Crowning Moment

British Columbia before Canada

The small town of Lytton, British Columbia, endured the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada during the heat dome of June 2021. The next day, it was largely destroyed by wildfire. Climate activists have since stencilled its name on bridges in Vancouver, along with the question “How do you like the Anthropocene so far?”

Lytton may now be shorthand for ecological disaster, but it was named for Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, the politician who brought the Crown colony of British Columbia into existence. With British Columbia in the Balance: 1846–1871, the historian Jean Barman chronicles the period of direct British rule that followed, graphically evoking the mingled anxiety and hubris that drove this “second England by the Pacific.” Barman refreshes her familiar subject with a close reading of newly digitized correspondence between its governors and the Colonial Office in London. While avoiding grand claims, her granular narrative nonetheless unsettles some fashionable assumptions about pre-Confederation Canada. The current drive to decolonize society and public policy in this country often understands “colonialism” as an all-shaping, irresistible force. But no such monolith created British Columbia, which was actually the happenstance, fragile result of imperial bureaucrats responding to distant threats, sometimes with but often against the advice of the men on the ground.

James Douglas was the most important of the latter. As the Hudson’s Bay Company’s chief factor at Fort Victoria, he was the region’s pocket autocrat. The tyranny of distance helps explain why. As it took two months for his letters to reach England, his superiors could often do little but approve actions he had already undertaken. Even after he was named governor of the colony of Vancouver Island in 1851, Douglas remained a cautious fur trader at heart. His priorities were always defensive: the maintenance of HBC trading rights and of British law.

Douglas was alarmed when the discovery of gold on the Fraser River attracted thousands of American and European miners to New Caledonia, the British mainland north of the forty-ninth parallel, in spring 1858. Although they boosted the fortunes of Victoria every time their steamers stopped for supplies, Americans were, in Douglas’s view, racist freebooters who would upend the Crown’s honourable dealings with First Nations, triggering the kind of “disastrous Indian war” that had lately erupted in Oregon. He also believed that American republicans on British territory would start trading directly with the United States and soon demand political incorporation with it.

London listened to such concerns. In fact, the establishment of a mainland colony, with Douglas as its governor, was such a direct and reactive assertion of Crown sovereignty that the new colony’s first capital was initially named Queensborough, before Queen Victoria tactfully revised it to New Westminster.

Where Douglas was driven by anxiety, Edward Bulwer Lytton was impelled by romantic optimism. An aristocratic dandy in his youth, he became a successful novelist (and penned the opening line “It was a dark and stormy night”). When he eventually entered politics, he posed as a sardonic radical, urging the provincial English to learn from Europe’s rational and interventionist governments. By mid-century, his writings were celebrating the moral fibre of his kinfolk, who, he argued, ought to settle the globe. Then, just as diggers streamed into the Fraser Valley, Lytton became colonial secretary.

Soon broken by ill health and exhausted by battles with his estranged wife, Rosina, Lytton did not last long in his dream post, but before resigning he helped legislate the creation of both British Columbia and Queensland, Australia, waxing eloquent in the House of Commons on their prospects. Many names were considered for the former jurisdiction — from Pacifica to New Albion — but one parliamentarian was perhaps justified in suggesting they call it, simply, “Lytton Bulwer.”

Lytton shared Douglas’s dread of a “motley inundation of immigrant diggers,” but he hoped to counterbalance it by flooding British Columbia with sturdy Englishmen, who would cultivate its soil rather than ransack its creeks. No less important than agriculture were law and religion. Lytton sent Douglas a hard-riding chief justice, Matthew Begbie. He also helped facilitate a “munificent endowment” offered by the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, “for the foundation of a See in British Columbia.” With money in hand, the Archbishop of Canterbury dispatched a bishop, George Hills, complete with a prefabricated iron church.

Hills preached an energetic Christian imperialism, which was ostentatious in its respect for people of all creeds and colours; he notably scolded Americans for the “caste prejudice” that had kept them from worshipping with their Black compatriots in Victoria. As soon as British Columbia was blessed with a religious and law-abiding population, Lytton was sure, it could exploit its “immense resources,” including “fertile lands, fine Timber, adjacent Harbors, rivers, together with rich mineral products.” The colony might then develop representative institutions to match those of the mother country. Lytton even anticipated a rail link to the Atlantic.

Such visions caused headaches for Douglas, especially because Lytton believed that his distant colony could grow on the cheap. Like many a future B.C. politician, he confused government with a real estate play, believing that a swelling officialdom could be supported by prospecting townsites and selling off the lots to immigrants. When he sent a detachment of Royal Engineers to do that preparatory work, he wrongly assumed that the colony could afford their salaries. Douglas was furious at having to contract loans not just to pay these troops but to support their wives and children. It probably didn’t help that Richard Clement Moody, their prickly commanding officer, rarely seemed to leave base camp; he was more interested in finessing the layout of New Westminster than in building the roads that were vital to economic success.

Although Lytton’s staffers recognized the absurdity of his fiscal projections and fought Douglas’s corner, many in the Colonial Office remained unwilling to defray British Columbia’s start-up costs. After a second gold rush began in the northern region of Cariboo, they ignored pleas to fund road construction there. One official queried why “the starving cotton spinners in Lancashire” should be taxed to speed up deliveries of supplies to “Yankee Immigrants from California.”

Far from spurring on settler colonialism, the imperial bureaucrats often appeared skeptical about their possession. Barman shows that they also doubted their governor.

Born in the West Indies, the son of a Scottish merchant and a “creole” woman, Douglas had spent his career in the Pacific Northwest, far from the queen whose sovereignty he represented. British visitors to Victoria showed a prurient interest in his wife, who was of First Nations descent, and in their children, reaching for the ugly language of blood and “breed” to gauge how European they were. Officials in London concluded that Douglas had never outgrown the limited perspective of a fur trader. They felt he refused to grant more English freedoms to mainlanders because he did not know what those freedoms were.

In 1864, soon after he finally got Moody’s engineers off the payroll, Douglas was hustled into retirement. The Colonial Office henceforth chose old imperial hands as governors of British Columbia. These men arrived fresh from service in Asia, Australia, or the Caribbean — and with hopes of escaping to more prestigious positions. They were briskly realistic and often downbeat about the colony’s prospects.

Demography was no less an obstacle than economics to the creation of an England by the Pacific. When George Hills ventured up the Fraser River to scout his new diocese, he was struck by how few Englishmen there were to attend his services. He presciently noted that “variety of race,” by which he meant a plurality of languages and creeds, would make it hard to transplant the “Christianity of England.” Even in the patriotically named “city” of Lytton, the bishop met just four British subjects, the rest being “French, American & Mexican.”

When he could, Hills celebrated English families, successful farms, and bumper crops, but he knew that British Columbia would never be the Home Counties. He was also horrified to find that many miners had formed irregular liaisons with Indigenous women. As Barman notes, the mostly single white men were far outnumbered by Indigenous communities. She sensitively explores the resulting unions — some respectful and happy, others coercive and mercenary — and shows how a permanent population emerged from a transient mining one. Another challenge to Hills and Lytton’s pastoral and Anglocentric visions was the fact that many other miners were Chinese. It was generally members of this group, rather than English emigrants, who later made a success at market gardening.

British Columbia’s perpetually rickety finances meant that the spectre of its Americanization lingered, especially once the United States encircled it from the north with its purchase of Alaska in March 1867. After miners stopped calling in at Victoria — made the capital of British Columbia the following year — its prosperity faded and some of its leading citizens demanded annexation by the United States. London reacted with vigorous support for confederation with the newly created Dominion of Canada. The transfer to Canada of the vast territories of the Hudson’s Bay Company suddenly made such a plan feasible; the promise of a railway to connect with the Atlantic provinces made it economically attractive. To sighs of relief all round, the colony’s burgeoning debts were transferred to Ottawa, while office holders in Victoria got handsome pensions.

British Columbia might, in Barman’s strangely triumphal words, have been “saved for Canada,” but the losers were the region’s Indigenous peoples. Lytton ignored their title to land and believed that “red men” lacked “Law and Religion.” Yet he was, like Douglas, sincere in wishing that colonization should not succeed at their expense; extensive reserves were created to secure them “against the aggressions of immigrants.” Frederick Seymour, Douglas’s successor, encouraged First Nations to look to the Crown as an honest broker; he requested presents from the Colonial Office to distribute to their leaders on Queen Victoria’s birthday. One official in London even opposed union with Canada, because Ottawa would not be as effective in preventing “Anglo-Saxon violence ending in destruction of aborigines.”

This was a prophetic remark. After Douglas’s retirement, Joseph Trutch, the commissioner of lands and works, began slashing the size of reserves, in the belief that they were preventing the growth of settler agriculture. And as a strong supporter of entry into Confederation, he helped negotiate terms that committed the Dominion government to liberal — that is, miserly — policies toward First Nations. The final, terrible irony of Barman’s compelling story is that the worst excesses of what we now call colonialism began in British Columbia when — and partly because — its colonial status ended.