Chapter Two: Pacifying the Coast
In British Columbia, as everywhere else in the world, the success of the colonial project depended on force. From the perspective of the colonial power, settlers needed to be protected from the indigenous people, whose land they were occupying, and the indigenous people had to be convinced to accept the hegemony of the British Crown. In the mid-nineteenth century, before the colony had any armed force of its own, the BC coast was defended and pacified by the British navy.
The Admiralty sent its first warships to the south coast during the 1840s to conduct surveys, locate harbours and support the Hudson’s Bay Company in its relations with the local people. Generally speaking, the HBC took a “velvet glove” approach to the First Nations, preferring to cultivate friendly relations through fair trade and diplomacy. In some circumstances, company officers were prepared to use force, believing that a firm resolve was their best protection. John McLoughlin made clear the company’s policy: “Every one acquainted with the character of the Indians of the North West Coast will allow they can only be restrained from Committing acts of atrocity and violence by the dread of retaliation.” By mid-century, however, the HBC was leaving it to the navy to be the iron fist inside the glove and to step in with cannon and musket when the First Nations “needed to be taught a lesson.” The first incident of this kind occurred at Fort Rupert in 1850.
Fort Rupert was not a traditional fur-trading post. Located in Beaver Harbour at the north end of Vancouver Island (east of the modern city of Port Hardy and 575 kilometres north of Victoria by ship), it was established by the HBC in 1849 near the site of coal deposits that the local Kwakwaka’wakw people had reported several years earlier. When John Sebastien Helmcken arrived in May, 1850, aboard the Beaver, the fort housed within its whitewashed walls a complement of about thirty-five company servants, including seven coal miners and a blacksmith sent out from Scotland to carry on the digging. Depending on the season, as many as 2,500 Kwakwaka’wakw camped nearby. Helmcken was the HBC doctor at Fort Victoria. Twenty-five years old and fresh off the boat from England, he had been sent to Rupert to serve as the doctor there. What he found was a post on the verge of mutiny. The miners were unhappy with their living conditions, nervous about the Kwakwaka’wakw, and objected to having to perform the work of labourers rather than skilled miners. There was also dissension among the other company employees, some of whom were threatening to break their contracts and bolt for the gold fields of California. Senior officers worried that if the Kwakwaka’wakw discovered how divided the fort was, they might seize the opportunity to attack it. “The gates were more carefully looked after, as well to prevent the eruption of Indians as to guard against the eruption of the employees,” Helmcken wrote about this episode. “Dangers within; dangers outside; dangers all round.”
Into this volatile mix sailed the barque England which had come to Fort Rupert to take on coal before heading down the coast to San Francisco. Hidden among its crew were four stowaways who had deserted from another vessel in Victoria. When Helmcken, who by this time had been appointed a magistrate, prepared to board the England to look for the stowaways, three of them left the ship and paddled around to Hope Island where they planned to re-embark once the England was underway for California. Early in July the people at Fort Rupert began hearing reports that the trio had been murdered near a village of the Nahwitti people, a tribe of Kwakwaka’wakw occupying the north coast of Vancouver Island. Helmcken sent one of the officers at the post to investigate, and he learned that the reports were true. Encountering a party of Nahwitti, the three runaways had got into a dispute and been killed. Two of the corpses were brought back to the post for burial; the third man was drowned and his body was not recovered. Meanwhile all but two of the miners also defected, but they managed to board the England safely and reach San Francisco without incident.
Helmcken was unable to discover who had carried out the murders and the matter stood unresolved until October when Richard Blanshard, governor of Vancouver Island, arrived on board the naval vessel Daedulus seeking evidence in the murders and determined to take the perpetrators into custody. “The Queen’s name is a tower of strength, but at Fort Rupert it apparently requires to be backed with the Queen’s bayonets,” he thundered. For the Governor, and for most other whites, to allow the Nahwitti to get away with murder would be to jeopardise the entire colonial project.
When Helmcken arrived at Fort Rupert he had been told by one of the officers that the local people were “a precious bad lot, a terror”. Certainly the Kwakwaka’wakw enjoyed this reputation among the colonists. They were known as great warriors who regularly swept south in their large war canoes terrorizing the other tribes, stealing property and taking captives for slaves. This was especially true of the Lekwiltok, the southernmost Kwakwaka’wakw group, who pressed south into the Campbell River area to seize territory once occupied by other tribes and raided along the east coast of Vancouver Island and into the Fraser River. These raids apparently continued until about 1840 when an alliance of Coast Salish tribes, led by the Cowichan warrior chiefs Tsouhalem and Tsosieten, attacked and defeated a party of Lekwiltok near present-day Maple Bay. The “Battle of Maple Bay” marks the approximate end of large-scale raiding from the north, but the reputation of the Lekwiltok lived on, colouring the impressions the early colonists had of all the Kwakwaka’wakw groups.
Governor Blanshard certainly expected the worst. When Helmcken failed to negotiate the surrender of the murderers, the governor dispatched an armed party from the Daedulus to teach the Nahwitti a lesson. Finding their village on Nigei Island deserted, they burned it to the ground before returning to the ship. There was little more to be done, but Blanshard did not let the matter rest. That winter he appealed to the Admiralty for assistance again and in July 1851 he sailed back to Fort Rupert aboard the sloop of war Daphne. Once again armed boats were sent out, with about sixty sailors and marines. At the village of Nawitty at Cape Sutil, shots were exchanged before the occupants fled into the woods and the small naval force landed and set fire to the village.
With two of their villages destroyed, the Nahwitti had had enough. Three members of the tribe were shot and presented at Fort Rupert as the bodies of the murderers. (Whether or not they actually were is an open question.) British honour was preserved, both company and colonial officials agreed, and the Kwakwaka’wakw had been taught a valuable lesson, a lesson summed up by HBC Governor John Pelly the following year. “It has been the uniform policy of the Hudson’s Bay Company never to suffer the blood of a white man to be shed by a savage with impunity.”
Next time: Gunboat justice