September 19th, 2009

Victoria

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Labor Day weekend, we visited Victoria. In many ways, Victoria is a colonial city. It was at the hub of the British colonial exploitation of the northwest, which was not as lucrative as India but the sea otter and seal skins extracted from the indigenous hunters of Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlottes were enough to put extra silver tea services on tables at Brighton, uncork an extra bottle of French claret at Oxford and Cambridge, and keep the upper lips a bit stiffer in London.

All this came to mind as Rebecca and I ate lunch in the Bengal Room at the Empress Hotel, whose creaking parquet floors, marvelously matched grain woodwork, worn leather, and ancient tiger skins intentionally evoke the Raj, which was still alive when the hotel was built.

The British attitude toward the indigenous population of North America differed from the American attitude. Most significantly, the British had little interest in possessing the country, they merely wanted to profit from it. According to J. G. Swan, an American oysterman, Indian teacher, collector for the Smithsonian, diarist and first hand witness to the interplay between Indians and whites on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state, the British systematically worked with the natives, carefully manipulated prices of trading goods, and methodically grabbed the most they could from their colony with a businesslike eye on longterm maximization of profits. Tending to the welfare of the natives was a form of scientific cropping.

The Americans– Bostons, as they were called in Chinook jargon– were inclined toward harum-scarum idealism and less systematic, generally regarding the native people as a bad-smelling hindrance to full use of the resources of the land and sea, which were the destined possessions of the American whites. The Bostons fretted over converting the savages to Christianity, sold them illegal, and occasionally poisonous, whiskey at street drug prices, and generally had neither hesitation nor scruple about robbing them blind, hoping all the time that they would go away.

Victoria is charming. It maintains the image of a bastion of British civilization on the edge of the world with the frantic and sincere effort of tourism bureaus and local boosters everywhere, but with effortless grace, the city hosts a collection of totem poles and indigenous art associated with the Royal British Columbia Museum. The collection is a portal into the unique civilization of hunter-gathers in a paradise so plentiful that they could stay in one place and develop an elaborate and elegant society comparable to, but vastly different from, societies that arose around the stationary abundance of agricultural economy.

When the Europeans arrived, it is hard to determine who was more sophisticated, the Indians who used the simple seamen as pawns to gain status in the elaborate coastal social structure, or the Europeans who made fortunes freighting sea otter skins to China. Reading the record of the northwest coast in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it is not clear who is taking advantage of whom. Eventually, smallpox and whiskey decimated and unnerved the Indians, leaving them to struggle as the Bostons and British took over their territory, but until the mid-nineteenth century, coastal arts flourished. Larger and larger lodges were built, taller totem poles erected and mightier and mightier displays of wealth were made at huge potlatches, all based on the influx of goods fleeced from the ignorant Europeans.

manwithhandinmouthThe history of this fine period can be seen in the displays at the RBCM, where the poles, carvings, and artifacts were harvested and put on display. I spent two days of the long weekend drinking in the power of the bizarre Indian images. I am not an art historian, or a connoisseur of the visual arts so I can’t say much, except to comment that the elaborate vocabulary of the images shouts out that the artists said something important and dramatic to their fellows, but what it was, would be insulting for me to guess.

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