Joseph (Joe) Seraphim Fortes was a prominent figure in the early history of Vancouver, Canada. He was born in Bridgetown, Barbados on February 9, 1863. After leaving his homeland in his mid-teens, he worked in Britain for several years. In 1884 he sailed around Cape Horn from Liverpool on the Robert Kerr, arriving in Burrard Inlet in September 1885. His name occurs repeatedly in the ship’s log as Seraphim Fortes.
After the disastrous fire, which completely destroyed the recently incorporated City of Vancouver on June 13, 1886, Joe Fortes worked as a shoeshine boy and porter at the Sunnyside Hotel and as a bartender at the Bodega Saloon on Cordova and Carrall (Maple Tree Square in Gastown).
Making his home at English Bay, he lived in a tent on the beach during the milder months of the year. After the start of the 20th century, he moved into a cottage at the foot of Bidwell Street on the shore-side of Beach Avenue. His little house was later moved to the other side of the street, just east of Alexandra Park.
Joe Fortes devoted all of his free time to teaching children to swim and to patrolling the beach. The self-appointed unpaid guard continued to support himself by working odd jobs until, in 1900, the City appointed him its first official lifeguard.
His contemporaries referred to him respectfully and lovingly as “Old Black Joe” or “English Bay Joe”. The stocky, dark-skinned man was a friend and teacher to the children, a guard for the bathers and a hero to people in distress. He has been officially credited with saving 29 lives, yet it is believed that the real number is considerably higher.
In 1910 the City honoured Joe Fortes for his many years of service to the public by presenting him with a gold watch, a cheque and an illuminated address.
When Joe Fortes died on February 4, 1922, Vancouver held a record-breaking funeral procession for him. Mourners crowded into Holy Rosary Cathedral to bid farewell to a brave, kind and modest friend. He was buried in Mountain View Cemetery. A flat stone marks his grave, simply inscribed: “JOE”.
In June 1927 the citizens of Vancouver dedicated a monument to Joe Fortes. The fountain in Alexandra Park by sculptor Charles Marega bears the inscription: LITTLE CHILDREN LOVED HIM.
He is still remembered today. On May 20, 1976, the Joe Fortes Branch of the Vancouver Public Library was dedicated to his name and in 1985, one hundred years after he arrived in Canada, the Joe Fortes Seafood & Chop House restaurant opened.
In 1986, during Vancouver’s centennial year, the Vancouver Historical Society named Joseph Seraphim Fortes “Citizen of the Century.”
In 2002, Joe Fortes was the subject of a National Film Board of Canada animated short “Joe” directed by Jill Haras with a voice cast featuring Blu Mankuma.
In 2013, Canada Post released a postage stamp featuring Vancouver’s beloved lifeguard, Joe Fortes. The stamp’s released on February 1, 2013 marked the 150th anniversary of Joe’s birth and was issued to celebrate Black History Month.