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Contesting Rural Space: Land Policy and Practices of Resettlement on Saltspring Island, 1859-1891

By R. W. Sandwell

Review By Chad Gaffield

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 151 Autumn 2006  | p. 106-7

One of the most unexpected conse quences of the systematic social history undertaken in the 1960s and 1970s was a profound rethinking of its initial focus on industrialization and urbanization as the central features of modernity. By the 1980s, scholars had become less convinced that an understanding of cities and factories would be the key to interpreting the larger constellation of social, economic, cultural, and political characteristics considered to define so-called modern countries; rather, researchers began focusing on the economic engine of capitalism and the socio-cultural changes associated with rural as much as with urban mentalities and actions. One result has been a series of sophisticated and probing scholarly debates that have problematized con cepts of individual and collective identity and behaviour through the intensive study of specific times and places. This granular approach has made microhistory a research strategy of choice among those attempting to enhance our understanding of the large-scale forces that transformed the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In innovative and stimulating ways, Ruth Sandwell has contributed significantly to this metaphysical and epistemological rethinking in Contesting Rural Space: Land Policy and Practices of Resettlement on Saltspring Island, 1859-1891. In keeping with the spirit of current scholarly convictions, Sandwell embraces complexity, ambiguity, and contradiction rather than seeking to impose a coherent and linear interpretation on the multiple and uneven changes that she discovers in studying the people, policies, and practices on Saltspring Island during the second half of the nineteenth century. The book begins with a discussion of Sandwell’s rural gaze, which comes from a “microhistorical eye” (3), and her decision to study a setting in the Gulf Islands between the British Columbia mainland and Vancouver Island. The following chapters then examine the land policies and ideals of rural (re)settlement before moving to a systematic study of how diverse residents actually came to grips with the social, economic, and cultural challenges of this environment.

Based on an impressively wide range of sources, Sandwell contributes to key scholarly debates, including those related to landholding, rural capitalism, household structure, and intercultural relations. Throughout the analysis of these and other topics, Sandwell emphasizes three central themes in the Saltspring Island experience of the later nineteenth century: (1) that this distinctive rural world cannot be understood in the interpretive terms made familiar in research on cities; (2) that official policies and the ideals of dominant cultures should not be mistaken for the actual histories of diverse individuals, families, and collectivities; and, specifically, (3) that “the process of learning land use” is “the key to understanding the social history of settlement. Nobody, in other words, should prejudge for the settlers how their relationship to the environment and culture would evolve” (225). Taken together, these themes emphasize the importance of studying the complex interplay of local and global forces by systematically examining the ambitions and practices of specific people in specific places as well as of those in a position to promote dominant cultures and social formations. Sandwell concludes by suggesting that this microhistorical approach is the preferred strategy for developing appreciations of the “common pattern” (229) that characterized rural communities in the making of modernity.

In analyzing land records, census enumerations, court documents, family records, official registers, oral histories, and many other types of evidence, Sandwell quite successfully negotiates the constructivist-realist (false) debate while also avoiding the interpretive pitfalls of sentimental attachment to one of the present-day world’s most beautiful locations. Some readers may still be left unconvinced about the ways in which the history of Saltspring Island should revise current understandings of British Columbia or Canada or North America or other settler societies, while other readers may reject outright the claim that the microhistorical eye can see beyond limited contexts to perceive any macrohistorical phenomena. All readers, though, will enjoy this wellcrafted and smoothly written study, which provides unmistakable evidence in favour of emphasizing land, families, and an integrated socio-cultural approach to the great transformations of settler societies.