Chapter Five: “Shall white men . . . rule in this Colony?”

Late in 1858, the mainland was proclaimed the crown colony of British Columbia. James Douglas was its first governor, but spent most of his time in Victoria, which still had the larger concentration of settlers in the two colonies.

The town had gone through a mild depression at the end of the summer: the melting snowpack had raised the Fraser, covering the gold-rich sand bars, and thousands of impatient miners had returned in frustration to Victoria. The mines, they said, were a “humbug.” While they waited for passage back to San Francisco, some of them staged riots that were put down only after sailors were marched in from Esquimalt.

By autumn, however, the miners who had persisted on the Fraser were sending considerable amounts of gold across Georgia Strait. Prospectors began exploring the Fraser’s tributaries, with good results. So though Victoria never again experienced the explosive growth of the 1858 rush, it prospered. The Black settlers prospered along with it.

As many of them were deeply religious, church was an important part of their lives. The Reverend Edward Cridge had invited the Pioneer Committee to attend his services, and many did so.

Not all the White parishioners welcomed them, however. One, an American named Sharpstone, published a protest in the Gazette in August 1858: “Last Sabbath was an unusually warm day. The little chapel was crowded as usual with a ‘smart sprinkle’ of blacks, generously mixed in with the whites. The Ethiopians perspired! They always do when out of place. Several white gentlemen left their seats vacant, and sought the purer atmosphere outside; others moodily endured the aromatic luxury of their positions, in no very pious frame of mind.” Sharpstone urged that a section be set aside for the Black churchgoers, “as is done in respectable churches in the world.”

Next day, Mifflin Gibbs responded to the American’s complaint. He handled Sharpstone, as one pioneer recalled, “without gloves.” After stating that the church as well as the government was only living up to its principles, Gibbs observed:


This seems to have awakened the negro-hating spirit of Alias Sharpstone and others of his ilk—as has been manifested by their uneasiness on the last few Sabbaths—proving that such persons are as destitute of Christian feeling as they are of the common principles of gentility. They visit church on each returning Sabbath—they live under and are protected in their persons and property by the government, and they neither pay a cent for the support of one or the other. Yet, uninvited, mere pensioners on the bounty and liberality of this government, they have the unblushing effrontery to dictate to the powers that be what line of policy they shall pursue, and recommend a course which it is as impudent to suggest as it would be unjust and inimical to British principles to adopt.

As for the silly twaddle about “Ethiopian perspiration,” “aromatic luxury,” . . . &c., it has long become obsolete even in the United States, and only writers of small caliber and low conceptions resort to it, as it proves nothing, save a dangerous weapon to handle—since the same perspiration and aromatic luxury (if it peculiarly exists in the negro) is not only endured but apparently enjoyed by some of these carpers when Venus is the star of their adoration. It comes with a bad grace from Americans to talk of the horrors of amalgamation when every plantation of the South is more or less a seraglio, and numbers of the most prominent men in the State of California have manifested little heed to color in their choice of companions in an amorous intrigue or a nocturnal debauch.


The editor of the Gazette tried to end the dispute at this point, claiming that “our space is not so extended as to permit giving much of it to questions of slight importance and minor interest.” But more was to come.

Cridge himself also wrote to the Gazette, reproving his congregation for its intolerance. Some White parishioners thereupon left the church, while others resorted to awkward stratagems to put distance between themselves and the Black churchgoers. Matthew Macfie, though not involved in this phase of the religious dispute, seems to have caught the tone of the White dissidents’ arguments:


Many . . . remonstrated with the clergyman [Cridge] against allowing the congregation to assume a speckled appearance—a spectacle deemed by them novel and inconvenient. They insisted that they were prepared to treat the ‘blacks’ with the utmost humanity and respect, in their own place; but that the Creator had made a distinction which it was sinful to ignore; that the promiscuous arrangement might lead to the sexes of both races falling in love with each other, entering into marriage, and thus occasioning the deterioration of the whites without the elevation of the negroes being effected.


Cridge responded with firmness and integrity, which Macfie chose to portray as naivete:


The worthy parson, being direct from the parent country, and till then wholly inexperienced in the social relations of the conflicting races . . . maintained that the stains of men’s sin, in common, were so dark, that mere difference in colour was an affair of supreme insignificance before the Almighty, in comparison, and that the separation desired by the whites was of carnal suggestion, which Christianity demanded should be repressed. He is said even to have gone so deeply into the subject in a particular sermon as to assert that the disposition of nerves, tendons, and arteries, and the essential faculties of the soul were alike in white and black—the sole distinction between them consisting of colouring matter under the skin, the projection of the lower jaw, and the wool by which the scalp was covered.


The issue simmered for several months and then erupted in another church—the mission established by Rev. William F. Clarke.

Early in 1859, the Congregational Unions of England and Canada had appointed Clarke to undertake the mission to Vancouver Island. He was surprised and disappointed to find the population’s non-Indigenous population was only about three thousand; he had been told it was eight to ten thousand.

In addition to Cridge’s Anglican church, several other denominations were active in the colony, as well as many other groups impervious to Congregationalism: “Roman Catholics, English, Irish, German, and French; Jews, Chinamen, and others each claim a share of the population,” he wrote, “leaving but a small residuum accessible to us. . . . I have not yet discovered in Victoria a single English Congregationalist, although I have searched the place almost microscopically for such a rara avis. I find three American Congregationalists . . . but the permanence of their stay here is not yet settled.”

Nonetheless, Clarke worked hard to establish his mission. In a town where housing was as scarce for worshippers as for miners, he managed to rent a “barn-like upper-room” for twenty-five dollars a month and raised enough money from collections to furnish it. Within a month of his arrival, he was preaching to as many as 140 persons and running a Sunday school with 31 students.

In his last appointment, in Wisconsin, Clarke had been an outspoken enemy of slavery, and his reputation had preceded him to Victoria. Perhaps for this reason, he soon attracted a sizable number of Black attendees to his services. But his very first congregation also included some White participants who, the following day, asked him what he intended to do about the fact that Black people had sat intermingled with the others.

“Nothing,” Clarke retorted.

Indignant, the White churchgoers told him they would have nothing more to do with his mission. They warned him that his whole congregation would soon be Black.

“Be it so, then,” Clarke said. “Better it should be so, than introduce an odious, foolish, sinful feeling such as this, to ‘the throne of supremacy,’ in the house and over the worship of God.”

Clarke brought the matter up before the whole congregation, telling them he would have nothing to do with a “negro corner.” The Black congregants were as much sons of God as the White ones, he said, and he praised their determination “to seek those equal religious privileges to which they are by natural right and gospel grant, entitled.”

The results of his stand were as he had been warned. In less than a month, Clarke’s congregations were half Black—“possibly sometimes a larger proportion.” He persisted, advising his superiors that it would be better for the mission to fail than to survive by segregation.

At this point Rev. Matthew Macfie arrived in Victoria. He had been expected to cooperate with Clarke; instead he broke almost at once with him over the segregation issue and began holding separate services. The Canadian Congregationalists, upon learning of Macfie’s move, were scandalized. The editor of the church’s Canadian Independent Magazine attacked Macfie as being “in opposition to the work of a brother Agent already occupying the ground” and branded Macfie’s attitude “anti-christian.”

Many of Clarke’s Canadian Congregationalist supporters agreed and sent him messages of encouragement. They also raised money to help him build his own church on a site donated by the HBC.

This was now more than a minor sectarian squabble. By now the young colony had a new Anglican bishop, the Right Reverend George Hills, who supported integrated congregations. According to church historian Julie H. Ferguson, Clarke visited the archbishop to discuss the matter, and Hills thanked him for taking a stand for the Black congregants.

Hills himself became increasingly involved in the issue. An American Episcopalian woman told him she opposed segregation, but most Americans in Victoria refused to attend Christ Church because it was integrated. She also shocked him with the news that the wife of the bishop of Oregon owned slaves. “Just the thought sickens me,” Hills wrote. He began to fear that the Black settlers would not be free “even on British soil.”

Meanwhile, Clarke faced growing difficulties. His children were harassed for having a “[Black] preacher” for a father, and for having to sit with Black people in church. Newcomers to town were systematically warned to avoid Clarke’s services—“with the avowed intention,” he wrote, “in Yankee-phrase, to ‘boost Macfie along,’ and to ‘drive Clarke out of Victoria.’”

Macfie’s supporters also tried to “boost him along” by a petition to the Congregationalists’ Colonial Missionary Society. Clarke wrote that the signatures were obtained by taking the petition to a hotel frequented by American miners. “A . . . speech was made to the crowd of them, the question put, ‘shall white men or [Black men] rule in this Colony?’ and on the white men being elected by acclamation to rule the country, all who were of that mind were invited to sign the document!”

Clearly, Clarke and his mission had been singled out as a political target, probably because of his anti-slavery reputation, because the Episcopalians and Methodists—who also integrated Black and White worshippers—had no trouble over the issue. Clarke’s backers in Britain eventually told him to abandon the mission and leave Victoria. He did so in the spring of 1860.

Had he been in a stronger position, with a large, loyal and racially mixed congregation, Clarke could have succeeded; in fact, he probably would not have had to deal with the harassment at all. The Black community admired and respected him, but most were already in Cridge’s fold. In any case, they did not intend to segregate themselves by driving White people away, and Clarke’s mission had been stigmatized as “the black man’s church.”

Bishop Hills tried and failed to recruit Clarke into the Church of England, and then, Ferguson tells us, faced increasing race problems. A Roman Catholic school had recently bowed to parental pressure for segregation of Black and Indigenous children from White children, opening a separate classroom. The non-White parents had understandably pulled their children from the school. Hills saw this as another good reason to open an unsegregated Anglican school and told his congregation he would work to create such a school. This caused him to be ostracized by some residents, Ferguson says.

On March 23, 1860, Bishop Hills received a Black visitor, Mrs. Washington (possibly the wife of Thorenton Washington, a carpenter who was among the first Black residents to apply for British citizenship). As Ferguson puts it:


On one of the rare occasions that colonial clergy stopped to listen—probably because she was Christian—Hills asked her questions and recorded all her responses in his diary. Her tears discomfited him when she spoke of the injustice done to Blacks. Hills encouraged her to cheer up, because the Church of England could be relied upon to ensure no discrimination would occur in their sphere of influence.


Three days later, Ferguson adds, two Black men visited Hills. They attended Christ Church, but said they would have preferred the Congregationalist church except for the discrimination they had suffered there. They were barred as well, they told him, from the YMCA and other local groups.

Furious, Hills exclaimed, “From whatever society you were excluded, I was excluded also, for I should belong to nothing where such unrighteous prejudices existed.” He asked the men why they thought they were being so badly treated, and recorded their reply: “There is, deeply seated in human nature, an [inclination] to hate those you injure.”

The issue continued to vex the bishop that spring; an American visitor on Easter Saturday came to dinner and complained about the integrated congregation: “It was not intended they should be equal.” Hills rebutted the American’s arguments and later wrote that his “objection was grounded not upon reason but upon a prejudice of caste.”

About this time Clarke was back in Toronto, battling with the committee of the Colonial Missionary Society. The committee waffled on the dispute between Clarke and Macfie, and on the segregation issue in general. The committee blamed Clarke for causing the dispute; Clarke pointed out that until Macfie’s arrival, no church had segregated its worshippers. Clarke continued to criticize the committee in the pages of the church magazine for some months. Not until October 1860 did Macfie present his side of the story.

“When I preached for Mr. Clarke,” Macfie wrote in the Canadian Independent Magazine,


the first Sunday after entering the Colony, I was amazed to find so large a proportion of the congregation made up of coloured people. . . . When the two races are numerous, they are set apart in places of worship. But Mr. Clarke flattered himself he could revolutionize public sentiment on this point, though deeply rooted for ages, and he made it primary. I argued the subject with him kindly, and suggested a change of policy to give the whites, who form the staple of the Colony, a chance of hearing the gospel. . . . I took no part in discussing whether the prejudice was well founded or not; I simply treated it as a matter with which we, as public teachers, had nothing to do. I held that we could not afford to offend people by introducing innovations. I thought that if the whites would not sit side by side with blacks, they should rather be humoured with their own familiar arrangements than driven from the church altogether.


This letter had already been seen by the Colonial Missionary Society, together with Macfie’s other correspondence, in which he had expanded on his own policy: “If negroes were pleased to give their attendance, they would be expected to take one side of the building, where they would be welcome to any unoccupied place they might choose, and where they would always find a number of whites sufficiently indifferent to the prejudice to sit in proximity to them.”

Macfie had made his position entirely too clear for the society, which ordered him to ensure “freedom of access . . . to every part of the building to all persons, without distinction of colour.” If Macfie refused, “the connection of the Colonial Missionary Society must cease.”

Perhaps feeling a bit besieged, Macfie paid a visit to Bishop Hills in October 1860. He apparently hoped to try to change Hills’s mind, and to complain, Ferguson tells us, about the letters Hills had been publishing in English newspapers, criticizing Macfie’s prejudice against the Black community.

“Macfie addressed the bishop at length,” Ferguson says,


denying that he ever supported or practiced segregation. Hills realized immediately that he was lying and sharply told Macfie that he had no one but himself to blame, for after all, it was he who opened a new chapel to accommodate the members of his congregation who did not want blacks integrated. The bishop believed that Macfie got what he deserved. He lost his reputation in England, if not in Victoria, because he followed the line of least resistance and expediency.


Macfie found it expedient to continue in Victoria for several years. Clarke was gone. The Black worshippers refused to attend Macfie’s church “to be put in the [Black man’s] corner.” The society’s order to integrate was therefore a dead letter.

In the mid-1860s, Macfie returned to Britain to raise money for the church and to encourage immigration to British Columbia. In 1865 he published a book, Vancouver Island and British Columbia, including in it an account of the religious dispute, from which he himself was conspicuously absent:


A zealous Nonconformist fresh from the anti-slavery “platform” in Canada, hastened to espouse the cause of the African. The coloured people, proud of so able a champion, rallied round him, and soon outnumbered the white adherents in his congregation. . . . This preponderance of colour in the chapel, however, did not accord with the objects the negroes were ambitious of attaining. They gradually withdrew to the fashionable church where they could enjoy the satisfaction of mingling more largely with the superior race; and, like the ass in the fable, between the two bundles of hay, the devoted friend of the African was thus starved out. So ungratefully are the disinterested services of philanthropy sometimes requited! Many were of the opinion that a difficulty of so exceptional an order might have been overcome by more prudent reticence on the part of these conscientious ministers. . . . A little good nature, cautious managements, and expedient neutrality on the part of the clergy, would, I have no doubt, soon have brought the antagonists to a proper understanding, and silenced the strife for precedence in the religious assembly.


Macfie’s archaic hypocrisy may be tedious to readers assailed by modern spin doctors, but it is worth considering if only because so many other White settlers shared it. He devotes a remarkable amount of space in his book to discussing the races in the colony, with special concern expressed about the threat of miscegenation:


I have known Europeans married to pure [Indigenous women], [Indigenous] half-breeds, and Mulatto females respectively. One case has come under my consideration of a negro married to a white woman, and another of a man descended from a Hindoo mother married to a wife of [Indigenous] extraction. A gentleman of large property reported to be of Mulatto origin, is married to a half-breed [Indigenous woman]. From these heterogeneous unions, and from illicit commerce between the races just enumerated, it is evident that our population cannot escape the infusion of a considerable hybrid offspring.


This passage is all the more churlish when we consider that the “gentleman of large property” is almost certainly James Douglas himself; Macfie seems to have had a gift for cowardly malice.

Like other racists of his time and our own, Macfie oscillated between professions of admiration for non-White people and grim warnings against them. Whites might be better than non-Whites, but Whites were also apparently very fragile: “Does the presence, so largely, of inferior races forbode the fatal tainting of the young nation’s blood and signal its premature decay, or will the vitality of the governing race triumph over the contamination with which more primitive types threaten to engulf it?”

While Black settlers made up only a fifth or sixth of Victoria’s population, they made up half of all churchgoing colonists. Most clergymen supported them, and they in turn respected their pastors and priests.

But even in the churches where they worshipped beside White churchgoers, they encountered subtle discrimination. As a writer in the Colonist observed in 1861: “Every Sabbath, the Rev. Mr. So-and-so gives out from the pulpit that the ‘ladies’ sewing circle will meet at the residence of Mrs. — —. The male and female members of the circle attend at the lady’s house; but you never see a black face, nor even that of a mulatto, among their number.”

By the early 1860s, then, the Black pioneers had learned that justice and equal treatment would have to be fought for here with as much determination as in the United States. Despite their contributions to the colony’s development—and the help of Victoria’s elite—they were still discriminated against. It was only natural that they should take political action to protect their interests. It was their misfortune, and the colony’s, that their friends were scoundrels and their enemies rascals.