When a Great Plague Ran Rampant In The West

“Death pervaded the outskirts of Victoria. Shallow graves covered the ground, and a putrid smell hovered over them. In late June 1862, because there were too many bodies to bury, heavy rocks had been tied to corpses and thrown into two nearby bays. But it wasn’t until the following year that a sense of the enormity of the destruction in Victoria was reported on …” 

That was June 28, 1863, when The Daily British Colonist reported on Page 3 that (near the town) “the bodies of from 1,000 to 1,200 northern Indians who have fallen victim to smallpox lie unburied in the space of about an acre of land.” The site is never explicitly identified, but shallow graves for the dead in places other than official cemeteries became a repeated editorial complaint of the local press.

Readers who have already decided that this is unpleasant reading are correct; it is unpleasant. But, it is nowhere near as unpleasant as we would be experiencing today if our leaders had let history repeat itself when dealing with the current pandemic.

We have been fortunate to have public health officials with a high sense of duty and responsibility as well as the courage to freeze all social interactions, thus limiting the spread of contamination. As a result of the rules and regulations keeping us at home or in well-spaced social casual conversation, COVID-19 has been contained with 111 BC deaths compared to more than 50,000 dead in BC from smallpox in 1862.

There is talk now of easing those regulations sometime next week. I hope our public health people and our provincial government show great resolve when they decide which – if any – rules and regulations they need to keep in place. Their record to date is that they will use good judgement and follow medical science recommendations.

Back in 1862, doctors and government officials had three avenues available to cure or contain smallpox: A proven vaccine discovered in 1790 by Edward Jenner, but in short supply and still viewed by some with suspicion; isolation of a victim in a particular hospital; or, what was bluntly called “expulsion” with the victim expelled without assistance from the healthy community.

Most religious groups had a hand – not always merciful – in the ultimate enforced solutions as did the press but with a role that switched and changed direction as sudden as a coastal squall. The government was blamed for everything that went wrong – sometimes justly.

One fulminating editorial demanded “the prompt removal of every Indian, whether male or female, from the town and vicinity. They should be sent to some place remote from the whites and that without a moment’s delay else, we shall in all probability have to record among our white population many serious losses from the infection …”

When the government finally made a decision to return all natives – healthy or infected and dying – to their home tribe territory, they moved them out in a convoy of native dugout canoes roped together and towed by two navy vessels.

It is estimated between 2,000 and 2,500 natives were living in small villages along the coast north of Victoria. As they vacated their home sites, the military escort burned their old homes and barns and any remaining property to discourage any thoughts of return.

Historian Robert Boyd has estimated the indigenous coastal population between Victoria and southern Alaska at around 30,000 before the 1862 smallpox epidemic. A year after the terror struck, only 15,000 survived. Haida Gwaii lost 75 per cent of its population, and the history books tell us the number of Haida villages dropped from 13 to seven.

A final note for us moderns, especially those among us who feel that the spectre of COVID-19 is the greatest threat to health our world has ever faced. Make room for smallpox in the standings.

Wikipedia tells me smallpox was around when Cleopatra was doing her thing with Mark Anthony 3,000 years ago; that during the 18th Century, it killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans a year, including five reigning monarchs and was responsible for a third of all blindness. Between 29 and 60 per cent of those infected – and over 80 per cent of infected children – died from the disease.

During the 20th Century, smallpox was responsible for more than 300 million deaths. As recently as 1967, the World Health Organization estimated the disease claimed two million lives that year. In 1979, the WHO certified smallpox as eradicated.

Now, follow the rules as our leaders try to find us safe haven beyond Covid 19. Stay calm. Always lean toward stringent safety precautions; and don’t ever think it brave, or even cute, to make it easy for a fatal infection to find a home.

3 comments

  1. A sad tale indeed. These natives like their brethren throughout the New World had no immunity to smallpox. Historians estimate 90 percent of the aboriginal population was killed by the disease over the past 500 years.

    Makes our pandemic look like a picnic.

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