Shedding Light on The Great Darkening

Tom Swanky is the author of The Great Darkening: The True Story of Canada’s “War” of Extermination on the Pacific plus The Tsilhquot’in and Other First Nations Resistance1 an investigative account that includes the First Nations narrative. The First Nations narrative is one that includes knowledge passed on by oral tradition, knowledge that had long been dismissed by the western narrative bound more so to the written record. However, the oral culture has its own disciplines that help to preserve the validity of the narrative,2 and in 1997, Delgamuukw vs. British Columbia recognized oral history as admissible in court.

Yet there never was a good reason that historians should ignore or marginalize knowledge from an oral culture since this violates the essence of historiography.

swanky_darkening_DVSwanky grew up in Quesnel, British Columbia where the Tsilhqot’in Chiefs are buried, and it is there that he first learned about the Chilcotin War through local First Nation traditions rather than from history books. His The Great Darkening is an epistemological treatise that eschews ethnocentric bias and embraces a holistic search for historical veracity . History buffs who seek an unfettered rendering of early BC history should read The Great Darkening and determine for themselves the verisimilitude of the narratives.

I interviewed Tom Swanky to cast further light on the smallpox epidemic that he exposes as being knowingly spread among First Nations in BC.

Kim Petersen: Encyclopedia of British Columbia portrays James Douglas in a manner strongly contrasted to your The Great Darkening that portrays him as a “glorified clerk” cum genocidaire. The encyclopedia describes Douglas as “the most influential person in the history of colonial BC” and despite being “a stern, even autocratic manner … he was a capable, energetic administrator.”3 Why the discrepancy besides creating a space for Douglas as an eponym throughout the province?

Tom Swanky: As it happens, I agree that he is well-described as “most influential” “autocratic” and an “energetic administrator.” Douglas’ reputation has benefitted from an understandable “nationalist” or “state building” desire, or need, to glorify some key figure in the founding of a new society. On the other hand, I cannot recall offhand any native tradition, as told between natives, that holds Douglas in much regard. In the northern interior, certainly among the Dakelh and Tsilhqot’in, he is held in very low esteem over his disrespect toward the law and the house of K’wah.4

In characterizing Douglas as a “glorified clerk” my intention is to notice his lack of statesmanship. His seeming orientation to the task of politics never seemed to transcend his background as a business manager. A business manager focuses on the goals of his social entity, a corporate body with the narrow objective of material profit for the shareholders; especially a monopoly like the Hudson’s Bay Company in whose employ Douglas spent his entire formative life. While one can draw an analogy between stakeholders in a corporate entity and citizens in a political social entity (in this case a state claiming a monopoly on the legitimate use of force,) it is an unreliable guide to good political practise.

A statesman understands that his or her duty often compels him to say “no” to his key political constituency for the greater good and it always requires somehow winning acceptance from other constituencies. He or she must articulate a social entity’s immediate goals in a way so that they seem legitimate to the broadest base, making the achievement of those comparatively effortless. Douglas did none of this work. A list of his “great speeches” “great letters” or “great conversations” would include zero entries. Yet a statesman’s primary function is to maintain the ongoing legitimacy of the regime. Douglas presumed to rule the majority native population while doing nothing to bring it onside, except threaten force and executions for non-compliance. He showed no empathy toward the native condition in a colonial circumstance and he kept no promises made to them. He did only enough in the early days, through the Douglas potlatches (supposed land conveyances that the settler society now calls treaties) to keep from being thrown back in the water.

By way of contrast, although by then it was too late, both of his replacements, Governors Kennedy and Seymour, almost immediately reached out to the native population for understanding. Even citizens of the Colony of British Columbia began lobbying for Douglas’ removal almost immediately on their arrival, and with some energy after 1861. They understood from the first that he would govern in a very disproportioned manner for his true constituency, the incipient HBC-centred plutocracy in the Colony of Vancouver Island.

Truly, what did Douglas accomplish? Except for beginning a bureaucratic infrastructure, speeding the building of roads and implementing a scheme for depriving natives of their land? Each of which was made more seemingly effortless by the dramatic native depopulation through smallpox that took place in 1862/63 as the resettlement with Europeans began escalating. His failure even to attempt treaties has left British Columbia with a uniquely impaired moral right to manage its natural resources, a feature which is now the centrepiece of more than a hundred million dollars in diverse litigation. In other words, Douglas’ native policy failed both natives and non-natives. Building roads and infrastructure alone is not enough to create an inclusive social entity marked by justice and the other common features of desirable political aesthetics.

KP: I had always known of Matthew Begbie as the “hanging judge,” but Encyclopedia of British Columbia calls it a legend and “the imputation of [Begbie's] callousness is unfair: he was severe but just, often taking the side of the underdog.5 I’m sure that you could comment on this from many angles, but how “just” was Begbie, (who you imply was in a conflict of interest due to his land speculation) toward the Tsilhqot’in Six who were hung?

TS: Begbie seems a bit of a tragic figure. He is persona non grata among native communities because he was blind, like a good colonist, to the issue of native sovereignty and because he acquiesced in the theft of native land. I have been told that natives objected to naming a building after him at the University of Victoria, and I know of movements afoot to have his name removed from other monuments.

His career should really be considered in two parts. He had a conscience and it did nag at him that the injustice of the early years, which as a colonist he would have excused implicitly as a necessity, had not been repaired in later years.

As for the Tsilhqot’in trials at Quesnel, both Begbie and Governor Seymour knew that the Tsilhqot’in they hung had not committed any crimes. As men at arms in a just war or as officials executing settlers for spreading smallpox, they lacked the necessary legal intent. Everything about the “trials” was a travesty. The secret inquiry he conducted the day after the trials in Quesnel was as bad or worse. Its only purpose was to aid in creating a false narrative about the ambush that brought the Tsilhqot’in into custody. Bad faith on top of bad faith. These events seem the low point of his career as he gave in to one of a judge’s greatest temptations: enabling the political expediency of a powerful class to trump law and justice.

One measure of the magnitude of the Begbie’s injustice (assisting in covering up the spreading of smallpox as the root of the violence in Tsilhqot’in territory, concealing the nature of the ambush and participating in the political show trials as an aid to intimidation as the key means for the imposition of English law) is that it is still felt as hurtful today among the Tsilhqot’in. Although there has been some movement to repair the harm by offering a pardon, truly the federal government can only repair the injustice of the Begbie trials by exonerating the Tsilhqot’in Chiefs. A pardon suggests they did something wrong in the first place. Exoneration, instead, acknowledges that the proceedings were corrupt from start to finish, which is the actual truth of it.

KP: Of smallpox in BC, Encyclopedia of British Columbia states it was introduced by Europeans and the 1862-1863 outbreak, which it says killed 19,000, was brought to Victoria by a sailor from San Francisco The encyclopedia mentions offhandedly that “Local authorities drove the aboriginal people away.”6 This version perpetuates that notion that the epidemic was accidental. Your comment?

TS: This is a textbook illustration of minimization and denial. It was not “a sailor” who brought the disease. It was two men who came on the same ship and stayed. One brought the disease to Victoria and the other took it to New Westminster to start the disease in the same way and at exactly the same time in native communities near the two newly urbanizing centres. Canadian historians always understate the horror of what happened in Victoria. And even when they acknowledge that it was the actions of the colonial authorities that caused the disease to accelerate, they still find ways to imply that natives were responsible for their own demise. The Encyclopedia does a great disservice to the truth and to everyone’s education, native or otherwise.

Consider the issue of minimizing the death toll more explicitly. From the accounts for each territory as can be found in my book, I arrive at an estimate in the realm of 100,000 dead. Starting in the Interior, a toll typically completely ignored in Canadian historical accounts: the local tradition is that 3000 died in the Blackwater Valley; this does not include the Dakelh toll from Quesnel, the Cottonwood valley or the Cariboo Mountains, say 3000; Alfred Waddington put the Tsilhqot’in death toll at 5000; Eight Canyon Shuswap villages completely disappeared, others were decimated among the Northern Shuswap for a toll of, say, 7500 starting south from Soda Creek; the North Thompson villages were decimated, say, 1000; from Kamloops, where bodies were said to be strewn along the ground everywhere, to the South Thompson where the stench of death was so great people could not canoe on the river, say, 3000; Judge Begbie said 90 to 95 percent of the Okanagan died, say 4000; and 90 to 95 percent of the St’at’imc, say 6000, plus the Fraser Canyon, where, pre-smallpox, a visitor said the natives were everywhere like ants, say 2500. This is already 35,000.

Moving to the North Coast, estimates vary among the Haida where at least 85 percent of the population died and the stench was so great it was said one could see death in the air, this may have been 15,000; among the Tahltan visible from the coast, witness estimates give figures from which a toll of more than 5000 seems a reasonable estimate; the Interior toll here is harder to calculate, but among the neighbouring Nishga the toll is said to have been 30 percent, say, 3000; the Tlingit to the north of the Stikine gold rush and the Wet’suwet’en to the south as far as Fraser Lake also had some losses, say 4000; Tsimshian losses at Ft. Simpson alone were 500, say 2,500 in all if the ratio was the same along the lower Skeena; the Haisla, at least 1000; the Oweekeno, say 1000; witnesses estimated Nuxalk losses in the Bella Coola Valley alone as 2500, say 4000 in all; the Heiltsuk were decimated, say, 2500.

That is another 38,000 without yet even considering losses on Vancouver Island, the islands in Georgia Strait, the mainland coast, the West Coast or the areas around New Westminster and Victoria. This easily could have been 25,000 for a total somewhere near 100,000. As a rule of thumb, the death toll was much higher in areas most desired by settlers, except where missionaries vaccinated in good faith. And the disease tended to taper off and die out once there was little or no settler contact; but, by the same token, estimates of the death toll in these areas are subject to much greater variability.

KP: Throughout your book, The Great Darkening, you are critical of the narrative accepted by historians. Could you elaborate on why so many western historians have rejected the Indigenous peoples account? (You wrote, “Natives ‘universally believed’ settlers deliberately imported the disease to kill them for their land.”)7 There is also the record that can even be found in the colonial account (e.g., you cite the observation by the Daily Press, “…up until the present time the authorities have been literally playing with it [smallpox] and we are sorry to say their supineness and apathy to the dangers has been aided by the ‘Men of Property.’”)8

TS: It was B.C. attorney-general Henry Crease who said, while opening the Tsilhqot’in trials in New Westminster in 1865, that natives universally believed settlers had spread the disease deliberately to kill them. (See The British Columbian, July 4, 1865.) And, indeed, there are many other contemporary sources which carry the same allegations of an ethnic cleansing event, usually based on statements of survivors about how the disease arrived in their communities.

I am not sure that “rejected” is the right description. That paints a picture in which the evidence behind the native narrative has been considered and found wanting. That is not what has happened. Most often it seems a case of the colonial mindset carried through to the present: Canadian historians seem to feel it is okay to just ignore native sources when telling B.C. history, or to disrespect them from a seeming lingering sense of “otherness.” Mostly, historians have not “rejected” so much as averting their eyes or closing their ears; often a priori. The authorized history of B.C. is not yet post-colonial.

In a sense, the native community’s struggle to preserve its history has moved from the residential schools into the universities. The non-native professorship now fills the shoes of the abusive priests in disparaging native narratives concerning their oppression. Over the last ten years I have visited countless native communities. I am hardly ever engaged in conversation for more than a few minutes before someone raises the issue of how bad or offensive are the school textbooks, which, ultimately, are based on the dominant narrative taught in the universities.

Historians commonly propagate two myths about the smallpox epidemics of 1862 that, as well as being easily proven false, are emotionally hurtful to the community which was then victimized. One is that natives spread the disease among themselves. A corollary of this is that, since on some other historical occasions the disease did spread naturally to kill some indeterminate number, the fact of settler intervention is not necessary to explain the 1862 death toll: they might just as well have have died anyway, hence no real crime occurred. Yet the evidence is staggeringly overwhelming that settlers spread the disease everywhere, not least the colonial authorities in Victoria, well-knowing as certain the fatal consequences for native communities. When the fatal consequences of an action are certain, then the law draws the conclusion that the actors intended those fatal consequences: they intended that they should die. So, then, no matter what happened at any other time, what happened in 1862 was genocide.

The other myth, which I find equally as shocking a disrespect of the truth, is that the smallpox epidemics of 1862 were just another innocent or natural incidence of disease that gradually reduced the native population over time. Sometimes the implication is that this event was only one of many more or less equal challenges of coping with colonialism. In my book (at pg. 331), I report the observation of Charles Lillard (commenting on how Canadian historians have treated Haida history) who shares my incredulity that anyone pretending to seek the truth could treat the death of 85 percent of a nation’s population in a one-year period as just another historical fact equal with all the rest. And not just of one nation, but of several whole nations. The native population of British Columbia was not reduced gradually over time by disease. There may have been other disease challenges but nothing compares to 70, 80 or 90 percent of a population (like, say, the Haida, Tsilhqot’in or St’at’imc) dying within the space of a year…and dying undeniably as a consequence of direct intervention by another community. That is, of genocide. To say otherwise is to make one’s self a participant in the genocide through aiding its denial, wittingly or unwittingly.

The prospect that one’s own social entity has been either the perpetrators of genocide or its beneficiary probably produces cognitive dissonance at several levels. It would not been the first time that truth has given way at the hands of pride.

KP: Today there is a province named British Columbia, which from a First Nations perspective might serve as a unkind reminder that the British stole their land (because most of it is unsurrendered). Lawyer Bruce Clark makes the legal argument that Royal Proclamation of 1763 allows for “Indians” to live unmolested on the Hunting Grounds (lands to the west of the Great Lakes).9

I agree with Clark’s contention: “Legal justice requires that the rights usurped be restored, and that reasonable compensation be made for past transgressions. Territory should be restored where it has been illegally taken away. And the existing aboriginal right to govern upon that territory should be respected.”10

However, First Nations and Clark have been blocked by a legal Catch 22.11 Is there a legal road to justice in your mind? Will there be any genuine justice for First Nations?

TS: I doubt that there can ever be genuine justice for First Nations, at least not in British Columbia where I know the reality best. Not along some legal road. The damage is impossible to measure. Then there is the practical relative disparity of demographic power and access to resources that translates into a lack of solid political will. Both Canadian jurisprudence and intellectual history are so flavoured with anti-nativism or anti-indigenousism that it will not be overcome easily along the way toward understanding and recognizing what justice might look like. And then, further, there is the problem of an impartial tribunal, a basic requirement for justice. While there is an increasing trend for natives to seek international tribunals, this is expensive, remote, and Canada can be expected not to co-operate until embarrassed to do so.

darkeningdocu_DVThat said, I think there can be the evolution of a sense of equity, of a sense that we have done the best we can, in the face of the history, to overcome the history. It is certainly possible and achievable to be seen as working honourably toward fairness and a climate of respect. While governments are stuck with old policies and old legislative frameworks, and the dominant historical narrative has yet to make a post-colonial leap, there is a lot going on under the surface: real attempts to preserve native languages, real encouragement of self-determination for native social entities, increasing good will for understanding and promoting native perspectives, and so on. I argue briefly in my book that doing the right thing is also in the best long-term self-interest of the non-native community.

In any case, some portion of the non-native community, probably always destined to be a minority, is determined on a good faith. Your own treating this issue seriously in a respected journal is an example. We also like to think that the documentary film for which we are now raising funds, provisionally titled The Great Darkening will be another positive step toward creating a sense of equity in action.

  1. See review. []
  2. Marlene Brant Castellano, “Updating Aboriginal Traditions of Knowledge” in Indigenous Knowledges in Global Contexts: Multiple Readings of Our World, Budd L. Hall, George Jerry Sefa Dei, and Dorothy Goldin Rosenberg (Eds), (University of Toronto Press, 2000): 21-36. “What aboriginal and nonaboriginal writers have in common is a degree of distance from the everyday practices of an oral culture.
    They are also isolated from the discipline imposed on the purveyors of knowledge in an oral culture – that is, from the collective analysis and judgement of a of community, each of whose members share equal authority to interpret reality. Immunity from corrective influence renders suspect any outsider interpreting insider knowledge and, indeed, any writer whether a member of the community or not.” []
  3. Daniel Francis (Ed.) “Douglas, James” in Encyclopedia of British Columbia (Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2000: 181-182. []
  4. K’wah was High Chief of the Dakelh when Douglas was stationed at Ft. St. James. After a dispute with the HBC, a man sought sanctuary in K’wah’s house following the local legal custom. When K’wah was away, Douglas took a party to K’wah’s house, violated the sanctuary and killed the man. (According to one narrative, Douglas beat him to death with a shovel or rake.) K’wah was restrained from killing Douglas himself. But Douglas was under a death sentence that people expected the War Leader to carry out at some point. Douglas was then transferred out, which the People understood as accepting a form of permanent exile. All the literature and the various local traditions on this incident have been collected in the book cited in my footnotes when I mention this case in passing. []
  5. “Begbie, Matthew Baillie” in Encyclopedia of British Columbia: 68. []
  6. “Smallpox” in Encyclopedia of British Columbia: 657-658. []
  7. See Tom Swanky, The Great Darkening: The True Story of Canada’s “War” of Extermination on the Pacific plus The Tsilhquot’in and Other First Nations Resistance (Burnaby, BC: Dragon Heart Enterprises, 2012: 78-79.) []
  8. Swanky, 237. []
  9. Bruce Clark, Justice in Paradise (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999: 79-80. []
  10. Bruce Clark, Native Liberty, Crown Sovereignty: The Elusive Aboriginal Right of Self-Government in Canada (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990: 204). []
  11. See Clark, Justice in Paradise: 168. []

Kim Petersen is co-editor of Dissident Voice. He can be reached at: kim@dissidentvoice.org. Read other articles by Kim.