Mark Milke: Everyone alive today, with no exceptions, has ancestors who did things to be ashamed of – and those to be proud of.
A few years back when writing up my latest book, The Victim Cult (warning—author promotion here), I almost titled a chapter on history’s lessons “All our ancestors were bastards.”
I opted for a milder title which makes the same point: “Everyone’s (ancestor was) a victim.”
Most will grasp the point without delving into the book. In an age where some wish to justify some present-day policy, or to topple a statue, or to—ahem—perhaps change the name of a province, it is popular to drag out some imagined or real historical wrong, tag it to an entire group, or historical period, and then proceed with the predetermined agenda.
A case in point: The Village of Pemberton recently voted to change the name of British Columbia. They have no idea to what, only that it should change. Pemberton councillors also put forward a motion at the Lower Mainland Local Government Association’s annual general meeting. They want the province’s name sent down some Orwellian memory hole.
The motion failed, garnering 40%, but that’s hardly a resounding defeat. Expect the issue to arise again care of the anti-historical revisionists.
They are anti-historical because no doubt part of the prompting for the name change is the claim that the British colonialists were not perfect.
Right. They were not.
But whenever someone deigns to remove a statue (see: John A. MacDonald), lop a statue head (see: Queen Elizabeth II’s statue in Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park), or suggest a name change because of imperfections in past peoples, I always wonder if such cultural-historical wrecking crews grasp this likely possibility: That in 2121, many of our great-great-great-great grandchildren will also think those of us alive today were daft, and missed the big picture.
To wit, if the argument for changing British Columbia’s name rests on the notion of past colonial imperfection, that misses the big picture as well: Everyone’s ancestors fail by modern standards. And others, even out-of-step on some matters, had redeeming qualities on others.
But when ideologues look back, they see only extremes in black-and-white, and never the full spectrum of colour. They engage in cartoonish history.
Slavery in the Pacific Northwest
Want a clear example from the British and British Columba? Here’s one, and which relates to my point that everyone’s ancestors were less than ideal. Most civilizations in history practiced slavery and that included pre-English Indigenous peoples in the Americas including in what we now (and still) call British Columbia, Alaska, and Washington, i.e., the Pacific Northwest
“Slavery was a permanent status in all Northwest Coast societies,” wrote anthropologist Leland Donald in his 1997 book, Aboriginal Slavery on the Northwest Coast of North America. Slavery in the Pacific Northwest developed at some point between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500, long before European contact, and at contact, slaves were clearly set apart from the existing tribal ranking system and prestige-seeking in the region.
Slaves could end up in that predicament for any number of reasons: captured as part of inter-tribal warfare, after inter-tribal raids, born to an existing slave, or if they were an orphan (which could lead to enslavement even in one’s own tribe, as occurred among the Clayoquot, Lummi, Chinook, and Puyalup-Nisqually).
To skip much detail about the practice, but cut to British efforts to abolish the practice, the British outlawed slavery in the British Empire in 1833 and the Americans in 1865, but it took until the end of the 19th century in the Pacific Northwest to end slavery in the region. That was both due to refusal to comply with the ban in some indigenous communities and the difficulty of enforcement in such a remote the region.
As one example from Donald’s book, in British Columbia, in 1840, six years after the Slavery Abolition Act took effect (it was passed in 1833 and effective in 1834), James Douglas, later a governor of Vancouver Island but then commanding Fort Vancouver, encountered resistance. Writing the colonial office in London, he pointed to how, with indigenous communities, “I have hitherto endeavoured to discourage the practice by the exertion of moral influence alone,” but “Against our own people I took a more active part, and denounced slavery as a state contrary to law; tendering to all unfortunate persons held as slaves, by British subjects, the fullest protection in the enjoyment of their natural rights.”
In Alaska, slavery was still ongoing at the time of the 1867 purchase by the Americans, with reports of it continuing until the 1890s.
Victoria’s earliest black arrivals from California
Here’s another bit of local history to consider, also relevant to a more nuanced picture of the “British” in British Columbia.
In The Blacks in Canada: A History, written by then-Yale University History Professor Robin Winks and first published in 1970, a cohort of black Americans from California, 35 at first, moved to Victoria in 1858, founding the city’s first black colony. They moved because even though they were free in California, increasing racism and restrictions were being enacted in the state. In contrast, as Winks writes, shortly after arriving in Victoria in April, and marvelling at the blossoming peach trees, a selection of the arrivals, a delegation, met with Governor James Douglas, who “received them warmly.”
A local Anglican minister, Edward Cridge, also welcomed the ex-Americans, including to his services. Also, “the local authorities confirmed” that the new arrivals from California “would be accepted as settlers without legal discrimination.” And indeed, this turned out to be true: The black arrivals could buy land, and if partly purchased with borrowed money, were not subject to tax until they owned the land outright.
In addition, after nine months the black immigrants could vote and serve on juries; they were granted British citizenship after seven years.
As it happened, some of the delegate who met Douglas and Cridge later wrote back to fellow Californians to brag about how Victoria was “one of the garden spots of the world.” (Victorians have been bragging about the weather and their gardens ever since.) More black emigrants arrived as a result of such favourable publicity and the 1872 census recorded 472 black British Columbians, though Winks argues this number might be low, with 600 closer to the mark. For context, Victoria’ population was 3,671 in 1871.
It is not that the first black British Columbians never experienced prejudice or racism. It was in fact the arrival of more Americans, this time white, who brought assumptions of segregation with them, that proved highly problematic in future years and decades. Also, regrettably, Winks notes, black arrivals to British Columbia (a colony until 1871), even encountered prejudice from some—emphasis on some, not all—indigenous individuals.
But the first British Columbians encountered by the arriving black Californians were sympathetic. Winks speculates that Douglas was so because he knew that his mother was “either a West Indian mulatto or a Creole.” As for local media, The British Colonist editor Amor de Cosmos urged fellow white citizens to recognize the “sobriety, honesty, industry, intelligence and enterprise” of the new immigrants.
Of some irony, one traveller recognized the same qualities and in 1862 observed that the black arrivals to Victoria were “a far more steady, sober and thrifty set” than those local whites who were prejudiced against the recent immigrants.
The history lesson’s point
The general point here is not to paint anyone’s ancestors as all bad or all good. I always side with the late Soviet dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote in the Gulag Archipelago that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Solzhenitsyn meant that it was a mistake to think “we” are all good and “they” or all bad. And that applies to simplistic narratives that posit someone else’s ancestors as wholly evil and ours as wholly pure.
And for the record, I write this not as someone with British heritage. My ethnic background is German, though I grew up always assuming I was English Canadian.
Almost everyone’s ancestors were less than ideal. That should lead us to grasp this reality: We have a lot more in common with each other today than with our ancestors.
And if we must re-examine shameful moments of history, we should also remember the triumphs. The British abolished slavery nearly before anyone. They then tried to stamp it out in the British Empire; they even used their navy to disrupt and end the slave trade on the high seas.
As someone with a supposed German ancestry, historically, give me the Brits over the Huns any day.
So no, we should not change British Columbia’s name.
Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Mark Milke last wondered why does every discussion instantly ratchet up to the best- and worst-possible interpretations, with nuance actively disdained? Because that’s the age we live in.
- May Q. Wong also wrote about the first black immigrants to Vancouver Island, who helped shape the community in ways still felt today.
- In 2018, Daniel Marshall took note that Victoria honoured Mifflin Gibbs, a trailblazer, civil rights activist – and its first black city councillor.