Pacific Postcards

Oppressed or Opportunistic? The Complexities of Indigenous-European Relationships in Fort Victoria (Bridget Persson)

          Behind the unique coastlines and stunning nature of Fort Victoria, British Columbia is an immensely rich and unique history that shows the complex relationship between Indigenous peoples and European development. The complexity derives from perspective; the relationship between Indigenous peoples and settlers can either be seen as a mutually beneficial relationship where both groups economically flourish or an oppressive relationship usually involving violence. These antithetical perspectives (an effect of colonialism and economic escalation) are not solely characteristics of Fort Victoria. Throughout the Pacific, many delicate relationships were formed and broken. However, Fort Victoria is unique to observe because of the numerous Indigenous populations directly located across the bay from European industrialization and colossal corporations. The connections between Fort Victoria’s Indigenous peoples on one side of the bay and the changing world around them reveals the truth of history in the Pacific: intricate.

          By examining Fort Victoria’s history, we can apply the unique Indigenous and settler relationships to general Pacific history. However, both Pacific and Fort Victoria history is dependent on perspective. For example, The Sea Is My Country by Joshua Reid offers a distinct perspective on the Indigenous relationships with the changing landscape during the nineteenth century. Reid claims that “in the beginning, non-Natives often called Fort Victoria by its ‘Indian’ name, Camosun.” By claiming that non-Natives respected Fort Victoria's Indigenous peoples by acknowledging and utilizing the Indigenous name for the land, Reid recognizes that non-Natives were immensely respectful of Indigenous land and culture. Maintaining the original name of a location is symbolic for acknowledging the land's history (especially because the Indigenous toponyms have deeper meanings). The Indigenous meaning for Camosun, ironically enough, means “where different waters meet and are transformed.” Reid further demonstrates that non-Natives and Indigenous peoples maintained peaceful and collaborative relationships by claiming “Fort Victoria thrived because of the consent, labor, and support provided by nearby indigenous villages.” By claiming “consent,” Reid implies that Indigenous peoples were willing to collaborate with new settlers. In addition, the usage of vocabulary such as “support” implies that not only were Indigenous peoples willing to help, they were encouraging of it.

          In addition to the Indigenous peoples supporting foreign economic escalation, “Fort Victoria and its early operations highlight the way Indigenous peoples were the cornerstones of HBC growth in the region.” This demonstrates that Indigenous peoples were also willingly contributing to foreign major corporations dominating the surrounding land. This relationship between Indigenous peoples, companies, and settlers from Reids’ perspective is unique as it indicates willingness, enthusiasm, and collaboration from Indigenous peoples towards and with the new settlers. While The Sea Is My Country acknowledges that powerful politicians such as Finlayson make ill-mannered mistakes such as ignoring the murder of the Makah titleholder Chief George on Fort Victoria soil, Reid illustrates that Indigenous, settler, and company relationships in Fort Victoria are mutually beneficial and fairly meek (Reid). 

          Contrary to Reid, Wim Van Lent and Andrew D. Smith view Fort Victoria (including Hudson's Bay Company) history as not mutually beneficial, but oppressive. From this perspective, settlers, life, and corporations played a role in discriminating against Indigenous peoples. For instance, “until the mid-twentieth century, the historical culture of English-speaking Canada was suffused with colonialist ideology: many historical school textbooks promoted loyalty to the British Empire.” This implies a bias in education by forcing adolescents to focus on the Eurocentric perspective of Canada during this time instead of recognizing the true history of the land. Bias in education is not the only discriminatory action against Indigenous peoples during this time. Lent and Smith admit that “[Indigenous Peoples] could neither vote in national elections, nor purchase alcohol, open bank accounts, or seek legal assistance.” Worst of all, the “state controlled their movements in many regions of the country and took Indigenous children from their families to raise them in the abusive Indian Residential Schools.” Evidently, Lent and Smith believe that Indigenous people were disrespected, oppressed, and even abused. The addition of settlers diminished the Indigenous peoples quality of life in the nineteenth century as their rights, family, and culture were being stripped away. 

          Lent and Smith also believe that the addition of major corporations (such as the Hudson's Bay Company or HBC) negatively affected Indigenous peoples. According to Lent and Smith, major corporations such as HBC were “overcharging Indigenous people for European goods and underpaying them for furs.” In addition, “as the HBC’s trade network expanded, the company promoted white settlement and the displacement of Indigenous inhabitants.” These quotes demonstrate the power imbalance between Europeans and Indigenous peoples; because corporations took financial advantage of as well as racially discriminated against Indigenous peoples in everyday life, the corporation is acting as a persecutor while the Indigenous peoples are being exploited. Lent and Smith offer a distinct perspective where Indigenous peoples are being mistreated by the expanding groups of settlers and corporations (Lent & Smith). 

          The perspectives of Lent and Smith compared to Reid are vastly contrasting. While Reid believes that the expanding corporations and settler populations during the nineteenth century allow for opportunities and positive relationships to foster for Indigenous Peoples in Fort Victoria, Lent and Smith believe that colonialism during this time caused social and economic exploitation, negligence, and oppression. These historians' varying perspectives from the same time period is quintessential to illustrate Pacific history because of how abundant contrasting perspectives are throughout Pacific History. However, the extreme contradictions lead us to question the truth: what perspective of nineteenth century sources most accurately demonstrates Pacific history? 

          In the 1860’s map inscribed “Lithographers to the Queen,” history is revealed through lithography. Both the title and the date of the map are significant to take into account while analyzing the map. For starters, the title of the map, “Lithographers to the Queen,” represents that this map was illustrated from the perspective of British lithographers with the intent of sending their map to Queen Victoria during this time. As Queen Victoria is an immensely powerful woman, the lithographers would most likely draw the map adjusted to please the Queen. Notice how the location is labeled “Victoria, British Columbia” instead of Camosun (the Indigenous name for Fort Victoria). By labeling a city and province after the Queen and British influence, the British imply a lack of respect for those who lived in and named the region prior to settler arrival. In addition, the labeling of the Songhees people as “Indian Village (Songhees)” implies that the British would commonly refer to the Songhees as Indians or Indian Village instead of recognizing their true name and culture. Using this type of vocabulary implies the British had a lack of respect for the Songhees culture as they purposely used ill-mannered and somewhat oppressive labels. Evidently, the lithographers focused on creating the map of Victoria from the perspective of the British by highlighting the British influence, such as flags and crew boats, during this time. One could imagine the complexity of Victoria's Indigenous-settler relationships by examining what not only is pictured, but also what is not pictured.

          Many aspects of the Victoria map compliment Lent and Smith's argument that colonialism caused immensely destructive impacts on Indigenous peoples. One example of the detrimental effects settlers caused is prevalent when observing the landscape. Looking past the water towards the colonized skyline, one can instantly see the depletion of trees in comparison to the Songhees land. This depletion was most likely to clear land for construction or resource extraction. However, the land used for resource extraction was not confined to the settlers' land. At the bottom of the map, two men in red coats have a conversation while one holds an axe. Surrounding the two red coats are stumps of cut down trees. This illustrates the destruction of nature, which was tremendously sacred to many Indigenous peoples, surrounding the Songhees people. Destroying the nature and resources surrounding Songhees land was not only disrespectful, but also detrimental. After living on the untouched land for generations, Songhees culture and everyday life was most likely dependent on the geography surrounding their land. Destroying land so essential to a culture was destined to make a negative impact on the Songhees people. 

          As the nature surrounding Indigenous land continued to be picked over for resources, the Pacific in front of the Songhees was altered as well. While at first glance one may simply see an abundance of ships, attached to many of the boats on the bay between the Songhees and the settlers are waving flags with hints of blue, white and red. Because Indigenous peoples did not have a state or patriotism, it is evident that the flags and, therefore the swarm of boats, belonged to the European settlers and explorers. 

          In addition, the long boats by the end of the bay appear to be rowing boats. The appearance of rowing boats is noteworthy due to the popularity of rowing in Britain historically. By bringing popular European recreational activities to Victoria, the settlers demonstrated their intent to bring European influence to the area. The abundance of the European sailboats as well as the cluster of rowing boats in the water embellishes the mobility restriction of the Pacific for Songhees people after the addition of settlers. Notice how despite sailboats, no Songhees boats are prevalent. Because the Songhees had smaller canoe-shaped boats, it is evident that the addition of European boats in the bay resulted in less Songhees peoples utilizing the water as they had for generations prior. The changing scenery in the surrounding land, including the deforestation and coastal domination caused by Europeans, apparently restricted and isolated the Songhees peoples culture and way of life. The map highlights the domination of land exceptionally valued by Indigenous peoples by European companies/settlers implying that Lent and Smiths perspectives of negative Indigenous-European relationships is most likely favored.

          On the contrary, the divided bay, with sizable European coastal developments across from the Songhees’ wooden and rectangular buildings, may imply a collaborative Indigenous-European relationship similar to Reid’s perspective. Because of the quantity of buildings and ships across the bay, it is conspicuous that the populations of Europeans was far more than the population of the Songhees peoples during this time. Considering this, why would Europeans continue to expand North, East, and South of Victoria, but not West towards the lush and resource-filled land of the Songhees? According to Reid’s perspective of Victoria at this time, it is likely that Europeans were more interested in expanding their companies and economy than dominating the land. For Europeans, “the consent, labor, and support provided by nearby indigenous villages” allowed their city as well as major companies to prosper and grow. Therefore, while Europeans could have utilized the coastline, resources, and Songhees people to their favor, the Europeans may have decided that the economic benefits that the nearby Indigenous people provided willingly outweighed the benefits of dominating Indigenous land. This relationship between one side of the bay and the other would represent codependence; without the Indigenous people occupying the land across, the Europeans would not receive valuable Indigenous commodities while on the other hand, the Indigenous peoples would not have access to international trading and expansion without the European built ports. Because Europeans left some Indigenous land of Fort Victoria untouched as the settlers expanded their coastline domination, Pacific domination, and resource extraction boundaries, Reid’s perspective of collaboration between Indigenous peoples and European companies is also probable. 

          If both Lent and Smith’s perspective that Indigenous peoples were being geographically (and eventually culturally) oppressed by settlers and Reid’s perspective that there was likely to have been beneficial relationships between European companies and the Indigenous peoples are probable perspectives, what does this imply about the history of Victoria? To put it bluntly, Indigenous peoples probably faced both opportunity and oppression as a result of European settlers. The history in Victoria, illustrated on the map, would suggest a combination of positive and negative relationships (Or Reid’s perspective and Lent and Smith's perspective) that shaped the inner bay. On account of this, it is transparent that the relationships between Europeans and Indigenous peoples at this time is extremely complex, and the complexity of the relationship is truly what affected the city of Victoria in 1860. These two perspectives convey the extreme and opposing perspectives of many primary sources during this time, but the combination of extreme perspectives reveals an entirely new perspective on history in the Pacific. Contradicting perspectives on account of Indigenous and Europeans emphasizes the intricacies that truly account for relationships in the Pacific as a whole: oppressed and opportunistic.


“Lək̓wƏŋən Traditional Territory — Songhees Nation.” n.d. Animikii.

Reid, Joshua L, Makah Indian Tribe Of The Makah Indian Reservation, Washington. Tribal Council, and Makah Cultural And Research Center. 2018. The Sea Is My Country : The Maritime World of the Makahs, an Indigenous Borderlands People. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Tiedemann, H. O., and Thomas Picken. 1860. “Lithographers to the Queen.” London: Day & Son.,0.099,0.389,0.177,0.

Van Lent, Wim, and Andrew D. Smith. 2019. “Using versus Excusing: The Hudson’s Bay Company’s Long-Term Engagement with Its (Problematic) Past.” Journal of Business Ethics 166 (2): 215–31.

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