Colonialism little begins on paper. It begins only when dispossession, expulsion and oppression become underway on the ground as the new political entity puts itself to the test of deposing the existing regimes, seizing power and redistributing resources. In this sense, it could be said that British Columbia came into being April 28-30, 1862.
The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific, shows the evidence that Victoria land speculators behind the Bentinck Arm Road deliberately imported smallpox to the British Pacific colonies on March 12, 1862. They did so expecting to introduce the disease later along this prospective route for a transcontinental road, securing the right of way and strategic locations from displaced natives especially the Nuxalk and Tsilhqot’in. These speculators expected to re-purpose Bella Coola as New Aberdeen, a harbour city to be developed at the Pacific outfall of the Northwest Passage by land, and to have Victoria designated as the port of entry for all shipping. They were led by George Cary, Premier of the Colony of Vancouver Island who was also its attorney-general and Governor Douglas’ formal legal adviser. Douglas licensed Ranald McDonald, a member of his inner circle of H.B.C. intimates, to create this toll road without treaties and without even consulting the B.C. Commissioner for Lands. McDonald, Cary, Cary’s friend Edward Green, and road contractor William Hood, expected fortunes from tolls on all inland freight, especially to the Cariboo mines. And they expected Victoria real estate to soar in value. This was colonialism at its core: taking control of native capital assets for little cost and then, at the expense of the indigenous people, profiteering from their true value in the European economy.
Between March 12 and April 28, 1862 the disease advanced only very slowly at Victoria. Observers said it was confined to the Tsimshian People then resident there. Near the end of April only some 20 to 30 were described as dead or dying from a Tsimshian population of more than 1000. The Tsimshian visiting Victoria especially occupied two sites, one on land behind a Songhees village (the local indigenous people) across a small inlet, on what settlers called “The Reserve,” and one just north of the town near Rock Bay on land nominally “owned” by settlers.
At the end of April everything changed. Using the pretext of disease control, with a gun boat brought to the harbour for intimidation, colonial officials expelled all natives from Victoria at police gunpoint: diseased or not, Tsimshian or not. To Europeans, “nativeness” suddenly had become officially synonymous with harbouing an inherent source of both physical and spiritual disease. Native dwellings were destroyed so they could not be reoccupied.
Daily Chronicle, April 29:
(T)he Commissioner of Police…has taken immediate steps for the removal of all the Indians in town, with the exception of those in the employment of whites. The Tsimshian have one day to leave this portion of the island and a gun boat will take up a position…to expedite their departure. Sergeant Blake will have a force necessary to carry out the plans of the authourities… Men will be stationed at the bridge and other main entrances to the town to prevent any Indians entering. This extreme step has been taken none too soon… (B)oth yesterday and today several Tsimshian came into town with their baggage…and established themselves in houses.
British Colonist, April 29:
Last evening orders were issued by the Commissioner of Police to his officers to prevent the entrance of Indians into the town, and the Chimseans were given one day in which to leave the limits of the town, with their sick. One of the gunboats will assist in the enforcement of these orders.
This police action put many diseased Tsimshian on the move and it increased the chance of other natives coming in contact with an infected person. Then, colonial officials saw the Tsimshian dwellings at Rock Bay burned. This put more diseased Tsimshian on the move and exposed even more healthy bodies to infected bodies. Notice that, until then, both newspapers reported the belief of neutral observers that the disease seemed confined and controllable.
Daily Chronicle, April 30:
As soon as the bustle occasioned by the steamers is past, an additional force of officers will be mustered and the routing out commence. The Tsimshian are still in camp and the disease does not appear to be spreading.
British Colonist, April 30:
All Indians within the limits of the town, who do not live with whites, have been notified to leave for the Reserve or the huts occupied by them will be pulled down about their ears. The gunboat Grappler arrived in the harbor last evening to be on hand in case of any resistance on the part of the Indians to the enforcement of the Police orders.
Colonial officials at Victoria were well-versed in smallpox control. It is inconceivable that they did not know that these were the last things one would do for disease control but the first things one would do to increase the disease. Quarantine the sick and vaccinate the healthy by then were the standard control measures everywhere. But colonial officials declined to quarantine the sick. Doctors vaccinated Europeans by the hundreds. The disease hardly affected the European population at all. Smallpox wards at pubic hospitals would sit vacant while natives died on the streets outside by the hundreds as the settler community withheld knowledge, medicine and nursing care. In locations where European missionaries vaccinated natives in good faith, these programs were effective. However, all known supposed “vaccination” programs carried out by government doctors or by HBC officials failed and the natives died anyway. Including at Victoria.
Daily Chronicle, May 1:
The Tsimshian burnt their houses and blankets and other possessions yesterday without compulsion from the police and left this morning in their canoes. Only three huts remain standing in which are those of the tribe who have remained as nurses. Numbers of Stikine and Haida also left…and those that remain moved their huts to a greater distance from the Tsimshian. No case of smallpox has hitherto broken out among the other tribes, the disease having confined itself to the Tsimshian…
British Colonist, May 1:
Most of the Songish and Chimseans left yesterday for one of the islands. The camp of the latter was fired in the afternoon and every vestige destroyed. On Tuesday evening the police tore down several huts occupied by the Indians and situated in the ravine and on Humboldt street, and compelled the occupants to leave for the Reserve. We heard of no new cases of smallpox nor deaths yesterday.
The disease accompanied the expelled Tsimshian in their canoes. Accompanied also by a British navy ship, diseased members were put ashore along the east coast of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. Almost every observer said it was foreseeable that this would create new epidemics when other unsuspecting natives made contact or salvaged clothing, blankets or other goods. These Tsimshian arrived in their home territory May 17. The HBC manager at Ft. Simpson wrote,
May 17. Four or five canoes arrived from Victoria…some of their party died on the way here…some of the canoes had but two people well enough to paddle. May 18. A canoe arrived from Victoria with letters from the “Bishop” who wrote that smallpox is raging among the Indians, mostly Tsimshian, and that 30 had died. A number died on the way to this place, One canoe was abandoned with all that was in her. We may expect soon to hear of many deaths at this place…
This result showed how effective the police action had been at spreading the disease while there still had been time and opportunity to stop it, had that been the true official intention. After this expulsion, the disease incidence exploded among the 2500 northern natives visiting Victoria to strike every community.
Nor did Colonial officials stop there. They repeated this action with new expulsion programs at two week intervals, eventually burning every major village occupied by the northerners in the Victoria area and expelling every visiting northern community. This interval also seems significant. Two weeks is just the right periodicity for those newly infected to then become infectious in their turn and spread the disease again as new carriers. This guaranteed that after each police action more sick were put on the move to contact healthy natives: on the ground, in the canoes, along the beaches or in the home territories.
In this way, and by additional means not mentioned here, Colonial officials in British Columbia used smallpox in 1862 to create conditions of life calculated to kill the indigenous population in large numbers. This depopulation allowed settlers to seize land that was made vacant or where the survivors had been too traumatized and demoralized to resist their displacement. It also allowed the imposition of English law and British political institutions with little violent indigenous resistance.
Before April 1862, the indigenous population of what became British Columbia had no reason to think that its relationship with settlers would be any different from its experience trading with the HBC. Depopulation by smallpox, (100,000 natives may have died in about one year,) destroyed the initial evolving balance of power between the more numerous natives and the more technologically efficient settlers.
Then, during the smallpox period and taking advantage of it, colonial officials sent conventional military expeditions against the reeling Tsimshian, Cowichan and Tsilhqot’in to impose the new regime and to make examples of punishing the indigenous Peoples for continuing to implement their own laws. So it was that the institution of colonialism…with its typical dispossession, displacement, subjugation and oppression…came to British Columbia without treaties or land negotiations after the “ethnic cleansing” beginning April 28-30, 1862.