Sceptre and Crown Come Tumbling Down

When Governor James Douglas was appointed boss of what we call British Columbia, he had the authority to raise and train a small army and dispatch it to wherever it was needed on the new frontier. Fortunately, he lacked the bodies and the money to do anything meaningful with that power.

In a dispatch on August 24, 1858, with troubles brewing among gold miners on the Fraser River, he asked Royal Navy Capt. Montresor of HMS Calypso based in Esquimalt for help. There was a degree of urgency in the message, a detectable edge of panic:

“Intelligence has just been received here of an alarming collision between white miners and the native Indian Tribes of Fraser’s River. A sanguinary war of races, the inevitable consequence of a prolonged state of misrule, may plunge the Government into the most serious difficulties unless steps be taken to immediately avert the evil. I therefore propose to visit that country as soon as the necessary arrangements can be completed.

“A military force is essentially necessary on that occasion, to represent and sustain the dignity of the Queen’s Government; and I make the appeal to you, sir, in Her Majesty’s name, for a detachment of one officer and ten marines … to be placed at my disposal …”

Capt. Montresor replied immediately. He was sorry, but couldn’t help having been given orders just that day “to proceed to sea tomorrow morning.” He promised to relay the Douglas request to his replacement on station, one Capt. Prevost of HMS Satellite.

Two weeks later, Douglas was able to inform London of the actions he had taken. Again, there is a nervous edge to the note addressed to the Rt. Hon. Lord Stanley, MP dated August 27, 1858: “My Lord, since I last addressed you … an alarming report reached this place of the murder of 42 miners by the Indians of Fraser’s River …”

Douglas went on to say he had immediately gathered a force of Royal Navy Marines to suppress any thoughts of native rebellion and was now happy to report “the alarming report has since been contradicted” and that “two men only were killed by the Indians instead of the larger number previously reported.”

He added that he still intended to proceed with his military mission up the Fraser, although “the military force is absurdly small for such an occasion, but I shall use every exertion in my power to accomplish the great object in view, and to assert the rights of my country, in the hopes that early measures will be taken by Her Majesty’s Government to relieve the country from its present perilous state.”

The report, dispatched August 27, was not received in London until October 11, by which time Douglas was sorting the blame and writing London asking for help on the disposition of “white men engaged in mining pursuits” who had been found guilty of murder “and sentenced to transportation for life.” Unfortunately, he wrote, “there is no penal settlement within reach, and I have no means of forming a settlement for that purpose.” He asked London if it would “permit the removal of any convicted criminal to any penal settlement in Australia” and if so, how “the expense of their removal is to be defrayed.”

I haven’t yet been able to find a response to that request – or what the Aussies thought of the idea. I am just reciting a “blame game” trail which started with reports of insurrection on the Fraser with 42 miners “murdered”, morphed into two killed in a fight (not an unusual happening in gold mining camps) and finally into serious problems created by “white men…who have been found guilty of murder.”

In 1857, while Douglas was fielding nervous twitches on Canada’s west coast, there had been a cataclysmic revolt of natives in India against their British overlords. At Cawnpore (now Kanpur) the British garrison was overrun. After surrendering to the native forces, survivors were first promised passage to safety then massacred – soldiers and civilians, women and children. Last to be killed were three women and children; their bodies tossed down a well.

There were other outrages echoing to all corners of the British Empire in sufficient strength to provide righteous justification for the revenge to follow; the humiliation and slaughter of prisoners and civilians by British troops when Cawnpore was recaptured – and in other areas where the Sepoy Rebellion had early success. There has never been an accurate count of the thousands massacred by both sides, but at the time only the brutality of the rebels made the dreadful headlines.

It would take another hundred years or so to complete but the greatest empire the world had ever seen had begun its collapse. Watching its fall and considering its possible world power replacement is fascinating and frightening.

We don’t seem to have made much progress in humanitarian beliefs since those days when an eye for an eye was regarded as balanced justice. Revenge is too often what we seek even when, as polite Canadians, we dress it up as the nicer sounding “reconciliation.”

One comment

  1. Imagine the carnage there might have been had officials accepted Governor Douglas’s first report at face value. Troops would have been dispatched. The Indians, of course, would have fought back and there would have been casualties on both sides. This would be viewed as justification for the raid on the “rebellious” and “murderous” Indians and some of their leaders might have been arrested and hanged.

    You see where this is going: a preview of the Riel Rebellion a quarter of a century later.

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