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Colonization and Community: The Vancouver Island Coalfield and the Making of the British Columbian Working Class

By John Douglas Belshaw

Review By Lynne Bowen

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 141 Spring 2004  | p. 124-6

JOHN DOUGLAS BELSHAW has provided the historical community with a well-researched, artfully written, and well-indexed account of an important aspect of Vancouver Island coalmining history: the experience of nineteenth-century British immigrant miners. He gives the reader new insights and ways of thinking about a fundamental aspect of British Columbian, Canadian, and indeed British labour history, and he does not pull his punches. 

In his introduction he takes various historians to task: those who have caricatured British miners as unionists (6-7); those who espouse BC exceptionalism (6-9); those who claim that the origin cultures of British, Chinese, Italian, and American immigrants were simplified rather than transformed by their new surroundings (18); and those British historians who have ignored that country’s emigrant working class and assumed it to be unchanged by the countries in which the workers settled (11). 

As a coalmining historian who writes for a general audience, I have been looking forward to Belshaw’s scholarly treatment of the subject. His analysis of census data in general and marriage and fertility in particular shine new light on the behaviour of British miners on Vancouver Island (66-73). 

Belshaw did his early work in Great Britain and his knowledge of British sources serves the reader well. But every mining region has its’ own words to describe itself and the work it does and while Belshaw understands the appeal that words unique to a sub-culture have for a reader, his use of the British phrase “winning the coal,” for example, and the word “hewer” instead of “digger,” seems strange given the richness of the Vancouver Island coalmining vernacular. 

There is a difference too between using the words unique to a subculture and using jargon, a sin of which Belshaw is mostly guilt-free. It is a pity then that his editors failed to suggest that he refrain from using such words as “racialization”(i8) and such phrases as “problematized contemporaneously” (192). This from a man who, when describing the supplanting of cricket with baseball in the hearts of Nanaimo coal miners, is capable of writing “and the cricket oval rang less frequently to the sound of leather on willow, more often to horsehide on ash” (187). Such fine writing also allows the reader to forgive Belshaw for giving the first name of “Thomas” to English novelist John Galsworthy (25) and for using the hardrock mining term “slag” instead of the coalmining term “slack” (175). 

Quibbles aside, Belshaw’s analysis of the two methods of coal removal – pillar and stall on the one hand and longwall on the other – and their relationship to the employment of Chinese workers and to management’s consequent ability to combat labour militancy, is an important issue in the book and one that is discussed at various times (81-3,122,126,130). The pillar and stall method, according to Belshaw, lessens management’s ability to use unskilled labour (the majority of whom were Chinese), while the longwall method allows for the supervised employment of more unskilled workers. This is a valid supposition, but it has two flaws when applied to the Vancouver Island coalfield. 

First, it ignores the fact that many Chinese worked in pillar and stall mines as backhands for skilled white diggers. Chinese backhands learned by observation how to blast the coal and eventually worked as diggers themselves. They were then able to comprise the entire workforce of a mine (Number Two Mine in Cumberland) and, incidentally, to have the best safety record on Vancouver Island in the 1890s. 

Second, Belshaw’s analysis requires that the mines owned by the Dunsmuirs, a family notoriously opposed to organized labour, be worked predominantly by the longwall method, and the mines owned by the Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Company, a company with a more benevolent, if pragmatic, labour policy, be worked by pillar and stall. But since the choice of one method over the other was determined largely by the thickness of the seam and not by the labour policies of management, the methods were not used as exclusively by either of these major employers, as Belshaw would have the reader believe. This argument only points out the liveliness of a debate which will become even more interesting as more scholarly books are written about this complex and important aspect of British Columbia history. Belshaw s wish to “restore the British miners of Vancouver Island to British history” and to “restore the making of the British Columbian working class to British Columbian history” will be well served by this debate and by this handsome and well-written book.