Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Who Killed William Robinson?

During the years of 1867 to 1869, Salt Spring Island and the surrounding region experienced a spate of four spectacularly violent murders that shook the gulf island and its surrounding communities to their cores.  Following the murder of William Robinson in March 1868 1 (chronologically, the second murder to occur), a 26 year old native man by the name of Tshuanahusset was hastily arrested, tried, and convicted to death for William's murder by a colonial jury through a British court that took no stock of the complexities in reaching a credible verdict when the accused himself could not read, spoke little to no English, and was not educated in any sophisticated western sense as the members of the jury were.2 As well, though he was convicted of Robinson's death, eight months following the murder, settler Giles Curtis was similarly killed, as well as partially decapitated, while his farmhand partner Howard Estes was at church one Sunday morning.3 Though it is conceivably possible that Tshuanahusset found time to get involved in Curtis's murder prior to being arrested, he had been dead less then a month when a native man who went by the name of Charlie was murdered as well, his body being left eerily half-decapitated just as Curtis's was. This leaves open the possibility that Tshuanahusset was either wrongfully convicted, or there was more than a single actor involved in what seems to be a series of connected murders. This paper will set forth a theory of what occurred all those years ago, based primarily on the observations of mutually reinforcing cultural misunderstandings that often resulted in a racism aptly demonstrated by all sides throughout the archives. Racism, as embodied in a clash of cultures, was one of the defining features of 19th century North America, and in this sense, British Columbia was certainly no exception. Misunderstandings between colonists and Natives escalated at times into serious violence. Though this did not define every individual relationship between natives and colonists, it did make for 'itchy trigger fingers' on both sides. When one such misunderstanding led to the death of two native chieftains near Nanaimo, it sparked a vengeful saga of native partisan violence and robbery, tragic examples of which seem to have been the three murders that took place on and around Salt Spring Island between 1867 and 1869, and appear not to have been committed by a single person, but rather by a small, organized group (or groups) of people. 

Looking back from 1907 on the grim events of the 1860s, Thomas Crosby, a Methodist missionary from England who had journeyed to British Columbia to spread Christianity among aboriginal tribes and was working at doing so in Nanaimo at the time of the murders,4 reflected on an incident in which a couple of white men sailing a sloop came across two native chieftains in their canoes who desired to procure some of the alcohol they were selling. After the chieftains purchased said alcohol from the men, they—belligerently drunk on what they had—demanded more. The quarrel escalated, and the two white men shot the chieftains dead, almost certainly out of feeling threatened. When their bodies were brought home to their respective tribes, it caused an angry furor among them. Crosby himself, connecting the dots, theorizes that the tribes “swore vengeance on those who had murdered their friends, or any other white men [... and i]n consequence, not long after this a white man by the name of John Brown, at Cowichan, was murdered, and poor innocent Robinson, a colored man, was shot in his cabin on Salt Spring Island, and about the same time Hamilton, another white man, was killed near Nanaimo.”5 This was part of a vengeful militant reaction among certain aboriginal groups and individuals, and the three murders under inspection in this paper were likely part of a bigger picture that included the additional murders Crosby mentions. Three things must be noted here which are of the utmost importance: one, that it was not necessarily just 'white men' who were targeted, but settlers as a whole; two, that it must be understood by the reader that this is not to say this single incident in question catalyzed a uniform reaction, but that this circumstance represents one aggravated misunderstanding among many, whether they were executions of young aboriginal men, private encounters between colonists and natives gone horribly awry, the perception of territorial and spiritual encroachment, or an endemic sense of transplanted Euro-American superiority, such incidents would compound themselves cumulatively over time in the frightened and angry perceptions of “the Other” on both sides; and three, that such impressions were not monolithic among all settlers and natives, nor was it strictly dichotomous in terms of whom felt sympathy for whom at any given juncture during these particularly troubled times. But it appears that, among some, there was an organized and violent response based on a sense of vengeance rooting from native disenfranchisement in their own lands and the oppressive imposition of European legal and cultural norms under the yoke of the British colonial project and sparked by numerous misunderstandings between settlers and natives that escalated into tit-for-tat murders on both sides. In some cases, the murder committed was judicial in nature, as the expeditiously negligent execution of Tshuanahusset demonstrates.

The evidence to support this theory of vengeful murder and robbery as a reaction to colonial excesses, both real and perceived, is clearly indicative of a pattern that lends much weight to the theory's credibility. In court records pertaining to the murder of Giles Curtis, settler John Norton testified that, while travelling from Nanaimo accompanied by who he calls “my Indian,” they came across a group of five other natives who began to speak in their language. Norton asserts that “[o]ne of them took the axe up belonging to us and was walking [off] with it. We took it from him. The Indian we had with us wanted us to go away, he said they [were] talking about killing him. We then got away and when we were in the Boat and out of danger my Indian told me that [they] had said they wanted to kill a Boston man, and that they wanted to kill all of us and throw us into the sea, to pay for what the Kanakas [native Hawaiian migrant settlers] had done at Nanaimo.”6 This testimony is simply a thread in the observable pattern, superseded by the stronger testimony of Sylvia Stark regarding the violent death of Giles Curtis. Recalling how a native man by the name of Willie was apprehended as a suspect shortly after the murder, Stark writes that “[h]is wife said she would tell all she knew about the case if the law would protect her. She was left to mind the canoes and could only tell of seeing the stolen goods brought back. She knew their intent, though not a witness to the slaying.”7 Sui-Tas, an aboriginal man, similarly testified at the trial regarding the murder of Robinson that he had been travelling with Tshuanahusset at the time and bore witness to the killing. His story is as follows: “[w]e started from Chimainus. We crossed over to Salt Spring Island [... and as] we got there [Tshuanahusset] said he [would] like to kill the colored man ... [he] left the canoe & took his musket with him & went to the house [...] I got very cold in the canoe & I started for the house of the colored man too[, and w]hen I got there I went to the fire to warm myself & the colored man Robinson was cooking at the time. [Tshuanahusset] was sitting down ... with his musket in his hand. [Robinson] then went to the table to eat what he had been cooking. [Tshuanahusset] was standing by the fire[,] then [he] told me to look round & see if there was anything of value & to take them when he shot Robinson [...] I got afraid & went outside & just as I got outside I heard a shot. [Tshuanahusset] shouted to me come back & take the things but I was too much afraid & never went back.”8 Sui-Tas was subsequently banished by his tribe following Tshuanahusset's trial and execution, threatening him with death were he to ever return.9 This reflects one of two possibilities: either the tribe was simply offended by the fact that his testimony resulted in the execution, or they were likewise aware of what occurred. 

Though there is much more evidence available to be utilized in support of this theory, restrictions on length leave them out of the permitted scope of this paper. Racism was a key theme of the day, resulting from a myriad of mutual misunderstandings and aggravations. This led to 'itchy trigger fingers' on all sides, often as a result of conflating such misunderstandings and misdeeds as being culturally indicative of something inherently threatening about every member of the body politic opposed. As aboriginal peoples became less and less at home in their own lands, some integrated with the European cultures while others were desperately prompted by events into crudely revolting through murderous vigilantism. It is likely that some of these crimes, however, were motivated by alcoholic intoxication, though this would not be a suitable explanation for the majority of cases. In conclusion, the circumstances were far from binary, but in a wider appraisal, cultural confusions and the neurosis of imperial superiority increased the felt distance between the dominant and subordinate cultures, leading to innumerable tragedies, many of which became glossed over as the necessary casualties of British expansion. As Martin Luther once said, “blood alone moves the wheels of history.”10 
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BCA, Vancouver Island, Supreme Court of Civil Justice, GR-2030, Mflm. B-9802, Joseph Needham, Bench Books of Criminal Cases Heard Before Judge Joseph Needham 1867-1869, Trial of Tom, June 2, 1869, 85, 107-145. 

BCA, Colonial Correspondence, File 1169-70, Morley, J. (Mflm B1342), John Morley, The Curtis Murder, Coroner's Inquest, December 17, 1868. 

Bolt, Clarence. "Biography – CROSBY, THOMAS – Volume XIV (1911-1920)". Dictionary Of Canadian Biography. Last modified 1998. Accessed November 19, 2016. 

Crosby, Thomas. "Among the An-ko-me-nums". Toronto: William Briggs, 1907. 137-139.

Luther, Martin. "Martin Luther: Quotable Quotes". Goodreads. Last modified 2016. Accessed November 19, 2016. 

Smithe, W. "Letter to the Editor," The British Colonist, June 5, 1869.

Particulars of a Horrible Murder, Daily British Colonist, December 21, 1868. 

"Threats." The British Colonist, June 3, 1869. 
Wallace, Marie Albertina (Stark). Salt Spring Island Archives, Add. Mss. 91, Sylvia Stark's Description of the Death of Giles Curtis, n.d.


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