‘He lay like a warrior taking his rest, with his martial cloak around him.’
"Did the police know that this infamous business was being carried on under their eyes and noses?" D.W. Higgins asked his readers in 1904. He was writing of Victoria’s illegal liquor trade in the 1860s. "They were well aware of the methods by which the Indians were being cleared off the face of the earth."
The retired editor and MLA charged that all city police officers of the day had been "taken care of". While other crimes were diligently investigated, the respected owners of the Johnson Street warehouses had continued business as usual, with sloops, rowboats and dugouts ferrying thousands of cargoes across the darkened Inner Harbour waters.
The bootleggers, said Higgins, "were immune, and justice was not alone blind – she was so deaf that she could not hear the plaintive cries of the wretched victims of men’s greed and rapacity as they rent the night air and seemed to call down heaven’s vengeance upon their poisoners".
But divine justice, like that of mortal man, was also blind, and the steady slaughter marched unchecked; not only on Victoria’s western shore, but along the length of the West Coast from Washington Territory to Alaska. What "tanglefoot" whisky began, disease ended, and the heavy hand of British justice, when it was applied, proved little deterrent.
For long, Captain John had resisted temptation. Finally, he, too, became a steady customer of the Johnson Street warehouses. Without his authority, murder and violence on the western shore of the Inner Harbour became common occurrences. Higgins listed one outrage after another: "I might continue to cite tragedy after tragedy which resulted directly from the sale of liquor to the poor red man by white men who worked under the actual protection of the constabulary. But the instances I have given will suffice to show the condition of things that prevailed in and about this Christian town, beneath the shadow of church spires and within earshot and stone’s thrown of the peaceful and happy homes of pioneer settlers."
Once Captain John had been level-headed and cunning; he’d been handsome and dignified. Now he was a "besotted, quarrelsome creature," his fine blue greatcoat soiled and tattered. Came the day when the schooner Royal Charlie was fired upon from the Haida camp while sailing out of the harbour, Victoria
constables – those very constables who were deaf and blind to the illegal liquor traffic – marched into the village and arrested Captain John and his brother.
John submitted meekly until officers started to
search him in the Bastion Square police barracks. Suddenly, he drew a knife and slashed wildly at the nearest constable, his brother doing the same. A second later, both were shot dead.
Higgins arrived on the scene half an hour later. Both bodies lay where they’d fallen. Someone had covered John with his shabby overcoat and placed his old officer’s cap, the one with the gold braid, over his face. Raising the cap, the journalist "gazed long at the features which were placid and peaceful in death. Something of the old-time nobleness lingered there and his coal-black eyes, which were still open, seemed to gaze sadly, if not reproachfully, into mine. As I replaced the cap, these words from Wolfe’s great poem occurred to me: "’He lay like a warrior taking his rest, with his martial cloak around him.’" So ended the tragic career of Captain John. His life, in capsule form, was that of thousands of others who were victimized by the callous and ravaged by diseases against which they had no protection.
If modern-day readers find it difficult to
accept Mr. Higgins’s appalling account of 1904, there are other irreproachable records in the Provincial Archives. Anthropologist Wilson Duff, in The Impact of the White Man, cites disease, particularly smallpox, as the greatest foe. One epidemic, which began in Victoria with the arrival of a ship from San Francisco, raged throughout for more than two years. Within that short period, it’s estimated that one-third of the indigenous population – almost 20,000 souls! – perished. But the devastating effects of liquor, physically and psychologically, can’t be refuted. More than epidemic, more than Europeans’ advanced ways, liquor set in motion the destruction of the complex Indian culture, his integrity and independence.
Captain John was but one victim of tens of thousands. Abetted by the ignorant and poisoned by the profiteer, he and his ill-fated brethren form one of the most ignoble chapters in provincial history.