Captain John faces off with other tribe – and alcohol, part 2

CAPTAIN JOHN (Part 2) As Victoria authorities remained neutral, musket shots punctured the usual calm around the clock.

The tribes encamped on the western shore of Victoria’s Inner Harbour in the early 1860s faced an insidious enemy against which they had little defence. Pioneer journalist David Higgins has left us with one of the most graphic descriptions of the devil’s brew that ultimately devastated proud nations and cultures:

"The so-called whisky was the vilest stuff that the ingenuity of wicked-minded and avaricious white men ever concocted. What it was composed of was known only to the concoctors. I was told that it was made of alcohol diluted with water toned up with an extract of red pepper and coloured so as to resemble the real thing. It was conveyed to the Reserve under cover of night by boatloads.

"Quality was not considered. The rotgut must be cheap as well as pungent, and these two elements being present, the sale was rapid and profitable."

This was the lucrative trade conducted under cover of night by unscrupulous merchants who were respected leaders of the community by day. To the untutored consumer, drink was a mindbending elixir for which he’d literally sell his soul. Daughters and wives were sold into prostitution, some sold as slaves. Soon the vast encampments beside the Inner Harbour were a brawling hive of violence and degradation.

Presiding over this ungodly scene was the aloof figure of Captain John.

Violence finally erupted in the Haida camp in the summer of 1860 when several young men, fired with alcohol, announced their intention to drive the encroaching whites into the sea. Realizing they couldn’t be calmed, John informed them they’d be slaughtered by the settlers. However, if they were spoiling for a fight, why didn’t they attack their old enemies, the Stikines?

That evening, a Haida, primed with bad whisky, encountered a Stikine youngster on the road. When the boy’s decapitated body was found, the enemies hastily dug trenches and erected log fortifications then, over three days, waged a blazing gun battle. Musket shots punctured the usual calm around the clock as Victoria authorities remained neutral.

On the third day of hostilities, a Sunday, Higgins and several fellow adventurers decided to visit Captain John’s fort. "We watched our opportunity and by keeping well behind the standing timber that then thickly covered the Reserve, and dodging from tree to tree, we managed to reached the Captain’s quarters without injury."

Secure behind the Haida breastworks, Higgins faced a short lecture on his foolhardiness from John. But the chief soon changed the subject for he had other things on his mind. "He was anxious to know what the papers said about the fight, and I told him, much to his satisfaction, that they reported that he was getting the better of the Stickeens. He was very grave and serious in his demeanour and seemed to feel that a great responsibility rested upon him."

With dusk, Higgins and companions crept from the fort. Some distance down the trail, they met two men helping a third, who was in great pain. The injured man’s knee had been shattered by a Stikine musket ball and, next day, his leg had to be amputated.

This incident aroused official ire. With a strong force of heavily-armed police and marines from HMS Hecate, police magistrate Augustus Pemberton marched into the battle zone, arrested leaders on both sides, including a bewildered Captain John, and destroyed the fortifications. After being soundly lectured, all combatants were released and peace resumed in the camps, if only briefly.

But the flow of vile liquor continued unabated. From legitimate wholesale liquor warehouses at the foot of Johnson Street, thousands of gallons of the illicit brew were smuggled by night across the harbour, where eager customers waited to pay hard cash for slow death. At a dollar a bottle, each sale brought a 90 per cent profit.

(To be continued) www.twpaterson.com