Writing British Columbia History, 1784-1958
November 4, 2013
Review By Ken Favrholdt
Historiography may seem like a dry, pedantic exercise that would only attract a handful of readers. Add to that the seeming lack of history that the subject of British Columbia suggests. But a recent addition to the shelves is Chad Reimer’s book, which will become essential reading for students and scholars of BC history. It is also a very readable text for anyone interested in how the writing of BC history has evolved in the province’s first 175 years.
Reimer divides the book into what he describes as genres, representing not only different styles of writing but also overarching periods of BC historiography. In his direct and clear style, he states the purpose of the book, to examine “how from its beginnings until the middle of the twentieth century, BC historical writing was part of a larger imperial process” (151).
Chapter 1 describes the earliest accounts of British Columbia, using Captain Cook’s post- humously published journal of 1784 as the starting point. The earliest BC histories do not acknowledge the long history of First Nations and their oral histories and, later, only show tangentially how their histories served the purpose of imperial discourse. First Nations stories had no bearing on the early Eurocentric perspective, a gap not corrected until recent decades (and outside the scope of Reimer’s book). Reimer uses Cook’s accounts as the beginning date of the colonial narrative that is British Columbia. The accounts of those early explorers, however, are significantly more geographical than historical.
American writers contributed to the earliest phase of British Columbia’s historiography – writing about the dispute over Oregon, which pitted theirs against British interpretations, the first counter-narrative in the historiography. At this point, and in the next genre, we see the positioning of First Nations in relation to an international discourse. Great Britain, through the Hudson’s Bay Company, was seen as benevolent towards the Natives, while the United States was seen as expansionist and warmongering.
Chapters 2 and 3 explore pioneer history, the period of the gold rushes and early settlement. The former produced a sizeable historical literature, for example William Carew Hazlitt’s British Columbia and Vancouver Island (1858), described by Reimer as part imperial history, part promotional literature. The emergence of guidebooks and directories about British Columbia furthered this genre. Richard Mayne’s Four Years in British Columbia and Vancouver Island (1862) provided a more authoritative account, with the colonial project front and centre. Both those writers included Native peoples in their narratives, although assimilation was the underlying assumption regarding how they would fit within the dominant discourse, and Hazlitt and Mayne portrayed British Columbia as a benign area for immigrant settlement and a Christian population.
Yet, the early portrayal of British Columbia was tentative until the province was established and the colonial project could be fully implemented. The first full-fledged attempt at providing a comprehensive picture was the 1887 publication of Hubert Howe Bancroft’s History of British Columbia. This was written from an American perspective, although Bancroft, based in San Francisco, undertook first-hand research, visiting Victoria and interviewing old-timers. This empirical approach to the formulation of history as an evolutionary process continued to negate Native peoples as doomed, although Bancroft, cited by Reimer, was critical of his American colleagues and viewed British Columbia as an anomaly “because of the peaceful working out of the universal process of civilization’s victory over savagery” (38). It was not until the 1890s that Canadian historians countered American views and provided a British perspective.
Chapter 3 focuses on what Reimer terms the golden age of Edwardian history, which spawned interest in collecting the past and the establishment of the Provincial Archives of British Columbia in 1908, spearheaded by R.E. Gosnell, E.O.S. Scholefield, and Judge Frederic Howay. Gosnell’s A History of British Columbia (1906) was followed by Scholefield’s British Columbia from the Earliest Times to the Present, Vol. 1 (1914) and a second volume by Howay. Chapter 4 is devoted entirely to Howay, originally a teacher and lawyer, who became the province’s most pre-eminent historian before the Second World War and who had a long list of publications.
Chapters 5 and 6 focus on the professional genre of historical writing on British Columbia, coinciding with the establishment of a school of history at the University of British Columbia. W. Kaye Lamb, who later became the provincial and then Dominion archivist, and Margaret Ormsby, who taught history at ubc and elsewhere, were the defining personalities of British Columbia’s historiographical evolution from the 1930s onwards. Lamb, who established the British Columbia Historical Quarterly, made the writing of BC history more rigorous. Ormsby, originally from the Okanagan, introduced a hinterland focus in her work and affirmed that the writing of history need not be dominated by Anglo-Saxon males.
Reimer only takes his analysis as far as 1958, avoiding the “messier” or more complicated discourse of postcolonial studies of BC history. Nineteen fifty-eight is an appropriate cut-off as that is when the government celebrated British Columbia’s centenary and Ormsby’s classic British Columbia: A History was published. Reimer’s work, of course, benefits by being the product of the postcolonial turn, which recognizes the “other” and minority viewpoints that were barely portrayed in British Columbia’s first one hundred years.
There is an extensive section of notes and a bibliography accompanying Reimer’s text. One may criticize him for glossing over some historians. One individual mentioned in passing – A.C. Anderson – amassed a great deal of knowledge from his work for the Hudson’s Bay Company and later, including Handbook and Map to the Gold Region of Frazer’s and Thompson’s Rivers; with Table of Contents, to which is Appended Chinook Jargon – Language Used, etc. (San Francisco, 1858); The Dominion of the West: A Brief Description of the Province of British Columbia, Its Climate and Resources … (Victoria, 1872); Notes on Northwestern America (Montreal, 1876); History of the Northwest Coast (1878); and A Brief Account of the Province of British Columbia, Its Climate and Resources; an Appendix to the British Columbia Directory, 1882–83 (Victoria, 1883). But this oversight is minor in a book that is a sound and well-written contribution to the writing of BC history.