Rose Seiler Scott

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Victoria history tidbits: Governor James Douglas

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Victoria

Real life and writing don’t always make room for each other, so I haven’t blogged much lately, but decided a few months ago to quit one of my jobs and return to writing. I had started on a sequel to Threaten to Undo Us, but my other late grandmother’s life beckoned like a glimmering gas lantern on a dark Liverpool street. Only 25,000 words in, but I will reveal this:  In addition to Liverpool, much of the story takes place in Victoria on Vancouver Island. Yes, Victoria, BC, where royals, Harry and Meghan have taken up residence.

History of Victoria

The history of Victoria is easily accessible for research and that is lovely for me. I can even hop a ferry over. Writing about Germans in Poland during the first half of the 20th century wasn’t like that at all. Distance and language barriers, not to mention the politics of the narrative made it especially challenging. Nothing like jumping all in on my #debut novel.  In comparison, this book should be a walk in Butchart Gardens. Hmm, I wonder if that was around in the 1930’s?

Sir James Douglas

I’ve already found fascinating tidbits of history. Today, colonialism and white privilege has angled historical conversations in a different direction. Obviously James Douglas, hailing from the British empire and setting up Fort Victoria for the Hudson’s Bay Company, would have been an egregious example of such.

Or was he?

 Douglas became the first governor of BC before Canadian confederation. Before 1967, we had governors, like the US states.  His father, no surprise, was from Glasgow, but his mother was, wait for it— the daughter of a “free coloured woman.”1  Douglas was born out of wedlock in 1803, when his father managed a sugar plantation in Guyana. Fortunately his father determined that his illegitimate children, even though descended from African ancestors, should have an education in Scotland.

Amelia

But that is not all. Douglas, who began his career in Canada as a fur trader, took a Metis’ wife, Amelia. In Canadian history, with a severe shortage of European women, that was not unusual. However, as more “suitable” brides became available, men often dropped their mixed breed wives as if they were broken arrowheads and moved on to other women. Since the original marriages were ceremonial or common-law, it was a convenient matter. At least for the men. Amelia’s mother and her siblings were victims of this. Her father, an Irish fur trader had lived with her Cree mother for thirty years, but when the opportunity to marry a Caucasian cousin arose, he claimed no legal union to his first wife.

In contrast, Douglas eventually “upgraded” his union with Amelia to legal status, thus granting her security and privilege. He was protective of her mixed race status, perhaps due to his own parentage and had no patience with people who reacted negatively. Yes, in Victorian Victoria, this happened.

Black Settlers

In 1858, Douglas welcomed a group of black settlers from San Francisco to settle in the new colony. Sadly, they weren’t always made as welcome as Douglas would have preferred, but men such as Mifflin Gibbs, became upstanding members of the community. After the Civil war was over, many returned to the US, but others settled on nearby Saltspring Island and throughout British Columbia.

Other less admirable incidents in Douglas’ life are up for dispute and discussion, but I’ll leave those discoveries to you. A number of landmarks on Vancouver Island and the mainland, including roads, schools and colleges are named after him both on the island and Lower Mainland of BC.

1. Reksten, Terry. More English than the English: A Very Social History of Victoria. Sono Nis Press, 2011, p. 15

Author: Rose Scott

Award-winning author of fiction. Teller of truth. Revealing history and sharing good books.

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