Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on May 30, 2010 - 4 comments

Chapter Three: Agents of God, Agents of Change
Part One: Duncan of Metlakatla

In the spring of 1856, Captain James Prevost, commander of the naval gunship Virago on the Northwest Coast, returned home to London on leave. Prevost was a deeply religious man who was disturbed by the “heathenism” he had witnessed among the Aboriginal tribes of the coast. In London he contacted the Church Missionary Society, the missionary arm of the Anglican Church. The CMS already sponsored missions in Africa, India, New Zealand and Red River in Canada, and Prevost was convinced that the Northwest Coast was equally in need of salvation. His appeal in the CMS newspaper raised sufficient funds to support a mission, and when Prevost set sail for the coast in command of his new vessel, HMS Satellite, two days before Christmas, he had with him a twenty-four-year-old lay teacher named William Duncan.

Duncan (photo above; BC Archives) was the son of an unmarried serving girl, his father unknown. He came to religion through music; as a boy he had a beautiful singing voice that he exercised as a member of the choir at his local church. As if in response to his disreputable background, Duncan matured into an insufferable prig. By all accounts he was pompous, sanctimonious and gloomy, a complete wet blanket. He judged everyone to be full of sin, himself most of all. He was also bright, diligent and ambitious, but there was nothing to indicate when he went out to British Columbia that his efforts there would transform him into a household name among Christians throughout the world.

Duncan’s assignment for the CMS was to travel to Fort Simpson and establish a mission among the Tsimshian there. First he had to convince Governor James Douglas that this was a good idea. Like many fur traders, Douglas was suspicious of missionaries because of the influence they might gain among the First Nations. Plus, he worried for Duncan’s safety a thousand kilometres from “civilization”. Duncan spent the summer of 1857 at Fort Victoria changing the governor’s mind while at the same time studying the Tsimshian language. That fall he hitched a ride up the coast aboard the Otter. At Fort Simpson the HBC gave him free room and board, though he was discouraged from going beyond the walls to visit the Tsimshian in their lodges. He passed the winter running a school for the children in the fort and perfecting his knowledge of the local language. His tutor was a twenty-six-year-old Tsimshian named Arthur Wellington Clah, who in turn used the opportunity to learn to read and write English. Duncan considered Clah to be his first Christian convert, though the two later fell out when Clah continued to participate in Tsimshian ceremonials. As Duncan would discover, this was typical of many First Nations’ attitude to Christianity. They were happy to “convert” to the new religion, but they saw no reason why at the same time they could not retain their own spiritual beliefs and cultural practices.

By the next summer, Duncan was able to meet with the Tsimshian to explain to them in their own language his reasons for appearing among them. He soon established a school where he taught the youngsters the three Rs along with a healthy dose of religion and hymn singing. But Fort Simpson turned out not to be the best place to install a mission after all. The very thing that attracted the Church Missionary Society, the fact that so many people gathered there from all corners of the territory, made for an unstable social environment. Tribal rivalries played out in deadly clashes. There was gunfire around the school and alcohol abuse was rampant. The antagonism of local shamans increased.

Convinced that he should move away from the post, Duncan came up with a plan to relocate his mission about thirty kilometres south at Metlakatla, an old village site overlooking a narrow channel not far from what is now Prince Rupert. Preparations accelerated in May 1862 when word reached the north of the smallpox epidemic that was devastating Victoria. Duncan warned the Tsimshian that his god was about to punish those non-believers who refused to give up their old ways. He then left Fort Simpson with the initial party of followers to establish a new home at Metlakatla. When the smallpox arrived at the fort, and the people began to die, hundreds more Tsimshian fled to Duncan’s settlement where he innoculated them and built a primitive refuge for the sick. As a result, only five Metlakatlans died in the epidemic, compared to a death toll of 500 at the fort. Naturally, Duncan portrayed this episode as a vindication of the power of the new religion and his influence was confirmed.

Next time: A New World utopia