Posted July 6, 2020
As the process of decolonizing and renaming our province gathers momentum, we consider the events that led to the founding of the Province of British Columbia.
ON AUGUST 2, 1858, the British parliament passed a bill that formally created a government for what’s now the province of British Columbia. In did so by cobbling together several smaller colonies, fur trade administrative regions called New Caledonia, and remnants of the Columbia District and the Oregon Territory that had become American by treaty in 1846.
The British legislation referred to “certain wild and unoccupied territories on the North-West Coast of North America” and cited the need to provide colonial government “until permanent Settlements shall be thereupon established, and the Number of Colonists increased.”
The territories weren’t unoccupied, of course. And it could be argued that the occupants weren’t willing subjects of the British Crown, either. A few had signed treaties with James Douglas, the Black fur trader who was married to an indigenous woman and found himself at the crossroads of colonial history more by accident than intent. But most, we can be reasonably sure, didn’t consent to this abrupt change in their sovereign status.
A famous painting of the installation of Douglas as governor of the new colony is significant primarily in the monoculture it depicts; white, bewhiskered men with bibles resplendent in the traditional regalia of their station—judicial robes, gilt-braided uniforms, cockaded military hats, and so on.
John Innes’ painting of the inauguration of the Crown Colony of British Columbia, and the installation of James Douglas as its first governor
There are no First Nations chiefs resplendent in their regalia. Save Douglas who is portrayed as a white patriarch, there are no Black officials present, although they would form the new colony’s first militia regiment, help lay the foundations of commerce and industry and one of them would be a delegate to the Yale Convention that drafted terms for entry into Confederation. No Chinese, although they would be crucial in building infrastructure and establishing a mercantile empire that reached from the Cariboo to San Francisco and back to China. None of the Hawaiians known—and not pejoratively for they were prized employees of the fur trade—as Kanakas.
And there were no women. Women weren’t persons in the eyes of the law in 1858. They were chattels of their husbands and a man could still sell his wife at market for as little as a pint of beer, as happened in 1862.
None of this was noted 116 years later when the government of British Columbia established the first Monday in August as BC Day, a statutory holiday honouring “the pioneers who built the colony.”
But times and perceptions evolve. As the process of decolonizing public institutions, public attitudes and the collective psychology of the descendants of both colonized and colonizers gathers momentum—there are serious and legitimate suggestions that we consider changing the name of the province to reflect a decolonized present—it’s important to remember that history didn’t begin with the Gold Rush of 1858. It didn’t begin with the arrival of the fur trade in 1805; and it didn’t begin with the explorations of Captain George Vancouver in 1792, or the trading expedition of John Meares in 1786, or the scientific research expedition of Captain James Cook in 1778.
If, for want of an arbitrary point of departure, we consider that the modern history of BC began with the initial braiding of First Nations and European narratives into our present reality, then we have to start near the end of July in 1774, and not with the British, but with a tiny Spanish exploratory mission.
Ninstints: a 14,000-year-old Haida civilization
BEHIND A LONG, SANDY CRESCENT, ideal for landing sea-going canoes amid rocky islets capped with trees sculpted by ceaseless spindrift, and backdropped by the dense, brooding green of rainforest, time-silvered totem poles at the long-abandoned village of Ninstints present a stunning representation of a 14,000-year-old Haida civilization at its cultural apex.
Ninstints, the name under which it was designated a World Heritage Site in 1981, or Nan Sdins, or Nunstints, is the anglicized place name derived by Europeans from the hereditary name of a renowned chief, Nañ stîns, “He who is two.” To the Haida, the place is Sga’ngwa.i Inaga’-i, or S’Gang Gwaay Llanagaay, or just Skungwai—Red Cod Island Town. Anthony Island shields Ninstints from the fierce storms that sweep in from the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.
Keel-runs, cleared for landings by the great dugout canoes, are still visible. Haida crews would travel thousands of miles by sea in these canoes—one crossed the Pacific Ocean in 1901. Their hull design later inspired that of fast clipper ships that raced tea from China to London.
Ninstints in 2002 (Photo by C. Baertsch)
On Ninstints, one can also still see the moss-covered ruins of the 17 great houses that once lined the beach, their cedar-planked front panels decorated with clan crests, lineages and indications of status. These were the Kunghit people and the Haida heraldry ranged from the chiefs who inherited the name Ninstints at the South end of the village to that at the North end, culminating with the great house of the famous chief Koyah, “Raven.” Koyah is infamous to English and American captains for leading resistance against European incursions, attacking visiting trading vessels on at least four occasions.
But it’s the astonishing artistic richness of the surviving totems, mostly memorial or mortuary poles, that point to the richness of Haida culture. Some poles were destroyed in a fire said to be set in the late 19th Century by the crew of a passing sealing schooner from northern Vancouver Island in retaliation for an ancient but never forgotten Haida raid upon the Kwakwaka’wakw on North Vancouver Island. Other poles were removed by museum collectors trying to salvage the legacy—sadly, seven of these were destroyed in a fire at Skidegate where they had been sent for restoration. Those remaining still resonate with artistic force.
About a dozen poles still stand at Ninstints, of global importance says UNESCO because they do more than memorialize important persons of the past; they now commemorate the living culture of the Haida and their relationship with the land and the sea since time immemorial. “What survives is unique in the world, a 19th-century Haida village where the ruins of houses and memorial or mortuary poles illustrate the power and artistry of Haida society…The art represented by the carved poles at SGang Gwaay LInagaay (Nan Sdins) is recognized to be among the finest examples of its type in the world.”
Traditional art forms on the Northwest Coast, inextricably entangled with social hierarchies, ceremonies and cosmologies, threatened the imported cosmologies of Christian missionaries and the imposition of new systems of law and governance imposed by colonial authorities. Family and tribal crests were looted as curios; ceremonial regalia was destroyed or appropriated and sold to museum collections. Ancient ceremonies themselves were outlawed and practitioners arrested and imprisoned. There was a systematic attempt by government to eradicate native languages. The last totem poles from that ancient Haida culture were carved and erected in villages at Skedans and Tanu in 1878.
If, as many art historians believe, Haida carving represents an apex of Northwest Coast artistic achievement and the work at Ninstints is the apex of the apex, the place also symbolizes the nadir of Haida fortunes. Once the seat of powerful chiefs, then a wealthy and important trading centre, it was later depopulated by lethal epidemics, its social organization wrecked by greed and violence. Ninstints was abandoned in the 1870s, then pillaged as a source of artifacts. Finally it was installed as an iconic historic site of global significance that celebrates the resurrection of Haida culture from the ashes of near-annihilation.
The fate of Ninstints had been cast about a century earlier, when first contact between an expanding European empire and the Haida civilization that had occupied its homeland since before the end of the last Ice Age, resulted in a collision that would ultimately have catastrophic consequences for both.
As with everything else in Haida Gwaii, that story is written in the wind and the waves.
1774: Spanish ship Santiago, checking up on Russians, meets the Haida
FOAM-STREAKED FROM THE 8,000-KILOMETRE REACH of wind-swept ocean behind them, the dark swells heave landward without cease. They break in a glistening fringe along the forbidding 400-kilometre wall of reefs, cliffs and craggy headlands that form the outer coast of a sea-churned archipelago of unpardonable beauty.
The more than 1,800 rain-washed, mist-draped reefs, islets and islands that comprise Haida Gwaii jut into the turbulent North Pacific about 650 kilometres northwest of the present boundary that separates Canada from the United States at Vancouver. Nutrient-rich upwellings from the cold abyss at the edge of the continental shelf on which the islands perch sustain one of the richest ecosystems on the planet. At Dolomite Narrows it’s said there is more life per square metre than anywhere else. One survey collected almost 15,000 different animals from 100 square metres of bottom. The waters surrounding what have been called the Galapagos of the North teem with fish, 200 species of seabirds, and sea mammals of astonishing variety—20 species of whales and porpoises, fur seals and Steller’s sea lions, massive beasts the size of a small car that slide through submarine kelp forests with fluid grace.
And these remote islands, today occupied by 0.1 percent of the province’s population but with more than 500 identified Haida heritage sites, are the historical epicentre of the socio-economic earthquake in which our British Columbia first took shape.
In geological terms, the archipelago—renamed in colonial times the Queen Charlotte Islands and then returned to their indigenous name by an act of the British Columbia legislature in 2010—mark a boundary where the huge Pacific plate slides northwest along North America. The friction generated as the billions of tonnes of rock in these two immense plates grind past one another along the Queen Charlotte fault create the phenomenon that engineers call stick-slip, a process of catch and release by two surfaces. The juddering that results makes this offshore region one of the world’s most unstable places, subject to constant shaking and occasionally to great earthquakes.
Two of Canada’s most powerful known temblors have occurred in this offshore zone. The most recent, in 1949, releasing almost twice as much energy as the 1906 event that destroyed much of San Francisco. And one in 1700 released more than 44 times the energy of that 1949 event. The resulting tsunami caused coastal destruction as far away as Japan.
In socio-economic terms Haida Gwaii, and in particular two specific places on the archipelago, are where British Columbia’s modern history began. And we know the precise date, right to the half-hour, the names of individuals, and the eye-witness accounts of the principals involved.
The first historic event was accompanied by the fitful rain squalls typical in those waters even for the high summer month of Sqaana gyaas, the killer whale month, so named because the sound of bark being stripped from giant red cedars during the seasonal round of manufacturing clothing, mats and baskets was thought similar to that made by whales blowing.
It was early afternoon on July 20, 1774 when a lookout from one of three adjacent Haida villages—Kkyuusta, Yaakkw or Dadens—glimpsed something utterly astonishing. Amid drifting patches of rain and fog just off Langara Island, its white wings flapping, swam a strange bird of supernatural proportions.
The villagers were fearful, an informant later told geologist George Mercer Dawson. Their world was inhabited at its fringes by supernatural beings—animals with the power to take human form and language, cannibal ogres, a sea grizzly in whose thick otter-like fur a ghost collected the souls of the drowned and kept them in bubbles. A stretch of sea to the East was known to be populated by deep water monsters which occasionally surfaced to claim entire canoes with their passengers. But their chief, though he later admitted to sharing the people’s apprehension, decided boldness was required of a leader, for the sake of his own sense of dignity as much as anything. He put on his finest ceremonial regalia and prepared to greet the unknown.
The name of the first person in what is now British Columbia to lay eyes on the fateful appearance of European colonizers off its shores—that Haida lookout—is lost to history. The name of the chief who bravely launched his canoe to investigate the apparition perhaps not. He probably owned the name Blakow-Coneehaw, a corruption of Gunia, a powerful chief whose influence extended to all three villages. The syllables of his name were first mangled in the mouth of a Scottish sea captain who visited 15 years after the momentous first encounter and then, again, during the attempt to render into English text the Haida words for which no orthography yet existed.
In any event, in 1774 the chief had waited for slack tide. He launched his great canoe around 3 pm crewed by seven paddlers and a boy. It took about 90 minutes to reach the monstrous bird. When they were about 300 metres away, he greeted it, singing a welcome song, scattering eagle down on the water and extending his arms wide and then crossing them on his chest to signify peaceful intent.
As the canoe drew closer, the chief and his paddlers saw and heard what they first thought were bird people, unintelligible cries coming from dark shapes that resembled cormorants perched on the rocks. They were keen observers. Preserved in the oral tradition is what they perceived to be the peculiar behaviour of what they now determined were human strangers: one would speak and the others would suddenly scurry up into a basket of ropes until he spoke again and they would all clamber back down.
The great bird was the Spanish ship Santiago, a 200-tonne frigate on a top-secret mission from the naval base at San Blas, Mexico, a 5,000-kilometre sail to the South. The mission’s commander, Ensign Juan José Perez Hernandez, a native of the island of Majorca and considered the most able and experienced pilot in the San Blas naval department, had been sent to investigate intelligence reports leaking from St Petersburg about Russian expansion far to the north of Spanish-claimed territory.
Juan José Perez Hernandez
Beyond California, North America’s west coast was an unknown. The English pirate Sir Francis Drake had journeyed north while escaping with bullion and booty from raiding the South American and Mexican coasts in 1579. Another Spanish expedition in search of a northwest passage to the Atlantic was thought by some—and disputed by others—to have reached the South end of Vancouver Island and the strait later named for its pilot, Juan de Fuca, in 1592. But for Perez, the charts were blank and the coastline and its currents, prevailing weather and maritime dangers a mystery. He’d set sail from San Blas with the ebbing tide at midnight on January 25, 1774, with a complement of 84. Armament included six cannons, 500 cannon balls and 36 muskets with bayonets. In an age before electricity and on-board freezers, provisions included a tonne-and-a-half of dried fish, five tonnes of beef jerky and 15 tonnes of hardtack.
The curious activities of the bird creatures observed by the Haida party that made first contact were the attempts by Perez to trim sails to account for the quartering, highly changeable winds that had been bedevilling him for the three days since he’d steered an eastward course in search of land after one of his crew had seen giant kelp. The Santiago’s lookout had actually sighted the coastline the day before and the ship had ventured closer but the wind had picked up sharply, the sky to the Southeast had suddenly darkened and the captain had prudently shortened sail, headed back to open water and hove-to 12 leagues off shore—about 60 kilometres—for the night.
On July 19 at 4:30 pm, somewhere just west of Langara Island and fairly close inshore, the Spanish captain’s diary records first contact with the native inhabitants of what less than a century later would become British Columbia and Canada’s westernmost province.
The canoe came alongside. It was big, befitting the stature of its chief, and almost half the length of the Santiago. The Spanish were impressed by its speed and the skill of the paddlers. Perez had specific instructions from the viceroy in Mexico not to interfere with, or harm or engage in commercial trade—although ceremonial exchanges of gifts would be all right—with any native peoples he encountered. He did plan to land, erect the massive wooden cross the ship’s carpenters had constructed, and claim the territory for the Spanish empire. When it became clear that the encounter was friendly, two more canoes approached.
“The men were of good stature, well-formed, a smiling face, beautiful eyes and good looking,” Perez wrote in his expedition diary. “Their hair was tied up and arranged in the manner of a wig with a tail. Some wore it tied in the back and had beards and mustaches in the manner of the Chinese people.”
The next day, unable to make headway against the strong current out of the East, Perez stood off Langara Island. This time, 21 canoes came out, two of them filled with women with babies at the breast and older children. All were led by an older man whom the Spanish commander likened to “a king or a captain.” They began exchanging sea otter, wolf and bear pelts and blankets “beautifully woven and made, according to what I saw, on a loom,” for items of European clothing, glass beads, an axe and some knives. Two came aboard the ship and he made gifts of bread and cheese.
“They were all good-looking, white and fair,” Perez reported. “Most of them have blue eyes.” He also noted that the Haida had in their canoe a half a bayonet and a broken sword but before he could explore the origins—were they Russian items traded down from the North, or had they been traded north from Spanish territory?—weather conditions abruptly changed. The canoes quickly made for shore, the Haida singing and apparently happy with the exchange of goods.
“It was afternoon and everyone was cheerful,” his diary says. “But less so, I, who wanted to anchor but was unable to get help from the wind. It made me ill-tempered, and even more so seeing that without a wind the furious flow of the current was separating me from the coast.”
A freshening off-shore wind, the inconstancy and confusion of the weather and supplies dwindling—Perez calculated that even on half rations he’d have barely enough water for the return voyage—compelled him to “submit to the will of God,” and he bore away to the South.
Neither Perez nor Gunia could know it, but the aftershocks of their encounter would be profound. A century later, the Haida people would be teetering at the brink of extinction, their culture in tatters and the globe-straddling Spanish empire would be banished from the western hemisphere, reduced to a few shrunken colonial holdings in Asia and Africa.
Sailing south, and hoping to replenish his water barrels, Perez turned landward again having spotted a dazzling, snow covered peak—likely Vancouver Island’s highest mountain, Golden Hinde—and on August 8, having passed through a fog so dense visibility was less than the length of his ship, dropped anchor near the entrance to a sheltered opening in the coast line. He named it Surgidero de San Lorenzo but it would later be named Nootka.
About 3 pm, Perez recounts, canoes began coming out. At first three canoes carrying nine men, then eventually five canoes. But they remained at a distance and would not come close. As had the Haida at Kkyuusta, the Nuu-chah-nulth viewed the Santiago with great trepidation. Years later, José Mariano Moziño reported that elders told him that when they first observed the Spanish ship, they concluded it was the great copper canoe of a supernatural being named Qua-utz who was part of their creation mythology and who had returned to punish them for bad behaviour. That story of first contact was later corroborated by Joseph Ingraham, captain of an American ship who left a remarkably observant account of his time among the Nuu-chah-nulth. Some took refuge in the bush, others retreated into their long houses, but a few took canoes out to confront the threat.
The next day, however, when the crew of the Santiago made it clear their intentions were peaceful, 15 canoes came alongside. They traded sea otter pelts and cedar hats for knives, cloth and large abalone shells from California. Several Nuu-chah-nulth men came aboard. One of them managed to pocket several spoons belonging to Martinez which the English noted as evidence of a Spanish presence when they reached Nootka Sound four years later.
Then, with the weather turning for the worse, Perez weighed anchor and with sails reefed and turbulent seas set course for San Blas. He would never return. The following year, on a second expedition to the North, he died at sea. But one of those vessels, the Sonora, a small 14-metre schooner commanded by a young naval lieutenant, Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, explored and mapped the coast to what’s now southeast Alaska. He, too, would play a key role in the shaping of BC’s history.
After Captain Cook’s 1778 visit, a rapacious fur trade and disease transform history
ON MARCH 29, 1778, A WEEK AFTER uncharacteristically missing the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in severe weather—winds were gusting to 50 kilometres an hour—Britain’s greatest maritime explorer, Captain James Cook, found his way to the same narrow opening in the coastline that Perez had found four years before. But the English sailor, blessed with more congenial weather, sailed through into sheltered waters.
Cook, like Perez, was on a secret mission. His orders were to seek a Northwest Passage between the Pacific and the Atlantic. His ship, Resolution, was accompanied by Discovery, among whose crew was a midshipman named George Vancouver who would also play a key role in BC’s future. This was Cook’s third great scientific mission and his officers and crew were shrewd and astute observers. Their accounts of the flora, the fauna, and Nuu-chah-nulth culture and society remain among the most valuable records of initial contact.
As had the crew of Perez, Cook’s men traded with the Nuu-chah-nulth, who were shrewd and adept. The English had to pay for wood, water and even grass for the ships’ goats. John Weber, when he stopped to sketch figures in a long house, had to buy sketching time with brass buttons from his coat until he exhausted his supply. Metal items, the English traders discovered, were most in demand, in particular bits of iron, tools, utensils and weapons. These they traded for luxuriant sea otter pelts, carvings and art. Cook, himself, exchanged a broad sword with a brass hilt for a fur cloak worn by a leader that scholars now believe must have been Maquinna, the powerful whaling chief.
Cook sailed away after a month of refitting, impatient to continue the mission that would take him to the Aleutian Islands and end a year later with his death on a beach during an altercation with Hawaiian islanders. But these two trade items, iron and furs, would utterly transform the social, cultural and political landscape of what’s now BC.
When the two ships of the Cook expedition stopped in China to take on provisions for the final journey back to Britain, the crew found an astonishing demand among wealthy Chinese officials and aristocrats for the sea otter pelts they’d been using for bedding and clothing. James King, who had become captain of Discovery after Cook’s death and had inherited the furs obtained by both Cook and his successor in command, Charles Clerke, who had died at sea, sold 20 pelts in Canton for $800. Some crew members made even greater profits. In all, they sold their sea otter skins for an amount that, converted into current dollars, would exceed $300,000. For an outlay of about 12-pence, an investor might reap a return of 1,800 percent, or the equivalent of close to $15,000. When Cook’s official report was finally published in the September, 1784, a fur stampede began. Less than a year later, the first trading mission, commanded by Captain James Hanna, had been outfitted and set sail from Macao, China.
Within five years, more than a dozen trading vessels had visited Nootka and more than 170 expeditions, dominated by flinty New England captains, had sailed to a Northwest Coast that only a decade before had seemed as remote as the moon. The fur trade was rapacious. More than 120 ships took almost a million sea otter pelts from the Aleutian Islands alone by 1808. A century later, sea otters were so scarce they were thought extinct. And so, almost, were the Haida.
Captain Cook had not discovered a “new” world, he had opened a portal between worlds, both of them as old as time. Wealth, prestige and power flooded through in both directions. For the Europeans it was the soft gold of the fur trade; for the Haida and the Nuu-chah-nulth it was technological transfer—as iron implements entered a metal-poor economy, they set off an enormous cultural explosion in carving, canoe and long-house building. Guns altered ancient balances of power. Chiefs attained wealth and status that would have been unimaginable to their fathers—Maquinna had distributed 100 muskets, 400 yards of cloth, 100 mirrors and 20 kegs of gunpowder at a single potlatch in 1803—only to have it later slip away from them. Easy wealth meant more chiefs and it shattered the economic advantage of hereditary dynasties. Inter-clan and inter-tribal violence proliferated. And the newcomers created new markets—Haida artists became the first on the coast to commercialize their art, crafting stunning carvings of traditional imagery and mythological motifs from a soft, black stone called argillite specifically for sale to visiting sailors.
But more came through the portal than wealth and the attendant perils of wealth. So did a portfolio of viruses that indigenous immune systems had never encountered. The first to arrive was smallpox. How it came remains unclear—perhaps with Russians from Kamchatka, perhaps with the Spanish from Mexico, perhaps with some indigenous carrier travelling north. Certainly, a vast and lethal epidemic was already sweeping through the Great Plains and lapping up against the Rocky Mountains in what some have described as the greatest demographic catastrophe in human experience.
The Northwest Coast smallpox epidemic of 1862 is the one most embedded in the popular imagination. But that’s because it was most visible to European colonizers. In fact, it had been preceded by a whole suite of equally apocalyptic disease events. Measles, malaria, influenza and other unidentified diseases followed one after another. Robert Boyd, who made a lifetime study of introduced diseases and their demographic impact on the Northwest Coast, calculated pre-contact population by working backward using mortality statistics. He estimates an indigenous population of almost 190,000 in 1770. By the time British Columbia had emerged as a political entity and entered confederation that population had declined by more than 80 percent and would not reach its nadir until 1900.
Smallpox ravaged the North coast in 1775. Subsequent 18th-Century fur traders reported deserted villages of collapsing houses strewn with bones. Nathaniel Portlock, who had been with Cook at Nootka and returned to trade for sea otter pelts in 1789, cited depopulated villages and one scarred survivor who had his arm tattooed with marks for each of his children whom had perished—there were 10. In 1795, Charles Bishop said a Haida chief told him two-thirds of the population had died. The Haida estimate their pre-contact population to be as high as 20,000; scholarly estimates are 10,000 to 12,000. What’s not in dispute is that by 1900 there were fewer than 600.
Some time in the late 18th Century, disheartened by the impacts of smallpox and the disruptions of the sea otter trade and its destabilizing influx of wealth, Gunia abandoned Kkyuusta for islands to the North in what’s now the Alaska Panhandle. His people followed him.
At Ninstints, the Eagle and Raven families were gone from Red Cod Town by 1874.
The 17 great houses on the terrace above the beach collapsed back into the soil, the raised mortuary boxes of once great chiefs crumbled and spilled their bones, totem poles tilted and fell to be swallowed by the underbrush. It became a place of ghosts at the fringes of collective memory, although not Haida memory—or Kwakwaka’wakw—until a century later when it would be reborn, a global revenant from the richness of Haida culture, a reminder to everyone that although our stories are now inextricably braided, it’s in our first cultures that British Columbia was actually born.
Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers. The author of nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays, he lives on the Saanich Peninsula.