Chapter Three: “A God-sent land for the colored people”

Forty years after the gold rush, Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken recalled an episode involving his father-in-law, James Douglas, and its aftermath:


He showed us a soda-water bottle half-full of scaly gold, which had been collected I think by the Indians in the North Thompson. The Legislature existed at this period, but took no heed of these discoveries. One Sunday morning we were astonished to find a steamer entering the harbor from San Francisco. There was a regular colony of colored men on board, who had come to settle in Vancouver Island, because at this time adverse feeling ran high against them in the States. They landed and some kneeling down prayed and asked blessing on those who lived in freedom under the red white and blue.


In this one paragraph, Helmcken struck the major themes of the Black newcomers’ experience in British Columbia. The legislature had done nothing because Douglas himself did everything. The tiny colony was unprepared for the miners in general and the Black immigrants in particular. The immigrants were ready to bless their new country at first sight, to project their hopes onto a land and people that might not be able to sustain them.

On April 21, the day after the Commodore departed, the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin commented on the significance of the departure of the first Black emigrants:


All this puts one in mind of the Pilgrims . . . when those adventurers embarked for their new homes across the sea. When the colored people get their “poet,” he will no doubt sing of these scenes which are passing around us almost unheeded, and the day when colored people fled persecution in California may yet be celebrated in story. . . . The sixty-five yesterday went off in the Commodore and are pushing up towards the north, bearing their lares and penates to found new homes. . . . Whatever may be their destiny, we hope the colored people may do well.


However kind the writer’s intentions, his comparison of the Black emigrants to the Pilgrims and Romans probably inspired more guffaws than respect. It also served to mask the emigrants’ plight in a veil of genteel literary allusion. When the paper came out, the advance party (Archy Lee among them) was sitting on a crowded deck among hundreds of White gold-seekers, trying to eat supper on a rough sea. They were additionally plagued by some young toughs who had stowed away and were amusing themselves by kicking over the Black passengers’ mess kits.

It was a rough voyage in an unseaworthy old ship (later that summer, the Commodore escaped sinking off Point Reyes only by jettisoning all its cargo), but after five days they were safe in Victoria harbour. As their fellow passengers invaded the town, seeking temporary shelter and quick transport to the mouth of the Fraser, the Pioneer Committee rented a room from a local carpenter for a prayer meeting.

One of the local residents who took an interest in the Black emigrants was the Reverend Edward Cridge, an Anglican minister. In his diary, he reported their arrival and his first dealings with them:


On Sunday Apl 25 the Commodore Capt. Nagle, arrived with 400 or 500 Emigrants from San Francisco . . . There were also 35 men of colour from the same place of different trades and callings, chiefly intending to settle here. On Monday (Apl 26) drinking tea at Mrs. Blinkhorn’s with my wife she (Mrs. B.) told us that on the precedg evening she was surprised at hearing the sounds of praise. They proceeded from the men of colour who had taken a large room at Laing’s the Carpenter: & they spent the Sabbath Evening in worshipping the word of God. On the following morning I called on them. They appeared much gratified by my visit. I requested permission to ask them a few questions which they decidedly acceded to.


The Pioneer Committee told Cridge of the legal oppression they had endured in California, and of the threat of Bill 339. “They also told me that a deputation of three of their number had waited on the Governor who had given them a good reception and they were much encouraged by the statement he gave of the privileges they would here enjoy.” These three men were Fortune Richard, Wellington Moses (born in Britain) and a man named Mercier; they had been delegated to meet Douglas and report back to San Francisco.

When the new arrivals told him “that they did not intend to establish a distinct Church organization at Victoria but to join some Ch. already in existence here,” Cridge invited them to attend his own church. Many of them did so over the next few weeks, and Cridge learned about their backgrounds. Several of them still had families in slavery and hoped to earn enough in Victoria or the goldfields to buy their freedom.

The Pioneer Committee lost no time in getting settled. Many bought land in town. Some formed a brick-making company, and others found work at once on the farms of White settlers, who were delighted to hire them. Augustus Pemberton, an important settler who was later commissioner of police, hired several Black employees less than a week after their arrival; they split rails, sheared sheep and cleared acres of land.

Mercier’s report

Mercier returned to San Francisco within a few days and presented a detailed report on the colony to 350 listeners at Zion Church. The advance party, he said, had enjoyed a very good reception. Governor Douglas had made them welcome, and the delegates’ meeting with him had been “very cheerful and agreeable.”

Douglas had given them a good deal of information about settling. As mentioned earlier, immigrants could buy land at one pound (about five dollars) per acre. By American standards this was an outrageous price, as Douglas himself knew and regretted. It had been set by London bureaucrats ignorant of the costs of getting uncleared land into usable condition. Settlers could, however, make a 25 per cent down payment, with the balance to be paid in four yearly instalments at 5 per cent interest. Land would not be taxed until 1860. (Even this discouraged many potential settlers; as we will see, a new system called pre-emption was required to get them onto the land.)

After nine months, anyone owning land would have the right to vote and to sit on juries. While all immigrants would be protected by the laws, Douglas said, settlers could not claim all the rights of British subjects until they had lived in the colony for seven years and then taken an oath of allegiance to the Crown.

As the Black pioneers were to learn to their sorrow, this preview of their status was not entirely accurate. But coming as it did from the governor himself, no one questioned it. The prospect of enfranchisement was especially attractive to the Black Californians, who had endured taxation without representation for generations.

Mercier also read a letter from Wellington Moses, who had already fallen in love with Vancouver Island:


To describe the beauty of the country my pen cannot do it. It is one of the most beautifully level towns I was ever in. . . . I consider Victoria to be one of the garden spots of this world. . . . The climate is most beautiful; the strawberry vines and peach trees are in full blow. . . . All the colored man wants here is ability and money. . . . It is a God-sent land for the colored people.


Such reports only added to the growing enthusiasm for emigration. A week later, at yet another meeting, it was proposed that an emigration society be formed to recruit a hundred members at twenty-five dollars each. The society’s governors would then charter a ship to transport the entire group to Victoria. It seems unlikely that such a society was actually formed; with a steamer ticket costing only fifteen dollars on the regular run, chartering a ship seemed unnecessary.

The meeting also passed twelve resolutions, preceded by a preamble both bitter and articulate:


Whereas, We are fully convinced that the continued aim of the spirit and policy of our mother country, is to oppress, degrade and outrage us. We have therefore determined to seek an asylum in the land of strangers from the oppression, prejudice and relentless persecution that have pursued us for more than two centuries in this our mother country. Therefore a delegation having been sent to Vancouver’s Island, a place which has unfolded to us in our darkest hour, the prospect of a bright future; to this place of British possession, the delegation having ascertained and reported the condition, character, and its social and political privileges and its living resources. This mission in the highest degree creditable, they have fulfilled and rendered the most flattering accounts to their constituents in their report . . .


The resolutions themselves thanked the delegation for its work in Victoria, Governor Douglas for his kindness and Reverend Cridge for welcoming the delegation to his congregation.

Perhaps the most important resolution set ambitious terms for the role of the emigrants. As Pilton puts it, “They also resolved upon arrival in Victoria, to avoid all social distinctions such as colored churches, colored schools, or colored associations of any kind, such as they had been forced to adopt in the United States due to prejudice against their race.”

As they would soon learn, however, acting as a bloc would gain them more influence than they ever dreamed, though at a high price.

The day after this meeting, all the African Methodist Episcopal ministers of San Francisco met in convention to discuss the impending migration. As one of them put it, “Just when we were asking ourselves, ‘Where shall we go?’ God Himself came to our aid and opened the door for us.” The minister passed a resolution even more far-reaching: “In the opinion of this convention we deem it expedient to call upon our people throughout California in particular, and the Atlantic States in general, to save all the money they can and prepare themselves to emigrate to a country where the color of their skin will not be considered a crime and where they can in fine, enjoy all the rights and privileges which will alone make them a great and mighty people.”

The renewed hope of the Black community was expressed as well in a poem by a California woman who would soon join the emigrants:


“A Voice From the Oppressed to the Friends of Humanity”
Composed by one of the suffering class
Mrs. Priscilla Stewart

Look and behold our sad despair
Our hopes and prospects fled
The tyrant slavery entered here,
And laid us all for dead.

Sweet home! When shall we find a home?
If the tyrant says that we must go
The love of gain the reason.
And if humanity dare say “no.”
Then they are tried for treason.

God bless the Queen’s majesty,
Her scepter and her throne.
She looked on us with sympathy
And offered us a home.

Far better breathe Canadian air,
Where all are free and well,
Than live in slavery’s atmosphere
And wear the chains of hell.

Farewell to our native land,
We must wave the parting hand,
Never to see thee any more,
But seek a foreign land.

Farewell to our true friends,
Who’ve suffered dungeon and death.
Who have a claim upon our gratitude
Whilst God shall lend us breath.

May God inspire your hearts,
A Marion raise your hands;
Never desert your principles
Until you’ve redeemed your land.


Less than two months after the freeing of Archy Lee, a whole community was on its way to Victoria.