Governor James Douglas and the Ambiguities of Race at the Edge of an Empire

Black and white portrait of a man wearing a suit and several British medals.
The first governor of the Colony of British Columbia, Sir James Douglas. Image courtesy of the British Columbia Archives.

James Douglas was born in Demerara in modern Guyana. He was the son of a Scottish sugar merchant and a free black woman. In his lifetime, he was schooled in Scotland, then headed to the west coast of North America, working for the North-West Company, then the Hudson’s Bay Company, and ending up as the Governor of the newly formed colony of British Columbia.

Douglas didn’t often speak of his racial background; in fact, his daughter told a biographer in the 1920s that he was born in Scotland. (Whether or not she genuinely believed that or just said so to protect the memory of her father is an interesting question.) Douglas became the governor of British Columbia in 1858. At that same time, across the continent, tensions were rising in the United States over questions of slavery. That conflict would eventually erupt in the American Civil War. In the States, a single metaphorical drop of African blood would mark you as a second class citizen. Yet, here, at the edge of an empire, a man like Douglas could rise to an incredibly powerful position. I find this time and place fascinating.

Historian Adele Perry (whose article I list below was a major source for this blog post) has argued that it would be a mistake to think of Douglas in simplified terms from solely an American racial perspective. That black/white dichotomy is not an entirely useful lens out in what would become Western Canada. As Perry wrote:

“Douglas lived nineteenth-century blackness in different circumstances, one where black-white hierarchies were not the only or principal racial cleavage, and where geographic distance and limited communication facilitated a degree of self-invention . . . . The disconnects between different colonial spaces allowed a man of African-Caribbean origin to serve as the highest representative of the British empire in a northern North American colony….”

Now, don’t get me wrong: 19th century British Columbia was not a perfect post-racial utopia where all lived in harmony. Douglas did downplay his background, and that of his wife and children. (More on that in a moment.) There was interracial conflict, tensions, and hypocrisy. But there were also interesting relationships between and among emerging diverse communities.

To understand the history of what is now Western Canada, you’ve got to know about the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), and you’ve got to know about “country wives”. Despite the beautifully simple maps you see in history textbooks where all of Rupert’s Land is painted in one solid colour as “Hudson’s Bay Company Territory” or even “British Territory”, in reality, the HBC only ever controlled the land within the shadow of the walls of their forts. The company relied a lot on the goodwill of local Indigenous people: their customers and economic partners. Forts thrived and profited when there were good relationships. By the early 1800s, it became increasingly common for company employees to marry into local Indigenous groups. These marriages were not blessed by the church. Missionaries were discouraged by the HBC – they were dead weight in the cargo boats and only caused trouble with the locals. Instead, these marriages were according to the “custom of the country”. That usually meant an amalgam of local traditions of marriage and at times a legal ceremony by the chief trader or chief factor of an HBC post. These Indigenous women provided essential and largely unpaid labour that kept these forts going: from interpreting to tanning the hides coming in to tending to the farms that grew their provisions to keeping the staff fed and clothed. Over time, their children – the emerging Métis Nation – became the next generation of company employees, and wives for incoming company men.

After the governor of the HBC, Sir George Simpson, turned away his country wives to marry his 16 year old white cousin Frances Simpson, there was a vogue among company officers to have European wives. This influx of white women, particularly in places like Red River, caused racial tensions, as these newcomers (many from more humble classes that married up) and the high-ranking “fur trade aristocracy” (largely Métis people) both condescended each other. (See: the Foss-Pelley Scandal of 1850 for an engrossing account of the viciousness and pettiness this war of words and morals.)

All that is to say that viewing Douglas’ situation purely through a black/white racial lens removes a lot of fascinating nuance.

Douglas, like many officers of his rank at that time, did marry a Métis woman, Amelia Connolley, the mixed-blood daughter of one of his superiors (an Irishman) and his Cree country wife. Douglas also kept her as a wife even after some high-ranking officials abandoned their “country wives” in favour of imported white “exotics.” Times were changing and by the 1850s views of race and class became increasingly fraught in the region. Many of these Indigenous country wives, while not having been married in a church, were treated by fur trade society as genuine, lawfully wedded and respectable wives. Newcomers, however, saw things differently. Douglas defended the country wives against their detractors who held them to moral standards from elsewhere in the empire:

“The woman who is not sensible of violating any law, who lived chastely with the husband of her love, in a state approved by friends and sanctioned by immemorial custom, which she believes highly honourable, should not be reduced to the level of the disgraced creature who voluntarily plunges into promiscuous vice . . . who lives a disgrace to her friends, and an outcast from society.”

There is a famous story about Amelia Connolley saving the life of her husband when he was working up at Fort St. James in the 1820s. It is said that she and a female interpreter called Nancy Boucher successfully begged Chief Kwah for Douglas’s life… after she’d come at the man holding her husband at dagger point with a dagger of her own and had been disarmed. Connolley used her knowledge of Carrier (or Dakelh) customs to negotiate a peaceful solution where her husband was helpless.

Connolley was a successful figure in her lifetime because she could both navigate conflict between Indigenous groups and her husband’s company, but also could navigate high-class British colonial society. Remember, when her husband was knighted and induced into the Order of the Bath, she simultaneously became a title Lady. She, a mixed-blood woman, was the highest-ranking lady in Victoria, BC, for years.

For all that, though, the North-West Coast was changing. The question of race was an increasingly weighty one. Douglas did “pass” for white, as did his wife. In his writing, tended to shy away from mentioning his own racial background or that of his mixed-blood children children. He once advised one of his daughters in a letter she could share Cree legends with her new school friends in Wimbledon but only if she hid the fact that she knew them from her mother. Despite the fact that they’d had their marriage sanctified by a missionary in 1838, some newcomers still viewed Douglas’ marriage to Connolley (and any other marriages like theirs) as suspect. Connolley, too, was not always at ease with high society in Victoria. Though she looked remarkably European, it is said that she was far more comfortable speaking French and Cree than English, which was described as “hesitant.”

All that is to say, the question of race and class in the mid-1800s on the North West Coast is not a simple black and white one, if you’ll forgive the pun.

Douglas remains a controversial figure in some circles today, as he was the one who initially laid out the reserve system in British Columbia which still has ramifications for massive land claims today. The reserves he laid out were, to be fair, intended to provide First Nations with enough land to both practice their traditional lifestyles as well as adopt European farming practices, but were reduced by 92% by his political successor. Nevertheless, the fact remains that British Columbia is largely comprised of unceded Indigenous land and he was the first to lay out reservations alienating First Nations from the bulk of their traditional territory.

So happy Douglas Day, citizens of British Columbia! Remember: people in the past were human. They had their admirable traits, and their deplorable ones. The shades of grey are what I find the most interesting.

I’ll be showing off a satchel purportedly owned by Douglas at work on Sunday, November 18th, 2018, at Fort Langley National Historic Site. If you’re in the Vancouver area and you’re a history nerd, come and see me!

Further Reading

  • I drew the majority of my content for this post from Adele Perry’s article “‘Is your Garden in England, Sir’: James Douglas’s Archive and the Politics of Home.” History Workshop Journal, issue 70 (2010): 67 – 85.
  • To learn more about race, gender, and the evolving nature of fur trade marriages and the emergence of the Métis people, I recommend a pairing of the following two books, in this order:
    • Sylvia Van Kirk. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670 – 1870. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.
    • Sarah Carter. The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation-Building in Western Canada to 1915. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press, 2008. (Free downloadable PDF ebook available on the publisher’s website!)
  • To learn more about the People of the River (First Nations of the region near modern Fort Langley), and their relationship to the land over time, see: Keith Thor Carlson (Ed.). A Stó:lō Coast Salish Historical Atlas. Vancouver and Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2001.
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