smallpox mass grave

March 12 is the 151st anniversary of the importation of smallpox to the British Pacific colonies in 1862. The subsequent devastation of the indigenous population prepared the way for the unconstitutional imposition of British institutions without treaties or consent from the survivors, still the majority population, and for their dispossession under a para-military occupation.

On March 12, 1862, two smallpox carriers, each suffering only a mild case consistent with having acquired the disease deliberately through inoculation, arrived on the half-empty Brother Jonathan from San Francisco. One went to New Westminster the next morning to begin the epidemic in each of the major newly urbanizing centers in the young colonies…at the same time and in the same way.

Smallpox was not epidemic in San Francisco. There were so few cases and so little concern there that the newspapers had not mentioned it for months. Nevertheless, there is evidence that someone from Victoria just then tried to plant stories about smallpox in the San Francisco papers as a convenient explanation for its arrival in Victoria. One did appear March 11, tucked away in the San Francisco back pages but later prominently displayed in Victoria.

Who from Victoria was in San Francisco with an interest in making it seem that the disease had arrived innocently and by chance in the British Pacific colonies? On the same ship with the smallpox carriers were Ranald McDonald and the members of a committee arranging for a public subsidy of a steamship service direct from San Francisco to Victoria. This sailing of the Brother Jonathan was the very first sailing under that scheme.

British Columbia

The subsidy scheme, arranged by attorney-general George Cary, who was also the Governor’s legal adviser and Premier of the Colony of Vancouver Island, had a second leg: direct from Victoria to Bella Coola.

At Bella Coola, the interests represented by the subsidy committee, planned a harbor city to be called New Aberdeen that would displace the native residents. They also planned what they called the Bentinck Arm Road through Tsilhqot’in territory. The speculators expected this road, eventually, to connect with the Canadian colonies across the continent: the National Dream of Canadian imperialism. Ranald McDonald and George Cary controlled these private/public endeavors.

In June, and again in October, these same interests would admittedly introduce smallpox at Bella Coola and along the proposed road to seize land and right of way through Tsilhqot’in territory. This would be the immediate cause of the Tsilhqot’in War, which began in June 1862, as the Tsilhqot’in reacted to these parties introducing smallpox. It seems unlikely, as mere coincidence, that the same interests who would see smallpox introduced at Bella Coola were also on the boat when the disease first arrived at Victoria.

The first local case at Victoria was reported about two weeks later. It did not occur among the European community where the smallpox carrier was later reported as convalescing, but among the children of natives living in communities physically separated from the European town. The timing of this outbreak indicates that the first carrier visited these communities to introduce the disease there directly almost as soon as he got off the boat. This also seems more like the action of a seeing-eye dog with a map rather than by pure chance.

In 1861, worried that investors were leaving because of concerns about security of title and uncertainty of costs because the Government had not resolved its approach to acquiring native title, the Colony wrote to London seeking financial assistance. In October, London wrote back refusing. The letter carrying this refusal to help pay for native land was released to the public in March 1862, by coincidence, just as the arrival of smallpox also was confirmed.

In August 1861, at a high level meeting of colonial officials, the final consolidation and amendment of the legislation under which natives would be dispossessed as settlers “pre-empted” their land was completed. It is a certainty that the reaction of natives to this activity, and the prospect of an “Indian war”, was discussed at the same time. If colonial officials then adopted a smallpox policy as the means of pre-empting such a war, then it would have been planned at this time. By some coincidence, the minutes for meetings of the Executive Council during this period are missing. Moreover, these are the only missing minutes for the 22-year whole colonial period. The editor of the published minutes described this as “a perplexing gap.”

smallpox faceWhile the disease was still well-confined at Victoria, and observers believed it could have been brought under control easily by the usual methods of quarantine for the sick and vaccination for the healthy, natives as distant as Alert Bay and Cape Flattery heard from sources inside the colonial government that Governor Douglas planned to send the disease out from Victoria to kill natives for their land. One might dismiss this as mere fearful native speculation, except that the sources appear to have been well-informed settlers. And the Cape Flattery natives had this information just one week before the colonial authorities began implementing just such a plan.

As soon as it was known that the disease had arrived in Victoria, doctors vaccinated Europeans by the hundreds. This was an effective prevention program. During the whole epidemic, in which 100,000 natives may have died, only about 30 Europeans died; some of these may have been spreading the disease deliberately to natives at the time.

Meanwhile, Dr. Helmcken was said to have vaccinated 500 natives at Victoria before the disease began spreading. Elsewhere, where natives were vaccinated in good faith, vaccine worked to save them. At Victoria, instead, they died anyway. Indeed, instead of slowing the disease’s advance, this program directly preceded the disease exploding. It seems another telling “coincidence” that only natives received a “bad batch.”

All of these interesting coincidences occurred before the colonial authorities began compelling sick and healthy natives to mix at police gunpoint on April 28, 1862. From that point, there is no doubt that the actions of settlers spread the disease. However, all these facts from before that time are consistent also with a conclusion that the colonial authorities deliberately imported smallpox in the first place for the very purpose of subjugating and dispossessing the indigenous population.

While Canadian historians still cling to their speculation that the smallpox epidemics of 1862 were a natural disaster, native elders have always taught that this was a deliberate killing of innocents in an ethnic cleansing-like exercise. The more facts that one considers, the more that the elders’ version of this history is proven out as the one most consistent with the evidence. March 12 is a date that should live in infamy during the telling of Canadian history.