Chapter Ten: “The war of complexional distinction is upon us”

“Rotten egged.—A Negro forced his way into the parquette of the Colonial Theatre last evening, and was pelted with rotten eggs by some men in the gallery. Several white people were also struck by the missiles. The affair was very disgusting and highly reprehensible.”

Such was the unfocused indignation of the Colonist in July 1860, when it recorded the first anti-Black incident in Victoria’s theatres. Like the church dispute, the issue was integrated seating; but in a town much fonder of entertainment than of churchgoing, more people were involved.

The Black community had encountered racism right from the start of their settlement, but in most cases they had powerful allies in church and government. In the theatre controversy, those allies had no stake in the outcome. This was to be the first in a series of disputes in which the Black settlers steadily lost ground as a community, though as individuals they continued to prosper.

In a booming frontier town, the theatre was a major source of entertainment, and many performers came up from San Francisco to play to large audiences. When the Colonial Theatre first opened, it permitted integrated seating. White customers soon objected, and the management thereafter allowed Black customers to sit only in the gallery. Strangely enough, no one seemed to mind sitting next to Black patrons in the gallery, but the sight of a Black man in the more expensive parquette seats evidently provoked Whites who could not afford them.

For some time after the “rotten egging,” no Black customers seem to have challenged the theatre’s policy. Then, late in October, a Black man named James Stephens was refused a parquette ticket. He and a number of other Black theatregoers decided to make an issue of it.

On Saturday, November 3, the theatre was about two-thirds full as the curtain was about to rise on the first of the evening’s two plays. Rumours had circulated that the Black protestors intended to force their way into the parquette. The management had reminded its staff to sell no parquette tickets to Black customers; the box office clerk had made a point of checking the colour of the hands reaching through his wicket. Charlie Chinoople, the Bengali steward of HMS Topaze, was the only non-White person allowed to buy a parquette ticket. At seven-thirty, two Black men came to the parquette entrance, which opened onto an alley alongside the building. John Wolfe, the doorkeeper, refused to admit them.

What happened next is unclear. The Colonist ran a long account of the incident that was almost certainly inaccurate in many respects. It reported that the two Black men had forced their way past Wolfe and taken seats. Some of the audience shouted at them to leave. One of the actors offered each man a dollar, saying, “Here’s your money; go out.”

Wolfe then said the men had not paid for their tickets; another White man grabbed one of the Black men by the collar. The Black man struck him, and a brawl erupted as costumed actors leaped from the stage and White audience members surged forward to take part.

At this point, according to the Colonist, “a large number of negroes, armed with clubs, entered, and commenced striking right and left with their weapons.” Before the police arrived to restore order, combatants throwing camphene lamps at one another had nearly set the theatre afire.

Seven men, five of them Black, were arrested. The other Black protestors left the parquette, and some bought gallery tickets. During an intermission, a Black man who ventured into the pit “was rotten-egged by some white blackguards near him.”

This was not the last of the evening’s incidents: two constables grew suspicious of three Black men moving around the theatre. The men left, but a constable detected a revolver under one man’s coat. He had to chase his suspect down Government Street and into the old Fort yard, where he found the man unarmed. Returning with the man, the constable found a loaded Colt six-shooter near the gate of the yard.

The Colonist graphically described numerous bloodstained victories of the riot, and asserted that “at one time the alley way outside the parquette entrance was filled with colored men, and it is thought there could not have been less than 100 present.”

Both the bloodshed and the number of Black men were doubtless exaggerated, but the incident triggered great excitement. When the preliminary hearing was held the following Monday, the courtroom was so crowded that the windows were broken. At the hearing, four Black and two White participants were ordered to appear in court again on the following Wednesday.

On the morning of the hearing, the Colonist ran a long editorial titled “The Colored ‘Invasion.’” The writer, perhaps Amor De Cosmos, did his best to increase tensions and to threaten the Black population:


Yesterday information was conveyed to the Superintendent of Police that the negroes were arming and preparing for a descent upon the theatre next Saturday night; and that deputations were expected from Salt Spring Island, New Westminster, and the American side, for the purpose of carrying out that design. If this report be true, it will be one of the worst steps ever undertaken by any class of men. It will raise . . . a storm of indignation and hatred on the part of the whites against the colored race. . . . Respectable negroes . . . will suffer alike with the guilty; and very few white people will be found willing to brave public opinion by giving employment to a man of color.


Having made these dire warnings against a hypothetical threat, the Colonist went on to assert its impartiality in terms strikingly similar to arguments still being made in the twenty-first century: “With us, a rowdy is a rowdy—no matter what the color of his skin.” But it offered the Black community a doubtful alternative to rioting: “If they had been denied admittance to the theatre, the law was before them to appeal to. If no remedy could be obtained by applying to that source, they should have settled down quietly, and by uniform good conduct and moderation, trusted to a gradual change in public opinion, whereby they might be enable to visit any portion of a place of amusement they saw proper.”

Implicit in this suggestion was the conviction that colonial law was too weak to stand against American bias. It was a tactical mistake to say so on the day of a hearing dealing with just that issue.

Judge Pemberton, no friend of De Cosmos anyway, heard the case. The theatre’s staff and actors were the chief witnesses. L.F. Beatty, acting manager, stated the management’s reasons for forbidding Black customers from sitting in the parquette. John Wolfe gave his version of the Black men’s entry, and several other witnesses confirmed his outline of events. No one mentioned the fact that it had been widely known before the incident that the Black customers intended to test the Colonial’s colour bar that night. Some White customers had come to the theatre armed with eggs and onions in anticipation of the event.

Pemberton dismissed charges against the two White men and one of the four Black men, ordering the remaining three to stand trial the following week. They were Stephen Anderson, a miner; Adolphus Richards, a plasterer; and “George Washington”—probably George Washington Hobbs, a teamster. All appear to have been among the Black settlers who had applied for British subject status in 1858.

Again the Colonist kept the atmosphere acrid with an editorial that warned the Black community against “a repetition of the scenes of last Saturday night.” It also mentioned “a number of strange colored men” seen in town, thus keeping its readers on edge.

When the trial opened on Monday, November 12, the trend of the testimony was sharply different from that in the hearing. While the White witnesses repeated their earlier stories, defence attorney D. Babington Ring was able to cast doubt on them; he also proved that Anderson, at least, had obtained a parquette ticket.

One witness refuted the assertion that Anderson and Richards had stormed in swinging sticks: Anderson, he said, had used his fists only after Wolfe grabbed him by the collar. The Black mob in the alley became instead a mob of Black, White and Indigenous people, mostly onlookers. The theatre manager was said to have invited the White customers in the gallery to put the Black customers out—and thereby to have triggered the brawl. One witness did see “two or three sticks in the hands of the colored persuasion,” but that was about the extent of the Black men’s weaponry.

Judge Pemberton concluded that the defendants had intended to test the theatre’s seating policy, but not to cause a riot. Premeditation could not be proven, and he therefore acquitted the three defendants.

The theatre seating issue quieted down for several months. Theatres in any case were disreputable places to sober, churchgoing citizens. For middle-class Black settlers they were especially disagreeable, since in the gallery they would have to mingle with Victoria’s roughest classes—whether Black or White.

On September 25, 1861, however, a hospital benefit was staged, and the event attracted some of the town’s most prosperous Black residents. Mifflin Gibbs was there, accompanied by his wife, Maria. She was pregnant and would give birth in October to their first child, Donald. The couple had seats in the dress circle, just in front of Gibbs’s old partner Nathan Pointer, who had brought his daughter along.

Rumours warned that any Black customers in the dress circle would be pelted with onions or flour. One storekeeper had even given his customers free onions to take to the theatre. A man named McCrea promised fifty dollars to one of the performers, Felix Lesbonis, if he would publicly refuse to sing in front of Black customers. Lesbonis refused the bribe, saying he had promised to perform whether Black customers were present or not. Gibbs and Pointer were aware of what was going on but were determined to attend.

As the concert was about to begin, Emil Sutro—one of the scheduled performers—refused to go on unless the Black customers moved out of the dress circle. They were asked to do so and refused. Sutro then left, and the concert began. Near its end, a number of listeners stood in the aisle between the dress circle and the regular seats. One of them tossed a newspaper-wrapped package of flour; it struck Pointer and sent a cloud of flour over the Gibbses as well.

Furious, the two men leaped to their feet and turned to see several White men facing them. Pointer gestured to one of them, a man named Ryckman, and shouted, “That’s the man!”

Gibbs promptly struck Ryckman, while Pointer hit a naval officer standing nearby. A short, sharp melee broke out, ending with the arrival of the police and the filing of charges against all involved. (Why the police were not present from the start is unknown.)

The incident was of course a sensation, especially since the US Civil War had been going on for six months and most of the Americans in Victoria had chosen sides. The Colonist editorialized on September 27 that the Black attendees had every right to their seats, but added that since most White customers were “opposed to colored people sitting promiscuously in the house, riots attended by loss of life will be likely to occur.”

In the same edition, Emil Sutro published “A Card,” explaining his role in the affair:


My name having been mentioned in connection with the “Theatre Fracas,” I wish to state what happened between Mr. Maguire, the leader of the orchestra, and myself. When I reached the theatre I learned that several colored people were occupying prominent seats in the dress circle, which caused considerable dissatisfaction to many English and American residents, preventing numbers from entering. . . . Mr. Maguire, after an interview with the parties, informed me that they were stubborn and would not budge an inch, to use their own expression. I refused to play and left the theatre for home. . . . In concluding I would remark that I do not believe in any amalgamation of white and colored people, not that the latter should socially intermix with the former. No sensible person will object to the colored population being admitted to any public place of amusement; but let one part of the house, no matter which, be reserved for their particular use,—where people will never intrude upon their society. They form a distinct class, and enjoy their full rights as citizens; but let these “gentlemen”—if they claim to be gentlemen—not force themselves upon white society, where they are not desired, and are furthermore offensive to a majority of the residents of Victoria.


Sutro’s statement provoked a stinging response next day from an anonymous Englishwoman:


Now as regards the forcing themselves upon the “white society,” allow me to say that they are as a class superior to many who composed the audience on the very night in question. Take for instance the unprovoked assault on those unoffending individuals. They have never forced themselves on society of any kind, and they have as much right, in a British Colony, to be seen and heard, as persons who are fortunate enough to have a white skin. To say “They enjoy their full rights as citizens,” is a flat contradiction of himself, for he says “they were requested to resign their seats,” (although paid for) in favor of some white society. Which they very sensibly declined. Had they given an inch an ell might have been taken. As regards their being very offensive to a large majority of the residents of Victoria, a very plain proof that they are not so is seen in the state of our churches, where nearly one-half of the congregations are colored. And on the night already referred to, I believed not one respectable person took part in the assault, which was as offensive to Englishmen as unwarrantable in an English Colony where all classes are truly free, and not so in name only. It would be well if Mr. Sutro would remember that he himself belongs to a much persecuted race which in some countries is a proverb and a byword. Remembering this, his sympathies should have been with, not against the colored people.

All foreigners living on British soil should conform to British laws and customs, and not take upon themselves to dictate, and if they cannot endure the presence of a colored man or woman, let them by all means stay at home; they have full permission to do so, and not offend anyone’s eyes and ears by the disgraceful scenes alluded to.


The letter was signed “an offended Englishwoman.”

Mifflin Gibbs also published a letter in the Colonist, attacking the paper’s stand as too weak. He was obviously still angry, and if some of his charges were intemperate, they were at least understandable:


I have resided in this Colony for the space of three or four years, but never before visited a place of public amusement; but being interested in the success of the Hospital fund to the amount of several hundred dollars for provisions furnished the institution for the comfort and sustenance of Americans and others whom misfortune had overtaken; and further, knowing it was to be under the patronage of distinguished officials and the best English society of the Colony, I went with my family, with no feeling than that I would be exempt from the barbarous and insulting behaviour that has characterized such places on former occasions—and for the purpose purchased tickets for the dress circle. The public knows the rest; how my friend—against whose respectability and standing no exceptions can be taken—with his young daughter, myself and wife were covered with flour, the performers pelted with unsaleable fruit, and every effort made by the American rowdies to break up the entertainment.

Now, sir, what course have you taken with regard to this outrage? You meet a colored man on the street and denounce it as outrageous, the thing admits of no defence, the parties should suffer for it, &c., &c. You hasten to your sanctum (as some poor simple people thought) to indite “words that breathe and thoughts that burn” in vindication of outraged law. But lo! visions of long advertisements and untold patronage from denizens of Wharf street dance and glisten; the palms of your hands suddenly expand and contract like a sunfish in greedy expectancy of thirty pieces of silver.

You have little to say condemnatory, notwithstanding a great wrong has been committed calling for condign punishment, you admit the wrong, and in the next breath palliate the offence and invite repetition by carping about “Caucasian and African,” “deeply rooted prejudice,” “social equality,” &c. . . .

That fact is patent that you, occupying the position of an Editor, and in the face of your continual clamoring for the faithful and impartial administration of British law as affecting other topics, have not only shirked your duty and proved yourself a trimmer . . . but have done worse. Instead of calling on the authorities to have officers present to protect every man in the peaceful enjoyment of his rights, you wind up your article by advocating a course that would oppress and degrade a large and growing class of most loyal citizens. I have taken an oath of allegiance to Her Majesty’s Government, paid the other day about $400 yearly taxes into the treasury; in return am I to be told by you that I shall be degraded on public occasions and proscribed to the Box, Parquette, or any other places, to please a few renegade Yankees, who, if they had a spark of patriotism about them, would be fighting their country’s battles, and not be laying around here to save their hides and foment strife. . . .


The Colonist denied Gibbs’s charges, somewhat patronizingly, and warned that “Mr. Gibbs is taking the right course to injure a just cause.”

The assault cases stemming from the incident were brought before Judge Pemberton on September 30. Gibbs and Pointer’s lawyer tried to prove that the White defendants had attempted to influence at least one key witness, a Black waiter who worked in Sam Ringo’s restaurant. While the waiter’s story tended to implicate Ryckman, it was far from conclusive. Ringo himself—while denying that Ryckman had asked him to fire the waiter—also admitted that he had lost some customers because it was known the waiter was going to testify.

Pointer and Gibbs asserted strongly that Ryckman had thrown the flour, but a number of other witnesses denied it; one of them, a carpenter on HMS Topaze named Robert Shaw, declined to say whether he himself might have thrown the flour.

Pemberton might have found Shaw in contempt of court for refusing to testify unless the carpenter was willing to say it was to prevent “self-crimination.” Shaw would not do so, but Pemberton did not find him in contempt.

The judge then acquitted the four White men charged in the incident. When the court turned its attention to the White men’s countersuit, Gibbs admitted assaulting Ryckman and was fined five pounds; the charge against Pointer was dropped for lack of evidence.

The theatres now made their policies public by stating on their handbills and posters that Black customers could be seated only in the gallery. Bitterly angry, the Black community petitioned Governor Douglas over the issue and reminded him of the promises he had made in 1858: “Coming to this colony to found our homes, and rear our families, we did so advisedly, assured by those in authority that we should meet with no disabilities political or conventional on the ground of color.”

The middle-class nature of their protest was clear: the petitioners condemned theatre segregation in general, “but the outrage is still more apparent, when it is known that the gallery is the . . . resort of the lowest order.” Evidently believing that mere citizenship was inadequate grounds for equal treatment, they even resorted to special pleading:


Your memorialists . . . compare favorably with any other class;—they are in possession of real estate to the amount of 50,000 pounds, which awaits taxation for the support of the Government. We are here investing our means, and zealously laboring for the well being of the colony . . . and desire to have our families untrammeled by the perpetuation of a mean and senseless prejudice against color—a prejudice having no foundation that is honorable, and alone supported by the ignorance and brutality of the lowest order of society. . . . We therefore petition your Excellency to make such recommendations that will guarantee the rights of your petitioners in common with all other men.

Signed on behalf of Two hundred and Sixty colored residents

Wellington D. Moses

Jacob Francis

Committee:   F. Richard
Wm. Brown
Richard H. Johnson


Douglas met with the committee when it presented the petition, but he was evidently unable or unwilling to act for the Black community.

Douglas met with the committee when it presented the petition, but he was evidently unable or unwilling to act for the Black community.

The issue seems to have died down for a couple of years; then, in December of 1863, a Black man named Alexander McCarthy was arrested after a disturbance when he insisted on taking a seat in the dress circle, for which he had a ticket. In court next day, McCarthy’s lawyer argued that since no law forbade Black customers from sitting anywhere in the theatre, anyone—Black or White—had a right to a seat for which he had a ticket. This argument had some effect, for the judge dismissed the charge of creating a disturbance. However, he fined McCarthy for resisting the constable who had arrested him.

The incident provoked another test case involving a veteran of the 1860 theatre riot, Adolphus Richards, along with Fortune Richard and James Fountain. Having obtained tickets through a White friend, they went to the Colonial Theatre and were refused their seats. The men then sued the manager for five hundred dollars each but lost their cases.

By now the issue must have been a maddening one to Victoria’s Black middle class. Many of them would probably never have dreamed of attending, since theatres continued to have a seamy reputation. But to be explicitly relegated to the lower-class seats was to be challenged on the very principle that had brought them to the colony.

To lose battle after battle did not discourage them, however. A visiting Black American attended the theatre in the spring of 1864, and though the ticket seller tried to discourage him, he asked for and received box seats. White patrons did not react. The visitor evidently expected no problem, because he went accompanied by ladies, also Black.

Others may have been encouraged by this quiet success, because later in the year the manager of the Victoria Theatre printed a handbill advising his patrons that “colored persons cannot be admitted to the Dress Circle or Orchestra Seats. Should they feel disposed to visit the Theatre, he will cheerfully fit up and comfortably furnish for them an eligible portion of the building; but he will not expose his audience to the disturbance and danger too likely to arise out of disputes about place, position, or precedence.”

Once more a committee petitioned the governor—Arthur Kennedy, Douglas’s successor. On the same day, the governor’s colonial secretary replied: “While his Excellency regrets that he is unable to remove the invidious distinction thus drawn between classes of Her Majesty’s subjects, he desires to assure you that he has no sympathy with those who would make creed or color a barrier to any of Her Majesty’s subjects attaining and occupying any social position to which their character and capacity may entitle them.”

This vacuous sympathy was all the official support the Black community received.

But time was on their side. In November 1865, John Dunlop was barred from the Victoria Theatre. He was probably the last Black person to suffer this discrimination. With the gold rush over and the US Civil War ended, Victoria had become a stagnant small town; the theatres were hard pressed to fill their seats. Many Black Americans had returned to the United States; so had many White Americans. The Black people who remained experienced much less resentment, and theatre segregation ended forever. Ruth Ford, whose mother was born in Victoria in 1872, recalls her mother’s account of the Black audience members of the 1870s and ’80s: “They were apparently diligent spectators, and galas at the Victoria Opera House were notable for the large groups occupying the best seats, and the beautiful gowns and jewels of the women. They certainly made a lasting impression of the girl who became my mother.”

Another long-lived dispute concerned Victoria’s saloons, many of which were owned by Americans who usually refused service to Black customers. The saloon keepers were also active in politics, and in general supported De Cosmos and other reformers. After the election of January 1860, one Black settler publicly criticized two of De Cosmos’s backers for refusing service to Black patrons who had voted for Cary and Franklin: “One of Cary’s voters was ordered out of Carroll’s saloon on Yates Street, barely for looking in at a crowd of drinkers. . . . Mr. Bayley has also asserted that not another colored man shall approach his saloon again; what a petty revenge. . . . for my part I do not use the article he vends there.”

J.D. Carroll would later nominate Jacob Francis in a race for an Assembly seat, but at this point he was very much against the Black settlers. His bookkeeper, just after the 1860 election, entered another saloon and, without provocation, struck a Black man with a stick. The bookkeeper then received a beating from several Black onlookers, an incident that De Cosmos played up while ignoring its cause. When a Black man named William Bastion ordered a glass of ale in Carroll’s saloon, he was charged the outrageous price of fifty cents; Bastion took Carroll to court for extortion, but the case was dismissed.

A similar incident involved Jacob Francis a few months later, when a saloon keeper refused to sell him two bottles of champagne. Francis sued for damages but lost when the jury ruled that the saloon was legally an inn. Since Francis had not been a guest at the inn, he was not entitled to service.

Francis tried again to get equal treatment in 1862, when he went into the American-owned Bank Exchange Saloon with three White friends. The White customers were served, but not Francis, who promptly took the saloon keeper to court. Judge Pemberton held that no saloon licence would be given to anyone who refused to serve Black customers. However, he also said that private bars could be set up on the premises, and that Black patrons might be excluded from these.

In his 1951 thesis, James Pilton mentions the murder of Stephen Anderson, one of the defendants in the theatre riot of 1860. It is a strange case, in part because Pilton himself cites no source for it and in part because no record of an inquest appears to have survived.

According to Pilton, in April 1863 “Stephen Anderson and his companion Richards [almost surely Adolph Richards] had been working all day clearing a plot of ground on the Saanich Road nine miles from the town, and while they were preparing their evening meal someone in hiding outside their cabin shot and killed Anderson.”

Suspicion fell on another Black man, Robert Williamson, who had been in a legal fight with Anderson over a Victoria property. Williamson had reportedly threatened to “get” Anderson, who apparently took the threat seriously: according to Pilton, he said he didn’t think he had long to live and made out his will. In the will he left the town lot to Mifflin Gibbs’s daughter Ida. (This was a strange bequest, since Ida Gibbs, born in November 1862, would have been only about five months old when Anderson was shot.)

Pilton says a mostly Black coroner’s jury was appointed to look into the case. Gibbs posted a five hundred–dollar reward for the capture of Robert Williamson, and the colonial government offered an equal amount. A special constable went to Port Townsend, on the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington Territory, found Williamson working in a blacksmith shop and brought him back to Victoria for trial.

Williamson insisted on his innocence, and the Crown had no real evidence of his involvement in the murder. The jury found him not guilty and no other culprit was ever identified.

Whether Ida Gibbs ever took possession of Anderson’s lot is unknown. So is Anderson’s grave; many of the Black pioneers were buried in the Ross Bay Cemetery, but he was not among them. Nor was Robert Williamson.

One or two other Black Victorians were murdered in the 1860s. D.W. Higgins, a journalist who worked for De Cosmos on the Colonist, mentions a Black man named Jasper who had been stabbed to death by a Haida boy: “The boy was hanged on Bastion Square. How piteously he sobbed as he ascended the scaffold! A number of Indians witnessed the execution. They were told it was intended as an example and a warning to them to do no murder.” But Higgins thought the real culprit was alcohol, which then as now was responsible for a great deal of violence.

The Black settlers as a political force

Despite these turbulent and violent times, Black Victorians continued to contribute to the community. In August of 1862 Mifflin Gibbs ran for city councillor in the new municipal government of Victoria. (That year he had also pre-empted some land in Cowichan, but seems to have let his claim lapse.) His first speech was at an all-candidates’ meeting; perhaps intentionally, the Colonist reviewed it rather than reporting what he said: “Mifflin W. Gibbs (colored) delivered a longwinded and flowery address, but many portions were well received, and although it had the effect to thin the house, taken all in all it was a very creditable effort.” At least his name was correctly spelled. De Cosmos was fond of spelling it “Miften,” and in a later story he was referred to as “W. Gibbs.”

Gibbs himself was not very specific in print. On August 15, following the custom of the time, he placed an advertisement in the Colonist that was graceful but vague:


Having been requested by many of my fellow-citizens of all classes to stand for the Office of City Councillor . . . I therefore offer myself for the same.

Believing that men’s actions are the best interpretation of their principles I have little to say of a promissory character, but would be happy to meet with them at an early date, and speak of the necessities of the hour, and my course if you do me honour to return me.


Perhaps a few voters managed to discuss the issues personally with Gibbs, but it is unlikely; the election was held next day. Thomas Harris was elected Victoria’s first mayor by acclamation. The six hundred voters then turned to the election of councillors. Since each vote was public, the outcome was genuinely suspenseful. Some electors chose to “plump”—to vote for just one or two candidates instead of one candidate for each seat, thereby depriving the others of what might be critical support. The Colonist found Gibbs’s bid the most interesting, and described the course of the voting in some detail:


Much speculation as to the probable results was rife until half past one o’clock, when a number of colored voters having been polled (some of them plumpers) it became obvious that the colored candidate (Gibbs) would come very near an election if he did not succeed in gaining a seat—it being known that the colored vote numbered about thirty-five, and it becoming also known that some fifty White electors had pledged themselves to him. At half past one o’clock, Gibbs stood on the list with Messrs. Copland, Reid, Hicks and Stronach alone leading him; but in a few minutes several votes for Searby were recorded, changing the complexion of the poll and placing Gibbs sixth with Lewis five votes behind. It then became evident . . . that the fight was between Lewis and Gibbs as to who should stand sixth on the list of successful candidates—and from the hour of two o’clock until the close of the poll at four, the friends of each party worked like Trojans for their respective favourite. . . . Lewis slowly gained on Gibbs, and by half past three o’clock, was eight votes ahead of him. Some twenty votes were cast after proved in this case—it was difficult to determine, amid the buzz and confusion, which of the two—Lewis or Gibbs—would prove to have been successful.


Gibbs lost to Lewis by just four votes, ninety-eight to ninety-four. The next closest candidate polled only seventy. Gibbs seemed to feel there had been some irregularities in the election, for on August 20—just as Chief Justice Cameron was about to swear in the new council—Gibbs handed him a written protest against Stronach’s right to sit as a councillor. Cameron refused to accept the protest, saying it would have to be in the form of a petition. Without argument, Gibbs withdrew his protest and the ceremony proceeded.

For Gibbs the defeat was only a temporary setback, and the size of his vote seemed to demonstrate that the Black community was now a genuine political power in the colony. In 1863 a new Assembly was to be elected; this time fifty-two unquestionably qualified Black residents would be able to vote.

De Cosmos was running again and did not intend to be thwarted for a third time. He therefore turned to Black voters for support. According to a report in the rival Daily Chronicle, De Cosmos spent two hours with Gibbs, trying but failing to win his vote. When the Black community held a public meeting to discuss the election, De Cosmos attended, but he must not have enjoyed what he heard.

A White observer quoted De Cosmos as having promised to “drive the damned [Black people] from the colony.” Willis Bond accused the editor of causing untold misery to many Black settlers in the colony. Gibbs said that De Cosmos should be “put on his good behavior for three years before the colored people would vote for him.” Speaking directly to De Cosmos, he said, “If you are elected we will see if your professions are sincere; if you are defeated we will see how you behave yourself under the disappointment.”

But Gibbs and his associates must have been aware that the Black vote was far from united. On election day, July 18, 1863, an advertisement appeared in the Daily Chronicle: “The colored voters will poll FIFTY-TWO VOTES. Whichever way their influence is cast today, so goes the election! The colored man who falters in the present emergency and votes for his arch-enemy will betray his race.”

The appeal failed. Some of the Black settlers neglected to vote. Some even voted for De Cosmos, who was elected. James Pilton speculates that “perhaps some preferred to make a friend of the enemy. Since there was no secret ballot he would know how each had voted by merely consulting the poll books. Perhaps there were social or economic reasons why a few Negroes gave him their vote. Did some realize the hostility aroused against them by bloc voting?”

These may all have been factors, but a more likely one was the fact that the Black voters were individuals—and individualists. The immigrants of 1858 had resolved not to segregate themselves; the voters of 1863 showed that they still held to that resolution.

Even sharper divisions appeared in the Black community in January 1864, when a by-election was called to fill a vacant seat in the Assembly. Despite their split vote the year before, the Black voters were still a group worth courting, and W.M. Searby, a city councillor, set out to win them over.

For Gibbs and other American-born Black settlers, the chief issue in this election was a colonial law allowing only British-born subjects to hold seats in the Assembly; naturalized subjects were denied this right. The law seemed aimed at keeping Black people out of the Assembly, since most of the settlers naturalized under the Alien Act of 1861 were Black men.

A bill to remedy this injustice had been proposed at the last session of the Assembly. It would give naturalized subjects the same rights as the British-born after a five-year residence in the colony and the swearing of an oath of allegiance. Gibbs and Searby exchanged letters on this subject; the Colonist published them. Searby promised “to vote for such a measure whenever it is introduced into the House of Assembly should I be elected.”

To many Victoria voters, this promise must have seemed as cynical and expedient as Cary’s use of the Black voters to steal the election of 1860. Searby had been a strong ally of Reverend Macfie during the church dispute, and in 1862 he had said that he would refuse to sit on the city council if any Black man were elected to it. In addition, Searby’s chief opponent was Selim Franklin, who had been the chief beneficiary of the Black vote in 1860. Now, however, he had lost their support by refusing to endorse the proposed bill.

Franklin’s candidacy was strongly backed by the Evening Express, which bitterly attacked the Black population. One editorial warned that the “Alien Bill” would enable Gibbs and his partner, Peter Lester, to enter the Assembly; it went on to assert that all other aliens in the colony wished neither to give up their citizenship nor to meddle in their hosts’ politics. Only the Black settlers—citizens, the writer claimed, of no country—wanted to enter the Assembly.

Another editorial was particularly patronizing in its advice to Black voters: “We believe that on calm reflection their modesty will reassert its sway over their minds, and that, when this little temporary ebullition of ambitious yearnings has passed away, that they will be ready to acknowledge their own interests, and also the interests of the community, are best served by leaving the legislation of the Colony in the hands of their English friends.”

Given such attitudes in the White community, one might have expected the Black voters to close ranks behind even so doubtful an ally as Searby. But the Jamaican-born Black voters felt no need to support him or the Alien Bill. British-born, they saw no benefit to themselves in the bill, and Searby’s record made him all the more unattractive.

John Cathcart, one of the Jamaicans, sent a long and angry letter to the Evening Express. “My friends among the Aliens,” he wrote, “. . . don’t mistake a political and electioneering dodge for a philanthropic measure.” Predicting that Searby would break his promises if elected, Cathcart went on to say: “I am doggedly arrayed against any foreigners assuming the reins of government.” Nationalism, then, was stronger than racial ties. To Cathcart, the American-born Black settlers were still foreigners.

The voter turnout was heavy, and virtually every qualified Black man cast a ballot. For a while, it looked as if the American-born Black voters would elect Searby, but the final count gave him only 174 to Franklin’s 181. Only three American-born Black men had voted for Franklin, but all the Jamaicans had, and they gave him the margin of victory.

Furious and frustrated, a number of Black American emigrants met in Ringo’s saloon after the election and passed resolutions condemning the “certain class of colored men, calling themselves Jamaicans” who had betrayed the cause. They also called for a boycott of Jamaican businesses, especially Cathcart’s. Peter Lester and Willis Bond were the meeting’s leaders; Gibbs, more prudent, stayed away. For one part of the Black community to turn on another could only harm everyone, and Gibbs must certainly have remembered De Cosmos’s call for a boycott of Black businesses after the 1860 election.

Nevertheless, the anti-Jamaican resolutions went to the Pacific Appeal, a Black newspaper in San Francisco, and the incident helped to divide the Black community along national lines. Whether they liked it or not, the American-born Black settlers were regarded as Americans. Even as their political influence weakened, they felt compelled to try to enforce an uncomfortable and impractical unanimity on themselves.

Events in this remote colony were inevitably influenced by the American Civil War. Although ruled by the British, its White population was largely American, and that population was at least as sharply divided as their Black neighbours. As we have seen, California tolerated slavery and Washington Territory saw at least one slave run away to Victoria.

Echoes of the US Civil War

D.W. Higgins, the pioneer journalist who had known barber Isaac Dickson in Yale, was back in Victoria in the 1860s. “Shortly after the outbreak of the war,” he later wrote, “many sympathizers with the Slave States came to reside in Victoria. Some leased residences, others took apartments at hotels, still others went into business, while a fourth class proceeded to Cariboo and engaged in gold mining and trading.”

Knowing many of these newcomers, Higgins found himself drawn into an intrigue: a plot to seize a ship, convert it into a privateer and prey on Union gold ships going out of San Francisco. In his attempts to extricate himself, Higgins provoked one of his erstwhile friends into challenging him to a duel. Contemplating his imminent death, Higgins writes,


I ran against Willis Bond, who had once been a slave and now was a house-mover, an orator, and a politician. He was one of the cleverest men, white or black, that I have ever met.

“Say, boss,” said Bond, “Youse looks pale. Is you sick?”

“No,” I replied, “I am quite well.”

“Well,” persisted Bond, after a long stare, “I’d like to be white, but I don’t want to look so much like Mr. Hamblet’s father’s ghost as you does.”


Higgins was saved from the duel when the conspirators identified a Union spy, who was staying at Ringo’s hotel, as the person who had betrayed them. It’s a charming story and may even be true.

The Black Americans, whatever their political status might be in Vancouver Island and the mainland, followed events in the US very closely. In the winter of 1863, news from the US created a stir aboard HMS Topaze. As Lieutenant Verney wrote to his father on January 17, 1863,


We anchored at Esquimalt Harbour on Thursday afternoon: in the evening, minute guns were heard, and supposing them to proceed from a vessel in distress, I was ordered to get up steam, and two boats were sent out from the Topaze; I went out to the entrance of Victoria Harbour but could see nothing particular and returned: we afterwards found out that the guns were part of a joyous celebration made by the coloured population on account of the American emancipation proclamation.


The shooting had taken place in Beacon Hill Park, and the municipal government reproved the participants for having failed to obtain a permit first.

As the Civil War went on, the Black population found themselves almost powerless to combat the growing racism in the colony. The Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps were among the first to suffer from it. In 1862 the militia unit asked the government for financial help; Douglas did not even bother to reply. A year later another appeal failed, and the colony officially stated that it had no militia at all.

This government neglect had several causes. Douglas was as reluctant as ever to spend money, least of all on a politically controversial group. Anti-Black feeling was intense in the colony at the time, and not only among Southern sympathizers. (Lieutenant Verney, travelling on the Thompson River in July 1863, wrote to his father about a chance acquaintance: “Mr. Wilson proved a most entertaining companion. . . . He was born and brought up in New Jersey. . . . He is a northerner but has no sympathy for Black folk.”)

The Pioneer Rifles persisted. In January 1863, eight of the militiamen formed the Victoria City Brass Band. The unit’s ban against White members was relaxed to allow the bandmaster of HMS Topaze to train the new musicians. In May the unit held an evening of entertainment in its drill hall to raise money. The women of the Black community, already experienced in raising funds to help freed slaves in the Union states, were a major source of help as well. But they couldn’t raise enough, and when Douglas turned down yet another appeal, the corps became inactive for the rest of the year.

Early in 1864, however, the Pioneer Rifles revived as the colony made plans to welcome Douglas’s successor, Arthur E. Kennedy. The committee responsible for the welcoming ceremonies was approached with the suggestion that the corps march in the parade. The committee agreed, on condition that the militiamen’s uniforms and equipment were adequate.

The news caused a stir in Victoria, prompting many sarcastic letters in the newspapers. One suggested that the Black militia’s appearance in the parade would at least amuse the new governor. No one made colour the issue, however; critics attacked only the unit’s supposed inadequacy.

Officers of the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps asked the Colonial Secretary for rifles with which to drill in preparation for the parade and pointed out that they were paying a drill sergeant five dollars a day to train them. The rifles promptly appeared and the Pioneer Rifles went on with its preparations. It was sustained by the Black community’s renewed interest, as well as by the continuing attacks from White settlers. An absurd rumour circulated that the Pioneer Rifles were prepared to force themselves, with loaded rifles, into the parade if they were refused an official place in it.

It was also charged, perhaps accurately, that the whole controversy was really a political skirmish between White factions. Douglas’s men had kept Black Victorians from attending the old governor’s farewell banquet, but were trying to get the Pioneer Rifles into the welcoming parade as a way of embarrassing Kennedy’s supporters.

On March 1, Lieutenant Verney wrote to his father about the issue. Verney had been a harsh critic of Douglas, but now he found plenty of blame to go around:


There is also a difficulty about the coloured people: the only volunteer rifle-corps in existence here is a corps consisting of coloured people, and I am sorry to say that the Committee of Management have so worded their programme as to exclude them from the procession: I hope, however, that by a little wholesome agitation on their part they will obtain some recognition on the part of the people: strongly though I feel on behalf of the coloured population, it would not become me to appear as their champion on this occasion: I have been surprised and disappointed at the narrow-mindedness that has lately showed itself in connexion with change of governors, and the absurd jealousies between people who, one would have supposed, have nothing to be jealous of.


The committee’s supposed excuse was that if the Pioneer Rifles appeared in the parade, other volunteer groups like the firefighters would refuse to do so. However, the committee failed to advise the Pioneer Rifles officially. The unit therefore announced that it would report to the Marshal of the Day like any other group in the parade.

At this the committee finally, officially, advised the Pioneer Rifles it would not be marching. The volunteers nevertheless continued to drill and marched through the streets in the evenings. On March 14 they held a special ceremony, open to the public, at which the women of the Black community presented the unit with a silk Union Jack. As reported next day in the Daily Chronicle, the presentation was made by Sarah Pointer, wife of Gibbs’s ex-partner. After laying the flag across the drum, Mrs. Pointer read an address to the corps:


Captain and members of the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Company: In behalf of the ladies of Victoria, I present to you this flag. It affords us much pleasure to do so, as we know your loyalty to this government is proverbial. The fostering care it has shown to the oppressed of our race leave us under many obligations to the sagacity and wisdom of her statesmen. Yet in this far distant Colony of Her Majesty’s dominion we have many causes to complain. True, you have not as yet been called on to rally under this flag for its protection; yet the war of complexional distinction is upon us, and is more ravaging to us as a people than that of Mars.

But men, as long as this flag shall wave over you, you may rest assured that no man, or set of men, or nations, can successfully grind you down under the iron heel of oppression. Then, soldiers, look up to this insignia of liberty, that has waved a thousand years over the battle and the breeze. In committing this colour to your charge, we only hope that you will guard it well, and yourselves be as untarnished as the colour. It will inspire you in the hour of peril; it is a nation’s proudest boast; “it’s a terror to a foe, and a canopy of peace to a freeman.”


On March 25 Kennedy arrived and was greeted by a huge parade. The Pioneer Rifles, however, marched to a Black-owned restaurant near Beacon Hill, where they ate chicken and drank beer. A week later the unit paraded to the legislative buildings to deliver an address to the new governor.

After congratulating Kennedy on his safe arrival, the address raised the issue of discrimination: “Our only regret is that . . . we were precluded on account of an anti-English prejudice against our colour of doing ourselves the honour as well as the pleasure of taking part in the procession as a military company . . . which with all its imperfections is at least the only representative of the British volunteer element in the Colony.”

According to some sources, Kennedy is supposed to have responded ungraciously by urging the corps to disband. In fact, the new governor was very cordial. He was aware of the colony’s race problem, he told the Black militiamen, and would do all he could to “heal the breach” between them and the White population. Kennedy dissociated himself from prejudiced White people, saying that in the first colony he had been sent to, the Gold Coast (modern Ghana), the chief justice and clergy had been Black. Then, rather smoothly, he urged his listeners to be patient and forbearing, and to await the eventual dissipation of prejudice.

Having heard such advice before, the militiamen were probably unsurprised to find Kennedy as reluctant as Douglas to give them any official backing. They held their fourth annual election of officers in April 1864, but meetings and drills became far less frequent.

In the spring of 1865, the Colonist—which had praised the Pioneer Rifles on several occasions—wondered: “What has become of the Pioneer Rifle Company, which at one time promised to become a very efficient and soldier-like body? Surely the enthusiasm and military ardor of our colored citizens has not evaporated? The brave and warlike deeds of their countrymen in the ranks of the Federal armies should incite them to emulate so far as circumstances will permit, the patriotism of their American brethren.” (Presumably the word “countrymen” meant fellow Black men, since most if not all of the Pioneer Rifles militiamen were British subjects.)

Richard H. Johnson, a former captain of the Pioneer Rifles, wrote a reply next day. Speaking of the volunteers’ morale, he said:


Allow me to inform you, Mr. Editor, with all respect, that their enthusiasm and ardor as far as this colony is concerned have evaporated. The mean and scandalous manner in which they were treated upon the advent of Governor Kennedy is still fresh in their minds. Having as much human nature under their dark skins as others of a paler hue, they cannot readily forget the snubbing they received on that occasion. Although being the first . . . military organization on the Island, after having gone to great expense in purchasing land, building a hall, paying a drill master, and supplying themselves with uniforms, and although having taken the oath of allegiance to her Majesty, they were by a direct vote of a Committee (composed of British subjects) for His Excellency’s Reception, prohibited from forming part of the procession to receive him. Nor is this all—there has ever been a studied effort to ignore their existence, to dampen that “ardor” and chill that “enthusiasm” for which you enquire. The Volunteer Rifles [a White unit] though last in the field and well able financially to sustain themselves, have had a handsome sum voted for them by the House of Assembly, the barracks given to them for drill purposes, with every other stimulant necessary to foster efficiency. In a word, Mr. Editor, the authorities seemed ashamed of us, and we were disgusted with them.


A year later, the Colonial Secretary belatedly asked for the return of the rifles loaned to the unit for the parade two years before. The corps returned them at once, along with a letter stating that the Pioneer Rifles had not disbanded but had not met for drill because of government discouragement and the depletion of its ranks by Black settlers returning to the United States.

The Black settlers had other reasons to be disgusted. In 1864, they were barred from a public-subscription banquet to celebrate the queen’s birthday. The remarkable reason given for this was that the colony’s American residents were opposed to Black attendance. As James Pilton observes, “Why the Americans should have the right to prevent British subjects from attending a British banquet celebrating the birthday of a British queen, defies an answer.”

Clearly, anti-Black bias had become widespread in Victoria. A temperance society and a literary group had been disbanded after Black members had joined them. Black and White Masonic groups never met together, and White women never socialized with Black women outside church. The Americans’ anti-Black attitudes, real or imagined, served as an excuse for growing numbers of biased British residents.

Black observers in the US were well aware of Victoria’s racial tensions. In the spring of 1864, an anonymous correspondent for the Pacific Appeal visited the city, and his account was soon reprinted in The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison’s widely read abolitionist weekly. The article summarized the status of the Black colonists in perhaps their worst year, and may have overstated their difficulties.

“There is as much prejudice,” the correspondent wrote,


and nearly as much isolation, in Victoria as in San Francisco. In some cases, the social and political position of the colored people is more favorable there than here; but the Americans . . . from California, who have settled here, have formed a public opinion unfavorable to us. Happily, they have not been successful in all cases. Churches and schools are exceptions, although our leading men had to fight hard to obtain their rights in both. Messrs. Lester, Gibbs, J. Francis and others, battled manfully to keep churches and schools free from caste; and to their exertions is due the equality which exists in those institutions. It was grudgingly and unwillingly awarded; but they claimed it as their right as British subjects and finally succeeded.

I went to the theater with some ladies. . . . When I said I wanted box tickets, the man hesitated, and said he believed the boxes were full; but as I insisted, he gave me them, and we found very eligible seats.

Colored men are never summoned as jurors on trials; I believe they have occasionally sat on coroners’ juries. When they were organizing fire companies, Jacob Francis endeavored to have the colored inhabitants represented, but he was voted down. In some places of public accommodation, such as barber-shops, bar-rooms, restaurants and hotels, colored persons are denied the usual privileges; but such places are invariably run by Americans or foreigners. In many of the finest establishments, where the proprietors are Englishmen, they are free from the prejudices which Americans have introduced. There are, however, many Englishmen who are as full of prejudice as the lowest secesh [secessionist] American among them. They all, moreover, receive you with an aristocratic, patronizing air.

Among the notables of Victoria is the celebrated Archy Lee, upon whose fate once hung the destinies of the colored people of California. Archy is a sober, honest, hard-working man, a respectable citizen of Victoria, and a loyal subject of Her Majesty. It affords me much pleasure to be able to contradict the reports which have been circulated prejudicial to the character of Archy Lee; he follows the lucrative occupation of draying, and has accumulated some property, and is much respected by the community.

The colored inhabitants of Vancouver Island are in advance of the colored people of San Francisco in point of wealth. They nearly all own real estate, and are in comfortable circumstances. They went to Victoria during the Frazer river excitement of 1858—some to engage in mining, some to live under the fancied liberality of British laws, and some to engage in speculation. . . . As regards intelligence and acquirements, they present an average of the colored people of this and Eastern cities. . . .

I referred to the political position of the colored people. They have the elective franchise, and that is all the political privilege they do possess. The naturalized subjects are eligible to seats in the city council, but not in the provincial parliament, a law being passed to exclude from that body all except subjects of the British Empire by birth. This law was evidently passed to exclude colored persons, for since 1858 only 4 white persons have become naturalized; whereas, about 150 colored persons have taken the oath of allegiance. It is not very probable that a colored person will ever be elected to either body. Two attempts have been made; and although, in each case, the candidate was as capable and worthy as any in the colony, they were both defeated. Prejudice is too strong in Vancouver Island. We have brighter prospects of political elevation under our own Government, than in any British colony on this coast.


The correspondent’s opinions were no doubt generally accurate, but he seems to have minimized the support Black settlers received from many White Victorians. In the school and church disputes, the clergy had strongly backed the Black colonists’ right to integration. It was true that Black colonists had been barred from jury duty since 1860. This was a step backward, for when the first Black jurors had been named, the British Columbian (a paper published in New Westminster) had applauded the event as an example of British fairness. Not until 1872 would Black people sit on juries in the province.

No doubt the racist atmosphere in Victoria in the early 1860s had many causes: the tensions of the US Civil War, the visible prosperity of many Black settlers and the renewed rigidity of class barriers as the boom town mood of the 1850s began to fade. D.W. Higgins observed that, “Strange as it may seem, the class who showed the greatest objection to Negro equality were Northern men.” These American Northerners certainly made up the largest single group of foreigners in the colony, and if Higgins was right, their influence would have been considerable.

With the end of the Civil War in 1865, however, racial tensions in Victoria dropped sharply. Many White Americans returned to the US at about this time, since the colony’s economy was slumping. To many Black colonists as well, the US was even more attractive than Vancouver Island had been seven years earlier. Slavery was abolished and the Republican government was encouraging Black advancement. It made a powerful contrast to the British Northwest, where the Black pioneers had seen steady erosion in their economic and political status.

The increasing hypocrisy and pettiness of English-born Victorians must have been especially discouraging; with an American bigot, at least you knew where you stood. The rapid departure of much of the Black community was no surprise. Many of the Black pioneers mentioned here were long gone by the time Victoria conducted its first municipal census in 1871.

Now a shrinking minority, the Black settlers were still relatively prosperous, but too few to have much political or social impact. As an ironic result, public tolerance of them greatly increased, though private discrimination no doubt continued against them. They had originally come determined not to segregate themselves. With the disappearance of the circumstances that had forced them to create a bloc, they were able to live as they had intended.