Skip to content

From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Our Feudal Immigration Policy

Why should an accident of birth determine who benefits from citizenship?

Liberal Interpretations

Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

The Colonist

Richard Blanshard’s brief tenure as governor of Vancouver Island

Michael Ledger-Lomas

The Curious Passage of Richard Blanshard: First Governor of Vancouver Island

Barry Gough

Harbour Publishing

344 pages, hardcover and ebook

Richard Blanshard has left little trace in British Columbia, except for the thoroughfare named after him in Victoria. In March 1850, he arrived in what was then the colony of Vancouver Island as its first governor, but he stuck it out there for only eighteen months, half of which he spent waiting for London to accept his resignation. Scholars have echoed Hubert Howe Bancroft, the early chronicler of the province, who wrote him off as a “son of misfortune.” The eminent naval historian Barry Gough, however, contends that a re-examination of Richard Blanshard can both establish him as a sympathetic and considerable figure and remind us of how uncertain early settler colonialism was in the Pacific Northwest.

The Curious Passage of Richard Blanshard is not so much a full life story as a vivid if sometimes prosy narrative of one man’s involvement with Vancouver Island. The author made a wise decision, because the materials for a conventional biography are lacking. Blanshard’s time before his arrival at Fort Victoria is spottily documented. Gough praises his “razor-sharp mind” but concedes he was sometimes “vague, even elusive.” The sources to supplement such impressions have vanished: a boat carrying Blanshard down Panama’s Chagres River sank on his journey home, drowning his private papers. Following his return to England, there is little more to say about him until his death in 1894. He married, then fell into bland respectability — managing his assets, running his considerable landed estates, and doing a spot of yachting.

Traces of London’s forgotten man at Fort Victoria.

Blair Kelly

Colourless Blanshard may have been, but Gough incisively argues that he was representative of the respectable capitalists who were the leading agents of imperial expansion. Clustered around the City of London, they were active in banking, commerce, and the chartered corporations, including the East India and Hudson’s Bay Companies, that steered and profited from the projection of British sovereignty overseas. Educated at Oxford and Cambridge before becoming a barrister, Blanshard struck Victoria’s grizzled fur traders as an overrefined gentleman. Yet his family was no less hard-nosed in its capitalism than they were. His father had been a trustee of West Indian slave plantations, had managed one of the ships that carried the East India Company’s goods, and had run a bank. The elder Blanshard invested in extractive industries too, building railways and docks that brought coal from County Durham to market. Richard had trained as a lawyer so that he could administer the family portfolio, even travelling to the Punjab in 1848 to inspect his father’s interests there. After war broke out with the Sikhs, he volunteered for military service, had a horse shot under him, and won a campaign medal.

Henry Pelly, the governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company in London, was a crony of Blanshard’s father and put Richard’s name forward to lead its new colony. The summer of 1849 was a propitious time for the thirty-one-year-old war hero to sail back to England. Despite the Oregon Treaty — which had set the border with the United States west of the Rocky Mountains at the forty-ninth parallel, then through the Strait of Juan de Fuca — statesmen had become concerned about Britain’s future on the Pacific. Earl Grey, the colonial secretary, worried about the “encroaching spirit of the U.S.,” especially as settlers flocked to the gold rushes in California and Oregon. One way to consolidate the frontier was to go along with Pelly’s proposal to charter the HBC to run a colony on Vancouver Island. Many of the company’s trading posts were now on the wrong side of the border, and their future was uncertain. Why not pull back to an offshore bastion and create a “kind of England attached to the continent of America,” as a British MP envisioned, populated by sturdy farmers? The boosters of the island looked forward to the day when it would feed California. This was to be a “proprietary” colony, where Britain would meet its defensive aims by lending its sovereignty to a company bent on profit. The Crown’s appointment of a lawyer like Blanshard to administer justice and eventually to form representative institutions would give it political cover.

Unfortunately, the HBC’s men on the spot, who disliked any distraction from the still lucrative fur trade, regarded Blanshard as a pointless excrescence. Gough sedulously documents the indignities they inflicted on him. He had to lodge with the chief factor, James Douglas, on his arrival, because work on his promised house had not even begun. Douglas stonewalled on whether the HBC would reimburse his travel expenses, in the end paying out only half of what Blanshard had spent. What’s more, the new governor had to buy his goods from Douglas at the prices charged to settlers, not at the HBC staff discount. He was soon going broke, not least because he had accepted his post without a salary — on the promise that the company would pay him one when it could raise sufficient revenues. Douglas even wriggled out of an undertaking to grant him a thousand acres of land, disingenuously claiming that it was reserved for the governorship rather than an individual.

Blanshard was soon firing gripes to the Colonial Office in London, which hardly made him popular with Douglas when it volleyed them back to Victoria. A still greater source of tension was his clear-sighted perception that many hopes for the colony were moonshine. Blanshard recognized that the HBC was operating under false pretenses: it was claiming to encourage settlement without doing much to attract newcomers. Grey had allowed the HBC to charge far too high a price for agricultural land and to lay too many restrictions on its sale, so many migrants simply headed to the United States instead. Blanshard was still more skeptical of the company’s belief that coal could secure Vancouver Island’s future. It was trying to create a coaling station at Fort Rupert in the north, where First Nations had long made use of surface deposits. When Blanshard visited, he inspected the area and returned a scathing report. He found that the miners contracted to locate underground seams had come up empty and were rebelling against their working conditions, while the fort’s staff kept deserting.

The killing of three such deserters prompted Blanshard to call in the Royal Navy. Its sailors launched raids on the Nahwitti — a cluster of Kwakwaka’wakw groups — burning boats and homes and engaging in desultory firefights. The skirmishes ended only when the Nahwitti killed the suspects they were harbouring and handed over their mutilated bodies to the British. Gough defends this dark blot on Blanshard’s comic tenure, which inaugurated a draconian period of gunboat policing on the coast. Applying a heavy hand was certainly no rogue move. Even Douglas acknowledged its “salutary effect,” and when he succeeded Blanshard as governor, he used the navy to threaten the Quw’utsun with collective punishment if they did not surrender the murderer of another man, an HBC shepherd, killed north of Victoria. Gough chides the liberal Grey, who was squeamish about the cost of such raids, for his inability to understand frontier life. He implies that Blanshard was right to argue that he had “prevented a massacre” by reminding the warlike peoples around tiny Fort Rupert of Britain’s might.

Gough writes that it took decades to bring “Pax Britannica” to the “troublesome” First Nations of Vancouver Island, but “it began with Blanshard.” The British had no monopoly on violence at Fort Rupert: it was located in a contact zone where Indigenous peoples conducted trade but also often killed or enslaved one another. Yet Blanshard was not just upholding an abstract understanding of law; he was wielding it to advance capitalism. He viewed the existing population as “savage and treacherous.” Questioned at a parliamentary inquiry some years later, he agreed with one MP’s suggestion that “the red man . . . invariably disappears as the civilised man comes on” and accepted the admittedly “inhuman statement” that “the sooner they get rid of the Indians the better.”

An intermittent fever known as ague, which Blanshard probably contracted when he crossed malarial Panama on his journey to the Pacific, soon put paid to any more sabre-rattling initiatives. He returned to London broken in body and mind. Yet he took with him what Gough considers Vancouver Island’s Magna Carta, a petition-like “Memorial” from its “independent settlers” against surrendering powers to Douglas, who was likely to prioritize the interests of the HBC over those of the colony. Blanshard’s last act was to respond to their demands by creating a council that would force Douglas to consult beyond his clique of officials, many of whom were his friends and relatives. Although the appeal vanished into the files of the Colonial Office, it was later printed as part of the parliamentary inquiry into the colony, to which Blanshard contributed an unsparing critique of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1857, it duly lost its charter. Although Douglas kept power, he did so as governor of a new crown colony, severing his ties to his employer.

Gough’s keenness to redeem the “soiled reputation” of his hero is faintly Victorian. If Blanshard left “a legacy which bespeaks greatness,” then he hardly needs our pity as a “casualty of empire.” Indeed, soon after returning to England, he inherited his father’s wealth. When he died in London’s elegant Marylebone area, he was worth fourteen million pounds in today’s money. Nonetheless, his minor martyrdom is instructive. His struggles with a “Family-Company Compact” remind us how hard it has always been for government to challenge corporate power in these contested lands.

Michael Ledger-Lomas is a historian of religion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and a visiting fellow at King’s College, London.