One hundred and fifty years ago, half of B.C.’s indigenous population lost their lives to smallpox in the space of 10 months. Anywhere from 25 to 100,000 indigenous men and women were laid to rest in mass graves, which remain hidden beneath the foundations of B.C. today.
Popular history dismisses this period, citing accident and poor immunity as the cause of the tragedy, while ignoring evidence of its darker roots. For local historian Tom Swanky the epidemic was actively guided by the vision of Victoria’s celebrated founders. It was their greed and political ambition that required control over land occupied by the Tsilhqot’in, Nuxalk, Haida and many other nations. It was their surveying expeditions that deliberately seeded every village that they visited with infected settlers. It was their orders that spread smallpox to the interior.
Not everyone accepted the epidemic as an accident at the time. “For some reason, the Tsilhqot’in discovered what [the surveyors] were doing there,” says Swanky. After the colonial government passed a law allowing any colonist to claim uninhabited land, smallpox was being used to clear that land.
For the Tsilhqot’in people, the Tsilhqot’in War began with the epidemic of 1862. In 1863, their warriors started killing those settlers who were spreading the disease in a conflict that carried on until 1864 when the colonial government decided to meet self-defence with force and treachery.
For the authorities in Victoria, the war was over the same year it began. In the fall of 1864, several Tsilhqot’in leaders were lured to a conference with the promise of negotiating a treaty, only to be hung on the site of one of their own people’s mass graves.
Swanky pieced this narrative together from oral history, newspaper clippings, and scattered scraps of information. “The official narrative,” he says, “is that the smallpox epidemics are a natural disaster, and that the causes of the Tsilhqot’in War are indeterminate and mysterious.”
For Victoria’s founders, James Douglas, John Helmcken, Matthew Begbie, William Tolmie, and Joseph Pemberton, the war on B.C.’s indigenous peoples was over as soon as it began. For the Tsilhqot’in and thousands of others, the struggle to retain control over their homes has never ended.
Tom Swanky will be speaking on the Tsilhqot’in War at UVic’s David Lam auditorium Fri., Nov. 23, 7pm. Suggested donation $10. M