By the spring of 1860 40 to 50 Black men were enrolled in the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps. The Corps was officially sworn in on July 4, 1861. The Royal Navy supplied drill sergeants and the volunteers utilized a building on View Street for drills.
In 1859, when the volunteer Fire Department was being created in Victoria, several blacks volunteered to serve but they were rejected by the white men organizing the committee. The blacks remained undaunted and went to Governor Sir James Douglas to offer their services as a volunteer militia unit. In view of a potential war between the United States and Canada over ownership of the San Juan Island, Douglas accepted. This “war” became known as The Pig War when an American settler shot a pig belonging to a British farmer.
Consisting of one captain, three officers and forty-four privates, the VRPC drilled twice a week in the drill hall on View Street. Sometimes, it is noted, they paraded on the “commons”, a ten acre piece of land on Church Hill. Some members of the corps were: E.A. Booth (Paymaster), W. Brown, R. Caesar (Sergeant), Paris Carter, A.H. Frances, R.H. Johnson (Captain), J.B. Johnson (2nd Lieutenant), A.C. Richards (Secretary), F. Richards (Captain), and S.A. Stevens (Corporal).
The company is said to have had the first military band on Vancouver Island. It consisted of nine instruments and was led by a white bandmaster who was hired to teach them music..
The drill house soon became a gathering place and social centre for the Black community. In the beginning, their weapons were antique flintlocks supplied by the Hudson's Bay Company. Sir James Douglas ordered better weapons from England but none reached the Black Militia.
Through its existence the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps was in need of financial support. For the most part the Blacks raised funds through subscriptions or other projects from within the Black community itself. Financial support from the government was minimal and at times requests for monetary assistance went unheeded.
Despite the early reception of the Black Militia, the corps seemed to have met less than enthusiastic recognition from Governor James Douglas. Appeals for rifles and funding were still unavailable to them and the unit was inactive during 1863.
In 1864 when Sir James Douglas retired as Governor, the Victoria Pioneer Rifles were not allowed to officially attend his farewell banquet, causing a great outcry.
When the new Governor, Arthur Kennedy, was sworn in, the corps was refused entry to the ceremonies, ostensibly because the other volunteer fire brigades would not march behind them.
Shortly after the new governor's arrival, the Black volunteers marched to the Legislative Buildings to present an address of loyalty to the governor in which they made reference to the discrimination against them. Kennedy informed them he would try to breach the rift between whites and blacks, but nothing was done.
By the Spring of 1865, the unit had virtually disbanded in disgust. One of its former Captains, R.H. Johnson, wrote a letter to the Editor of the Colonist newspaper, stating, “...their enthusiasm and ardour as far as this colony is concerned have evaporated. This mean and scandalous manner in which they were treated upon the advent of Governor Kennedy is still fresh in their minds. Having as much human nature under their dark skins as others of a paler hue, they cannot forget the snubbing they received on that occasion...”
It is believed that the names below were Black men who were part of the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Company:
W. Brown, Captain
R.H. Johnson, Captain
F. Richards, Captain
J.B. Johnson, 2nd Lieutenant
R. Ceasar, Sergeant
S.A. Stevens, Corporal
E.A. Booth, Paymaster
A.C. Richards, Secretary