Gunboats & Genocide

The Violent History of Colonization in ‘British Columbia’

In history, the colonization of what would become British Columbia is presented as largely peaceful, even friendly.  Like Columbus’ ‘peaceful’ invasion of the Americas in 1492, this history is a colonial myth. Like all colonial myths, it seeks to conceal genocide and legitimize colonialism.

The standard colonial history of BC goes like this: on a mission of science & exploration, Capt. James Cook discovered Vancouver Island. This began the fur trade. The Natives were shrewd traders, who benefited from the exchange of culture. Then, in 1858, gold was found in the Fraser Valley & southern Interior. Tens of thousands of settlers poured in. At the same time, disease epidemics killed off as much as 90% of the population. The government was powerless to stop this. Those who survived were put on reservations. Their children were forced into residential schools, victims of a “well-intentioned but misguided” policy of assimilation. And here we are today.

This is the standard version promoted by schools, government, and the tourism industry. It avoids or minimizes Indigenous resistance and the extent of genocide. Today’s generations are left with a history that portrays their ancestors as weak, powerless and overwhelmed by European civilization. But that is a colonial myth.

Contact & Conflict

Beginning in the 1770s, Spanish, British, Russian and US ships began sailing the Northwest Coast. They were mostly interested in trade, especially for sea otter skins. This trade lasted until the 1820s, when the sea otter was nearly extinct. While Natives most often welcomed these first visitors & began trading, this period of was also marked by frequent war & bloodshed along the coast.

In Alaska, Russians enslaved the Aleut and forced them to hunt. A revolt by Aleuts in the 1760s resulted in the destruction of 4 Russian ships. The Russians retaliated with massacres, destroying several villages.

In Alaska and northern BC, however, the Tlingit were able to resist Russian occupation and were never conquered by them. In the early 1800s, the Tlingits destroyed several Russian forts and ships. In 1802, for example, a Tlingit army of some 1,000 warriors destroyed the Russian fort at Sitka.

In Haida Gwaii & Vancouver Island, many other European ships were also attacked & destroyed. In 1803, the US ship Boston was captured and nearly all its crew killed. The Nuu-Chah-Nulth took 2 prisoners, one of whom was John Jewitt, the ship’s armourer. He and one other were kept as slaves for 2 years.

These attacks were most often the result of provocations & aggression on the part of ship’s crews & captains, many of whom had experience in other colonial regions. They were arrogant and convinced of their racial superiority, at times using force to ensure trade or steal furs.

Corporate Colonialism

At the same time, fur-trade companies such as the Hudson’s Bay & Northwest Company began establishing forts in the interior region, beginning with Fort St. John in 1805. At this time, state-licensed corporations had taken control of colonial trade & the expansion of markets. It was their quest for profits that spurred colonization onward, from reconnaissance to the building of trails and forts.

Many of the most-well known European ‘pioneers’ & explorers of BC were in fact company employees, including Simon Fraser, Alexander Mackenzie, & David Thompson. The companies were primary agents of colonization, serving to introduce European culture & ideology to Natives, while establishing a physical presence in Indigenous territories. They were also well-armed, with their own militias and gun-boats (i.e., the Beaver & Otter).

In 1849, Vancouver Island was proclaimed a British colony, and the Hudson’s Bay Company placed in charge of immigration & settlement. At this time, the corporation was itself the colonial government. Its main functions were to sell land & develop the industrial capacity of the colony for resource exploitation. This included building towns, trails, ports, and other infrastructure.

Of course, the corporation was not alone in this work. The British crown remained the primary power, and beginning in 1849 Royal Navy gunboats were stationed on the coast. From 1849-1888, these gunboats were the main weapons in countering Indigenous resistance along the Northwest Coast.

Gunboat Frontier

Warships deployed to the coast by the Royal Navy were among the most powerful weaponry used against Natives in the 19th century. Ships such as the HMS Grappler, Forward, Boxer, Alert, Devastation and others, had as many as 50 cannons mounted. They also had rockets and squadrons of Royal Marines.

Among the first actions by the Royal Navy was the 1850 destruction of a Kwakwaka’wakw village on northern Vancouver Island, allegedly in response to the killing of settlers. For the next 4 decades, this became a routine practise any time settlers were killed or ships attacked along the coast. Many villages were destroyed through naval bombardment or fires. At other times, villages were occupied & accused persons were hung in front of the people.

The largest single naval attack occurred in 1864. After a trade ship (the Kingfisher) was captured, looted & destroyed in Clayoquot Sound, the Ahousat were targeted for collective punishment. 9 Ahousat villages were destroyed by the Royal Navy.

That same year, the Chilcotin Uprising occurred when Tsilhqot’in warriors attacked & killed Europeans building a road through their territory. A large military force was deployed and succeeded in capturing some of the warriors, including their leaders. Five were sentenced to death.

Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, numerous villages of the Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuu-Chah-Nulth, Coast Salish, & Tlingit were destroyed by naval firepower. During the same period, many European ships were attacked & looted by Indigenous warriors defending their people, territory & way of life.

The last recorded attack on a European ship occurred in 1873 by Owikeeno warriors. The last use of naval firepower against a Native village occurred against the Nuxalk at Kimsquit, in 1877. That year, the Secwepemc & Okanagan in the southern Interior formed a confederacy, & colonial officials feared an armed rebellion.

The Royal Navy & other military forces played a vital role in the colonization of BC, serving to pacify Indigenous resistance & impose colonial law & order. This initial phase of resistance had big obstacles, however, including: ongoing tribal warfare, which continued into the 1870s & made unity impossible; reliance on seashore and riverside village locations, reducing mobility and exposing villages to naval fire; and massive depopulation through disease epidemics.

In fact, Indigenous resistance throughout BC would have continued longer had it not been for the devastating impact of European diseases, which led to death rates as high as 90 percent.

Biological Warfare

The deadly effects of European diseases are usually mentioned in colonial histories. This is because of the huge impact they had (which cannot be denied) & because they provide an easy answer to the question: What happened to all the Indians?

As early as the 1770s, disease epidemics had occurred along the coast. Periodic epidemics continued throughout the 1800s, including smallpox, influenza, measles, syphilis, and others. The worst epidemic (smallpox) occurred in 1862, when an estimated 1 in 3 Natives died along the coast and southern Interior.

This epidemic began in Fort Victoria, allegedly from a gold prospector who had arrived from San Francisco. As the epidemic began, officials in Victoria began immunization of several hundred Natives. Then, in May 1862, Natives were ordered to evacuate the fort under threat of military force. Hundreds headed up the coast & into the interior, spreading the disease.

David Walker, a naval surgeon stationed on the coast, later stated:

“If it were intended to exterminate the natives of this coast no means could be devised more certain than that of permitting these miserable wretches to return home in a state of sickness & disease” (quoted in Gunboat Frontier, p. 80).

And yet, officials not only “permitted” Natives to return to their homes, they forced them to, knowing full well the consequences of their actions. Commenting on the 1862 epidemic, one scholar noted that,

“[T]his epidemic might have been avoided, and the whites knew it. Vaccine was available… and the efficacy of quarantine was understood” (Spirit of Pestilence, p. 172).

In fact, a vaccination for smallpox had been developed in 1796. As early as 1802, the US Army began vaccination of Natives located around Army forts to control outbreaks of the disease.

At the same time, colonial forces were also well aware of the use of biological warfare. One of the best documented cases is that of Sir Jeffrey Amherst during the 1763 rebellion led by Pontiac. At that time, Amherst was commander of all British forces in N. America. The rebellion had destroyed several forts and placed others under siege, including Fort Pitt (now Pittsburg). Amherst directed officers to spread smallpox in a letter:

“Could it not be contrived to send the smallpox among those disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every strategem in our power to reduce their numbers” (The Conspiracy of Pontiac & the Indian War, p. 39).

The 1862 Smallpox Epidemic occurred at a time when British settlement & immigration were being pursued as official colonial policy. This had begun in the late 1850s and was strengthened by the 1858 Fraser Valley Gold Rush, when tens of thousands of settlers descended into the region. It also occurred at a time when Indigenous resistance had continued, with attacks on ships & settlers, despite the presence of Royal Navy gunboats.

There is little doubt this epidemic was promoted as part of an ongoing counter-insurgency war, an early effort to achieve ‘economic certainty’. It should be noted that, today, smallpox remains classified as a Type A biological weapon by the US Center for Disease Control (along with anthrax, botulism, and the plague).

Within a century of contact, the estimated Native population of BC fell from 200,000 in 1774, to perhaps 25,000 in 1874. Entire villages were nearly wiped out. Large amounts of cultural knowledge & skills were lost through this massive depopulation, which also had a demoralizing effect on survivors. This trauma, along with the threat of military violence, served to make many Natives vulnerable to another important factor in colonization: the Christian church & Residential Schools.


The history of European colonization in BC did involve trade, diseases & residential schools. But it also involved gunboats, genocide and armed resistance. A resistance that demonstrates our ancestors were not passive victims to “civilization’s progress”, but active combatants who inflicted numerous military defeats against colonial forces. It is this history the government seeks to erase, for it is an example & inspiration to today’s generations of Native youth.


The region has been inhabited by Natives for at least 10,000 years, around the same time the first civilizations were established.

At the time of contact with European colonial forces (1774), BC had an estimated population of 200,000 Natives.

Within a century of contact with European forces, the Native population had declined from some 200,000 to around 25,000 in 1874.

Today there are some 170,000 Natives in BC, or 5 % of the total province population. According to a 1991 government census, only one-quarter (or 40,000) lived on reserves.

There are some 197 bands in BC, or 33% of Canada’s total 609 bands.

There are 1,650 reserves in BC, or 72% of Canada’s total 2,300 reserves. Many BC reserves are small and only one-quarter (approx. 400) were occupied in 1991.

Reserve land in BC comprises some 3,440 sq. kilometers of land (or 0.36% of BC’s total land). Altogether, BC’s reserves comprise just 13% of the total area of reserves in Canada.

Sources for BC-Native Facts: BC Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs website, 1999, and A Traveller’s Guide to Aboriginal BC.

Posted on March 16, 2011, in Colonization, Documents and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Caroline Dudoward

    Also, in 1862 William Duncan arrived with the innoculation on the Northwest Coast for smallpox. Captain Alexander Duncan and a Haida woman had many children. The Captain and lay-missionary William Duncan are direct relations. Coincidence or not?
    The first marriages among the Tsimshian was inspired by Chief Legaic. He sent his best paddlers to Fort Victoria to marry Mary Catharine Holmes and Alfred Sgaguade Dudoward in 1872. This was an incredible connection as people came far and wide to congratulate them on their fine deed. There were so many people between the mainland and the island, the newly married couple from a distance from Lax Kw Alaams, assumed they made the bridge while they were gone. When in fact, there were people in droves to welcome the couple. Hence, the first marriages were done by my great-great-grandmother Malske and wore out her ring marrying couples.
    The first mode of teaching among the Tsimshian also resulted in her reading, writing and arithmetic around the fire, teachings in the Longhouse. Mary (Kate) was the youngest chieftainess at the age of 14 because of her nature and demeanor. She was a chief among chiefs and was the niece of Chief Shakes from Alaska. It is through her the name the Tsimshian acquired certain names, as a result.

  2. You forgot to mention the innocent crew that they butchered without provocation…but that wouldn’t make your case very acceptable would it?

    The Kingfisher was a sloop engaged in merchant trading out of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada to First Nations peoples around Vancouver Island and adjoining waters. During trading with the Ahousaht subgroup of the Tla-o-qui-aht division of the Nuu-chah-nulth in Clayoquot Sound late in 1864 the vessel was attacked and its captain, a Captain Stephenson, and three crew members were massacred. HMS Devastation, a small gunboat, was dispatched to the scene but due to overwhelming superiority of Ahousaht forces waited for reinforcements, which came in the form of the screw frigate HMS Sutlej and its fifty guns. Holding offshore from Marktosis, one of the main Ahousaht communities, Admiral Denman, commander of the vessel, demanded the surrender of Chapchah, who had masterminded the killings. When the residents refused, Denman opened fire on the village, destroying it. Subsequently the village of Moyat and others w
    ere destroyed by shellfire and incendiary rockets from the Sutlej.

    Don’t expect this to stay here…the people runnuing this site are too racist and dishonest.

    • You forgot to mention that the Nuu-Chah-Nulth were a sovereign nation with the right to defend their territory against any trespass, and traditionally trespass could mean death. Merchant ships weren’t just innocent traders wandering the sea to make fair deals, they were well armed and ruthless in their efforts which is why so many of them were attacked. As for racist that’s more an indication of your own mindset…

    • Innocent? Armed invaders are anything but innocent.

    • The attack on Stevenson (who had been fined by British authorities the previous year for illicit bootlegging) was prompted by the crew’s earlier abduction of several Nuu-chah-nulth women (see Horsfield, “Tofino and Clayoquot Sound: A History” 2014). Stevenson and his crew were far from “innocent.” Unfortunately, many of the documentary records of these events come from highly skewed colonial documents. The western historical tradition has repeatedly failed to adequately include Indigenous oral histories of such events and as a result many settlers cling to one-sided narratives that reinforce their prejudices and sense of entitlement to lands stolen through brute force. Lastly, pointing out colonial violence is not racism. Being angry and vocal about settler-complicity in that violence is not racist. Settler is not a racialized identity – it is a relationship to territory. I am a settler; I have been and probably always will be to some extent complicit in colonial violence and I expect anger for that. In my commitment to self-reflexivity, however, I am continually analyzing that complicity and trying to find ways to abide by the legal traditions of those whose land I am on, I also try to embody a different relationship in everyday practices of respect, gratitude, and accountability to the lands and peoples that host me. One of those practices is to listen to and respect the histories, experiences, and emotions of those peoples as valid. I say this not because I feel I have mastered “decolonization” — again, I fuck up everyday, I will eternally be assessing and reassessing my assumptions and behaviours — but precisely because I believe it is the ability to recognize and admit to fucking up that holds the key to undermining a colonizing mentality.

    • So much false information being released,,The small pox disease was used as biological weapons attack on the 700 waaps the Tsimshian had built in Victoria Harbour,,The vaccine was created long before they deliberately used small pox and stole Tsimshian Nation.,, Tsimshian Nine Allied Tribes own land in Victoria BC.,, Tsimshian Allied Tribes say never trust what is written down…So much true history of the Tsimshian Allied Tribes missing in published materials.

  3. Not to mention that before the white man came the various tribes were practicing slavery and murdering upon each other

    • The same as in Europe, where the white man came from, with one big difference: Indigenous peoples weren’t traveling around the world enslaving and colonizing other peoples because they had virtually destroyed their own land base and were dying from disease, poverty and ongoing feudal warfare…

    • Dear Doug,

      No one is claiming a utopian status for pre-contact Indigenous societies. That is not the issue at hand, heck, subscription to such a “noble savage” trope would be dehumanizing. The issue is that, regardless of any society’s internal inequalities, it is not okay to simply barge in with cannons firing and dispossess that society of their homelands. That’s like saying, “oh, well, you are not a model of perfect harmonious human relations and therefore we are going to KILL YOU AND TAKE OVER YOUR LAND” what sort of logic is that? It’s almost comical in its hypocrisy, almost.

      Pointing to real or imagined internal inequalities and discord of pre-contact Indigenous societies is a common settler “move to innocence.” That is, it is a tactic for self-justifying one’s own complicity in ongoing colonial occupations by discrediting the moral or intellectual capacity of the peoples whose land we occupy. In this way, your argument is simply a reiteration of the classical colonial assertion that “Indigenous peoples are savages who can only stand to benefit from the imposition of the civilized white man’s authority.” I hope that you don’t require me to point out the blatant, self-serving, and delusional nature of that assertion. As Zig Zag has already articulated, European society was (and is still) in no position to moralize for the rest of the globe.

      It’s okay to admit that we and/or our ancestors fucked up or did awful things. Try it. After a few minutes of discomfort, maybe even some tears, you’ll find that you’re still standing. Pride can be a dangerous and troublesome thing, my friend. I suggest attempting to re-conceptualize the airing of (very legitimate) grievances by others not as attacks but as invitations for you to reflect and do better.

      I wish you luck.

  1. Pingback: Biological Warfare: Disease and Depopulation – Zig-Zag (2004) – M. Gouldhawke

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