Secret Victoria: Rush to Freedom


(slow, melancholy music) – The first incident took place at the Victoria
(speaks indistinctly). Nathan Pointer had been
Mifflin Gibbs’s first partner in San Francisco. Nathan and his wife, Sarah,
were among the first blacks to arrive in Victoria, and he prospered. – When I was going to school,
you learnt about the British, and you learnt about all
sorts of different people. But there is really nothing
about my own people. There’s a story about
the black pioneers of British Columbia. It’s a big story of a
small group of people and the fortitude to go
forward to embrace a new life. It’s a fascinating story,
really; it’s a hidden story. – This is the grave of a
sea captain, Jeremiah Nagle, who was responsible for
bringing a large number of the first blacks
here from California. – 700 black people
in a year and a half. We needed the population. Otherwise, the United
States would’ve taken us. – This is a story about
people who should not have succeeded as
well as they did in a place as unlikely (laughs) as Victoria, British Columbia. (dramatic bluegrass music) – Canada was settled by
a corporate structure, Hudson’s Bay Company, and so, while the Americans had
frontiersmen and cowboys and individual settler families, the Hudson’s Bay Company had
clerks from the Hebrides. – So in 1849, Great Britain
declares this island, Vancouver Island, a colony,
even though there’s probably only 40 or 50 non-indigenous
people here and something like 25,000 indigenous
inhabitants on the island. So those few people
suddenly became a colony. – So this was a very small
outpost here at that time. Was it a bit chaotic? Well, it was in its
infancy for sure, but certainly, there were
rules and regulations. – Victoria, it was
just mud in the streets and a town just beginning
to sprout its wings. – It had only a nominal
military protection, one or two Royal Navy
vessels, but they knew they were in a pretty weak
position, all told. – There was a definite
threat that the Americans would expand north, and they
have already annexed Texas. They provoked a war with Mexico and seized essentially
California and New
Mexico, Arizona. – And there was a lot of
talk about Manifest Destiny and how the whole North America was going to be
the United States. Sir James Douglas, who
was the chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay
Company in the west, could see that he was in
a vulnerable position. You had the Russians
to the north of him, the Americans to the south,
and he didn’t have much to back up British
claims to this territory. – And with the Gold Rush, it really brought
it all to a head. James Douglas said the Gold Rush would be complete trouble for
them, trouble without end. (discordant, solemn music) – California had its own
gold discovery in 1849, and that was the big one
that brought hundreds of thousands of migrants, totally overwhelming the
indigenous population there, the Spanish population there. But that Gold Rush
starts to peter out, and James Douglas could
see Americans poised in San Francisco looking
for another opportunity, another strike to head towards. Meantime, First Nations
have been trading gold. Gold was of no value
to First Nations. They did not collect it,
they did not value it until they noticed
that the Europeans were paying a lot of money
for these shiny pebbles. And so they started trading
with the Hudson’s Bay Company. James Douglas, who was in charge of the Hudson’s
Bay Company here, he tried to keep
that news quiet. – But you can’t keep
gold discoveries quiet. You get the first reports
of Fraser River gold and Thompson River gold
discoveries occurring in the few newspapers there are. They get repeated
in Oregon press, and those get reprinted
in California press. – So he knew was going
to suddenly find himself with an avalanche of
Americans on his hands and just a few hundred clerks
to defend British interests. – He actually asked
the British government to send out a military force
to keep all foreign minors out. That is refused. – Prospectors could easily
have simply declared the Republic of Fraser River, whatever, and they were all
well armed, very well armed. – There is every possibility
that British Columbia could have been run over and
become an American state. And so, if you could find
settlers, you needed settlers. You needed people growing food. You needed people paying tax. You needed to create a revenue
in order to build the roads. – He needed at least
a civilian population that was not American,
and he knew one population that had just been decreed by the Supreme Court
to be non American, and those were free
blacks born in the USA. – Black population in the
United States in the 1850s was a mixture of a large
number of plantation slaves who were owned by
white plantation
owners and free blacks who had, often they
purchased their own freedom by working and saving
money, so technically free but really without the
rights of citizens. – They were free people,
but what did that entail? Not much. They were not able to actually
purchase land in the States. They could rent it. They could work on
somebody else’s land, but it wasn’t theirs. – They couldn’t vote,
they couldn’t testify against a white man in court,
they couldn’t serve on juries. They were essentially unpersons. – And then a couple of really significant
court cases happened in the United
States in the 1850s, especially a decision called
the Dred Scott decision. Dred Scott was a slave who had essentially been
promised his freedom, and the courts ruled
that his slave owner could take him back at any time. – The Dred Scott
decision had said that even a freeborn
black person in the USA could never
become a citizen. And this essentially
consigned hundreds of thousands of people
to this perpetual limbo. – California in the 1850s
was a so-called free state, that there was no
institutionalized
slavery in California. – It was very much
a white man’s state. There were a lot of pro-slavery
people living in it, and the black people said
what can we do about this? – A lot of these people
that had fled to California, they spent their whole
life running from the man, running from persecution,
running from racism, running from racist laws. – They were hungry
for a new opportunity and were casting around
looking north and south into Mexico, north
into British Columbia. I think even some folks
considered South America as a way of escaping
this craziness. – They had to find
a peace of mind. They had to find a land where
they could live in peace without being persecuted because
of the color of their skin. Douglas here, he had
heard about the dilemma that they were in
in San Francisco because of the Dred
Scott decision, and he had empathy
because of his background. A lot of people don’t realize
Douglas was biracial himself. – James Douglas had been born in what was then British Guiana. His father was Scottish,
and his mother was what they called Creole,
which meant that she was presumably part
black and part white. – [Anthony] He was the
right man at the right time to mold the problems
of British Columbia. – Especially as a
mixed-race gentleman, just made perfect sense to
send an invitation down south of the border to San
Francisco to say hey, why don’t you come up
here, check us out? – Come to British Columbia
and settle as British citizens where they would have the
right to vote and own property. – Which was just a
dramatic contrast to what the Americans
now offered them. (slow, poignant piano music) – [Karen] What they did
was they sent a group of about five people up
ahead of time to see if this was a legitimate reason
or a legitimate letter. – They met Douglas,
they looked around, they saw a lot of
job opportunities. One man wrote back saying this is a God-sent land
for the colored man. So very rapidly, after
that news got back, something like 600 black
people, men, women, children, arrived in Victoria Harbor
and became new settlers. – To me, one of the great
ironies and sad ironies of this migration was
that they booked passage on the Commodore. And, I think, after
they booked passage, the word got out that there
was gold in British Columbia. So some 300 other
passengers booked on the Commodore, and
these were Americans, the same Americans
that they were fleeing. Basically, the same
racism and prejudice they were fleeing hopped
on the boat with them and came with them
to British Columbia. So they faced the discrimination
daily on the streets that they’d faced
in San Francisco. But when they encountered
discrimination here, then they actually did
have access to the courts. And the fact that
they had the vote gave them some
powerful influence in
the local community. So the arrival of the
blacks, in some ways, was a real boon to James Douglas because he knew he
had a population of new settlers who
would help ally with him against any American
expansionism. So when they wanted
to form themselves into a volunteer militia,
James Douglas encouraged that. And so they created something
called The Pioneer Rifles. – It was all black, and they trained, and they
wore proper 1860s uniforms. They were something of a factor in Victoria politics
for a year or two. They didn’t last, mostly
because the government, by then, wasn’t afraid
of being taken over by the Americans, so they
didn’t really need anything but the Royal Navy
to protect them. – The black community
that arrived in Victoria was comprised of
a whole, I guess, a gamut of people from
entrepreneurs to laborers, barbers and
restaurateurs, farmers. And so they spread
out quite diversely through Victoria and
British Columbia society. We can think of Charles and
Nancy Alexander who came, also free blacks from San
Francisco, finally settled as farmers in the Saanich
Peninsula and became one of the founding families of
Shady Creek Church out there. – He built a lot
of the buildings in the greater Victoria area. His wife was instrumental
in all church functions, as well as gave
birth to 12 children, so she was quite busy
just being a mom. One of the family
reunions we held had 450 some-odd
people come to it, and they were all
direct descendants of Charles and Nancy Alexander. – Other families like
the Starks and two men called William
Robinson actually moved to Salt Spring Island
and formed the basis of a really solid part of the
Salt Spring Island community that is a black
farming community. – Sylvia Stark, she
was born into slavery, born into slavery. And her father bought
them their freedom, and she came across the Oregon
Trail and landed in Victoria. The Stark family,
they were farmers. They planted gardens
and fished, they hunted. Sylvia’s son was
a cougar hunter. He was the guy that was
responsible, I think, for exterminating most of the
cougars on Salt Spring Island. – One of the settlers who
came up in the early 1860s was John Sullivan Deas who
was the first guy, ultimately, to decide that you
could can salmon in British Columbia
and make it profitable. And so he started the
first salmon cannery on what’s now Deas Island,
just in the Fraser River, and famous now because the
Dees Island tunnel runs underneath the island. – Mifflin Wistar
Gibbs was clearly the leader of the community. He had been wise enough to buy
a ton of mining supplies, pick axes, shovels,
big sacks of flour, tea and coffee and so forth. And he hit the ground
running in Victoria, and he did extremely well. The business boomed. He and his partner, Peter
Lester, made a small fortune and then went on to
other activities as well. – Politically, he was
elected to City Council. He represented
Salt Spring Island in the Confederation debates. – Of course, after the
Civil War concluded, blacks like Mifflin Gibbs,
many of them went back to their old country. Mifflin Gibbs became
the first black judge in United States
history in Arkansas. – When he died in 1915, I think he must’ve been
the richest black man in the United States. So many of them went back, and I often wish I
could go back in time and say don’t go
(laughs) because it’s gonna get worse again very soon. – So they didn’t leave a
huge population behind, but I would say that
one of the things that their settlement
signifies to us today is that British Columbia started as a really multicultural,
multiracial society. They are very much
an important part of that early British
Columbia settlement which shows us that
British Columbia wasn’t very British
in the early days. – Everybody knows the
story of the black pioneers in fractional detail. What I’ve learned in two bouts
of research for two editions of my book is that there
is so much more to learn. – [Anthony] Legacy, they
were grassroots people that came here, and they
planted their seeds here in terms of business and their
families and to live life. – I think what they
succeeded at doing was getting on with their
lives as ordinary people. They showed that you
could settle down, raise a family, earn a
living, go to church, get your kids through school,
and not have to worry too much about people burning
your house down in the middle of the night. What my research has taught me is that you don’t
understand the big picture if you don’t understand
the contribution that BC’s black settlers
made to that picture. (slow, moving
instrumental music)

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