Friday, April 27, 2012

The 1862 smallpox epidemic

The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic off the coast of distant Newfoundland on April 15, 1912, deeply engaged British Columbia’s media. There were TV shows and many pages of newspaper coverage.

No doubt, the wreck of the Titanic was a dreadful disaster. Yet this April also marks the 150th anniversary of a catastrophe in B.C. that makes the foundering of that iconic passenger ship seem trivial, and raises questions about why the one invokes fascination while the other is met with a kind of cultural amnesia.

Only 35 of the Titanic passengers were resident in Canada, and the tragedy affected only about a dozen British Columbians aboard the stricken vessel.

Yet over the 18 months that began in April of 1862, at least half and perhaps well over half of all the people living in B.C. — most of them first nations — perished in a single event that killed people so fast and in such numbers that it might have emerged from the pages of an apocalyptic science fiction novel by Stephen King.

During the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, which scarred the psyche of a generation, the mortality rate in Canada is now estimated to have been 6.1 per cent. That is, about six of every 100 people who were infected with the flu virus died.

The mortality rate for the 1862 smallpox epidemic in B.C. was greater than 60 per cent. In some places, as many as 90 in 100 may have died.

In the spring of 1862, B.C.’s total population was about 50,000. By the fall of 1863, at a conservative estimate, about 32,000 people — virtually all the victims were first nations — had perished; likely 20,000 on the coast and probably 12,000 across the more sparsely inhabited Interior Plateau where the remoteness and vast territories of many tribes made for a dearth of statistics.

On the coast, corpses accumulated faster than stunned survivors could tip them into the mass graves that soon became commonplace. Some were burned in their houses, whole families at a time; entire villages at a time. Some lay unburied where they fell. One Victoria newspaper lamented in 1863 that from 1,000 to 1,200 corpses of first nations’ smallpox victims still lay unburied on an acre of ground “a stone’s throw from the schoolhouse.”

A few brave missionaries — forgotten heroes in this public crisis — risked their lives treating the sick under desperate conditions.

The oft-vilified Hudson’s Bay Company, accused in popular revisionist history of causing the epidemic by distributing infected blankets in an attempted genocide, actually expended its stocks of smallpox vaccine in what became the province’s first major public health initiative, vaccinating as many first nations as possible.

But politicians in denial about the risks had failed to respond quickly to the epidemic when they had the chance in Fort Victoria, and then succumbed when cowardly municipal leaders, pandering to a panicked non-native public, drove the sick away at gunpoint, dispersing up the coast and into the Interior a deadly disease that might have been contained.

The epidemic began with the arrival of a grimy paddle steamer from San Francisco in mid-March. Byron S. Johnson, a British adventurer who arrived in B.C. about the same time in 1862, described the crowded, filthy, fetid, lice-ridden conditions aboard gold rush ships that served as disease incubators:

“Our bunks consisted of three tiers of filthy canvas stretchers, supported by upright frames; these stretchers extended along both sides of the ship and down the centre, in a fore and aft direction. They were occupied by the unfortunate people four abreast ...”

Johnson rolled in a blanket on the exposed deck in preference to the foul conditions below.

The SS Brother Jonathan carried freight and 350 passengers bound for the raucous boom camp of saloons, brothels, tents, false-front emporiums, waterfront dives, flea-infested flophouses, liveries and stables that had sprung up around sleepy Fort Victoria with the discovery of gold on the Fraser River in 1858.

A week after passengers disembarked, the Daily British Colonist reported one case of smallpox. A second case was reported on March 22 and several more cases had occurred among the new arrivals by March 26.

Governor James Douglas, who had seen the ravages of smallpox during his time with the Hudson’s Bay Company in what is now Washington state, “strongly recommended” that the Colonial Assembly vote urgent and instant measures to prevent an epidemic. He wanted mass vaccinations, a special smallpox hospital, and mandatory quarantines.

The assembly voted funds for a hospital but refused enforced quarantines as an infringement on personal liberties.

Douglas released the Hudson’s Bay Company’s stocks of smallpox vaccine, called an emergency meeting with Songhees chiefs and directed physician Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken — who thought Douglas was overreacting — to start vaccinating first nations.

The meeting was attended by the Songhees Tyee, Chief Chee-ah-thluc, other chiefs, their wives and daughters and “all the Indian doctors.” It’s a testament to the respect with which Douglas was held that despite reluctance, all 30 immediately agreed to be vaccinated in a ceremony at Helmcken’s office and set a public example. The doctor then vaccinated 30 more Songhees.

On the mainland, Oblate father Leon Fouquet raced through the more than 100 settlements between what’s now Vancouver and the Fraser Canyon. He vaccinated as many as he was able — newspaper reports said 3,400 people between New Westminster and Yale — and other missionaries vaccinated the Musqueam and first nations at Cowichan and Nanaimo. Rev. William Duncan vaccinated Tsimshian around his mission at Metlakatla, blunting the epidemic there.

This campaign worked. The Sto:lo, Quwutsun (Cowichan), Sne-Nay-Mux (Nanaimo) and Musqueam were largely spared, although one in five Tsimshian still died despite Duncan’s vaccinations.

But for the rest, the efforts were too little and too late. On April 1, a first nations woman living in Victoria fell ill. The disease began to spread faster than people could be vaccinated, in part because of crowded, unsanitary conditions, but also because first nations had little natural immunity.

Unfortunately, in addition to the permanent Songhees villages around Fort Victoria, large encampments of visiting North Coast first nations had set up near the fort to trade. Tsimshian, Haida, Stikine Tlingit, Heiltsuk from Bella Bella and Kwakiutl from Fort Rupert on the northern end of Vancouver Island were all present.

The smallpox ripped through these camps like a lethal whirlwind.

Anglican missionary Alexander Garrett visited the Tsimshian camp when nobody showed up for his mid-April church service. He found his parishioners in a crowd on the beach. They stared thunderstruck at the putrefying corpse of a white smallpox victim, presumably washed ashore after being tossed into the harbour from an infected ship.

On April 25, Garrett’s journal records a visit to the camp. He found it in tumult and panic: “The smallpox was raging with virulence; twenty had already died; I saw eleven more cases in various stages of the disease. The patients were mostly removed to little tents or huts by themselves, and shut in as if left to die.” A day later, about 300 were reported sick with the virus.

By now, Helmcken had vaccinated more than 500 Songhees. Douglas moved swiftly to order a smallpox hospital erected near the northerner’s camps where the sick could be cared for. The Songhees fled and quarantined themselves on an island off Victoria.

Garrett recruited a white smallpox survivor as an assistant and began caring for the ill. But his diary confesses that he and his helper were, in fact, little more than despairing grave diggers, burying on average five patients a day.

Anglican Bishop George Hills visited the Haida and Heiltsuk camps. The sick, burning with fever, threw themselves into the sea. The helpless dying lay packed together. The stench was intolerable.

“I have never witnessed such horrible scenes of death, misery, filth and suffering before,” Hills later wrote.

One of Victoria’s newspapers complained about “festering corpses” on the beach below the parliament buildings. Public policy succumbed to the basest instincts as the non-first nations population panicked.

Northerners were forced into their canoes and ordered away from Fort Victoria, escorted by a Royal Navy gunboat. The dead were abandoned. The sick were packed into their canoes with their possessions and departed for their home villages.

On May 1, the Tsimshian burned their camp and left. The Stikines left on May 11. On May 12, the Haida and the Fort Rupert Kwakiutl were forced out. The rest of the northerners were driven off on May 13 and local police burned about 100 lodges, although not the Songhees village.

Many of those expelled, perhaps most, never made it home.

Travellers reported big, 15-metre seagoing canoes from the North Coast pulled up on the beach and filled with putrefying crews. Children were put ashore alone on isolated islands in hopes they’d avoid the plague and died there. Bodies littered the beaches of the Inside Passage from Victoria to Haida Gwaii — one captain counted a hundred corpses along the shoreline north of Nanaimo and the disease took hold there in the first days of June.

Fortunately for the Sne-Nay-Mux, recently arrived Anglican missionary John Booth Good obtained smallpox vaccine from the Hudson’s Bay Company and took immediate public health measures, “vaccinating young and old for days” and persuading Nanaimo’s chiefs to impose strict sanitary precautions.

“In this way they were saved from destruction; whilst, in places further north, where no such superintendence and aid could be rendered, whole villages were decimated and in some cases not one escaped.”

“The pestilence spirit” of Haida myth was riding the expelled canoes north.

A month later, smallpox was raging through the Pentlatch near Comox, the Lekwiltok at Cape Mudge on Quadra Island, across from Campbell River and among the T’Souke, west of Fort Victoria and among the Sechelt and Sliammon on the Sunshine Coast.

Royal Navy Captain George Henry Richards, conducting an admiralty hydrographic survey, put in at Fort Rupert on northern Vancouver Island in June and found horrifying conditions similar to those that had appalled Bishop Hills in the south.

Richards’ journal noted that fear of the raging epidemic was so palpable that some Kwakiutl literally dropped dead of fright at the sights before them.

“Scores of them died and lay for days and weeks in the same spot unburied and uncared for; until the others through actual dread of their own lives from the fearful efflusion pulled down the houses of the dead and scattered the pieces found inside, throwing the bodies in the sea to float away,” he wrote.

Richards ordered his doctors to deploy ship’s medical supplies to vaccinate hundreds of terrified people. It was to no avail.

“It is distressing to be able to afford them no assistance or relief — it could only be done by erecting a building to receive them and supplying medical assistance and comforts, neither of which are in our power, but gov’t. ought to do something,” he wrote, unaware, in the days before telecommunications, of the calamity which had befallen the entire coast as a result of political dithering and denial.

By August, smallpox was among the Heiltsuk at Bella Bella and moving inland, up the inlets and rivers to the Nuxalk at Bella Coola and into the Chilcotin Plateau.

If the modern medicine of the day was helpless, the disease confounded traditional tribal doctors in its virulence. One informant told ethnographer Thomas McIlwraith in the early 1920s how a Nuxalk shaman in 1862 was so overcome by his inability to offer any help to the first smallpox victim that he apologized to the community and publicly shot himself with his musket.

What followed these events was a scenario in which the living often envied the dead.

The virus obliterated entire villages. Whole tribes disappeared. Remote settlements were deserted. Survivors starved because the disease took the young and the healthy first and no one was left to harvest food resources. An informant told one historian that so many died among the Heiltsuk at Bella Bella that nobody was left to count them and that “women lay down dead, and the little baby was still sucking their tits, and she’d be dead.”

Of the first nations who dwelt along the B.C. coast, at least half and perhaps more were dead by the end of 1863. Six of every 10 Tlingit on the Stikine River had perished. Almost seven of every 10 Heiltsuk and Haida were gone. Only 15 per cent of the settlements on Haida Gwaii were still occupied at the beginning of the 20th century.

When Capt. Richards made a melancholy return to Fort Rupert three months after the epidemic had begun, he found the once-bustling village eerily silent: “Of the fine muscular, stalwart, fellows that 4 years ago numbered 400 men, now not 50 can be mustered.”

The World Heritage Site at Ninstints, a village off the southern tip of the Haida Gwaii — named for a Haida chief so rich and powerful he gave an unprecedented 10 potlatches — was abandoned by its 30 demoralized survivors in 1884. The great lodges, Raven-house and Ninstints’ own Thunder-rolls-upon-it, fell into ruin and are now just overgrown holes in the ground fronted by a fringe of decaying totem poles.

And this was true from Puget Sound right up the Alaska Panhandle and across B.C.’s Interior. In most regions, the names of lost villages outnumber those remaining by three-to-one and in many cases by 10 to one. Near Lillooet, near Williams Lake, on Prince of Wales Island, on Haida Gwaii, up the mid-coast inlets, around Victoria, across northern Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland — the lists of lost villages are mind-numbing.

These mass deaths tore irreparable holes in the cultural fabric of societies in which oral traditions were the custodians of the genealogies, laws, histories and literature of entire peoples.

And then, settlers moved in to occupy apparently vacant lands in some of the richest regions of the province, justifying the annexations with claims that the few dispirited survivors — today we’d call it a mass post-traumatic stress disorder — did not make adequate use of them or that settlement sites had been abandoned.

Here, writes eminent geographer Cole Harris, was “a profound settlement discontinuity, measured not, as it would have been in Europe, by decaying cities, wasted fields, and overgrown orchards, but by the abandonment of countless seasonal settlement sites, the unnaming and renaming of the land, and the belief of some that their world was coming to an end, and of others that it was opening towards a prosperous future.”

Those momentous events, which began in April of 1862 and ran through 1863, shaped the B.C. that we inhabit. Their aftershocks continue to shudder through the political and social bedrock of our present in the form of unresolved land claims, inadequate reserve lands as populations finally rebound from their nadir a century ago, and the legacy of marginalized and impoverished communities that have been alienated from resources and are frequently blamed for their impoverishment.

All of which raises an equally momentous question for us today:

Why our massive fascination with what, in the larger scope of things, was the relatively small tragedy of the Titanic?

Why this collective cultural amnesia about the titanic catastrophe that redrew the demographic map of B.C., erased and diminished whole communities and even tribes, their languages and their historic narratives, and destroyed traditional economies?

Surely this is worthy of acknowledgment by the institutions of the society that came to prominence in its aftermath?

Perhaps the failure to do so is because of who the suffering victims were, and because acknowledging the role of this cataclysm in creating our B.C. — Boyd called the 1862 epidemic the first nations’ “final disaster” — requires confronting some of the unpleasant foundations of “the best place on earth.”

Read more: