SINCE WE’RE NOW ESSENTIALLY A TEXT-BASED CULTURE, there’s a strong tendency for social memory to focus on that history most easily accessed through documents.
The Vietnam War seems more real than World War II which seems more real than World War I because the documentary record is richer.
And there’s an equally strong tendency to assume text-based records have greater credibility and importance than that history which comes to us through other means—stories, memories, artifacts, and so on.
The great coastal smallpox pandemic of 1862 looms extraordinarily large in the imagined history of the West Coast. “Imagined” because all history is mostly imagined. It’s reconstructed from fragments gleaned from the past and is frequently revised to reflect the biases inherent in those doing the reconstructing, the biases of record-keepers and the biases of those interpreting to serve present agendas.
Anyone who wants a quick lesson in this would do well to read Jaroslav Pelikan’s remarkable Jesus through the Centuries, a study of how successive generations of historians reinvented the fragmentary historical evidence to serve and to shape the cultural demands of their particular time.
What happened in 1862 plays a central role in British Columbia’s collective identity precisely because documents of colonial settler culture recorded it even as it ripped apart the oral histories of its victims, the once-populous First Nations sustained by the rich coastal ecosystem of estuaries, rivers, inlets and sheltering islands.
And yet 1862 was only an aftershock to an earlier epidemiological cataclysm of Biblical proportions. A massive transformation of coastal demography had already occurred.
That first shock depopulated entire landscapes, erased collective memory, brought demoralizing confusion and disarray to a system in which lineages and hereditary titles and ranks were central to social identity, political power and economic organization.
The second episode dismantled economies as dwindling populations were separated from their traditional resource bases and eventually from the practical ability to exercise sovereignty over them.
The third shock was, in effect, geo-political. As the pendulum of pandemic swung again and again through populations, it reshaped the balance of power. Before, First Nations were a powerful majority. Even up to 1862 they still felt able to assert interests with what, for want of a better word, might be characterized as military actions in Nootka Sound, in the Peace River district, the Fraser Canyon, the Chilcotin, the Gulf Islands, on Vancouver Island and elsewhere.
But over the century between 1780 and 1880, recurring epidemics reduced the coastal First Nations population by 90 percent. Should a catastrophe of similar magnitude afflict today’s Canada, the surviving population would dwindle to Greater Vancouver’s numbers.
Over that century, intensive seasonal rounds to harvest the resources of traditional territories collapsed, languages and the world view they contained vanished. Colonists gave themselves permission to settle lands abandoned by what they perceived as a dying race.
In addition to at least five outbreaks of smallpox—one for every successive generation born without immunity—measles, malaria, influenza and other diseases identified by the few fur traders only as “the mortality” or “fever and ague” contributed to a population decline of unprecedented dimensions. The 50 percent surviving the initial outbreak were next reduced by another 10 percent, then by 14 percent, then by 22 percent, then by 50 percent and so on down a relentless ladder of dwindling.
We tend to parse this awful experience into its individual outbreaks, smallpox in 1782 and 1801, “the mortality” of 1824, malaria in 1830, smallpox again in 1836, dysentery in 1844, measles in 1847, smallpox again in 1853 and then another coast-wide smallpox pandemic in 1862.
The dreadful century culminated with the formation of British Columbia amid the ruins.
As settlers poured into the region on the discovery of gold on the Fraser River, people already there were quickly marginalized economically and separated from their resource bases. The new overlords then set about trying to neutralize what power remained by dismantling the cultures themselves—outlawing language, religion and cultural practice, ethnically cleansing the landscape and establishing concentration camps under the euphemistic rubric “reserves,” disenfranchising ethnic groups and, the ultimate insult, seizing children for brainwashing to accept subservient roles in the new “normal.”
This, of course, is the takeaway from our dolorous past, after enormous transfiguring events there is no return to “normal.” Pandemics take normality and contort it into something else, something few of us can foresee.
The Black Death ended a thousand years of feudalism. The economic change it unleashed shaped the wage economy we share today and to which—like the serfs and lords of of 1345—we can’t imagine an alternative. The pandemics of the 19th Century changed the world of proto-British Columbia in ways unimaginable in the century before.
So we can all be sure of one thing about our pandemic. Survivors of the medical and economic carnage will inherit something but whatever it is, it won’t be the normal we knew in 2019.
The new normal around the globe: “social distancing”
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.