The Mulatto King of B. C.
A MACLEAN’S FLASHBACK
If it hadn’t been for the benevolent dictatorship of Sir James Douglas British Columbia might today be in the U. S. A. He fought Indians barehanded, defied the crown, built our first navy, and sometimes skipped rope for relaxation
THE STUBBORN enigmatic figure of James Douglas, a big swarthy man with black luminous eyes, hands like hams and hair like a horse’s mane, bestrides the history of British Columbia from fur-trading days to Confederation. The benevolent tyranny by which he ruled the province has few parallels in democratic history. His own story, laced with blood and zeal and faith and fury, is probably unique.
He was a mulatto, largely self-educated, apprenticed into the fur trade at fifteen. But he lived to become a Knight Commander of the Bath, the richest man on the Pacific Coast and the virtual dictator of all territory from the Rockies to the Pacific north of the Oregon border. He married the daughter of a Cree princess who became B. C.’s First Lady. He dodged Indian arrows and daggers and fought barehanded with naked savages. His strength of will and faith in his own rightness was as tough and durable as his six-foot thong of a body. To keep his benevolent sovereignty over B. C. intact he sometimes defied the British and American governments. He fought with the crown while a servant of the all-powerful Hudson’s Bay Company. Then, when he reluctantly consented to hand his little empire over to the people, as a servant of the crown he fought his old company just as fiercely.
He was a man of complexities and paradoxes. He was considered cold and formal, yet he was sentimental enough to keep in his watchcase a shilling piece given him by a grandchild as a birthday present “to spend as you like.” He was known
MARY ELIZABETH COLMAN
to be stiff and dignified, yet at sixty-nine he could be seen skipping a rope on his front porch. He was thought of as an old-fashioned autocrat, yet he was the first man to urge the building of the TransCanada Highway and the defense of the Pacific Coast against Russia. He built Canada’s first navy and prepared with his one gurjboat to stand off the might of the Czar. His tactile were highhanded enough to become the cause célebre which lifted his greatest enemy, a crusading editor, into eminence, yet he was big enough to lend the same man thirty thousand dollars when he askec^ for it. His name is writ large in the annals of C. for the simple reason that without him the province might today be United States territory. t
While biographies of Douglap, “The Father of British Columbia,” say he was a Scot, modern research indicates he was born in the West Indies in 1803, son of a Scottish father and a Jamaican mother. His contemporaries toök his mixed blood for granted.
Before his sixteenth birthday he was apprenticed to the North West Fur Co., which three years later in 1821 was merged with its great rival the Hudson’s Bay Co. In the winter of 1827-28 he was stationed at Yokogh, B.C. His immediate superior was chief factor William Connolly, at nearby Fort St. James. Connolly’s wife was a Cree princess, and James courted and won their pretty sixteen-year-old daughter Amelia. In the absence of clergy the young people were married by the tribal rites of the Crees. Eight years later a
self-righteous chaplain denounced such unions as mere “living in sin.” Furious but conventional, James married Amelia a second time, in an Episcopal ceremony.
Temporarily in charge of Fort St. James in his father-in-law’s absence, bridegroom Douglas was called from sleep one July night in 1828 to be told that an Indian long wanted for murder was hiding in Chief Quaw’s village, less than a mile away. Douglas hurried to the village. The chief was absent and Douglas himself finally flushed the man from a dark corner, dodging an arrow aimed at his eye.
The murderer was quickly executed but his death was a deep affront to the chief. He and his warriors, their faces blackened, rushed the fort and seized Douglas, according to a contemporary account, “struggling and swearing.” They laid him flat on the table in the messroom. “He kicked and plunged, exhausting himself. The chief looked at him saying, ‘You are tired now, I can talk to you.’ This only exasperated Douglas the more and he renewed his struggle, damning and swearing and calling them big rascals!”
Half a dozen naked warriors held the young Douglas down in the light of flickering torches while the chief stood stolidly by and one of the men held his great war dagger poised, ready to kill at a word.
But Quaw had no intention of killing. What he wanted was reparation in the form of food and axes for the dead man’s relatives, who held Douglas
responsible for his death. Finally Douglas agreed and was liberated. In his diary he made a laconic note, “Affray with the Indians.”
The friends of the dead man swore revenge, however, and Douglas for two years went in constant danger of his life. Once he and two others were surrounded by a hundred yelling Indians, apparently bent on murder. Douglas faced them down and let them exhaust their rage in threats. Then in 1830 he was transferred by the HBC to far-away Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River as chief assistant to Dr. John McLoughlin, head of the regional board of management.
Already Douglas made a positive impression on all those who met him. Sir George Simpson, famous governor of the HBC, and never given to lavish praise, said Douglas was “a Scotch West Indian . . . well qualified for any service requiring bodily exertion, firmness of mind and the exercise of sound judgment, but furiously violent when aroused.” And Letitia Hargreave, wife of a Hudson’s Bay clerk, notes in a letter from York Factory in 1842 that “Mr. Douglas ... a mulatto ... is a chief factor on the Columbia and very much respected by young and old.”
Dr. John Helmcken, who later became Douglas’ son-in-law, describing their first meeting, called him “grave, cold and unimpressioned” but added that he improved on acquaintance.
The responsibilities piled on the ambitious young man and his rapid advancement in the company’s service—at Continued on page 44
The Mulatto King of B. C.
Continued from page 17
thirty-seven he was a chief factor, highest, rank in the fur trade—had changed the high spirited bridegroom into the stiff and formal James Douglas of history. He was called “the Dombey of the fur trade.” In a letter to a colleague he wrote: “You have got
to learn that obedience is the most important of our dut ies . . . there can be no such thing as a ‘trifling deviation from orders.’
At forty-three the power drive which compensated for the inner insecurity of the man of mixed blood thrust Douglas into the high places of the fur trade. He succeeded McLoughlin as head of the board of management. This coincided with the Oregon Treaty, which fixed the British - U. S. boundary line on the forty-ninth parallel. The company had long realized that Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River might be in American territory, and Douglas himself supervised the construction of Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island as an alternative western
headquarters. In June 1849 the move was made. The company “owned” the island in consideration of a seven shillings-a-year rent to the crown.
Here Douglas lived the well-to-do life of a company chieftain, dining on soup, salmon, venison and duck in the great messroom with its huge open fireplace. No frivolous conversation was allowed during meals; Douglas educated his clerks by introducing some intellectual or scientific subject around which the table talk would revolve.
After dinner and “a glass to the Queen” the junior members ret ired and
the Kanaka steward brought on tobacco and long clay pipes. Douglas took his, beautifully colored by long and careful smoking, then the rest of the company helped themselves from the pile. “Everybody appeared to smoke calmly and deliberately,” reported his son-in-law, Helmcken. “All had to go to church every Sunday . . . and did not seem any the worse for it.”
Now that Vancouver Island was a colony a governor was required. The HBC recommended Douglas. Instead the British government chose an unknown young barrister—slim, fair Richard Blanshard, correct and ineffectual.
Douglas was dashed. Some of the sting was taken from his disappointment, however, when he was made agent on Vancouver Island for the Hudson’s Bay and Puget Sound agricultural companies and assigned as salary the two hundred pounds a year it had been intended he should receive as governor. Blanshard served at his own expense.
Douglas received the governor with his usual “cold affability” and, infinitely correct in all his dealings, proceeded to make Blanshard’s position untenable. Blanshard stuck it out for a year and a half. He paid his fare on HBC ships as he went about his official duties; he lived aboard HMS Driver until accommodation was found for him in the fort pending a slow completion of his official residence; he bought his supplies at the highest of the HBC’s three price lists: employee's bought at the lowest rate, Indians at the second, outsiders at the highest.
Finally Blanshard gave up, having appointed a council of three, with Douglas as senior member, to carry on until a new governor should be appointed. On Nov. 19, 1851, Douglas got the job.
Now began an extraordinary period in which Douglas was responsible for his actions as chief factor to the Hudson’s Bay Co., and as governor to the secretary of state for the colonies; both these authorities being half a world away he did as he thought best and asked permission afterward.
In his treatment of Indians he was eminently successful. Difficulties arose of course. On one occasion, parlaying with the Cowichan Indians for the surrender of one of the tribe accused of murdering an HBC shepherd, he sat perfectly still on a camp stool, surrounded by natives in battle array, smoking his pipe with apparent indifference for hours until the chief agreed to surrender the wanted man.
ín a matter-of-fact report to London he-added, “I wish you would send me a good serviceable sword, with a strong belt of which I much felt the need in my late journey.”
On another occasion, when a group of Indians seemed about to make trouble, Douglas ordered they be served biscuits and molasses. The Indians promptly forgot their grievances and Douglas murmured “Dear me! Dear me! There is nothing like a little molasses.”
When in 1854 Britain intervened on Turkey’s side in the Crimean War, Douglas worked out a defense scheme against possible Russian attack which included a recommendation that Esquimalt — Victoria’s deep-sea port — be made a naval base. He and his council created the first Canadian navy. They agreed to charter the HBC ship Otter, armed with four brass cannon, muskets and hand grenades and manned with a force of thirty, to watch over the safety of the settlements. The irony of the situation was that, unknown to Douglas, the HBC and its Russian opposite, the Russian American Co., had come to an agreement in which both governments concurred, making
the whole eastern Pacific a neutral zone. But Douglas got his own way in the end. He was asked to provide accommodation for possible wounded so he built a one-hundred-bed hospital at Esquimal!. The cost—nine hundred and thirty-eight pounds—was charged to the HBC. This meant that in the end the British government paid it since it had agreed to recompense the company for public expenditures when the charter expired. Only one man, sick with scurvy, used the hospital but —Esquimalt became a naval base.
In 1856 Douglas was dismayed to receive a sharp reminder from Britain that ia was high time Vancouver Island had an elected assembly. The governor assured the secretary of state that though he did not “apprehend any restiveness on the part of the freeholders” he would not hesitate to prorogue the assembly and conduct the executive business of the colony himself if there were trouble. He was “utterly averse to universal suffrage or making population the basis of representation,” but urged some liberalization of requirements which restricted the franchise to freeholders owning twenty or more acres of land.
The Highly Critical Lover
Vancouver Island’s first election was carried out according to the instructions he had received. At the same time the council decided that “absentee proprietors shall be permitted to vote through their agents and attorneys,” thus giving the HBC majority control should they see fit to exercise it. The governor of Vancouver Island was still the chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Co.
But he was not long to continue unchallenged. Gold was discovered on the Fraser bars and with the gold seekers of 1858 came the man who was to prove the sharpest thorn in the benevolent autocrat’s side: Amor de
Cosmos, born in Nova Scotia plain Bill Smith.
He was a journalist who had had his name legally changed to the strange hybrid expression which he apparently believed to mean “lover of the universe.” He began at once to criticize the governor in letters to the papers. Within six months he founded the British Colonist and immediately began to attack Douglas editorially: “The
people of this colony . . . are tired of the mal-administration of public affairs. Their rulers have been the tools of a company of ‘fur-peddlers’ . . .”
De Cosmos’ favorite target was Douglas’ management of the mainland gold rush.
The governor of Vancouver Island
had no authority over the mainland; but most of the gold seekers were Americans and Douglas had a vivid recollection of how the early settlers in Oregon had formed a provisional government, and of the part it had played in setting the forty-ninth parallel instead of the Columbia River as the frontier. So he acted with decision and asked permission afterward. He quickly asserted the dominion of the crowm over the mainland and its right to all precious metals. He set miners’ license fees and imposed customs duties. He warned that traffic on the river
except by vessels licensed by the HBC—was illegal and that all such vessels and their cargo would be seized.
De Cosmos headed the resultant chorus of protest. The colonial office, through Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the novelist, who was then secretary of state for the colonies, “disapproved and disallowed” all the proclamations except those designed to protect the rights of the crown. “No regulations giving the slightest preference to the Hudson’s Bay will in future be admissible,” Sir Edward wrote.
Douglas’ dual position was fast becoming untenable and De Cosmos continued to needle him. To balk him Douglas put in force an old English statute requiring the publisher of a newspaper to put up a bond of five hundred pounds against libel costs.
This was on a Saturday and one side of the day’s paper had already been printed on the flat-bed press. When De Cosmos heard of the proclamation he sent the paper out with the back of the pages blank. It became a collectors’ item. On Monday the bond was easily raised by public subscription. On Tuesday the Colonist was out as usual, complete with accounts of how the public had supported De Cosmos against the governor.
Years later Douglas had his revenge. In 1875 the government of British Columbia needed funds. The HBC refused its aid and De Cosmos, employed to raise the money, had to turn to the retired governor, now the wealthiest man in the province. Douglas advanced the thirty thousand dollars required. It must have given him great satisfaction.
In 1858 Douglas was offered the governorship of mainland British Columbia on condition that he sever all connection with the HBC. It must have been a wrench for the old fur trader but he accepted, though not without wringing from the government a salary of forty-eight hundred pounds instead of the thousand first offered.
Nov. 19, 1858, the day of his inauguration, was a typical fall day on the
Pacific coast: cold rain fell from a dark sky and a dismal wind sighed through the firs and cedars that surrounded Fort Langley on the Fraser where a crowd of bright-blanketed Indians and tobacco-chewing fur traders waited for a province to be born.
There is something Gilbertian about the affair as the Victoria Gazette describes it: The little company of
Royal Engineers hurrying ahead to form a guard of honor to receive the governor; Douglas and suite disembarking from the HBC ship Beaver and climbing the steep muddy banks of the Fraser to the wooden palisade of the fort; the eighteen-gun salute; the gold lace of the uniforms and the raw logs and planks of the messroom hurriedly emptied of its tables and benches to make room for a company of a hundred; Douglas first appointing Matthew Baillie Begbie chief justice, and Begbie then administering the oath to Douglas and proclaiming him governor. It was the birth of British Columbia and the death of all exclusive privileges of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
By a supreme irony Douglas, the man who had most stoutly maintained its rights, read as his first official act the Queen’s proclamation terminating the Pacific Coast rule of the master he had served so well. By 1863 the mulatto who had left home at sixteen was now His Excellency, Sir James Douglas, KCB.
He took great pride in the honors. In a postscript to a business letter, he says, “Letters to me should be addressed as follows: Sir James Douglas, KCB, Victoria, Vancouver Island.” He always referred to his wife as Lady Douglas even in his private diary.
As governor of the new crown colony he was as high-minded and highhanded as ever.
G. M. Sproat, who knew him well, wrote, “The one-man rule, the T, James Douglas’ proclamations lasted as long as he was in office . . . Absolute power is sweet, and grows sweeter to one who does not fear responsibility and is animated by a high sense of duty.”
Now Sir James transferred all his loyalty to the colonies. Indeed his successor in the HBC complained bitterly that the governor “tried to saddle all the expenses on the company” and that he was unjust in his attitude to its interests. As early as 1862 Douglas was urging on the British government construction of an all-Canadian transcontinental road. It would possess, he said, “the peculiar advantage of being . . . remote from the U. S. frontier and traversing a country exclusively British, which from its position, character and general resources can hardly fail ... to become the seat of a large population.”
In 1864 Sir James retired from publiclife in a flurry of public dinners, presentations and addresses. Even the gadfly “Lover of the Universe” paid slightly backhanded tribute in the British Colonist: “We believe that nothing will be remembered of his administration that will tend to tarnish the name of Douglas.”
Douglas had a quick and cruel sense of fun. All during his life as fur trader and later as administrator he made
frequent journeys which today would be described as epic. After long hours1 travel on horseback or canoe he would camp on the trail with his men. One diminutive companion, James Murray Yale, was painfully conscious of his lack of inches and made every effort not to sit or stand near the tall Douglas. But Douglas, discovering this, made a habit of following the little man around.
Even with his own children Douglas seemed unable to curb his ironic and wounding tendency. He wrote to his only son James, a schoolboy in England: “We are all curiosity to see the storybook you have just finished and the tragedy you have written. It will be so pleasant to have a distinguished writer in the family.”
He was, however, intensely devoted to his family: his shy gentle wife
Amelia, his five handsome daughters and delicate James, the apple of his eye, whose life he planned down to the last detail. He carried on a voluminous correspondence with those of his family who were away from Victoria. When the twin colonies—island and mainland -—were joined to form the present British Golumbia, Sir James expressed himself freely to his daughter Jane: “It makes me savage even to think of the ruin and oppression this measure will lead to . . . Garroting is far too good for the stupid assembly that passed the fatal unconditional union resolution.”
He Planted Black Princes
All through the letters shines his love for Amelia. As Sir James’ importance grew she seems to have felt inadequate and took refuge in ailments that gave her an excellent excuse to avoid the social life of Victoria. Sir James loyally refused all but official invitations though he saw through her invalidism.
His garden and orchard were his great delight, often mentioned in his letters and journals. He notes the first blooming of the “ribes,” or wild currant, the first green peas or asparagus of the season, and on July 17, 1850, writes, “First double rose on Vancouver Island.” A penciled memo dated 1854 says, “Planted 18 Black Prince cherry stones.” One of the trees that grew from those cherry pits still survives, a living memorial to Victoria’s first amateur gardener.
James Douglas died as he must have wished—suddenly, without any period of helplessness -on Aug. 2, 1877. He was given a state funeral while all British Columbia mourned him, forgetting his faults and failings.
He was a statesman with a vision of the place and importance of the Pacific Coast far beyond his time. Though driven to seek power by some inner insecurity, he was idealistic and sincerely religious and exercised his authority in what he believed to be the best interests of those dependent upon him.
An autocrat by temperament and training, he could rule, but not reign. Yet—and this too is a paradox -he could write to his son who had boasted of licking another boy: “Tyranny is
hateful in every form; the strong should never oppress the weak.” And to this precept James Douglas was always faithful, in his fashion. if