The Kanakas of British Columbia

When Captain Cook came to the islands of Hawaii in 1778, he named them the Sandwich Islands, after his patron the Earl of Sandwich. Since that time, ships from Britain and France arrived at this new mid-ocean way station. Hawaiians, known as ‘Owyhees’, were recruited to work on the ships. They called themselves Kanakas, the Hawaiian word for ‘people’.

1851. Kanaka Village at Fort Vancouver, Washington.

1851. Kanaka Village at Fort Vancouver, Washington.

By the 1820s, the practice of recruiting Kanakas for work on the Northwest coast was firmly established. When the North West Company merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821, the merger meant that Kanakas were brought up north from Oregon Territory. As a result of a head tax on Sandwich Islanders that came into effect in 1845, there were few who wanted to stay behind. Many returned to Hawaii.

The Hudson’s Bay Company offered Kanakas three year contracts that included room and board and a wage of ten pounds a year. They worked at the Belle Vue Farm on San Juan Island where they looked after sheep under the direction of the foreman Charles Griffin and maintained a presence for the British. The Kanakas had a reputation as one that was willing to “fight the local Natives” and for this reason they were employed as guards. When a Washington Territory sheriff named Barnes was sent to San Juan with a group of assistants to seize some of HBC’s sheep for non-payment of taxes, “there was a whoop from the hill and Griffin, together with some twenty Kanakas brandishing knives were seen charging down toward them.” They retreated however, after Barnes and the others fired their revolvers.

In 1851, James Douglas, then the chief factor of Fort Victoria, set up a militia group comprised of “eleven Kanakas and two negroes” known as the Victoria Voltigeurs. It existed for 7 years as a rifle corps to guard the fort. Douglas relied on them frequently to apprehend Natives who threatened the HBC. He wrote of a case where the Voltigeurs chased a Cowichan Native into the woods, captured him and another and brought them back on board the Steamship Beaver. The two men were later hanged for the crimes.

During the mid-1850s the Voltigeurs were often used on more routine patrol duties on horseback “to visit the isolated settlements for their protection.” In 1856, eighteen Voltigeurs were sent a s part of a large expedition to Cowichan after the attempted murder of a white man by a Cowichan Native.

The Voltigeurs continued as a force until the gold rush began in 1858. The following year, the HBC’s monopoly on trade officially ended and many of the Kanakas left Victoria to join the gold rush in the Fraser Canyon. Kanaka Bar was one place where they left their mark. Many of them lived in Victoria on what was known as ‘Kanaka Row’ – a line of shacks at the head of Victoria harbour where the Empress Hotel is located.

There was a strong connection between Victoria and Hawaii (still referred to as the Sandwich Islands) in the early years of the gold rush. The Kanakas held onto their Hawaiian culture and customs. In 1862, it was noted that “A steady and increasing trade is carried on with S. Francisco, the Sandwich Islands, Oregon, Washington Territory and the coast of British Columbia.”

Russell Island near Salt Spring Island (visible from the Swartz Bay ferry terminal) was once owned by a Kanaka pioneer. Parks Canada operates a visitor centre on Russell Island in conjunction with the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.  Descendants share their family stories about life on Russell Island with visitors.

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