James Douglas, Governor of the British colony of Vancouver Island (1851-64) and of British Columbia (1858-64)

Historians believe that the Black settlers from San Francisco came to Victoria in 1858 at the specific invitation of the governor. James Douglas had been an employee of the Hudson's Bay Company when he founded Fort Victoria in 1843 and, in 1851, he was named second governor of the British colony of Vancouver Island.

Royal BC Museum, BC Archives
ca. 1860
Photograph
193501-001 Call no.: A-01229
© 2008, Royal BC Museum, BC Archives. All Rights Reserved.


The SS Commodore, a British ship commanded by Captain James Nagle

In 1858, The Commodore carried a committee of 35 potential Black immigrants northward from California. The committee's task was to report to the San Francisco community on the suitability of Vancouver Island for Black settlement. The committee looked around Victoria and found that land there was cheap and the laws friendly to Blacks. They went home and recommended the move.

Royal BC Museum, BC Archives

193501-001 Call no.: B-02713
© 2008, BC Archives collection. All Rights Reserved.


On April 14, 1858, the Black community of San Francisco gathered in Zion Church to listen to Captain Jeremiah Nagle, captain of a British ship, The Commodore. These men and women were free, but they had no civil rights in California, and they were the victims of increasingly violent discrimination. Having decided to move on, they were now looking at several destinations, including Mexico and Panama. Nagle had come with orders from the Governor of British Columbia to persuade them to come north.

Governor James Douglas was an extraordinary man. Born in the 1790s in South America to a Scottish father and Black mother, he was apprenticed in youth to the Canadian fur trade, lived a life of adventure in the wilderness and married a Metis wife. Eventually, he founded Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island and in 1858 became the first British governor of the united provinces of Vancouver Island and British Columbia. One of the goals he set for himself was “Abolition of slavery within our limits.”

The Blacks of San Francisco listened attentively to Nagle, examined the maps he had brought and asked many questions. Before the meeting ended, they had decided to sen Read More

On April 14, 1858, the Black community of San Francisco gathered in Zion Church to listen to Captain Jeremiah Nagle, captain of a British ship, The Commodore. These men and women were free, but they had no civil rights in California, and they were the victims of increasingly violent discrimination. Having decided to move on, they were now looking at several destinations, including Mexico and Panama. Nagle had come with orders from the Governor of British Columbia to persuade them to come north.

Governor James Douglas was an extraordinary man. Born in the 1790s in South America to a Scottish father and Black mother, he was apprenticed in youth to the Canadian fur trade, lived a life of adventure in the wilderness and married a Metis wife. Eventually, he founded Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island and in 1858 became the first British governor of the united provinces of Vancouver Island and British Columbia. One of the goals he set for himself was “Abolition of slavery within our limits.”

The Blacks of San Francisco listened attentively to Nagle, examined the maps he had brought and asked many questions. Before the meeting ended, they had decided to send a commission of 35 members back with Nagle on The Commodore to have a look at Victoria. When the news came back that land was cheap and that Blacks in British Columbia had the same rights as white citizens, they decided. Some 800 Black Americans packed up and headed north.

BLACK PIONEERS OF BRITISH COLUMBIA. NATIONAL HISTORIC EVENT OF CANADA. DESIGNATED 1997. PLAQUE: SAANICHTON, BRITISH COLUMBIA.
© 2008, Virtual Museum of Canada. All Rights Reserved.

Mifflin Gibbs, a gifted scholar, businessman and one of the leaders of the 1858 immigration

Mifflin Gibbs was a man of stature in his community. He came from a free Black family in Pennsylvania and, in California, he had founded a successful business. Nevetheless, he decided to move north in 1858 to a British colony where Blacks had the protection of British law. He later returned to the United States where he became a distinguished lawyer and judge.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Library
c. 1902
Photograph
Digital record: 435946. ID: 1123108
© 2008, New York Library. All Rights Reserved.


Interior of a shop owned by a Black immigrant in Victoria, British Columbia

John Thomas Pierre, one of the Black immigrants who came to B.C. from California in 1858, founded a tailor shop on Fort Street in Victoria. He was just one of many energetic businessmen in the group who helped to turn the little settlement into a progressive town.

Royal BC Museum, BC Archives
c. 1890
Photograph
193501-001. Call no.: A-09462
© 2008, Royal BC Museum, BC Archives. All Rights Reserved.


The newspapers of 1858 were full of news about the gold rush in British Columbia, and Americans by the thousand were heading north. Mifflin Gibbs – one of San Francisco’s most prosperous Black merchants – had other ideas. He knew that miners heading into the mountains were going to need equipment and supplies. When he got on the ship for Victoria, therefore, he took with him a huge stock of prospectors’ supplies, everything from flour and bacon to blankets and shovels. He arrived in Victoria ready to make a killing, and he didn’t find much competition. The merchants in Victoria, he wrote scornfully, are “old fogies who are destitute of Yankee enterprise.”

Gibbs was the most brilliantly successful of the 1858 immigrants but, in fact, they were a hardworking and enterprising group, determined to make good. They opened a variety of businesses in town – tailoring and clothing shops, a hardware, salmon cannery, barbershop and boarding house, to name just a few. A relatively small group went beyond Victoria to farm, and some actually made money as gold prospectors. As a group, they contributed hugely to the variety an Read More

The newspapers of 1858 were full of news about the gold rush in British Columbia, and Americans by the thousand were heading north. Mifflin Gibbs – one of San Francisco’s most prosperous Black merchants – had other ideas. He knew that miners heading into the mountains were going to need equipment and supplies. When he got on the ship for Victoria, therefore, he took with him a huge stock of prospectors’ supplies, everything from flour and bacon to blankets and shovels. He arrived in Victoria ready to make a killing, and he didn’t find much competition. The merchants in Victoria, he wrote scornfully, are “old fogies who are destitute of Yankee enterprise.”

Gibbs was the most brilliantly successful of the 1858 immigrants but, in fact, they were a hardworking and enterprising group, determined to make good. They opened a variety of businesses in town – tailoring and clothing shops, a hardware, salmon cannery, barbershop and boarding house, to name just a few. A relatively small group went beyond Victoria to farm, and some actually made money as gold prospectors. As a group, they contributed hugely to the variety and vigour of life in pioneer B.C., but no-one was as varied or vigorous as Mifflin Gibbs. In his years in the colony, he was shop-owner, politician, journalist, coal miner and a part-time student of law and lecturer.


© 2008, Virtual Museum of Canada. All Rights Reserved.

The Victoria Pioneer Rifles, the first militia unit in the Province of British Columbia

The Pioneer Rifles were founded in 1861 – a symbol of Black pride and citizenship – and disbanded a few years later in the face of racial discrimination.

Charles Gentile
Library and Archives Canada
c. 1861
Photograph
1967-001 / C-022626
© 2008, Library and Archives Canada. All Rights Reserved.


In youth, Mifflin Gibbs had actively fought racism in Philadelphia. In California, he led civil rights protests and founded the state’s first Black newspaper. He had already looked racial hatred in the face. But when he and his wife were showered with flour as they attempted to take their seats in the Victoria Theatre, it was one insult too many.

The San Francisco immigrants had come to British Columbia believing it the “land of freedom and humanity.” In some ways, it was. Black residents were allowed to vote, sit on juries and testify in court. Mifflin Gibbs was elected to Victoria’s town council. At least some churches and businesses welcomed them. But others did not, and the white community generally disliked them. The Roman Catholic nuns (admittedly, under protest) were forced to segregate “Coloured” girls. Governor James Douglas tried unsuccessfully to appoint Blacks to the city police force. When Blacks volunteered for the fire department, whites refused to serve. Segregated seating was introduced to the Victoria Theatre in 1860.

Perhaps the proudest achievement of the Black community in Victoria was also its most Read More

In youth, Mifflin Gibbs had actively fought racism in Philadelphia. In California, he led civil rights protests and founded the state’s first Black newspaper. He had already looked racial hatred in the face. But when he and his wife were showered with flour as they attempted to take their seats in the Victoria Theatre, it was one insult too many.

The San Francisco immigrants had come to British Columbia believing it the “land of freedom and humanity.” In some ways, it was. Black residents were allowed to vote, sit on juries and testify in court. Mifflin Gibbs was elected to Victoria’s town council. At least some churches and businesses welcomed them. But others did not, and the white community generally disliked them. The Roman Catholic nuns (admittedly, under protest) were forced to segregate “Coloured” girls. Governor James Douglas tried unsuccessfully to appoint Blacks to the city police force. When Blacks volunteered for the fire department, whites refused to serve. Segregated seating was introduced to the Victoria Theatre in 1860.

Perhaps the proudest achievement of the Black community in Victoria was also its most disappointing. In 1861, the Blacks formed the very first militia unit in the colony – the Pioneer Rifle Corps. Three years later, after being barred from marching in welcoming ceremonies for the new governor, they disbanded. In the end, Mifflin Gibbs and a handful of others gave up and left. British Columbia was the poorer for their departure.


© 2008, Virtual Museum of Canada. All Rights Reserved.

Learning Objectives

After reading, viewing and listening to the media files in the Learning Object, students will be able to:

• illustrate the importance of legal rights relative to the immigration of Californian Blacks to British Columbia;

• consider Governor James Douglas’ heritage in relation to his goal to create a territory without slavery;

• show how Blacks who were willing to work hard and be innovative were able to create opportunities and to prosper during the gold rush in 1850s BC; and

• reflect upon the racist actions and attitudes that Blacks encountered in 1850s British Columbia, despite forward-thinking laws.


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