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Maria Mahoi of the Islands

The Remarkable Adventures of Portuguese Joe Silvey

By Jean Barman

Review By Michelle La Flamme

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 147 Autumn 2005  | p. 119-22

The history of Native and non-Native interracial relationships and of mixed race communities in British Columbia has been overlooked. I am a mixed race woman from BC and have never had the opportunity to know of this history until now, when, at close to forty, I have finally come across stories of two pioneers, Maria Mahoi and Joe Silvey, who crossed racial lines and created mixed race communities in coastal BC.1 Jean Barman is a good storyteller who uses a number of oral and written resources not simply to document their lives, but also to tell the tales of two different mixed race families. In Maria Mahoi of the Islands, Barman frames the story by way of her own experience of eating an apple in the orchard of the late Maria Mahoi. This framing device also hints at the importance of embodiment, which is central to Barman’s narrative of Maria Mahoi’s life as a mixed race woman in early BC history.2 This opening frame immediately links the writer to the narrative and locates us as readers on the site. In the story of Maria Mahoi, Barman’s frame remains mostly unobtrusive. When she addresses issues of race and racialization, her insight into the experience is surprisingly accurate for a monoracial woman. Barman does not theorize the racist assumptions undermining the denigration of nonwhite stories but rather participates in a counter-hegemonic project seeking to add new narratives of the racially hybrid nation.

Maria Mahoi was born in the mid-1850s, and died in 1936. During her life she raised a large family (thirteen children who reached adulthood) and eventually made Russell Island her home. Barman suggests that her island home became “a centre of community for numerous nearby families who were, like her own family, of mixed newcomer, Hawaiian and Aboriginal descent” (6). Barman’s work importantly asserts that this individual woman’s story was common in early BC history. With men thronging to BC during the Gold Rush, “[a] paucity of newcomer women meant that men looking to settle down often opted, as had their fur trader predecessors, for an Aboriginal woman” (13). In this way Barman links this specific woman’s story to the larger history of mixed race communities in BC and, by extension, Canada. Barman rightly argues that “[h]ybridity, the intermingling of Abroriginal and non-Aboriginal genes, is integral to both the province’s and the nation’s past” (7). Barman’s project is to recuperate this past in order to “claim it for ourselves.” By outlining the life of this racially mixed historical figure, Barman implies that we can recover the story of this mixed race family and of many others that have been obscured in historical narratives about early BC history.

One of the most interesting approaches to racial hybridity in Maria Mahoi of the Islands occurs when Barman documents the different racial affiliations that Mahoi and other mixed race children had according to their soma texts. These racial affiliations ranged from denying Native and Hawaiian blood and “passing” as Scots to downplaying the presence of “colour” blood in favour of asserting an uncomplicated Canadian identity to proud assertions of Aboriginal descent or Hawaiian blood. Barman claims that many mixed race Aboriginal people repressed their aboriginal heritage and, like Mahoi, claimed a monoracial identity as a Hawaiian (73) or “passed” when possible as white (85, 89). Barman suggests that many of these racially mixed people lived their lives “in that intermediate space between contact and settlement” (77).3 By documenting these diverse responses, Barman adds much to the emerging discourse on racial hybridity in Canada.

Barman also identifies many of the numerous mixed race families who formed a loose community in southwestern BC. She suggests that racially mixed families provided important labour resources for the area and details some of the experiences of racism that this community encountered, along with socio-cultural beliefs regarding racial amalgamation that were in circulation at the time.4 Eventually Mar ia Mahoi and Captain Abel Douglas found their way to the south end of Salt Spring Island, Salt Spring Island where they became part of the growing local Hawaiian community. The existence of large “half breed” families was noted by local newspapers and journals, and Salt Spring was referred to by one Anglican minister in 1895 as a “colony of half-breeds” (63). Barman’s Maria Mahoi of the Islands does much to expose the contradictory responses to racial amalgamation in one small corner of Canada as well as the social bonds and intimate ways in which these mixed race families built their own community on Salt Spring Island and Russell Island.

The book also outlines the community’s numerous responses to these hybrid Canadians. These responses ranged from racist prohibitions against interracial relationships and integration to calls for open integration. Although Mahoi’s first alliance with Captain Abel Douglas was never consecrated by marriage, Mahoi and Douglas did live together and have seven children. Interestingly, Maria’s second partner, also a racially mixed person with an Aboriginal maternal ancestor, was an advocate of interracial marriages and did indeed marry her in 1864.5 Barman documents the often contradictory responses that islanders today have to their own early Salt Spring history. She notes that although historical photos suggest the important presence of mixed race families, the official representation of this early homesteading community has ob scured their presence.6 Thus, a plaque unveiled by Salt Spring Islanders in 1977 at Ganges’ Centennial Park to honour early homesteaders excluded the names of many important early residents of colour while privileging those of white “pioneers” (72).

What is lacking from this narrative are Maria’s own reflections on her experience of racial hybridity or her children’s thoughts on growing up “mixed” in a society where people identified as either Native or non- Native, but not both. How did Mahoi understand her own em bodi ment and subjective experiences as a racially hybrid woman in early BC history? What kinds of experiences did she encounter and what effect (if any) did these have on her sense of herself ? How did she define herself over time and within different communities “of colour”?7 In the absence of writing by Mahoi on her own subjective experience of racial hybridity, Barman’s work gives us an excellent glimpse into some of the issues and responses that would certainly have framed Mahoi’s sense of herself.

The stories of Joe Silvey and Maria Mahoi are entwined through The Remarkable Adventures of Portugese Joe Silvey and Maria Mahoi of the Islands. Barman refers to the whaling part nership that developed between Captain Abel Douglas (Maria’s Scot tish partner) and Joe Silvey. In charting the existence of mixed race com munities, Barman suggests that “[a] thousand or more of the newcomer men who stayed on in British Columbia had hybrid families by Aboriginal women” (Mahoi, 19). Both stories surface as two of many stories of interracial alliances in BC’s early history. Barman also uses the personal story of Joe Silvey’s life to open a discussion of the various economic, social and cultural forces that shaped early British Columbia communities. Highlights include Portugese Joe’s marriage to Khaltinaht, the granddaughter of the late legendary Chief Kiapilano, and various intermarriages that tied the Silveys to the Musqueam and Cowichan people. Several of the Silvey children were multilingual and spoke “Portugese, the trading jargon of Chinook, the local Cowichan language, and English” (45). The Gold Rush, the fishing and logging industries, whaling, Howe Sound, the seine fishing on the BC Coast, the Silvey school for “halfbreed” children, Gastown, Egmont, Point Roberts and what would come to be known as Stanley Park are all linked to Joe Silvey’s adventures. Like the Mahois, the Silvey family also settled on an island when Silvey preempted 160 acres of land on Reid Island. The family flourished there within the relative autonomy that the island afforded.

Barman documents the pattern of marriage amongst Silvey’s children and suggests that “women were ex pected to submerge their identities into those of their husbands, making a hybrid daughter-in-law just tolerable. In sharp contrast, no newcomer family wanted, under any circumstances, a mixedrace son-in-law” (52). These genderbased racial assumptions in formed the patterns of marriage that the Silvey children followed. In addition, these patterns were infl uenced by the demographics of the day. Barman notes that, “[t]hrough the First World War, British Columbia’s newcomer population consisted of two to three times as many men as women. A daughter of mixed heritage could choose between a newcomer of modest means…and another person of mixed race” (52). Again, like the Mahoi descendants, the Silveys did not always define themselves as racially mixed. Some preferred to think of themselves as Portugese, and at times Hispanic, and less frequently as Native Indian. Joe Silvey’s descendants, Barman suggests, helped consolidate a “hybrid coastal society that orginated with the gold rush and continues to contribute to the making of British Columbia” (Portugese, 77).

The stories of Joe Silvey and Maria Mahoi suggest to me, as a mixed, race Vancouverite, that the idea of interracial relationships and issues of racial hybridity in British Columbia, often referred to as a relatively recent phenomenon, actual ly has a long history. Barman notes that many newcomers arrived on this coast with racist attitudes and frowned on racial amalgamation. As a consequence, “Natives were scorned and persons of mixed race denigrated as ‘halfbreeds’” (Portugese, 37). Nonetheless, Barman notes that when Brit ish Columbia entered Confederation, “a number of families around the Burrard Inlet besides the Silveys consisted of newcomer white men and Native women” (35).

Barman identifies the numerous sources that she consulted in writing these histories, and in their telling demonstrates her skills as an excellent storyteller. Perhaps for traditional historians, the form that this narrative takes is too much a story and not enough of a rigorous and “objective” detailing of facts. For the layperson or literature major such as myself, however, personal stories like those Barman tells us of Maria Mahoi and Joe Silvey bring early British Columbia history to life. This research also conveys new and important insights about the little – explored nature of interracial alliances and racially hybrid communities along BC’s southern coast.

[1] Barman notes that Maria Mahoi was of Hawaiian descent, spent much time on Salt Spring island and eventually settled on Russell Island. Therefore the title signifies her link to these three different island communities.

[2] In my own research into Native and non-Native autobiographies, fiction and drama, it is evident that embodiment is central to the experience of racial hybridity and Barman rightly addresses this theme. 

[3] One might also look at the representation of the racially mixed character Tay John in the novel Tay John by Howard O’Hagan as a literary representation of early BC mixed race people who lived, as Barman suggests, in the intermediate space between contact and settlement. Racially mixed literary figures perform a number of different ideological roles and their importance in Canadian literature has been underdocumented. See Werner Sollors, Neither Black nor White Yet Both (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997) for a thorough treatment of interraciality and mixed race figures in American literary history. The same comprehensive assessment of legal prohibitions against interracial relationships and socio-cultural beliefs about blood and amalgamation has yet to be done for the Canadian context.

[4] Barman refers to the 1901 Census definitions which had a category for Canadians “of colour” as one such example of cultural responses to race. 

[5] The play “Birthright” written by Constance Lindsay Skinner in 1905 and set in BC also has a character (Mr. Maclean) who is determined to effect change in Ottawa because of his belief that white men who take up with Aboriginal women should consecrate their ties through marriage. This play will soon be published by Playwrights Canada Press (2005).

[6] Other recent research has contributed to our understanding of the important presence of the early African-Canadian community on Salt Spring island. For further research into the presence of African-Canadians in early BC history, see Crawford Killian’s Go Do Some Great Thing (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1978) ; Joseph Mensah’s Black Canadians: History, Experiences, Social Conditions (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2002); Wayde Compton’s anthology Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature and Orature (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2001); and George Elliot Clarke’s Odysseys Home: Mapping African-Canadian Literature (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002).

[7] My own research into autobiographies by racially mixed Canadians suggests that people with multiple racial alliances can often change their racial identity according to the context they are in and how their body is “read.” Therefore, when examining racially hybrid people’s racial affiliation it is useful to chart racial identity as a process of identification.