August 15, 1803 – August 2, 1877
Sir James Douglas , often referred to as the “Father of British Columbia” was born in what is now called Guyana. He was the son of a Black mother and a White Scotsman, a merchant. The fact that Douglas was a person of colour does not always get mentioned in articles about him. However, his colour was very much an integral part of who he was and many of his decisions were influenced by that fact. Any individual who has shared the Black experience will know that Sir James was always aware of his mother’s contribution to his being.
As a young boy, Douglas was taken to Scotland for his education and at the age of sixteen was sent to North America where he was put to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company. During a period of time when he worked in the Oregon Territory for the HBC, which at the time was not part of the United States, a young boy runaway slave was brought to Douglas for punishment. Having personally felt some of the sting of prejudice and obviously feeling some compassion for the boy, Douglas declared the boy to be a free person and employed him as a worker for the HBC.
During his years working for the HBC in remote areas of the North American wilderness, Douglas worked closely with the aboriginal population of the various regions. He was also politically astute and was aware of and monitored the institution of slavery in the United States. His interest was partly due to the impact any political actions might have for the HBC but also because of his own background. Strange as it may seem, James Douglas’ racial makeup could have landed him into slavery if he had ventured into the slave states of the United States. Fortunately, this didn’t happen, but one cannot help but think this may have been a thought in the back of Sir James’ mind.
Eventually, Douglas was able to return to Fort Victoria, which offered many more comforts and amenities than many of the outposts where he had been stationed. Upon his return, he brought with him his wife, Amelia Connolly, who was the daughter of the Chief Factor of Stuart Lake and who was of Cree Indian ancestry, and their three children. This clearly can be seen as the beginning of the first multicultural family in Fort Victoria.
Once back in Fort Victoria, the area was faced with the many changes brought about by the discovery of gold. News of a gold discovery brought many people to Vancouver Island and Fort Victoria became the starting point for many of the prospectors headed for the gold fields in the interior of the territory. This influx of humanity placed many challenges on the agenda of Governor Douglas, but he was more than capable of meeting them.
Many of the administrative skills that Douglas used in carrying out his role as the Governor of Vancouver Island were learned when he was Chief Trader and Chief Factor for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He used those skills in shaping the future of the colony and in ensuring that the British presence and loyalty remained strong.
Governor Douglas’ concern about loyalty to the British colony was very real, as many of the prospectors arriving in the area were Americans. Their presence in such great numbers posed a chance that the area could be annexed to the United States. What would most prevent annexation would be the people who were loyal to the British Crown. Ideally, these people should also possess the skills and trades that would help Fort Victoria grow and prosper.
In 1858 fate brought the needs of two forces together that offered a solution to both, skills, trades and loyalty. Governor Douglas met a delegation of Black pioneers from California who were looking for a new home. What the new immigrants had to offer met Douglas’ need for settlers who would be loyal to the British Crown and also possessed skills and trades to make the area prosper. I can’t help but think that Governor Douglas also felt a connection to these people who resembled members of his own family.
The same delegation of Black pioneers who had met with Governor Douglas returned again to Victoria on Sunday April 25, 1858. They traveled aboard the steam ship Commodore, docking at Esquimalt Harbour on Vancouver Island, and bringing with them a new group of Black pioneers. These pioneers were not escaped slaves but were free people who were leaving an oppressive society which practiced the enslavement of Blacks.
Sir James’ decision to invite the Black settlers to make their home in Fort Victoria proved to be a wise one. The new settlers flourished in their new home, contributing to the growth of the colony. Many relatives of the first Black pioneers still make their home in British Columbia and can take pride in knowing their ancestors were early builders of this country.
By Paul A. Winn