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Column: Meet Vancouver Island’s first professional snob

This Victorian Island chronicler looked down his nose at everyone
Victoria, and indeed, B.C. in the 1800s, left something to be desired for some from the upper crust. (submitted)

“It is only to be regretted that the paucity of respectable females in Vancouver Island and British Columbia limits so much the opportunities of single men who desire to cultivate domestic virtues, and lead sober lives.” —Matthew MacFie.

As if British Columbians aren’t colourful enough, some of the chroniclers who’ve recorded their exploits for posterity have been as intriguing as many of their subjects.

One of the most observant and outspoken was the Rev. Matthew MacFie, Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, whose able and acidic pen captured the tempo of gold rush Vancouver Island in the 1860s when thousands of Cariboo-bound adventurers descended upon these fair shores.

With eagle eye he observed and analyzed those with whom he came in contact during his five-year residency. Friends, acquaintances, strangers and perceived enemies were captured for all time on MacFie’s canvases in colourful and oftimes less than flattering portraits of the high and the humble.

Every inch the English gentleman, MacFie viewed the world through a very small glass; few measured up to his exacting standards as few mortals could. Despite this failing, his writings aren’t without value. Prejudiced he may have been but he was intelligent, widely traveled, observant and curious — in short, an able social commentator.

It was MacFie who first recorded for posterity that the future capital’s richest members of the fair sex were its prostitutes.

As much of Victoria’s male population consisted of single young men, of almost every nationality and background, it’s not surprising that MacFie should have devoted almost an entire chapter of his classical work, Vancouver Island and British Columbia, to their errors and omissions. This chapter he entitled, “Young colonists, their temptations and dangers.”

For temptations and dangers there were, lurking around every street corner (if you believe MacFie). In his view a good many of the younger generation, most of whom were transients, had feet of clay despite the fact that many were “well connected and possessed[ed] a good education”. But, half a world from home, on the B.C. frontier, their habits revealed them to have been “black sheep in the domestic fold at home…”

Although he reluctantly conceded that some newcomers became fine, upstanding members of the community, frontier life had its perils: “If…there be any vulnerable point in the character of the young and inexperienced colonist, it is certain to be hit by the arrow of temptation.”

“It is impossible for the imaginative youth, surrounded with the blandishments of fashionable English life, the association of the Church, the proprieties of the debating club, or the restraints of fond relationship, to over-estimate the fiery trial that awaits him, when thrown like a fledged bird from the maternal nest into the society of strangers, for the most part selfish, and interested in the ‘greenhorn’ only as far as they can profit by the attention they pay him.

“Should his concern for speedily entering on a money-making career outweigh that better judgment which compasses its end by cautious measures and slow degrees, and looks out first for a right start, nothing is more probable than that he will be pounced upon by those disguised falcons that are ever on the watch for such a quarry…”

Time and again MacFie had witnessed such vultures at their evil work: young men beguiled and stripped of their wealth, their possessions and their self respect. “Over the mortal remains of how many promising characters, wrecked on the shoals and reefs against which friendly warning has been given above, have I been called to perform sad offices?”

Drunkenness and debauchery, he wrote, were the major sins committed by young men alone in the New World without family, friends and, perhaps most important of all, without worldly experience. This wholesale tragedy could be laid to a single cause, in MacFie’s opinion: the want of eligible young ladies.

“It is only to be regretted that the paucity of respectable females in Vancouver Island and British Columbia limits so much the opportunities of single men who desire to cultivate domestic virtues, and lead sober lives.”

But, ever the snob, MacFie hypocritically criticizes those of humble origins who, through hard work, succeeded in the New World. Only those from “good” families deserved to make good: “Sons of admirals and daughters of clergymen are sometimes found in abject circumstances, while men only versed in the art of wielding the butcher’s knife, the drayman’s whip, and the blacksmith’s hammer, or women of low degree, have made fortunes.”

The Rev. MacFie just couldn’t bring himself to accept that a good background failed to make up for a poor backbone.