Martyrdom of “The Chilcotin Chiefs” by the Colony of British Columbia
© Dragon Heart, 2015. All rights reserved.
On Oct. 26, 1864, British Columbia hanged five Tsilhqot’in public officials. A mostly native crowd of 250 came to bear witness. This was one of the largest mass executions in Canadian history.
ShawnSwanky.com is pleased to unveil here a dramatic and detailed artistic rendering of the hanging, the first of its kind. This picture incorporates every known fact about the hanging, except that the crowd was twice as big as can be shown from this perspective. It is one part of the very unique artwork being created for the documentary film, The Great Darkening.
Why is the hanging of “The Chilcotin Chiefs” so important in the history of indigenous/settler relations on the Pacific shelf? As the Premier has now acknowledged, settlers intentionally spread smallpox to create massive artificial epidemics in Tsilhqot’in territory during 1862.
In the sudden catastrophe flowing from these artificial epidemics, 70% or more of all the Tsilhqot’in died in a year or less. Some other indigenous Peoples in B.C. suffered similar death tolls.
In the face of this carnage, the Tsilhqot’in held a war council, killed up to 20 settlers implicated in smallpox distribution schemes and closed their territory.
B.C. then invaded Tsilhqot’in territory with two settler militias. Unable to find the war party, agents for the Crown invited Tsilhqot’in representatives to a peace conference. The Colony violated the conditions of the conference to ambush the Tsilhqot’in and five, including the “Head War Chief” were put through show trials and executed.
Learn who’s who in this portrayal of the hanging of the Chilcotin Chiefs. Click to expand.
On the 150th anniversary of this hanging, the Premier expressed B.C.’s “profound sorrow” for this execution of officials who had done no more than seek to protect their People from genocide through the continued intentional introduction of smallpox.
Because of its prominent place in the smallpox story, the martyrdom of “The Chilcotin Chiefs” is a critical episode in “The Great Darkening,” our documentary film about the artificial epidemics created in B.C. during 1862/63.
The original plan for the documentary was to use archival photographs and paintings to bring the early 1860s to life, following in the footsteps of American filmmaker Ken Burns.
Yet there are almost no photographs or paintings from this period in B.C. history. And there are especially none of native suffering in any form.
If the film was to have good visuals, I would have to make them. But how and in what style? Staged recreations with actors are a very inefficient and costly means of conveying comparatively little information, especially with such a large event as this.
Inspired by Harper’s Weekly wood engravings
I began pouring over artwork from the 1860s to familiarize myself with the styles of the period, which I assumed would be diverse. Instead, I learned that most images were wood engravings.
This Harper’s Weekly engraving was published on October 22, 1864 – four days before the hanging.
Wood engravings produce dramatic black and white images when they are rolled with ink and pressed on paper. The impression of varying shades of grey is created by manipulating the width and proximity of parallel lines.
The use of wood engravings exploded in the mid-1800s due to innovations in printing that allowed engraved blocks to be set with the type and mass produced.
Publications like Harper’s Weekly, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News and the London Illustrated News suddenly emerged and developed a visual approach to reporting the news that was both factual and dramatic.
So, what would the story of the 1862/63 B.C. smallpox epidemics have looked like if it had been reported by Harper’s Weekly, the most prominent news media of that time? And what would a movie be like if these wood engravings were animated and the camera could move through them?
The artwork of the hanging is the first image I have created in this style.
Public showings and prints planned
The artwork for the documentary will eventually include many scenes in this style depicting key events in the smallpox catastrophe initiated by the actions of settlers in 1862/63.
Before now, none of these events has been rendered in any representation and these will constitute a unique record of this dramatic period in Canadian history.
Eventually, we plan to hold public showings, and to sell prints, all to raise funds for “The Great Darkening.”
If you have friends who are interested in Canadian or indigenous history, please feel free to share this information. To stay informed about public showings and the availability of prints, please join our newsletter.