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Review

When Coal Was King: Ladysmith in the Coal-Mining Industry on Vancouver Island

By John R. Hinde

November 4, 2013

Review By John Belshaw

WHEN COAL WAS KING, Ladysmith was a small, undistinguished pit-town, one of thousands around the industrializingworld. On the eve of the Great War, Ladysmith’s population barely passed 3,200. Compared with Nanaimo or Cumberland, let alone any of a dozen villages in the Rhondda, Ladysmith was small beer. Why, then, devote a book to less than two decades of mining history in this backwater?

The answer is: Ladysmith earned it – the hard way. One of a litter of towns whelped by the Dunsmuir clan, Ladysmith (and its conjoined twin, Extension) was from its inception hostage to the province’s foremost capitalist and to a provincial administration that was his handmaid. In the first thirteen years of the twentieth century, the community endured the usual humiliations that are the birthright of company towns, including tied housing, company stores, and a punitive blacklist system. But it also suffered disasters, strikes, oppression, military occupation, riots, and mass incarcerations that set it apart from even its immediate neighbours. In the aftermath of the 1913 strike, nearly four out of every five Island miners who were packed off to Oakalla prison came from little Ladysmith. This was a terrible decade and a half for the town and its neighbourhood, a forge upon which (as John Hinde is keen to demonstrate) community was fashioned. The heft of the hammer used is, of course, of fundamental concern here. 

Histories of coal-mining often miss the point. It’s not about coal; it’s about energy. The history of coal is cousin to the obscenely grand schemes of the North American Water and Power Alliance, deforestation in the Sahel, and two Gulf wars. Whoever controls the principal energy resources in any economy holds the trump card; pity the fool – unionist, environmentalist, or sovereign state — who gets in the way. When Coal was King recognizes this reality, a fact that raises it above local history and regional labour history. The book makes a contribution to our knowledge of both, but its real value is that it shows how larger, even global concerns play themselves out at a microhistorical level. The smallness of Ladysmith thus becomes an asset rather than a liability with regard to the significance of this study. 

There is, of course, a growing literature on the Vancouver Island coalfield. Hinde engages with the work of others in a manner that clarifies, expands, and advances, without a lot of tiresome kvetching along the way. Unfortunately, this book came out too soon after my own Colonization and Community for Hinde to take into account the modifications I had made to my earlier assessments of the Island coalfield, so there can be only a partial engagement between the two works. We disagree on a great many details and on a few larger questions (Hinde favours the cultural and biological interpretation of anti-Asian racism; I prefer the economic view), but the unmistakable trend is still further removal from the old chestnuts of “Western exceptionalism” and an inherently radical immigrant Left Coast proletariat. 

The industrial and political struggles of the Edwardian era dominate this story, but they are freshly recast. In this respect it complements Jeremy Mouat’s contemporaneous Roaring Days, a. study of the province’s southeastern mining frontier. It does, however, slide back and forth between the 1870s and the 1910s (especially in Chapter 4), and the lens expands to take in the whole Island coalfield in order to make sense of the peculiarities of Ladysmith and Extension. In this respect I wonder if the book’s title is not misleading: it is less about “industry” than it is about “community.” Given that community is Hinde’s milieu, this is odd. One of the key and distinctive conclusions he reaches is that the violence witnessed at Ladysmith in the 1913 strike and riot was neither mindless nor orchestrated but, rather, an almost instinctive expression of community desperation. According to Hinde, this violence served as a glue for a population that felt itself being torn asunder (211). This is an important and welcome understanding of “the crowd” (as per George Rude) in BC history. Hinde could be pushed, however, to look at the other crowd at Ladysmith in that hot summer before the storm broke in Europe: what can we know of the strikebreakers? The “scabs” and “blacklegs” included a good many local men, not least of whom was Tully Boyce, a former president of the local Miners’ and Mine Labourers’ Protective Association. What was their take on “community”? At one remove from that question, from whence did the “half-clad barbarians” of the provincial militia hail? Were they all, as anecdotes have it, Oak Bay swells out to put the proles in their place? Or were they workers themselves, drawn by the promise of three squares a day and a decent wage?

John Hinde is a superb writer and a thoughtful scholar. A background in political philosophy (he is an authority on Jacob Burckhardt) serves him well: whenever he crawls out on a limb he produces a ladder as if by magic. The  main complaints I have are trivial: the maps on pages 20 and 44 should be reversed and the rustic cover illustration might convey the incorrect impression that this is a hopelessly parochial history. It is, indeed, much more than that.