Improve your understanding about one of the greatest human tragedies in Canadian history. A tragedy with profound political and economic consequences still being felt today.

Part of the materials prepared for a documentary film about the B.C. smallpox epidemics of 1862/63, this script succinctly presents much of the key evidence concerning the allegations of native Elders that settlers intentionally spread smallpox to kill them for their land.

Synopsis

Based on survivor accounts, native elders from across British Columbia have long taught that the devastating smallpox epidemics that swept B.C. in 1862/63 were artificially created. Natives died by the tens of thousands in only one year. Several native nations lost more than 70 percent of their whole number.

Natives believed that the settler community under Gov. James Douglas intended to kill them in order to impose British institutions without treaties and to seize control of their resources without paying.

This period closed with B.C. martyring the Tsilhqot’in Chiefs at a mass hanging in 1864. The Tsilhqot’in had confronted settlers found spreading smallpox and executed some under their laws. They also had killed 14 settlers to prevent the introduction of smallpox at Bute Inlet.

In The Great Darkening, preparing for a documentary, Shawn Swanky has created a dramatic narrative from archival records and local traditions that allow the audience to hear the Tsilhqot’in War Leader, settlers, officials and newspapers describe in their own words what happened.

Voices appearing in the script.

Primary Narrator:

Provides contextual information and moves the story along.

Native Voice:

Provides background from a native perspective and balances the Primary Narrator to keep in the forefront that this presentation represents an integration of knowledge derived from both native and settler sources.

Colonial Newspaper:

One voice represents all newspapers. Newspapers then were excessively wordy. Some stories have been edited or paraphrased while keeping the sense; some archaic words are updated.

Colonial Official:

One voice is used for all colonial officials.

Settler’s Voice:

Presents settlers in their own voice. Instead of introducing several speakers who may appear just once, only one voice is used.

Tsilhqot’in War Leader:

These speeches are created from various direct sources.

Native Elder:

Presents oral traditions.

Primary Narrator:

Provides contextual information and moves the story along.

Native Voice:

Provides background from a native perspective and balances the Primary Narrator to keep in the forefront that this presentation represents an integration of knowledge derived from both native and settler sources.

Colonial Newspaper:

One voice represents all newspapers. Newspapers then were excessively wordy. Some stories have been edited or paraphrased while keeping the sense; some archaic words are updated.

Colonial Official:

One voice is used for all colonial officials.

Settler’s Voice:

Presents settlers in their own voice. Instead of introducing several speakers who may appear just once, only one voice is used.

Tsilhqot’in War Leader:

These speeches are created from various direct sources.

Native Elder:

Presents oral traditions.

Preview

Primary Narrator:

The World Health Organization says smallpox epidemics develop slowly. After the first person in a community becomes infected, it might be ten days before that person can begin passing the disease to others. Typically, it would take many weeks…a few months even…before the dying would peak.

At Fort Simpson, where the HBC manager documented the disease closely and where, after its initial introduction, its progress seemed unaided, the community did not begin dying in any number until after more than six weeks. Multiple observers put the whole death toll at only about 30 percent.

The experience at targeted communities in the Tsilhqot’in and elsewhere was staggeringly different. Most victims died all at once near the very beginning of an outbreak, often in less than four weeks, and the kill rate frequently exceeded 90 percent.

Bella Coola provides a well-documented example of a targeted community. There can be no doubt about how smallpox arrived at Bella Coola. Survivors said that settlers introduced the disease. We have already heard Alfred Waddington say the same thing. Moreover, in his memoir, Francis Poole twice said it was his party that introduced smallpox at Bella Coola.

Settler’s Voice:

Smallpox had carried off hundreds of Indians since my first visit to Bella Coola; and, as the party I then headed was the unfortunate means of introducing the fell disease among them, I began to fear lest the natives should oppose my landing there a second time. However, they did not.

It was my misfortune to carry the plague to the tribes along the North and South Bentinck Arms.

Primary Narrator:

Poole first arrived at Bella Coola about June 9 so we know with certainty when his party introduced the disease. An observer confirmed that Bella Coola was disease free when Poole arrived:

Colonial Newspaper:

Captain Osgood had a report to June 10. Nothing of interest had transpired at Bella Coola. The smallpox had not yet got among the Indians there.

Primary Narrator:

22 days later the scene could not have been more different.

On July 2, William Hood arrived with a journalist and two government officials: Lt. Henry Palmer of the Royal Engineers and Colonel George Foster of the Vancouver Island Assembly and commander of the settlers’ militia. The journalist reported:

Colonial Newspaper:

(W)e camped near the Bella Coola lodges where the smallpox was raging fearfully, the Indians (were) lying about in all directions dead and dying.

Primary Narrator:

In an official publication, and again in a letter to his commanding officer, Lt. Palmer reported:

Colonial Official:

During my stay this disease, which had only just broken out when I arrived, spread so rapidly that, within a week, nearly all the healthy had vacated the lodges.

The sick were dying and rotting away by the score. (I)t is no uncommon occurrence to come across dead bodies lying in the bush.

Primary Narrator:

Since there had not yet been time for native intermediaries to advance the disease, it seems the rapid spreading reported by Palmer was all the result of the introduction activities of Poole’s party. William Hood reported all the natives at Bella Coola as either being dead or having fled. The space had become vacant.
According to Bishop George Hills’ diary, Colonel Foster quantified the death toll:

Colonial Official:

Dead and putrefying bodies were lying in all directions. Out of 2000 Indians, from what I saw, not 500 would be left.

Native Voice:

This dramatic and sudden devastation…in which more than 75 percent of the population could be described as dead or dying in less than 30 days…was very different from the World Health Organization’s assertion that smallpox epidemics develop slowly. It was also very different from the observed natural progress of the disease at Ft. Simpson, and elsewhere, where the natural death toll was usually in the range of only 30 percent.

Primary Narrator:

The experience at Bella Coola suggests that settlers not only introduced the disease to native communities, but that, in some cases, they also saw it systematically distributed. At Bella Coola, settlers had staked claims to all the land occupied by the local native communities. Since Governor Douglas had no plans for treaties and no plans to compensate the dispossessed, this provided a dramatic motive to kill them. Any reasonable person could predict that violence was inevitable as native communities became displaced one after another by the Douglas Administration’s land policies. By decreasing the native population through smallpox, and by terrorizing survivors with the fear of it, the need for conventional violence was successfully rendered little necessary.

Referring specifically to those behind Poole’s party, Major William Downie described them as “unscrupulous adventurers who broke faith with the native people.”29 These adventurers were HBC insiders and former colleagues of Governor Douglas or his fellow land speculators. Most prominent were the Governor’s close friend Donald Fraser, a member of the Executive Council, who had financed some New Aberdeen speculators, and Attorney-General George Cary. As the formal legal adviser to the Governor, Cary met with Douglas every day. Yet Cary also controlled both the Bentinck Arm Company and the New Aberdeen syndicate.

Given the very intimate connection between the Douglas’ Administration and those who benefitted from smallpox at Bella Coola and along the Bentinck Arm trail, one must ask whether this was just an aberration. Or was this, instead, only one part of a much larger extermination effort by the settler community, just as many native elders have always alleged?

Amazon Reader Review

fiveStars2

Excellent research and unveiling of a hard truth for First Nations and colonists alike to come to terms with. Our forebears have much to answer for. The apology for the intentional spreading of smallpox is a tiny step forward on the path of peace. This text unveils hard truths. They will take time to settle in.

– Trish Oliver, Five out of Five Stars

A note from the author.

“The truth may not be pretty but the hunt for truth is a beautiful thing and, in due course, the truth will set you free, as the saying goes,” Shawn says. “It bothers me that we make all these movies in the west coast of Canada but almost none of them are about the west coast of Canada. People say that Canadian history is comparatively boring but this is not true. The reality seems that the truth is terrible and we find it hard to face it. I am grateful for all the patience people have shown me as I learn our history and search for powerful ways to do it justice for a broad audience.”

Learn more about Shawn here.

The Great Darkening

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