The Great Darkening will attend the Comox Valley book fair, May 4. We also will make a presentation of “Smallpox at Victoria.”
This provides an occasion to ask what role the 1862 smallpox epidemics played in the transition from indigenous sovereignty to colonial rule at “Comox,” often translated as “Place of Plenty.”
Canadian academics commonly teach that European diseases swept North America ahead of settlement, leaving an empty wilderness to be occupied innocently by settlers. This is not what happened at Comox or throughout British Columbia. Before 1862, as below, knowledgeable people described Pacific Shelf natives as numerous and that their “powerful” regimes controlled their own space. Then many died, and the survivors lost control, suddenly. How did it happen?
Where possible, we start with the local tradition. The Comox Argus of Jan 6, 1931 reported these story elements as received from the wife of George Mitchell, “the first settler.”
Smallpox (in 1862) reduced native communities from hundreds strong to the scattered remnants that now live up and down the coast. Canoes full of dead and dying Indians came to the Indian village at the mouth of the Courtney River. An excessive desire for wealth or possessions was their undoing. Comox natives became infected when they despoiled the dead of their bracelets. In a few weeks, this prosperous village was a graveyard. Native communities in this area, once powerful and numerous, have never recovered.
This settler tradition blames Comox natives for their own demise. In an apparent example of mirroring (seeing one’s own faults in the behavior of others), it re-interprets the cultural virtue of saving valuable items from waste as the sin of greed. Ironically, Mitchell’s wallet has been preserved at the B.C. Archives.
These canoes “full of dead and dying Indians” originated in Victoria. So this story actually has its main root there and not in native culture, except as settlers may have knowingly taken advantage.
In March 1862, Governor James Douglas’ primary constituency, Hudson’s Bay Company associates turned land speculators, and some business colleagues of Attorney General George Cary introduced smallpox at Victoria in the first instance. The evidence for this is explored at length in “The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific,” available at www.shawnswanky.com, Amazon or Barnes and Noble.
By late April, the disease had become established among a few of the 2500-3000 northern natives living at Victoria, making some 20 to 30 its victims. Douglas then expelled the northerners in four waves at two-week intervals. Most were Tsimshian, Haida, Heiltsuk or Tahltan; all these would have passed Comox.
While expelling the northerners, colonial officials repeatedly forced sick and healthy natives together into canoes under the threat of police violence. They did not offer quarantine or vaccine, neither for healthy natives in the canoes nor for those in the home territories.
Every observer believed it was certain that this policy would kill many in the canoes; many along the way as natives salvaged items from victims put ashore in desperation to stop the disease in the canoes; and many in the home territories.
In other words, the Douglas Administration deployed smallpox to inflict conditions of life calculated to kill these natives and all those in their path. Indeed, tens of thousands caught the disease and died as the direct result of this ethnic cleansing policy, including those at Comox.
On two occasions, the first expulsion of May 1 and that of June 11, colonial gunboats accompanied the disease-laden canoes past Comox. If these were the local disease source, then its arrival here was not by chance at all: the dead and dying were deposited under the supervision of colonial officials. Since settlers were sure to desire a “Place of Plenty,” villages here very well may have been targeted. Is there other evidence supporting such an inference?
The earliest that disease laden canoes could have arrived at Comox in 1862 was after the Victoria expulsion of May 1. These would have passed the Comox Valley about May 5-8, with a gunboat escort. The World Health Organization says smallpox epidemics develop slowly. At Ft. Simpson, where these same canoes arrived May 17, the HBC manager reported the first local deaths June 11 and the dying peaked only in mid-July. So, if the disease reached Comox in early May, then the dying did not peak until late June.
Yet the first settlers, including George Mitchell as shown by this excerpt from the colonial pre-emption records, filed their claims already on June 3.
So the first settlers claimed the land under colonial rules just as the bulk of its native residents began dying, certainly before they were dead. In the legal fiction of official colonial propaganda, settlers could claim only vacant land. This land was not vacant. Nor, it should go without saying, do survivors lose any rightful inheritance only because their antecedents died from an epidemic disease; nor, for that matter, from mass murder.
In the best-case scenario, this was only an opportunistic exercise. The full reality seems worse. All these claimants were Hudson’s Bay Company associates turned land speculators. They surveyed this land at Comox in summer 1861, (See the British Colonist for June 1 and Sept. 13, 1861.) This was months before smallpox arrived but during the period when it would have been under contemplation.
Except for Mitchell, none established any residency here. It seems revealing, rather than coincidence, that they delayed registering their claims until it was certain smallpox would transform the space so that it could be treated as if it had been vacant. Registration then became urgent to establish ownership before flipping control to some farmers a few months later.
As HBC associates, these men may have had inside knowledge that the Comox village precincts could be emptied by smallpox and that the Governor afterward would underwrite the dispossession of any survivors with threats of conventional violence. This scenario seems more likely as another settler shared just such inside knowledge with a community at Alert Bay, north of Comox, to save it instead.
In any scenario, what would the native survivors have been justified in thinking? They soon would have learned that it was colonial officials who caused the disease to spread from Victoria, expecting it to kill them. Specifically or generally targeted, the legal and moral result is the same: they were victims of the Douglas Administration creating conditions of life calculated to bring about their destruction, allowing settlers to take control without negotiating treaties or paying compensation.
George Mitchell’s fate also seems instructive. Mitchell claimed the most valuable commercial site at the river’s mouth, nearest the location for a boat landing. In March 1864, survivors attacked him. They seized blankets and clothing from his house. This seems lawfully claiming reparations under native law, not theft or plunder. Since Douglas failed even to attempt consensual constitutional change, natives had no reason to believe anything but that their law was still the law of the land. As, indeed, many still believe, given Canada’s ongoing failure to repair and heal the Douglas Administration’s genocidal legacy.
Mitchell may have attracted special attention as one of the first speculators, and may have been accused of having brought the disease to kill them for their land, or by displacing survivors whose land he had taken. Mitchell had served on the HBC’s ship Beaver, passing here countless times. He knew perfectly well that natives occupied this land but he also would have appreciated that this context provided a golden opportunity to start a business and serve any growing settler community.
At some point, Mitchell seems to have taken a native wife (the newspapers said, “he kept a squaw.”) Since native “land use” privileges typically attached to the maternal line, this may have been a “gateway” marriage to make peace by legalizing his position under native rules.
Then, in October 1867, Mitchell tried to evict this woman’s brother who had come to live with them. By custom, it would have been the wife’s prerogative to invite her brother in and not Mitchell’s right to evict him. While intoxicated, Mitchell shot at the brother three times. Wounded, the brother feigned his death until he could grab the gun. He then shot Mitchell with his own weapon.
While these facts suggest self-defense even under English law, a coroner’s jury said Mitchell had died from “willful murder.” Apparently fearing retaliation after any trial and execution on these facts, the coroner hastily convened a second jury. It said Mitchell had died from “natural causes”!! (See British Colonist for Oct. 28, 1867.) Setters would never concede, not ever, that a native might have been justified in killing one of their number…not under either English or native law.
Under the headline “The (Latest) Murder on the East Coast” the British Colonist observed,
The East Coast [of Vancouver Island] beats all other parts of the Colony (for) death by violence; yet, strange to say, the crime is seldom, if ever, brought home to anyone…There is something wrong in the management of affairs on that coast.
The Douglas Administration’s choice of ethnic cleansing in place of lawful means to extend British institutions where colonial authority was thin on the ground created this chaos: dramatically weakened and traumatized native communities with every right to believe that their laws still applied were forced to live beside a range of arrogant or ignorant settlers enjoying the fruits of something for nothing under their laws.
The harm of that choice, and the new harm perpetrated by those who still choose to defend it, is reflected today in every issue touching native life, in B.C. native/settler relations and in natural resource allocation.
In a timely example, as the Tsilhqot’in title case advances to Canada’s Supreme Court, Canada hopes for a precedent that constitutional aboriginal rights apply only to small parcels and not to whole national territories. This would cruelly dishonour those who died in this ethnic cleansing exercise on space now occupied by large settler communities, such as the Comox Valley, and the survivors rudely dispossessed of their land and sovereign control.
Seeking the precedent also dishonours the descendants of those survivors who hope for post-colonial good faith from Canada’s system of jurisprudence.