British Columbia's Black History - One Story at a Time
The early settlement of British Columbia is closely tied to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Since 1760 the HBC enjoyed a trade monopoly over a region called Ruperts Land extending from the Great Lakes to the Rockies, and in 1831 the British Government granted the company more territory west of the Rockies, which included present day British Columbia. During this long period, the HBC built a number of forts at strategic locations and developed a thriving trade with the local First Nations exchanging pelts for manufactured goods such as blankets, cooking utensils and knives. The HBC did not encourage white settlers. Hence even in 1850, when Vancouver Island became a Crown Colony, most of British Columbia was relatively unsettled by Europeans.
By a treaty of 1818, both British and Americans were permitted to trade and settle in the Columbia District. However, in 1843 the Americans formed a government in Oregon, then the southern part of the Columbia District. They excluded French Canadians in the District and were antagonistic to any Whites with an Aboriginal wife.
So it was in 1843 that the Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Victoria on the coast of James Bay, in what is now the City of Victoria. The fort was constructed as a result of American encroachment on British territory. Fearing that the United States would assume control over the Oregon Territory and the lands to the north, the British established the fort to lay visual claim to the land.
The first governor of Vancouver Island, Richard Blanshard, found that the HBC held the real power in the region and quit in about one year. In 1851, James Douglas was appointed the second governor of the mainland also, making him governor of the two British Colonies. There was agitation for US annexation, which threatened to extend US territory right up to the Russian Alaskan Border. James Douglas, the Chief Factor of HBC at Fort Vancouver (now Vancouver). Although the Canadian – US Border of mainland British Columbia was set at the 49th parallel in 1846, Douglas faced a renewed threat the very year he became governor. Gold was discovered in the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1851 and Californian miners swarmed these islands. The invasion of Americans increased when gold was discovered on the Fraser River in 1858. The British population of Vancouver Island, then about 1,000 persons, would be defenceless against the thousands of Americans who were arriving in Victoria on their way to the gold fields on the Mainland, if these Americans appealed for annexation as the had done in Texas and California. James Douglas urgently needed non-American immigrants who would be loyal to the British.
Just about this time, the Black community in California was unhappy because of restrictive immigration policies of the California government, ambivalence towards slavery and beatings, insults and legalized injustice. Even free Blacks were denied citizenship. The Zion Church was active in trying to right these injustices and to examine possible emigration to other places. Appearing at one of their meetings was Jerimiah Nagle, captain of the steamship Commodore, which travelled between San Francisco and Victoria. Among them were Fortune Richard, Wellington Moses, Archy Lee and Mifflin Gibbs. Others like the Alexanders, whose descendants are well known in British Columbia, would soon follow.
They were not “runaway slaves” arriving in Canada by an “underground railway” but free men and women seeking a place where they could raise their families without fear, educate their children, practise their professions, enjoy the results of their hard work and receive justice under the law. Many
settled on farms, others developed local businesses, while some were “firsts” among teachers,
lawyers, and dentists. Their endeavours stabilized those early communities and helped to keep British Columbia from American hands. Other Blacks are still arriving today from the USA, the Carribean and Africa.
All these individuals are aspiring for the same goals as those pioneers.