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.
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
Vancouver Public Library – Joe Fortes Branch