UVic Torch -- Autumn 2008
Autumn 2008,
Volume 29, Number 2

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Colonial “despatches” bound at National Archives of the UK.

Digitizing the “Magna Carta” of BC history

In the last week of April, 1864, 14 road workers were killed by an uprising of Chilcotin at Bute Inlet, sparking a 100-day conflict with the governing colonialists. History shows that the British authorities were the victors of the Chilcotin War. But history can change.

“They really had no hope of winning an Indian war,” says History Prof. John Lutz, speaking of governor Frederick Seymour’s efforts to squash the Chilcotins. Based on colonial dispatches between Victoria and London, the governing authority had all but given up, deciding that fighting the natives on the ground was futile. “They changed policies so they could undermine them bureaucratically, rather than militarily,” Lutz says. Such policies have had far-reaching effects—from the courts to land-claim negotiations.

It’s these kinds of little-known aspects of the provinces’ past that Lutz and the UVic Libraries Special Collections and Archives department are bringing to the Internet. Ultimately, says Lutz, it will “change the way we think about BC history.”

Along with colonial dispatches, the digital history project will make other documents available online: hand-coloured maps of Vancouver Island from 1855–59, early tourism pamphlets from Victoria, diaries of an early amateur historian and century-old copies of The Colonist, as well as a rare book published by the newspaper.

But Lutz is particularly excited about a three-decade span of dispatches from the likes of governors Seymour and James Douglas—some 9,000 documents in all—to the London colonial office. “I call this the Magna Carta of BC history,” Lutz says of the correspondence that has been largely inaccessible. The colonial dispatches—or “despatches” as it was spelled at the time—will reveal history that had only been available to the most dedicated historians devoted enough to delve into the warren of the BC archives, which has copies on microfilm.

“This is the official record of everything that happened on Vancouver Island from 1843 until Confederation,” Lutz says. Many mysteries about how this province took shape are contained in these reports. “The governor reported things that he saw and that haven’t been recorded anywhere else.”

The dispatches project began in the 1980s when UVic’s James Hendrickson, a professor emeritus of history, undertook a massive transcription process from the microfilm. (The originals are in London).

“When this is all (online), amateur historians, professional historians and tourists will be able to see Victoria as people have never seen it before,” Lutz says.

Of course, there is great potential that the correspondence could provide some consternation, even controversy. “Inevitably, history tells us things we want to know and what we don’t want to know as well. There are always surprises,” Lutz says.

This summer, UVic students worked on the dispatches’ 1858 volume—there are 28 volumes in all—for the province’s 150th anniversary celebrations and have published it online.

The aim, says Special Collections librarian Chris Petter is to present the old documents in an engaging context that ties them into other historical events. “This will really blow people away.”

Online: bcgenesis.uvic.ca

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