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Negro settlement in British Columbia, 1858-1871 Pilton, James William

Abstract

This is a study of the negro migration to British Columbia in the mid-19th century. It is the story of the early coloured pioneers who came to the colony from California to escape oppression. Here is a glance at the early history of the Canadian west coast from the standpoint of one of the many minority groups who once settled there. The first of the negro immigrants arrived in Victoria, Vancouver Island in April of 1858, when the gold rush to the Fraser River was just beginning. While many preferred to try their luck at the diggings, others remained in the town where they prospered as merchants, barbers, restaurant and saloon keepers and ordinary labourers. Not wishing to live in segregation as they had been forced to do in California, they fitted themselves into the life of the settlement to a remarkable degree. The coloured townspeople were particularly active in colonial politics, and when they voted en bloc, they could, and sometimes did control the outcome of elections, a situation which aroused antagonism toward them. Several negroes ran as candidates in colonial and municipal elections and one of them, Mifflin Wistar Gibbs was not only elected to the City Council, but later on leaving the colony became the first negro Judge in the United States and was eventually appointed United States Consul to Madagascar. The first volunteer military unit on Vancouver Island, the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps was composed entirely of coloured men. After much discouragement at the hands of the whites, the negro soldiers disbanded, but at least they deserve the credit for being the first to volunteer and to prepare themselves for the defence of the colony. Other important centers of negro settlement were on Salt Spring Island, where they established themselves as farmers and ranchers, and in the gold fields where they panned the bars of the Fraser River and the creeks of the Cariboo country. While it is doubtful if many became wealthy as miners, some became prosperous business men supplying the economic needs of the pioneer settlements. The coloured people had not entirely escaped prejudice by their northward migration however, for it followed them from California on every gold rush steamer, and even the British settlers were not entirely blameless. Attempts were made in Victoria to segregate them in the churches and theatres, and to exclude them from the public bars. On Salt Spring Island the situation appears to have been somewhat different, for on the fringe of settlement, any neighbour, regardless of his colour, was a decided asset, and in the mining country men were generally judged by the amount of money in their pockets rather than by the colour of their skin. By the mid-1860’s the gold excitement had almost died away bringing a period of depression to Vancouver Island. In the United States the Civil War had come to an end and slavery had been abolished. Now it was no longer necessary for the coloured people to continue their self-imposed exile and many decided to return to the United States. As this movement progressed, the race problem in the colony diminished, and in time the fact that there had ever been an extensive settlement of negroes in British Columbia was forgotten.

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