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By Crawford Kilian
In the 1850s, James Douglas was in charge of one of the remotest outposts of the British Empire: the northwest coast of North America. Two other empires encroached on Britain's: Russia to the north and the United States to the south.
It was a remarkable situation for a man born in British Guiana to a Scots father and a Creole mother of mixed European and African ancestry. Educated in Britain, Douglas had sailed to Canada to work in the fur trade. His success took him all the way to the Pacific coast, where he rose high up in the ranks of the Hudson's Bay Company and then into the governorship of the Crown colony of Vancouver Island.
Great as the British Empire was in the middle of the 19th century, Douglas could not depend on its resources; the Empire had to depend on him. He was the leader of a few hundred Europeans among scores of thousands of Aboriginal peoples. And most English-speakers on North America's west coast were citizens of a republic hostile to the Empire. Indeed, in the previous decade the Americans had swept from Texas to the Pacific, taking the vast Oregon Territory for their own.
By 1851, Douglas had already moved the west coast headquarters of the Hudson's Bay Company from the Columbia River (now U.S. territory) to the southern tip of Vancouver Island. He had scarcely established the trading post in Victoria before Americans began flooding into the Queen Charlotte Islands in search of gold. As the second governor of the colony of Vancouver Island, Douglas asserted the rights of the Crown over the newcomers, and London supported him after the fact.
Soon afterward, Britain and Russia were involved in the Crimean War of 1854–1856, and Douglas had to keep Victoria as a secure base for the British Navy against the threat of Russian attacks from Alaska.
Again and again, James Douglas was forced to act on his own to protect the interests of an empire far away. With almost no armed forces, and unable to await instructions from London, he achieved wonders.
The greatest challenge came in 1857, when American prospectors began to find gold in the sands of the Fraser River. The mainland was still the territory of the Hudson's Bay Company—outside Douglas's authority—but he could see that many more prospectors would soon follow.
Both the colony of Vancouver Island and the mainland (soon to be the colony of British Columbia) had very few non-Aboriginal residents. Fewer than 500 Europeans lived on the island; perhaps 150 more lived on the mainland. They would soon be swamped, Douglas knew, by foreign gold-seekers. Most would be Americans, and they could well create their own de facto government on British territory.
Writing to the government in London, Douglas warned: "If the majority of immigrants be American, there will always be a hankering in their minds after annexation to the United States. . . . They will never cordially submit to English rule, nor possess the loyal feelings of British subjects." But he also knew that London could not provide him with a solution. He would have to find that on his own.
Needing a substantial number of non-Americans, Douglas found potential immigrants as close as San Francisco. Hundreds of free Blacks had reached California in the Gold Rush years, but they faced the same prejudice and oppression they had known back east. Worse yet, the 1857 Dred Scott decision made by the United States Supreme Court had explicitly denied U.S. citizenship to all Blacks, free or enslaved.
San Francisco's Black community was actively discussing the idea of emigrating to some more welcoming country, and Douglas moved quickly to promote his own colony as a destination. In April 1858, he sent Captain Nagle of the steamer Commodore to San Francisco, inviting the Blacks to settle in Victoria.
The community responded at once, delegating 35 Blacks as a "pioneer committee" to inspect the colony. They sailed on the Commodore back to Victoria, arriving on April 25. Three delegates met Douglas that same day and found him "very cheerful and agreeable."
Douglas glossed over the embarrassing problem of expensive land (prices were set in London). He emphasized that all landowners would have the right to vote and to sit on juries. After seven years, he promised, they could become British subjects with all rights and privileges. Until then, they would enjoy the full protection of the law.
A delegate returned swiftly to San Francisco with glowing reports of the governor's welcome and the general attractiveness of Victoria. As another delegate wrote: "The climate is most beautiful; the strawberry vines and peach trees are in full blow. . . . All the colored man wants here is ability and money. . . . It is a God-sent land for the colored people."
Douglas must have been relieved at the positive response; the Commodore had also brought over 400 white American immigrants. Thousands more, he knew, would soon be on their way.
By early summer, hundreds of Blacks had arrived in the colony and quickly established themselves. They made bricks, sheared sheep, built houses and opened businesses—from clothing stores to barbershops.
Douglas took pains in those early days to remind the Americans that they were now on British territory. In June of 1858, he even created an all-Black constabulary to police Victoria. Most were Jamaicans; all were British subjects. Despite their impressive uniforms—blue coats, red sashes, high hats—the police met strong resistance from the white population, and Douglas was obliged to replace most of them. One Black constable served outside Victoria for several years as a police officer for the Songhees Reserve.
Douglas could not keep all his promises to the Black pioneers, but in general it appears he treated them fairly. His own ancestry was a topic of malicious gossip, but he showed neither prejudice nor favouritism toward the Black settlers. While they settled into life in Victoria, or moved up the Fraser River with other gold seekers, Douglas asserted the authority of the Crown with more confidence than he probably felt.
In the crucial early years of British Columbia's existence as a colony, the Black settlers provided Douglas with a "most orderly and useful and loyal section of the community," as the widow of polar explorer Sir John Franklin observed when she met some of them in 1861. They were to provide a solid centre of political gravity in the colony, and they helped to define the terms on which it entered Confederation in 1872. It is hard to imagine what Canada today would be like if James Douglas had not invited the Blacks to become pioneers in British Columbia.