Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Voices from the Past

Dec 14, 2014

A few days ago the news carried a story about a small First Nation from the Gulf Islands of British Columbia appearing out of the past to claim large chunks of coastal territory, including Stanley Park in Vancouver. Few people will have heard of the Hwlitsum people, including the government apparently since the band is not officially recognized as even existing. In fact, their story includes one of the most brutal examples of "gunboat diplomacy" to occur on the coast.

Most British Columbians are unaware of the violence that accompanied the settlement of coastal BC. We know about the horrible smallpox epidemic of 1862-63 which killed so many Aboriginal people (a third of the population by some estimates), but the iron hand of repression wielded by the British navy on behalf of the colonial enterprise is largely forgotten. The Hwlitsum were the victims of one of these violent episodes.

The 1850s and 1860s saw a series of forays by British gunboats to pacify different Aboriginal groups. No act of defiance was allowed to go unpunished. Governor James Douglas thought that the colony sat atop "a smouldering volcano, which at any moment might erupt." Nervously outnumbered, colonists believed that the indigenous people had to be convinced to accept the hegemony of British rule. Diplomacy would be best, but violent repression if necessary.

In early April 1863, in the Gulf Islands, in the space of two days, three whites were murdered and another was badly wounded. (The details of this whole affair are in Chris Arnett's thorough study, The Terror of the Coast [Talonbooks, 1999].) In response to these killings and at the request of Gov. Douglas, the British navy provided a 30-metre gunboat, Forward, armed with a cannon and two howitzers. Commander Horace Lascelles managed to track three suspects in one murder to Cowichan Bay where they were taken into custody. He then moved on to the village of Lamalcha on Kuper Island, a community of seven multi-family lodges where the people were known to be antagonistic to white settlement. These were the Hwlitsum.

When the people would not  (or could not because he wasn’t there) give up a suspect, Lascelles opened fire on the village. Villagers returned fire with their muskets from concealed positions on shore, killing a 16-year-old sailor named Charles Gliddon. He was the only British serviceman killed in action in BC. After a prolonged firefight, Lascelles withdrew the Forward to the mainland opposite Kuper Island. The best account of the incident claims that the “Battle of Lamalcha” was the only tactical defeat ever inflicted by a tribal people on the Royal Navy, though “defeat” might be a little strong given that the British returned the next day to find that the people had all fled and the village was ultimately destroyed.

Still, it was a shock to white colonists that the armed might of the British navy had been repulsed by what the authorities considered to be a small band of malcontents and troublemakers. In response, they mounted the largest military action ever seen on the coast, involving a naval man-of-war, two gunboats, two naval launches and about 500 men, all to hunt down seven Lamalcha men who were suspects in the murder. The British chased the fugitives for several days, taking them into custody one by one, along with assorted relatives and hostages. In the end, nine men were tried, eight of whom were hanged for their part in the Gulf Island killings.

 With the village destroyed, the Hwlitsum disappeared from the historical record. But they have resurfaced to assert their existence and their claim to compensation. Their case will be heard in March. For the time being their experience reminds us that contrary to what we would like to believe, the success of the colonial project in Canada (remember Prime Minister Harper telling us that Canada had had no experience of colonialism?) depended on force and violence.