With the northern Kwakwaka’wakw pacified, at least temporarily, the scene of gunboat diplomacy shifted to the Cowichan Valley where, in November 1852, two Aboriginal men murdered a Scottish shepherd. James Douglas, who by this time had succeeded Richard Blanshard as governor of the colony, immediately organized an armed force of about 140 sailors, militia and marines and led them in an array of vessels to a village on Cowichan Bay. There Douglas faced down the local chiefs and delivered an ultimatum. “Give up the murderer, and let there be peace between the peoples, or I will burn your lodges and trample out your tribes.” This unsubtle threat had its intended effect, but instead of surrendering one of the murderers the Cowichan turned over one of their slaves instead. The second suspect, Siamasit, was captured in the woods near Nanaimo. On 17 January 1853, a panel of naval officers was convened on the deck of the Beaver and BC’s first trial by jury found the two men guilty. They were hanged later the same day on Protection Island in Nanaimo harbour.
Colonists continued to feel uneasy about Aboriginal intentions. The newcomers were, after all, vastly outnumbered in the event of trouble. Governor Douglas considered that the colony sat atop “a smouldering volcano, which may at any moment explode.” The Colonial Office agreed; in 1856 it beefed up the naval presence in the colony by sending two warships to Esquimalt. One of these ships was called into action almost immediately. In August, a Cowichan chief, Tathlasut, shot and wounded a white settler, Thomas Williams. For the second time marines and sailors were dispatched to Cowichan Bay. In this case an army of 455 men was deployed, a surprisingly large number to apprehend one suspect and an indication of the seriousness with which the authorities viewed the matter. The entire force marched up the river to a Cowichan village where Tathlasut was believed to be. He refused to give himself up and after a tense standoff had to be taken forcibly into custody. Once again retribution was swift. The following day a jury of twelve naval officers found Tathlasut guilty of attempted murder, and he hanged that evening in front of members of his tribe.
With the discovery of gold and the sudden arrival of so many outsiders, relations between whites and Aboriginals deteriorated. In the Interior violent clashes occurred as prospectors swept through the country looking for gold. Generally speaking, the miners had little sympathy with the indigenous inhabitants and no understanding of their cultures. The interlopers destroyed fishing sites, looted villages, traded liquor, prostituted the women and in several instances murdered the local inhabitants. The people fought back, and for a time an all-out war seemed a real possibility. The captain of one of the British naval vessels, George Henry Richards, summed up the situation for his commander. “It appears to me that in the present relations existing between our people and the Indians, it cannot be a matter of surprise if many wrongs are committed on both sides, and my opinion is that the Natives in most instances are the oppressed and injured parties.”
The smallpox epidemic may have reduced the First Nations population but it did not reduce the determination of some tribes to resist the encroachment of whites. And so the deployment of gunboats continued. More incidents occurred during the 1860s and in all cases British authorities acted swiftly and brutally.
In early April 1863, in the Gulf Islands, in the space of two days, three whites were murdered and another was badly wounded. In response to Douglas’s request for assistance, the navy provided the 30-metre gunboat Forward, armed with a cannon and two howitzers. Commander Horace Lascelles managed to track three suspects in one murder to Cowichan Bay where they were taken into custody. He then moved on to the village of Lamalcha on Kuper Island, a community of seven multi-family lodges where the people were known to be antagonistic to white settlement. When the people would not (or could not because he wasn’t there) give up a suspect, Lascelles opened fire on the village. The Lamalcha returned fire with their muskets from concealed positions on shore, killing a sixteen-year-old sailor named Charles Gliddon, the only time a British serviceman was killed in action in BC.
After a prolonged firefight, Lascelles withdrew the Forward to the mainland opposite Kuper Island. The best account of this incident claims that the “Battle of Lamalcha” was “the only tactical defeat ever inflicted by a tribal people on the Royal Navy”, though “defeat” might be a little strong given that the British returned the next day to find that the people had all fled and the village was ultimately destroyed. Still, it was a shock to white colonists that the armed might of the British navy had been repulsed by what the authorities considered to be a small band of malcontents and troublemakers. In response, they mounted the largest military action ever seen on the coast, involving a naval man-of-war, two gunboats, two naval launches and about five hundred men, all to hunt down seven Lamalcha men who were suspects in the murders. The British chased the fugitives for several days, taking them into custody one by one, along with assorted relatives and hostages. In the end, nine men were tried, eight of whom were hanged for their part in the Gulf Island murders
Another incident occured in 1864. A party of Nuu-chah-nulth warriors from Ahousat in Clayoquot Sound plundered the trading vessel Kingfisher and murdered its entire crew. Again authorities answered in force, sending two naval vessels to round up the culprits. When he encountered opposition from the Clayoquot, Rear-Admiral Joseph Denman began a campaign of devastation, bombarding villages with cannon and rockets, destroying houses and canoes. The navy killed more than a dozen Clayoquot and laid waste to nine villages, but the leader of the Kingfisher raid was never found and the courts in Victoria acquitted the suspects who were taken into custody. In Clayoquot Sound the people rebuilt their communities, and declared that they had defeated the British.
Whether they are characterized as wars, or as aggressive police actions, the events of the 1860s illustrate how far colonial authorities were willing to go to show the First Nations that if the coast was a frontier, it was not a lawless one. In the years that followed there were many more examples. As white settlement and economic activity increased on the offshore islands, up the inlets and north along the coast, colonial authorities--and after BC joined Confederation in 1871, Canadian authorities--used the British navy to enforce the law: to track down thieves and murderers, to oppose the liquor traffic, to put an end to tribal raiding and the keeping of slaves. It is true that gunboat commanders used force only after negotiation had failed, but use force they did. Back home in Britain, authorities did not bombard a country village with cannon fire and burn it to the ground because it was believed that the inhabitants were sheltering a criminal. On the colonial frontier, however, this was standard operating procedure. Much more was at stake than simply catching criminals. The gunboats were a strategy for imposing social order, instilling fear, and commanding obedience and respect for the colonial government.
In the end what was at issue was a clash between two cultures, two notions of justice. This was made explicit during the final instance of gunboat diplomacy, which took place on the Skeena River in 1888. A Gitksan chief, Kamalmuk, had murdered a shaman whom the chief blamed for the death of two of his sons in a measles epidemic. When the provincial police tried to apprehend Kamalmuk, a constable mistakenly shot and killed him. Along the river the Gitksan were enflamed and wild rumours of an “Indian uprising” flew across the country. As usual, a naval vessel appeared on the scene, with close to 100 troops and police. But the matter ended peaceably and without the usual display of force when the Gitksan chiefs agreed to obey British law. Provincial Police Superintendent H.W. Roycraft lectured them: “I must ask you to remember that before you came under the British law one tribe was always in danger of being massacred by some other tribe and that there was continual warfare between all the tribes: slaves were taken: but now you all live in peace and quietness because of the Queen’s care.” The people of the Skeena, like all the other coastal tribes, had been taught the lesson that Aboriginal notions of retributive justice no longer applied. Unless, of course, it was the white man demanding retribution.