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.
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.
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.
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.