Cowichan Mural2012 is the 150th anniversary of the 1862 smallpox epidemics which depopulated British Columbia. Perhaps 100,000 natives died within one year. Afterward, the minority settler population spread out and enjoyed a fledgling democracy. The majority indigenous population became increasingly confined and began a long experience with a para-military occupation that still remains in place today.

On Aug. 18, 1862, taking advantage of the Cowichan having fled “in the wildest state of alarm” as smallpox swept through the fertile land coveted by settlers, Governor James Douglas invaded Cowichan territory with gunboats, men at arms, surveyors and 100 settlers. Douglas had been trying since 1852 to subjugate the Cowichan so that he could give their land to speculators who would, in turn, flip it to settlers wishing to farm. Chief among these speculators were several naval officers and members of  Douglas’ inner circle, including his close friend from the executive council, Donald Fraser.

On nearing Qua-ma-chin the smell from decomposing bodies carelessly buried was really offensive – it made me sick

– Ranald McDonald.

The Cowichan had consistently refused Douglas’ previous attempts to extend the colonial project to their territory. They did accept several European immigrants who chose to live by Cowichan rules. Those who did not soon found themselves treated as unwelcome guests. There is no country anywhere in which the circumstances would have been any different.

With gunboats and a force of British marines in the harbor, Douglas summoned the few Cowichan on hand and announced that he would pay two blankets a head to extinguish native title for all-time. In “The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific,” we show the market value of two blankets was then about enough to purchase a 30 mile ride one-way on a Greyhound Bus. Even then, Douglas reneged on this symbolic token.

When the time came to pay the absent Cowichan their 2 blankets as Douglas had promised, smallpox suddenly broke out a second time. This caught those who had escaped the epidemic by fleeing in summer. The Cowichan now suffered “great ravages” and “a great number” were expected to die. Before and after estimates by eye-witnesses on the scene, including Ranald McDonald, suggest as many as 1000 Cowichan may have died in the districts where the settlers had taken up land.

Wounding a Nation at Qua-ma-chin

The Coast Salish War

Click to enlarge.

The following spring, the Cowichan were unawares yet that their law had been effectively superseded through the smallpox depopulation. Several offending settlers died at Cowichan hands. Among these, three teenagers under the guidance of an older woman killed a settler who they feared had poisoned them with smallpox. Douglas then launched a conventional military offensive against the Cowichan.  Innocent natives, women and children were taken hostage, captives were tortured, show trials were held without reliable interpreters and seven Cowichan, including the three teen-aged boys, were hung in two public exhibitions in downtown Victoria.

The three youths had been hidden at Qua-ma-chin. Facing a British warship, a colonial gunboat and threats against innocent lives, the community finally gave up all three.  Yet the law from time immemorial was that, where only one had died, only one life was to be given in exchange. In a clear violation of the long-established law, the British wanted them all. The gunboat captain described this scene:

…as we were making hasty arrangements to take them by force, of a sudden the assembly opened and down a lane marched the villains with every possible sense of majesty, dignified, self-importance…at last, amind the howling of the women and the sobbing of their friends and the farewell salutations of the whole tribe, they embarked on my boat.

Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination,” includes this commentary (p.313):

This was no ordinary event. These youths faced martyrdom because the community was too weakened (by smallpox) to defend the law. This community was grieving the loss of a nation. In this transition, the law which had given a sense of sacred order to all experience was lost. An emotional sense of power, of control and of belonging was giving way in souls that from now on would know a national powerlessness, subjugation and alienation. The old law had finally given way. But it had done so only with decomposing corpses in the background and a military force primed for war crimes in the foreground. The settlers’ insurrection had swept up the coast, off the gunboats, raced into the lodges, through the elders like so many ghosts and struck a spear in the heart to leave the old regime mortally wounded and bleeding as darkness claimed the ground.

Canadian historians commonly trivialize and devalue this tragic conflict between two social entities as if the individuals hung had been guilty of some personal crime as defined by English Law. It seems a feature of genocide denial by historians to ignore the way in which colonial governors corrupted the legal system in the eyes of all First Nations by using it instead of diplomacy in their relations with the indigenous population. Still, nothing calls the administration of justice into disrepute more than punishing people for not following laws that they could have had no moral, political or legal obligation to obey. Yet these are the circumstances underlying Canada’s first claim to Cowichan territory; and its claim of sovereign authority there, along with the right to establish a judicial system. It should surprise no one, then, to discover that the Cowichan are among those First Nations today who have begun taking action against Canada in International tribunals from a lack of trust in Canadian institutions.

To better understand the background to this history, you can the buy the paperback edition of “The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific.”