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First Invaders: The Literary Origins of British Columbia

By Alan Twigg

November 4, 2013

Review By Daniel Clayton

Alan Twigg is the publisher of BC BookWorld, which plays an important role in the literary life of British Columbia, and the author of eight previous books, chiefly on literature and politics. First Invaders is his first foray into history, albeit still one with a literary bent. The book locates “the literary origins of British Columbia” in the published texts of sixty-five (mostly) white, Western, male chroniclers who imagined and en countered what became cal led British Columbia prior to 1800. Twigg sees his project as “the first cumulative accounting” (12) of those who described this part of the world. He starts with “the first literary reference to British Columbia in English literature” (18), Jonathan Swift’s map of Brobdingnag (the land of giants, north of Francis Drake’s “New Albion”) in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and finishes with Alexander Mackenzie’s 1793 trek from the Rockies to the coast. The entries, ranging from one to seven pages, focus on individuals and the publication history of their chronicles. The book is organized into seven sections – “precursors,” the “Spanish,” “French,” “Cook & Crew,” “Traders,” “Americans,” and “Mapmakers” – and ends with a substantial (if patchy) bibliography of secondary literature, a key dates “addenda,” and notes on Bawlf ’s well publicized 2003 account of Drake’s 1579 voyage.

Twigg assembles much interesting, useful, and (mainly) accurate information, and he democratizes history by drawing the public’s attention to many little known historical actors and stories. Yet I found this a curious and disappointing – poorly designed and perhaps hastily put together – book. Let me flag three basic problems.

First, Twigg makes hardly any effort to situate the book in academic or pub lic debates within British Columbia about the nature and legacies of exploration, contact, and colonialism. The absence of a full introductory (literature review type) chapter impairs the meaning of the ensuing entries, not least by deny ing readers who know little about this his torical period a yardstick (literary or otherwise) by which they might judge and appreciate the purpose and originality of the book. Historians such as Glyn Williams (Voyages of Delusion, 2002), who have produced best-selling popular works on this period and subject, provide models of how and why it is important to contextualize the kinds of texts that Twigg glosses. The sources do not speak for themselves.

Second, one might query Twigg’s restriction of “literary origins” to just published works and “words on paper” (12). Defence of the former restriction, on the grounds that unpublished (manuscript) logs and journals are located in disparate archives and are often difficult to read, is compromised by the fact that Twigg does not list the libraries that house the published texts to which he refers. Would readers necessarily know that they would have to visit the British Columbia Archives in Victoria or the Special Collections Division of the University of British Columbia Library to consult many of them? This oversight is compounded by the fact that the entries contain remarkably few quotations from the published works. Twigg thus crimps the reader’s ability to understand why they might be interesting and important. His reduction of “the literary” to “the textual” is also questionable. As an enormous body of work now shows, and as Twigg himself intimates in his section “mapmakers” (which is devoted mainly to Vancouver and his team), “the literary origins” of British Columbia were as much visual (cartographic, artistic, and scientific) as they were narrative. Twigg addresses neither the fact that important differences existed between the textual and visual projects and protocols of scientific exploration, trade, mapping, and empire building that converged on the coast at this time nor the different circuits of patronage and power that shaped decisions about what got published (and what did not) and by whom.

Third, Twigg’s suggestion that First Invaders is “the first cumulative accounting” of the province’s literary origins is misleading. Many of the texts upon which he draws were first recovered from archives, transcribed, edited, translated, and published by pioneering historians such as F.W. Howay and institutions such as the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Champlain Society. Concomitantly, while the charge that this book is a record of just white/Western endeavour is offset by the fact that Twigg has published a companion volume to First Invaders entitled Aboriginality (Ronsdale Press, 2005), which deals with Native literary origins, I left this book with the impression that the white/Western literary origins of British Columbia could be placed within a self-contained box. First Invaders could usefully have pointed to the work of ethnographers and collectors (Edward Sapir, James Teit, C.F. Newcombe, and others) who, working at the early twentieth century generational limits of Native memory, recovered Native stories of “first contact” with whites. Finally, as a range of recent postcolonial and interdisciplinary scholarship on Native-Western contact in the Pacific shows – and not least Nick Thomas’s exemplary ethnographic study of Cook’s three voyages (Discoveries, 2003) – white texts and systems of representation were not immune from Native influence or reformulation in the face of otherness. Cultural contact was a two-way process in which Native agendas, and the geographies and spaces in which they were embedded, affected (we can debate how much) not just what Western observers wrote but also how they wrote – how they narrated, sketched, mapped, classified, and imagined the new lands and peoples they encountered.

In short, while this book is not – and does not pretend to be – a work of academic scholarship, it amounts to something of a missed opportunity to use the dictionary/gazetteer format to open up wider questions about the meaning of historical and textual (or discursive) origins, and the relations of knowledge and power that emanate from them, in a part of the world where Natives and newcomers have discrepant understandings of the past. And where the remaking of history through its retelling remains a crucial public (and not simply academic) task.