The Historical Time Machine

It is a truth generally agreed upon that there is a huge difference between learning about something in textbooks and being exposed to that something first hand.   I had a very interesting moment this week while researching the 1858 Fraser Valley gold rush in British Columbia that pretty much sums up that very statement.

I was reading a primary source book published in 1858 by one Kinahan Cornwallis, an Englishman who traveled through the gold rush area at the time and wrote a book intending to encourage British emigration to the area. [1]  Like all historians, I love primary source documents.  They’re like a little time machine into the past, and in the words of a far more famous time traveler than me; they’re Brilliant.  In this case, Cornwallis’ writing epitomizes cultured British imperialist thought at the time, and he doesn’t hold any punches. Picture me in the archives with my hands over my mouth to hold back the (alternating) laughs and grimaces.   Cue the shameless sharing (all emphases are added by yours truly):

Let me start out with the laughs. It’s well documented that men from all walks of life joined the rush north from California and the other western states in 1858 to present day British Columbia in the hopes of finding their fortune in gold. Cornwallis has an interesting take on the extent of the exodus, remarking that, “Even newspaper men, the most inveterate and pertinacious of all, were about leaving in inconsiderable numbers,” and later, “Even newspaper men, the last and least credulous in the world, are making off.” [2]  See what I mean about not holding back punches?

I’m a native British Columbian, so I was also curious to read Cornwallis’ take on the (then) brand new colony of British Columbia. The mainland colony was created as a direct result of the gold rush and fears of American invasion, and Cornwallis had a very specific vision for its future governance. He suggested; “Let the colony of British Columbia be constituted on the same basis as was New South Wales [Australia]. Why talk of ever annexing it to Canada?” [3]  Or, to put it more bluntly, “To make it [British Columbia] a mere undignified parasite of Canada would be the greatest blunder of statesmanship ever committed; the probable consequences of such a course I shall not presume to mention.” [4]

All kidding aside though, this kind of outspokenness is invaluable for getting a glimpse into the world as the author saw it. In this case, Cornwallis’ book is invaluable in giving me a front row seat to attitudes towards Aboriginals at the time. Again, it’s one thing to read in scholarly articles about the callous disregard for human life; it’s quite another to read evidence first hand. I’m going to let these quotes speak largely for themselves, but as some quick background.

Before the Fraser Gold Rush in 1858 the only people of European descent in the present day area of British Columbia were some scattered fur traders. The Aboriginal population numbered somewhere around 300,000 before European contact in 1821, and was an estimated 45,000 on the mainland in 1871 as disease took its toll. [5] The sudden influx of gold seekers was a shock to these groups, and there were initially clashes between white miners and First Nations groups as First Nations people resisted the presence of newcomers.  But there were also many Aboriginals who joined in the mining and did other tasks such as packing.

The attitudes of white people like Cornwallis towards the people upon whose land they were encroaching were in many ways a product of their time. This was when ideas of race were really coming into their own; Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published in 1859, just a year after Cornwallis wrote his book, and theories of progression of societies from primitive to civilized were already grounded. Cornwallis was quick to denounce the American tendency to shoot First Nations people on sight as occurred in the California gold rush, however his more “enlightened” attitude was, well, interesting.

Some, known by Cornwallis as “mountain men” got along quite well with the First Nations groups. From the perspective of a British outsider, “It was a matter of emulation with [mountain men] to adopt the manners, habits, dress, gesture, and even walk of the Indian.” [6]  It was with condemnation that Cornwallis remarked how, “[They] shunned the habits of civilization,” and would marry native women, “whom they became as attached to as they could have been to women of their own English, French, Canadian, or American race.” [7]

He goes on to comment about the presence of Aboriginal societies in general:

“There can be no doubt but that civilised man is the worst enemy of the savage. Vice and extermination invariably and eventually attend his presence amongst the primitive children of the wilderness, and the remaining tribes of North American Indians are as surely fated to extinction as were the Mohicans… the Choctaws, the Poncas, the Paunees, and the Pottowattaines of the same continent, whose remnants still drag out a fettered and miserable existence on the usurped lands of their primogenial inheritance.” [8]

“Civilisation, however, is a pestilence, and aboriginalism is as fated to fail before its in roads as, to use a scriptural similie (sic), the sparks fly upward. Alas that it should be so! but we are driven, in self-defence, to seek subsistance in lands hitherto alone roamed over by the primitive rulers of the earth.” [9]  He goes on to remind readers that the action of “crushing barbarism” with civilisation was no worse than the tragedy happening in cities and homes in Britain, where poverty and immorality were rampant. [10]

Meanwhile, the presence of thousands of people living on the land where gold was found was easily dismissed in favour of the potential that would come from “improving” those lands. Only by developing the area would it become something to be remembered.  “Where the Red Indian is now being driven before the rush of civilization, which in its influence, alas! cannot fail to be otherwise than blasting and exterminating to him, but which will build up cities in the wilderness where the waving of the prairie and the solitude of the mighty forest before only inspired the explorer with awe – regions of Indian romance – unchartered – forgotten.” [11]

In Cornwallis’ view, it wasn’t them (the Europeans) that were killing off the Aboriginals but rather civilization, and civilization was an unstoppable force.   Besides, “primitive” society was seen as happy and free, and it was a service for these people to die off rather than live in the darkness of civilization with, “strife, contention, and infamy.” [12]  After all, those Aboriginals surviving in other territories were living a meager existence.

As a result of these attitudes, when the threat of diseases such as smallpox decimated a large part of Aboriginal groups, nothing was done to stop it.  Later, these same attitudes led to the formation of residential schools, and the remnants of such thoughts are still having dramatic consequences over 150 years later.

Back in Cornwallis’ time though, the future was bright. Thousands of people would systematically die off, but the bright light of civilization would prevail! In his words, “The greater the march of discovery and improvement, the higher shall we ascend in the scale of civilization and refinement. Superior tastes will supersede our present ones’ and the squalid barbarism, vice, and infamy which now lurk… in the hearts of our cities, will be swept away by the purer morals, better organization, and higher intelligence and refinement of the masses.” [13]

As I said, it’s a time capsule back to 1858.  Occasionally humorous, often uncomfortable, and full of important history that should be shared.


[1] Kinahan Cornwallis, The New El Dorado; or British Columbia, (London: Thomas Cautley Newby Publisher, 1858).
[2] Ibid, 150; 181.
[3] Ibid, 138.
[4] Ibid, 140.
[5] Adele Perry, On The Edge of Empire: Gender, Race, and the Making of British Columbia, 1849-1871, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), 10.
[6] Kinahan Cornwallis, The New El Dorado; or British Columbia, (London: Thomas Cautley Newby Publisher, 1858), 136.
[7] Ibid, 135.
[8] Ibid, 108.
[9] Ibid, 143.
[10] Ibid, 143.
[11] Ibid, 156.
[12] Ibid, 109.
[13] Ibid, 315.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s