Infected at birth
By Rob Wipond, July/August 2012
150 years ago, on August 2, 1862, the townsite of Fort Victoria was incorporated as the City of Victoria. But while Victorians get ready to don their party hats, a new book by Tom Swanky presents evidence that the circumstances surrounding that birth are nothing to celebrate.
Most written histories of British Columbia record that an unknown, ill traveller—what modern epidemiologists would identify as a “patient zero”—arrived with smallpox in Victoria on March 12, 1862, on a ship from San Francisco called the Brother Jonathan. The British Colonist newspaper reported that the smallpox case was “not considered a dangerous one,” so the disembarking passenger was not detained or quarantined. Yet in fact, Patient Zero would within days ignite one of the most devastating epidemics in Canadian history. That’s why Tom Swanky interrupts right here and asks: Is any case of smallpox ever “not dangerous”? Who promoted this falsity, and why?
A former news editor and businessman from Quesnel with a law degree (University of Alberta) and a degree in political science from UVic, Swanky has spent much of the past ten years uncovering and re-examining the facts of the calamitous smallpox outbreak of 1862. Even by conservative estimates, this outbreak killed tens of thousands of indigenous peoples within 15 months and completely reshaped this province’s cultural and political landscape.
Swanky began his study when helping his filmmaker son write a screenplay about the 1862-64 Cariboo goldrush and Chilcotin War. Historians agree the period was a seminal turning point in modern British Columbian history, but Swanky kept noticing that most whites describe the smallpox epidemic that began in Victoria as accidental and incidental to the major events, while most First Nations oral history sources say the epidemic was deliberately orchestrated and pivotal.
“I made a transition from writing a screenplay to trying to figure out what actually happened,” says Swanky. “It became a mystery that I had to solve.”
So Swanky conducted interviews with indigenous descendants of eyewitnesses, delved into books, archives, and nineteenth-century newspapers which have only recently become indexed in databases, criss-crossed the province giving presentations and soliciting new information and, this May, finally released his self-published book, The True Story of Canada’s “War” of Extermination on the Pacific. In it, Swanky builds an expansive, detailed and complexly interwoven evidentiary case that smallpox was deliberately spread, through a plan masterminded by Victoria’s colonial leaders, in an effort to eradicate BC indigenous peoples and steal their land. “This was ethnic cleansing,” he says. “This was an instance of genocide.”
The notion is not in principle preposterous—for example, an eighteenth-century British forces commander famously proposed using smallpox as a weapon against American Indian populations. But Swanky’s bold analysis cries out for independent evaluation and discussion.
However, that will take time. Swanky self-published so he could ensure the story was told “in a responsible and respectful way.” Unfortunately, various self-editing decisions make the book challenging to digest. Swanky takes a crime-solving approach and tells much of the complicated history going backwards in time, too often paints over weaker evidence with strident speculating, and struggles to distinguish between the truly significant and abjectly minor (there are two pages about the linguistic roots of a nickname). Nevertheless, it’s still an epic piece of scholarship, with an admirable respect for First Nations’ perspectives and nearly a thousand footnotes, which no experts familiar with Swanky’s work are dismissing out of hand.
John Lutz, a University of Victoria professor and author specializing in BC history hasn’t read Swanky’s book yet, but has had discussions with him and seen one of his presentations. Lutz is intrigued by some of what Swanky’s detective-like approach has uncovered.
“Nobody’s looked at the Chilcotin War or the smallpox epidemic in the same depth he has,” comments Lutz. “His ability to connect Cavendish Venables [involved in surveying the road from Bella Coola] and A and B and C and D and track them over the province is astonishing. I’ve never seen anybody do that.” Lutz is also keen to examine the relationships between government, land speculators and developers Swanky has dug up. “I haven’t done the kind of corporate connection research—and nobody has honestly, before Tom—to make all of those links. I think that it’s remarkable in its own right, the whole history of those companies and their relationships.”
Anthropologist Marc Pinkoski, who has taught indigenous studies and BC history at UVic and in his community-based Free Knowledge Project, managed to get through half of Swanky’s 500-page tome by press time.
“It’s quite amazing in that it’s so different. It’s such an affront to the history that we’re normally told,” says Pinkoski. “It’s impressive…But at the same time it makes my head spin.” Because Swanky’s book is so provocative and vast in scope, says Pinkoski, it’s going to take time for independent historians to cross-check facts and sources and develop their own perspectives. “It’s very challenging and very important, and I still feel cautious about the conclusions, the data, all of it.”
Grand Chief Stanley Stump of the Tsilhqot’in Nation, where most of the book’s action occurs, is chairman of the Chilcotin National Congress and a descendent of prominent leaders killed during the Chilcotin War. He’s spoken extensively with Swanky over the years. Does his community see Swanky’s understanding of their history as accurate? “Yes, we do. From our stories of our elders that I remember, a lot of it had to do with smallpox.”
Even Swanky admits, though, it took years of study before he was ready to accept what he was uncovering. “My mind just wasn’t open to the awfulness of it,” he says. “It just seemed so terrible.”
So what was Patient Zero’s actual condition, why did authorities allow him to roam freely, and where did he go? To answer these questions, it’s crucial to first understand the context into which he was walking, says Swanky.
By 1862 in Victoria, smallpox vaccine—made from cowpox virus—was generally available, effective and safe. It had replaced inoculation, a much older form of prevention, in which a tiny amount of smallpox virus was inserted into a cut to produce a mild form of smallpox followed by immunity, but the patient was still dangerously infectious for weeks. With smallpox spreading through air, quarantine was the only safe approach. Considering the knowledge and experience colonial authorities had from previous epidemics, they undoubtedly knew all this, says Swanky. “These guys are not ignorant about smallpox. They’re not naïve about any of this.”
And who are “these guys”? Although they’re somewhat dishonourable in most historians’ accounts, by the end of Swanky’s investigations it’s difficult not to feel as though our early colonial authorities were a tight-knit cabal of power-hungry, profiteering, racist thugs.
James Douglas—previously Hudson’s Bay Company chief factor and agent for HBC’s colonization arm, the Puget’s Sound Agricultural Company (PSAC)—had recently been appointed governor of the Vancouver Island, Queen Charlotte Islands and British Columbia colonies. This made Douglas “the unchallenged controller of political and commercial affairs,” wrote George Woodcock in British Columbia: A History of the Province. Despite a straw-man elected assembly, wrote Woodcock, “No approach had been made towards responsible government…Douglas ruled in Cromwellian style...” His leadership team of mostly former HBC associates included top physician (and Douglas’ son-in-law) Dr John Helmcken, Vancouver Island Chief Justice (and Douglas’ brother-in-law with no legal training) David Cameron, top BC judge (with no criminal law training) Matthew Begbie, PSAC manager Dr William Tolmie, and Surveyor-General Joseph Pemberton and his uncle, Victoria Police Commissioner Augustus Pemberton. Newspapers often referred to Douglas’ incestuous, powerful inner circle as “the Company Compact” and “Fort Clique.”
But Swanky draws particular attention to colonial second-in-command and Douglas appointee Attorney-General George Cary, who was described even by Helmcken as “very brilliant” but “not overburdened with the ordinary ideas of right and wrong.” Cary’s acts of despotism, violence and greed were infamous—he frequently brawled and once tried to covertly purchase Victoria’s public water supply from under it. One Grand Jury complained about Cary’s in-court “outrages of decorum committed with impunity.”
Racist attitudes infused these leaders. For example, Victoria as a trade centre by 1862 had grown to a population of 8,000 with nearly as many local and northern natives as European colonists and, in an official report to Britain, Douglas lamented the “troublesome and disagreeable” presence of all these indigenous “savages” and “barbarians.” Even though Europeans had been settling here for only 20 years, and had barely ventured into the BC interior, Swanky’s book highlights the astonishing speed and presumptiveness with which colonial leaders sought to impose their wills, laws and ways of life on all indigenous nations.
The broader social and economic context, says Swanky, was important, too: Fur trading was declining, colonization increasing. British law required colonial governments to make treaties and land settlements with First Nations, but the British government had told Douglas they wouldn’t be providing money for such efforts. Without treaties, though, the influx of Europeans marching deeper into BC towards interior gold fields was sure to foster bloody conflicts with indigenous peoples, as had happened elsewhere.
According to Swanky, all this set the stage for what came next. “They have to solve this problem of how do they deal with native occupancy, and how do they deal with control of resources,” he says. “The colonial project cannot proceed as long as the Indian regimes are in place. Because the Indians will not accept the British institutions. That’s the reality. They know that.”
Disease is spread
Fourteen days after Patient Zero’s March 12 arrival in Victoria, smallpox symptoms were appearing amongst children at the Songhees village. But Swanky points to something other historians haven’t: It takes 10-14 days for someone who has contracted smallpox to become visibly symptomatic or infectious. Therefore, Patient Zero must’ve personally infected those children. “This timing shows that, after leaving the Brother Jonathan, the first carrier immediately visited the reserve and spread the disease there,” says Swanky.
Many of the local Songhees soon moved to Discovery Island and familiar forest areas to quarantine themselves, and would relatively successfully wait out the coming calamity. And that’s further evidence, points out Swanky, that it wasn’t only colonial authorities who were knowledgeable about smallpox by 1862—natives often sought vaccinations and practised quarantining.
So why did the disease rapidly fly out of control amongst northern natives living in encampments in and around Victoria?
On March 31, as smallpox spread amongst the natives, top physician Helmcken publicly rejected any plan to quarantine ill colonists because that would be “alarmist” and restrictive of liberties. Helping quarantine natives wasn’t even discussed. “They never consider the issue of quarantine for anybody,” says Swanky. “And they don’t consider it from the beginning.”
Swanky found three independent reports indicating that, at the end of April, the smallpox was limited to 20 or 30 people in two Tsimsian settlements near where the disease had first emerged. “The disease is confined and it looks like it’s actually under control,” says Swanky.
But on May 1, police suddenly began attacking entire native settlements, driving the natives out and burning homes by the hundreds. And Swanky noticed something else no historian before has: Various nations had their own distinct settlement areas, and police ran these raids on them like clockwork 10-14 days apart. On May 1, police hit the Tsimsian settlement in Rock Bay; on May 10-12, they attacked the Tsimsian near the Songhees reserve and Haida near Rock Bay. On May 26, police burned all the Haida homes at Ogden Point, and then the Haida settlement at Cadboro Bay on June 9.
“This two weeks apart, as you’ll recognize, is the rhythm of the disease,” says Swanky. Considering how smallpox spreads, he explains, authorities did the most dangerous thing they could possibly have done. With each village burned, the bedlam forced the ill and the healthy to mix, and in turn to flee to the other nearby native camp areas. Two weeks was the precise time it then took for a new generation of people to become infected and infectious, and then they were all forcibly scattered and mixed again.
By mid-May, halfway through this exercise, chaos reigned and natives from all nations were dying daily around Victoria by the scores. “I have never witnessed such horrible scenes of death, misery, filth, and suffering before,” wrote a religious leader.
Natives were also constantly being driven north—twice, hundreds of natives were rounded up, put in canoes and escorted by colonial gunboats to villages up both sides of the island and along the coast.
“What this does is it ensures that there are new people with the disease at each one of these expulsions,” says Swanky. “And then they go up in waves. Up the coast every two weeks there’s another wave of smallpox infected people.”
Were the colonists trying to protect themselves?
“This whole epidemic does not occur in the European population,” says Swanky. “The Europeans have all been vaccinated, there’s no sense of panic amongst the Europeans, they carry on just as they always have.”
And indeed, near the height of the chaos in mid-May, the British Colonist reported, “there are no white persons afflicted with smallpox in Victoria and only one at the hospital.”
“This is an ethnic cleansing exercise underneath, and the disease is being used as an excuse,” argues Swanky. “Because diseased or healthy natives are treated the same way. They don’t target the disease, they target Indians.”
Did it simply show an appalling lack of concern for the natives?
“It’s way beyond a lack of concern with helping them,” responds Swanky. “That’s how they try to pass it off, is that they’re just not concerned. ‘We stood by innocently and watched them die.’ That’s the good story…That’s as innocent as it gets.”
Over their graves
By the end of June, there was no cohesive native group left in Victoria. Police Commissioner Pemberton reported to Governor Douglas that “since the tide of immigration [of northern natives] set in, the town has not at any time been in a healthier state...”
When news reports surfaced that nearly 1200 natives lay in a mass grave next to a makeshift native hospital, the commissioner said the claim was “exaggerated,” because he’d personally paid for the burials, per body. Nevertheless, amidst his descriptions of various costs, Pemberton side-stepped stating the actual number buried there.
“Who knows what’s accurate? He’s a participant in the genocide and he’s trying to minimize the effect,” says Swanky. “It’s significant that he’s very careful not to give a number.”
Pemberton further claimed that all the northern native groups had been offered free vaccinations, but had refused them for some unknown reason.
And though most white historians have put all these police actions down to a mixture of fear, “bias”, and chaotic lack of control without genocidal intent, notably, colonial journalists weren’t so apologist. A June 17, 1862 Victoria Daily Press editorial, for example, wrote that the government’s decision to drive the natives away would “disseminate the fell disease along the coast. To send with them the destruction perhaps of the whole Indian race in the British Possessions on the Pacific. There is a dehumanizing fatuity about this treatment of the natives that is truly horrible—a callousness to suffering humanity that one can scarcely credit…”
Douglas soon took management control of vacated Songhees reserve land, and Europeans moved quickly to take control of land previously occupied by natives from the north. Within the year, the British Colonist would write, “From every indication, all the unoccupied land in the neighbourhood of Victoria will soon be taken up.”
But Victoria was only the beginning, says Swanky. BC’s colonial leaders had bigger prizes in mind.
Rush to the western terminus
By 1862, a race was already in full flight between political and business leaders in Victoria and New Westminster in the lower mainland, to establish which fledgling metropolitan centre would become the endpoint of the transcontinental rail and road corridor and the British gateway to the Pacific, with all the power and riches that would entail. New Westminster’s candidacy was hampered by an assessment that the Fraser River’s swift currents and steep banks made it unsuitable as a western terminus. Meanwhile, Bute Inlet and Bella Coola (on Bentinck Arm) both offered excellent ocean-access points deep inland to join a potential route through the BC gold rush region to Fort Edmonton. Ships would be routed from these ports to Victoria.
So Victoria’s leaders were pushing for Bute Inlet or Bella Coola (both occupied by indigenous populations). But prior to Swanky’s research, no historians knew how hard they were pushing, and how deeply invested they were.
“I came across this guy called Edward Green and I couldn’t figure out who he was,” says Swanky about how he first fell upon the plans in a seemingly insignificant news article. “I contacted several people in Victoria, several historians…and nobody knew who Edward Green was or who he was connected to.”
Swanky found documents indicating Green was an acting manager for two companies, the New Aberdeen land syndicate and the Bentinck Arm Company (BAC). “Eventually I discovered he was a personal friend of George Cary, the attorney general, and then it turns out the attorney general is the other key investor in this whole scheme.”
That led Swanky to a web of business dealings at both potential Pacific gateways.
According to Swanky, Joseph Pemberton, Tolmie and Helmcken had made substantial investments in efforts to get control of land and road rights at Bute Inlet.
Similarly, Attorney General George Cary steered the New Aberdeen land syndicate, whose stated mission was to gain control of land at Bella Coola. Cary was also operational director for the Bentinck Arm Company, whose mission was to build a toll road from Bella Coola into the Fraser River near the interior gold fields. Bypassing his own commissioner of lands, Douglas had quietly issued a licence to build that very road to his personal friend Ranald McDonald, who’d quickly transferred it to Cary’s Bentinck Arm Company in return for money and shares in BAC. Were Douglas, Helmcken, Pemberton and Tolmie directly invested in BAC as well? Even in the context of a later lawsuit against BAC, says Swanky, “Cary refused to disclose who the other shareholders were, even to the court.”
Around this same time, Douglas ordered Pemberton and Begbie to write arguably the most important and controversial law in BC history: The Pre-emption Act. Essentially, this stipulated that anyone could stake a claim on land that was unoccupied and then register to own it. However, indigenous peoples weren’t notified about it and, in fact, would soon be explicitly excluded from using this new law. Even worse, points out Swanky, the Pre-emption Act created a potentially lucrative motive for investors to try to get indigenous peoples off the high-value valleys, waterfront and trail routes they’d been occupying for centuries.
“In order to enjoy the lands,” Swanky explains, “they have to get rid of the Indians that are on top of the land.”
Swanky’s book then tracks through many different sources the movements of several parties of people who seemed to leave smallpox epidemics behind wherever they went.
One group included Jim Taylor, who staked land at Bentinck Arm, had a close relationship with Tolmie, and would later be accused by several prominent Europeans of deliberately spreading smallpox.
Another group was led by Francis Poole, who would later admit amidst “many mournful hours of reflection” that men from his party started a smallpox epidemic at Bella Coola. According to Swanky’s findings, though, Poole was responsible for more than he admits. Poole’s group left Victoria in the summer of 1862, then left two men with smallpox behind in Nanaimo. The group then left two more men with smallpox at Fort Rupert. Then came Bella Coola. Poole left two more men with smallpox behind at Nautliff village (“to the tender mercy of the savages,” wrote Poole) and again two more with natives at Chilcotin Lake. According to eyewitnesses, First Nations villages were decimated in all these places within 30 days. In his book-length memoir, Poole never disclosed the supposed intent of this junket nor who funded it, but his entire journey had followed the exact route of the proposed transcontinental transportation corridor, where colonial road houses and ultimately towns were projected to grow and New Aberdeen and BAC were deeply invested.
Swanky’s contention is that, first, Poole’s men were being inoculated with smallpox. “The probability is near nil that the disease would occur in just two men at a time, every few days,” contends Swanky. “After diseased passengers were found at Nanaimo, it was inconceivable that the rest would leave unvaccinated. Nanaimo had doctors and vaccine…Fort Rupert had vaccine.”
Second, he suggests, these men must have gone from home to home breathing on natives because of the unnatural speed and extent of the spread of the epidemic (and Swanky says numbers of indigenous oral historians have stated that this happened). “I think it’s impossible that a natural epidemic would have occurred the way this did,” says Swanky. “This whole epidemic occurs along where there are colonial interests.”
Douglas’ friend and BAC director Ranald McDonald had a similarly remarkable spate of smallpox related “accidents.” Swanky locates him on the Brother Jonathan’s passenger list with Victoria’s “patient zero;” at Bella Coola when Poole’s party introduced smallpox there; at the Cariboo goldfields when smallpox started there; and on it goes. “So he’s either the unluckiest guy on the face of the earth or smallpox follows him around for some reason,” comments Swanky.
Swanky has also found records indicating these colonial leaders and their associates were registering land claims under the Pre-emption Act shortly before or after smallpox epidemics depopulated and freed these lands from native occupation. One particular “tipping point” for Swanky’s own conviction about the deliberate planning at work occurred when he discovered that George Cary went to New Westminster to register New Aberdeen’s Bella Coola land claim on June 10, 1862.
“He went there the same day that they introduced smallpox at Bella Coola,” says Swanky. “And I recognized that that could not be by chance. That the attorney general, who was the governor’s legal advisor, had foreknowledge that they were going to introduce smallpox at Bella Coola to clear the land for the New Aberdeen syndicate.”
Going against more common lower estimates, Swanky used newspaper and other eyewitness writings to calculate that, by mid-1863, some 100,000 natives had died in the biggest, fastest massacre in Canadian history.
In The Coming of the Spirit of Pestilence, anthropolgist Robert Boyd wrote, “The 1862-63 smallpox epidemic served as the final blow to the Native peoples of British Columbia and paved the way for the colonization of their lands by peoples of European descent.”
In this context, Dr Helmcken’s published reflections on these years take on a chilling new quality: “[W]here once the aborigines were omnipotent we now reign and will be obeyed: The survival of the fittest…All men must die. Indians obeyed the mandate perhaps a little earlier than they otherwise might. Socially, probably, their death is of little consequence; politically, it may be of more importance…they are Indians still. The breed remains and will require a great deal of crossing to make a superior race.”
Swanky calls our dominant history’s apologetic dismissals of evidence such as this “wilful blindness.”
“It shows that, in essence, this is an ongoing genocide,” says Swanky. “Because we deny that it happened and we cover it up.”
If we’re seeking explicit planning and confessions, Swanky adds, Douglas’ executive council probably discussed these operations in the months leading up to Patient Zero’s arrival on March 12, 1862. However, in the pertinent section of the official Archived Journals of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, there is simply this note: “Minutes of the Council between 6 Feb. 1861 and 19 March 1862 have not been located in either the Provincial Archives of BC, the Public Archives of Canada or the Public Record Office, London.”
“The Council minutes have been published in five volumes, it’s 3,000 pages, they cover the entire colonial period,” observes Swanky. “This is the only period that’s missing.”
Swanky’s book tracks more missing records, and also investigates in detail other provocative questions: Were several corrupt doctors infecting blankets? Were repeated allegations that Helmcken provided ineffective vaccines true? Who struck a Tsilhqot’in leader’s key testimony about smallpox from the court record of Begbie’s most famous Chilcotin War trial, and why?
It still seems difficult for many of us to call it genocide, though.
In his own research, historian John Lutz says he’s personally felt colonial leaders were not so much malevolent towards indigenous peoples as “callous” and “patronizing but paternalistic.” He’s seen only what he would describe as selective, “conjectural,” and “circumstantial” evidence for charges of genocide. “The more convincing explanation,” says Lutz, “is that smallpox is simply an efficient killer.”
While much of Swanky’s evidence does seem circumstantial enough to have alternative possible explanations, on the other hand, he provides abundant examples of murderous intent. How destructive, coordinated and convincingly explicit does it have to be before we call it genocide? And when trying to answer that, we must consider that use of a biological weapon like European smallpox would in any case never leave as clear an evidentiary trail as German gas chambers, Hutu machetes or Bosnian bombs.
Either way, Lutz agrees the topic is well worth examining and discussing further. “I think the smallpox epidemic of 1862 is the most important event probably in modern BC history and we don’t know enough about it. Tom does us all a service by reminding us that this is a really important event that needs to be understood, both its causes and its impact. And we’re overdue in that.”
Chief Bev Sellars of the Xat’sull Nation agrees. She saw one of Swanky’s presentations and was “amazed” and “impressed.”
“There’s a lot of the history of aboriginal people, the smallpox being a big part of it, that the rest of Canada and the world doesn’t know,” she says. “So anything that brings to light the real history of aboriginal people in this country is important.”
“I think that it needs to be put out there,” says the Tsilhqot’in’s Stump. “I would say that these people that will be reading this book, I think they need to have an open mind as to what we went through.”
“I’m not going to go forward and say this is the true history of BC. I don’t know,” says Pinkoski. “I think the real strength is that this book raises these questions and that it’s getting us to talk about this.”
For his part, Swanky is glad to have others more closely review his research, but he has no expectation of change.
So why has he spent ten years digging all this up? “I’m not a politician or an activist,” he says. “It’s just so important it takes on a life of its own. It sort of becomes a duty.” But he does feel the facts compel us somewhere. “Our task is like the innocent third party receiver of stolen goods. We shouldn’t feel guilty because we didn’t do anything wrong. We didn’t steal this. But it then becomes our responsibility to divest ourselves of these, or to get to the original owner and see them restored somehow.”
Swanky and I take a stroll from a coffee shop, and then stand together on the edge of a grassy area in Vic West where the old maps, newspapers and letters have told us a mass grave for hundreds of northern natives lies, forgotten even by descendants of their long-departed brethren. There’s only the trumpeting of the wind, passing cars, and distant children to commemorate the moment.
“The first time I was here I felt…” Swanky’s words dissipate. Then he begins again. “It feels like you can get a sense of what was going on at the time. The panic and the disease. You can get a sense of that, if you just stand here and close your eyes…”
I ask him if this place symbolizes his ten-year effort.
“Yes,” Swanky replies. “How do you take a picture of nothing? How do you describe something that isn’t there? That’s the challenge of this story, isn’t it? It’s the documents that are missing. It’s the graveyards that are missing. It’s the Indians that are missing…It’s the absence of recognition in the historical record…How do you call attention to that?”
The True Story of Canada’s “War” of Extermination on the Pacific by Tom Swanky is available at Camas Books or can be purchased through www.shawnswanky.com.
Rob Wipond was recently nominated for a National Magazine Award and two Western Magazine Awards for his writing in Focus. rob(at)robwipond.com.