CHAPTER TWO: Pacifying the Coast
Victoria was “ground zero” for the smallpox epidemic. The fort was located in the midst of the territory of the Lekwammen (Songhees) and Wsanec (Saanich) people. They had helped the traders build the fort, and they supplied it with furs and country produce. Along with these local people, the Aboriginal population swelled each summer with the arrival of fleets of canoes from the north coast. As many as 4,000 visitors gathered in the vicinity of the fort in large encampments to trade, sell produce and crafts, work at odd jobs, obtain liquor and socialize. With the sudden influx of prospectors heading for the Fraser River goldfields in 1858, the sleepy little trading fort with its surrounding farmlands had blossomed into a populous settlement. Close to 30,000 people arrived in Victoria during the first year of the rush. The majority were only passing through, but many put down roots. The price of real estate skyrocketed. Banks, hotels, saloons, barber shops, hardware stores, businesses of all kinds opened to serve the local market.
Despite efforts to exclude Aboriginal people from this burgeoning economy, new opportunities were available and the number of seasonal visitors to the capital increased, causing alarm among the white colonists who feared the possibility of an attack. From the mid-1850s, residents of the settlement had been trying to enforce a rigid racial segregation. Aboriginals were unwelcome in the city, where a curfew banned their presence after dark. They were considered to be vagrants, criminals and prostitutes. The colonists wanted them to stay on their reserves and in their camps on the outskirts and not to mingle with white residents. In some sense, therefore, the smallpox epidemic gave authorities the excuse they were looking for to implement with force the exclusionary policies they had been toying with for several years.
Terrified at the sudden death of so many friends and family, Aboriginals from the north fled for home. But they carried the contagion with them. As they passed up the coast they sickened and died. Reports filtered back to Victoria that summer (1862) of remote beaches littered with rotting corpses, of entire villages abandoned and reeking with death, of burned bodies stacked in smoking funeral pyres. “So soon as pustules appear upon an occupant of one of the canoes, he is put ashore,” reported the British Colonist in mid-June; “a small piece of muslin, to serve as a tent, is raised over him, a small allowance of bread, fish and water is doled out and he is left alone to die.”
At Cape Mudge at the south end of Quadra Island a Lekwiltok war party attacked a passing canoe of Haida who were on their way home from Victoria. They killed the occupants and carried off their belongings, only to discover that they had carried the disease into their village. Infection spread to the Kwakwaka’wakw at Fort Rupert and to the Heiltsuk at Bella Bella. The people turned to their shamans for relief, but traditional medicine proved powerless. A surveyor who was among the Nuxalk at Bella Coola left this tragic account. “Numbers were dying each day; sick men and women were taken out into the woods and left with a blanket and two or three salmon to die by themselves and rot unburied; sick children were tied to trees, and naked, grey-haired medicine men, hideously painted, howled and gesticulated night and day in front of their lodges in mad efforts to stay the progress of the disease.”
The Haida on the Queen Charlotte Islands were hit particularly hard. Barely recovered from the epidemic of the 1830s, the Haida were almost completely wiped out by this second appearance of the disease. The best estimate is that the population of the Islands dropped by an astounding 83 percent during this period. From a pre-contact population estimated to number about 14,000, only 829 were counted in the 1881 census. These survivors left their scattered villages and congregated in the two main settlements of Skidegate and Masset. A once vigorous population was left a remnant of its former self.
The smallpox spread up the rivers to the Interior, where death tolls equalled those of the coast. The epidemic took two years to burn itself out. By the time it was over, about 20,000 Aboriginal people had lost their lives, a third of the pre-epidemic population. Some groups were spared thanks to their isolation, in the case of the Nuu-chah-nulth on western Vancouver Island, or to the efforts of missionaries, who in some areas carried out a program of inoculation. Inoculation, or variolation as it was also called, involved taking some pus or a scab from an infected person and inserting it under the skin of a healthy one. The result was a mild case of the disease, which turned out to be fatal in only a small percentage of cases. However, an inoculated person could still transmit the disease, so the technique worked best when combined with quarantine, which it rarely was in BC. Still, it was better than nothing, and inoculation was credited with preserving the Cowichan and Nanaimo peoples north of Victoria, the Musqueam on the mainland and the Sto:lo people of the Fraser Valley from the worst effects of the epidemic. (The efficacy of vaccination, using an extract of cowpox, had been discovered by Edward Jenner in 1798, but it was not a popular treatment in England in the mid-nineteenth century and was not widely available in BC at the time of the epidemic.) If inoculation and quarantine had been employed more widely, many more lives might have been spared. As it was, the authorities chose the worst possible response to the outbreak, rejection and dispersal. As a result, a coastal Aboriginal population that numbered in the neighbourhood of 150,000 pre-contact was reduced to about 35,000 by 1880.
The smallpox epidemic was an apocalyptic moment in the history of BC First Nations. The suddenness of it must have been as important as its extent. An abrupt fissure opened up between the past and the future. No one could survive such a cataclysmic event and not be marked by it forever. “Even today,” the anthropologist Michael Harkin wrote in 1997, “this holocaust is remembered with considerable emotion.” Many of those who died were tribal elders, the repositories of knowledge and traditions. With them died a people’s sense of their own history, a process that historical geographer Cole Harris has called “the decoupling of people and past.”
More practically, with so many members of a tribe sick and dying, there were few people well enough to gather food, and starvation often ensued. There must also have been a dramatic rearrangement of territories as families and local groups which had traditional rights to particular resource-gathering sites died out and were replaced by survivors. All along the coast the number of distinct local groups declined as people came together in larger tribal groupings. With fewer people to occupy the status positions within the hierarchy, the entire social structure was shaken to its core. Shamans lost much of their credibility. Aboriginal people noticed that while they sickened and died, white colonists were hardly affected by the contagion. As a result, many people turned to the white man’s religion. Converting to Christianity appeared to be a way to affiliate with the powerful new force that was present in the land.
One can only speculate how things might have been different if the coast had not been massively depopulated of its indigenous inhabitants in the century after contact. Would a robust Aboriginal population have resisted the resettlement of its territories by white colonists? First Nations would have been in a stronger position to oppose the outsiders if they had wished, or more probably to reach an accommodation that would have preserved their economic opportunities and cultural practices. Possibly the new colonial regime would have felt obliged to make treaties with the local people. First Nations might have remained at the centre of coastal history instead of being pushed to the margins.
In the event, of course, the coast was swept by a holocaust. Local First Nations were fatally weakened precisely at the time when they most needed to be strong. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, the pace of change initiated by the arrival of outsiders had been moderate and manageable. Traders were interested in acquiring furs, not in making permanent settlements or forcing change on the First Nations. Aboriginal people had adapted reasonably easily to the changes that were occurring in their world. By mid-century, however, the pace of change was accelerating, principally because the coast was being colonized. First Vancouver Island was organized as a distinct jurisdiction in 1849, then the separate, mainland colony of British Columbia was created in 1858. It was to be “a second England on the shores of the Pacific”, said the British colonial secretary, Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton. British law, forms of government and land tenure systems were being imposed on the coast, with far-reaching implications for the indigenous inhabitants.
Next time: gunboat diplomacy