bay every day and started to teach the local children how to swim for the pure goodness of it. He worked at various jobs, but became a fixture at the beach where he became a self-appointed lifeguard and swimming instructor.

And instruct he did… teaching thousands of area children and adults, and by some accounts saving hundreds of lives over the years. Fortes owned only one book: The Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis.

His exploits became so famous that the City of Vancouver appointed him as the first official city lifeguard and began to pay him a small salary to continue to do what he loved. This was all the more incredible because, according to some accounts, he was one of two blacks in Vancouver at the time. (Think it tough to be a person of colour now? Try 1887!)

“Every morning, all year round, he swam in the bay and drank his ‘medicine’ – a cup of salt water. All day, when not working as necessity demanded, he ‘managed’ the beach. As the West End filled up, he became known to the elders as ‘English Bay Joe,’ and to the children simply as ‘Ol’ Black Joe’. And the children were his delight; scarcely a tyke who was raised in Vancouver in the 1890’s or 1900’s but learned to swim with Joe’s ham-like fist gripping the back of his or her cotton bathing suit and that deep, mellow voice ordering, “Kick yo’feet, chile – kick yo’ feet.”…Mothers confidently shooed their children away to the bay for the long summer days with the simple command, ..’and don’t go away from where Joe is..’ ” *…. (see “English Bay Joe” link below)


Joe Fortes Remembered: Fountain, Library, Restaurant, Film

It has been over eighty years since Fortes’ death, but his name is still known by average people in Vancouver. A monument, public library, restaurant, school textbooks and a Canadian-produced movie about his life keep the memory of Joe Fortes from fading.

In Alexandra Park, where Joe had lived, a drinking fountain was erected in 1927 by the citizens of Vancouver. Created by sculptor Charles Marega, the fountain is low enough for small children to reach and the inscription simply says ..

“Little children loved him”

Not bad for a black man from Barbados in those times – who arrived with nothing and alone in a strange land.

Fortes obviously liked Vancouver, because he stayed there for the rest of his life. I could find no record of him ever making the journey back to Barbados.

Story Links

Once again, Google delivered this little piece of history to our computer as a result of some obscure search alert sent out months ago. Here are some of the links we’ve come up with…

Canada National Film Board – 2002 short film “Joe”

Wikipedia entry for Seraphim Joe Fortes

Joe Fortes Drinking Fountain – City of Vancouver

Joe Fortes Restaurant

Vancouver Public Library – Joe Fortes Branch


Filed under Barbados, Culture & Race Issues, History

12 responses to “Seraphim Joe Fortes – How A Black Sailor From Barbados Became A Legend In Vancouver Canada

  1. Jane

    Wonderful and enlightening article! Thanks BFP.

  2. Passin thru

    I loved this article BFP. Thankyou for uplifting and put up something light cause we just can’t take all the corruption steady even though that is the way it is at home.

    Also found this…

    “In 1986, the Vancouver Historical Society named him Citizen of the Century. ”

    Joe (Seraphim) Fortes Beach guard b. 1865, Barbados; d. Feb. 4, 1922, Vancouver. Came to Vancouver in 1885 and became a regular at English Bay, teaching children to swim. Appointed Vancouver’s first official lifeguard in 1901; credited with saving more than 100 lives. Lived in a cottage near the Alexandra Park bandstand. In 1986, the Vancouver Historical Society named him Citizen of the Century. The Joe Fortes Branch of the Vancouver Public Library, 870 Denman, was named for him.

  3. God.

    THIS is what my humans should be like, not the greedy money-centred rats I see today.

  4. John

    We all have a light within us, just let it shine.

    Who needs to see it will see it.

  5. Rumplestilskin

    An example to all.

  6. “Little children loved him”….i bet he LOVED them also bahaha, ahhh *sighs* i need a life.

  7. Adrian Loveridge

    Its an amazing true story and I hope that he will be honoured somewhere in his birthplace. A section in our museum, a restaurant named after him (like in Vancouver), even a lifeguard station or a monument to demonstrate that almost anything is possible.

  8. Disposable comments

    God forbid someone should crawl out of the barrel and do GOOD in the world without some Barbadian trying to pull him back even though he has been dead almost 90 years ago!

  9. bright spark

    What a heart-warming article, this truly was a beautiful artifact to shine light on a dread, hostile and volatile world. Thanks BFP, really a good read. And nasty minded ppl like Disposable Arts can go and get in the mud where he belongs…. what an awful insinuation…

  10. Francillia Walters

    What a great story, I am from Barbadian living in America while I was browsing the internet I came across this article and I really enjoy reading it.

  11. Pingback: Hidden Vancouver: Research on Joe Seraphim Fortes « penagainstpaper

  12. 113

    Canada also has a stamp with joes picture.