Evangelizing and Exploring

  • Linda Dorricott (Editor) and Deidre Cullon (Editor)
    The Private Journal of Captain G. H. Richards: The Vancouver Island Survey (1860-1862). Ronsdale Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Jim McDowell
    Father August Brabant: Saviour or Scourge?. Ronsdale Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Mark Diotte

Shortlisted for the Basil Stuart-Stubbs Prize for Outstanding Scholarly Book on British Columbia, Jim McDowell’s Father August Brabant: Saviour or Scourge is a superb volume. One aspect of the volume’s success is its academic rigour in re-evaluating Brabant’s life. McDowell begins by juxtaposing his volume against six other versions of Brabant’s life, and draws the conclusion that four of these are flawed “reprints or rewrites of Brabant’s own Vancouver and its Missions.” Another version is a eulogy, while the sixth is “reliable, but dated.” McDowell’s version, therefore, presents a much needed corrective to the available information and historical record. Furthermore, the value of McDowell’s version is its scope—it ranges from Brabant’s life in British Columbia, to the general historical context of the late eighteenth century, to some of the history and stories of the Hesquiaht First Nation. The concluding critical assessments of Brabant and Hesquiaht Chief Tawinisam, in addition to the in-depth appendices and end-notes, add to the academic excellence of McDowell’s work. Yet, for all his academic rigor, McDowell also uses a novelistic prose style to propel the reader forward through the narrative, and thus his volume serves the general reader as much as the academic reader.

One strength of McDowell’s work is his portrayal of Brabant who, despite his belief in his own good intentions, is revealed to be a somewhat arrogant individual who was overly concerned with his own reputation and role in the area. Indeed, McDowell represents Brabant as something of a metonym for the role of the Catholic Church in the region—a person and an institution characterized by a concern over influence and expansion in the region, by power struggles with Protestant groups, and by a relationship of assumed paternalistic superiority over First Nations. Concurrently, McDowell systematically examines historical documents to demonstrate Brabant as largely ineffectual in his personal attempts at conversion, dishonest in his reportage of conversion numbers, and inadequate in understanding the Nuu-chah-nulth people he lived amongst for such a long time. As McDowell remarks, Brabant’s lack of understanding meant that “he remained intellectually handicapped as an effective agent of social change, let alone religious conversion.”

Yet, McDowell is also effective in demonstrating Brabant’s success in documenting or witnessing Hesquiaht culture and ceremonies such as the Lōqwoná, or Shaman’s Festival, and the potlatch—despite his limited understanding of these things. McDowell also emphasizes Brabant’s important role in establishing the residential school on Mears Island, Clayoquot Sound, as well as his role as facilitator or link between the Hesquiaht and settler society in trade, disputes, legal issues, and difficulties with other bands. In these roles, Brabant was somewhat successful—though this success contributed to the dislocation and disruption of Hesquiaht practices and culture.

One of the most powerful aspects of the book is McDowell’s representation of Hesquiaht culture and the Hesquiaht response to the evangelical efforts of Brabant. The Hesquiaht are represented even-handedly—dubious of Brabant and his teachings, but hospitable to his presence; as his efforts at conversion increased, so too did the Hesquiaht backlash, aggression, and resistance. The Hesquiaht resistance to colonialism and conversion is represented mainly through Chief Tawinisam whose life is characterised by a rejection of Brabant alongside a solidification of traditional values and practices. Where Hesquiaht conversion does occur, McDowell shows it to be primarily nominal, an attempt to gain access to the wider settler society, and as a part of the larger processes of colonization and capitalism rather than due to the personal attempts of Brabant.

Insightful and disturbing, Father August Brabant: Saviour or Scourgeis an excellent contribution to the history of British Columbia and Canada.

The Private Journal of Captain G.H. Richards: The Vancouver Island Survey (1860-1862) edited by Linda Dorricott and Deidre Cullon, is a first-rate publication of Captain Richards’ journals alongside brief supplements from the journals of Second Master J. T. E. Gowlland. The book is well-researched, academically rigorous, and contains a series of remarkable drawings, photographs, and hydrographic charts of Vancouver Island. While the book is accessible to academic and general reader alike, the style is quite formal and sparse. Unlike the various narratives of “adventure and exploration”—including those by Captain James Cook, George Vancouver, John R. Jewitt, and Simon Fraser—Richards’ journal was not likely meant for publication. Readers with an interest in nautical surveying, exploration, and history will find this volume particularly appealing. Of interest is the slight overlap between Dorricott and Cullon’s non-fiction volume, and Vanessa Winn’s novel The Chief Factor’s Daughter—Lieutenant Richard Charles Mayne, an officer and friend of Richards, appears in each book, and both texts offer insight into a little studied era of Vancouver Island history.

Richards was a remarkable individual, and Dorricott and Cullon draw much-deserved attention to the man. Aside from his work charting and acting as “peacekeeper” along the coast of Vancouver Island, Richards is credited for “moderniz[ing] the Hydrographic Department” in England, managing the Telegraph and Construction and Maintenance Company, and achieving both the rank of admiral and a knighthood, among many other achievements.

A particularly noteworthy aspect of Richards’ journal is the way it captures the prejudicial Eurocentric attitude in his writing, and the way in which the ideology of colonialism and imperialism is implicit in his surveying activities. While Dorricott and Cullon report that Richards “adopted native names wherever possible,” he also seems very ready to name places himself. Remarks such as, “I commenced the Survey of the point at once – which I named Port Harvey after Capt Harvey of Havannah,” are common in the text, and they indicate a colonizing practice whereby control is exerted over geography. His surveying practices, moreover, are just as directed at finding locations suitable for settlement and resource extraction as they are at charting the coast. Finally, Richards’ constant references to First Nations as “creatures” or “filthy and dirty” are symptomatic of his tendency to objectify them while also indicative of the paternalistic paradigm of superiority and conquest he operated under.

As Dorricott and Cullon remark, Richards has never been “the focus of any major published work” and “his significant contribution as a surveyor and chart maker have not been widely recognized.” This volume, therefore, makes an important contribution to the study of Richards, to the colonizing practices and ideology of early surveyors, to British Columbia’s historical record, and to life on Vancouver Island in the mid nineteenth century. Particularly important is the fact that the original drawings of G. H. Richards do include details of First Nations villages on Vancouver Island and may, in the words of Dorricott and Cullon, “add to existing ethno-historical information and provide support for land and resource claims.”

This review “Evangelizing and Exploring” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 169-71.

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