Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Mar 28, 2010

CHAPTER TWO: Pacifying the Coast
Part One

The sailing vessel Brother John docked at Esquimalt harbour on the 13 March, 1862. Of the 150 passengers who disembarked, one carried a deadly virus into the settlement. Variola major was the smallpox virus, and before a week had passed the newspapers were reporting that the dreaded disease was present in the community. By March 28, children at the Songhees village across the harbour from the trading post were sick. Soon the illness was raging through the “Northerners’ Encampment” just north of the fort in the Upper Harbour. Anglican missionaries at this makeshift shantytown, chiefly inhabited by Tsimshian visitors from the north coast, opened a small hospital to care for the sick and dying. On April 25, Bishop George Hills visited the spot and reported: “The small-pox was raging with virulence; twenty had already died; I saw eleven more cases in various stages of the disease.”


Three days later, Amor de Cosmos raised the alarm in his newspaper, the British Colonist, urging the authorities to evict the Aboriginal visitors from their camps, which should then be destroyed by fire. “Let them take any means, no matter what, to protect their families from the pestilential scourge that is hovering among the savages on the outskirts of the town,” he editorialized. “We appeal to our authorities, our clergy, our leading citizens, to adopt vigorous measures without a moment’s delay, as there are none to be lost.”


De Cosmos’s advice was followed. At the end of April many Songhees fled their village and moved to Discovery Island at the south end of Haro Strait to isolate themselves from the growing epidemic. On May 11, police supported by two gunboats forced about three hundred Haida camped in Cadboro Bay east of Victoria to embark in their canoes and leave the area. Two days later police burned the Northern Encampment, and the next day evicted another group from Laurel Point on the Inner Harbour.


Early in June police visited the final encampment, located at Ogden Point. They discovered a deserted village reeking of death and decay. Corpses lay on the ground and in the dwellings, where a scattering of toys, clothing and other possessions showed how quickly the people had abandoned the spot. Dozens of bodies were buried in shallow graves under the floors of the lodges. Police burned the camp to the ground, then spread a layer of quick lime over the ruins. By this time several thousand people had left Victoria for their home villages up the coast. For the white residents of the fort and its surrounding area, the worst was over.


For the First Nations, it was just beginning.


Variola major is a particularly contagious virus. Almost everyone who comes into contact with it develops smallpox, and about thirty percent of the infected do not survive. It is a droplet infection, spread in the air or by contact with contaminated belongings or the corpses of the deceased. The first signs of disease occur a week or two after contact. They include severe headache, backache, nausea and fever. As the illness worsens, a red rash appears, the spots growing into ugly pustules which cover the body and invade the mouth, throat and nasal passages. Sufferers feel that their skin is on fire. They are extremely thirsty, but it hurts to swallow. Tormented by itchiness, they emit an unpleasant odor of rotting flesh. Those who survive begin forming scabs as the lesions gradually dry out. When the scabs fall off, the skin is marked by permanent pitted scars, or pockmarks. The entire cycle takes about a month.


Smallpox has been all but eliminated from the world, but when it was rampant it was present in all countries among all races and skin colours. The disease infected Egyptian pharoahs, ancient Athenians, the armies of Alexander the Great and Christian crusaders to the Holy Land. At the end of the eighteenth century, when the first explorers arrived in BC, smallpox was killing about 400,000 people in Europe annually. Everyone who survives a bout of smallpox becomes immune to the disease for the rest of their life. As a result, it was especially destructive when it reached populations that had never been exposed; for example, the Aboriginal peoples of North America. The Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortes completed his conquest of Mexico’s Aztec civilization with the help of a smallpox epidemic that killed about half of the population. In eastern Canada, smallpox spread through the valley of the St Lawrence River in 1639, reaching central Ontario where it killed thousands of Wendat people and so weakened the survivors that they fell easy victim to the invading Iroquois and were almost completely wiped out. Contagion swept the Prairie West in 1781 and again in 1837; the latter occurrence killed an estimated three-quarters of the Aboriginal people of the Plains.


The point needn’t be belaboured. Wherever it appeared, and it appeared almost everywhere, smallpox was a catastrophe.


The 1862 epidemic was not the first outbreak of smallpox on the Pacific coast. Researchers have identified several earlier occurrences. The first was during the 1770s, followed by outbreaks around Georgia Strait in 1782 (or 1801, depending on which expert you consult) and from Fort McLoughlin north in 1836-37. There may have been others. Nor was smallpox the only epidemic disease afflicting coastal First Nations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1848 measles was carried north by the Beaver on one of its trading runs and spread through the tribes of the north coast to the Interior, killing more than ten percent of the population. Influenza, dysentery, whooping cough, typhus, tuberculosis, syphilis; each appeared on the coast with the arrival of the outsiders. But no earlier experience with disease was as catastrophic as the epidemic which began in the spring of 1862.

Next time: the epidemic spreads