The Real James Douglas ??!!

Written by Clyde Duncan
Tuesday, 20 January 2015 16:30
Guyanese Canadian Cultural Association of British Columbia executive members were invited by Langley Heritage Society to attend a presentation by the author of ‘James Douglas: Father of British Columbia’, Julie H. Ferguson in October 2014. The promotional material from the Society entitled “Who Was The Real James Douglas??!!” described Douglas as an illegitimate son of a Scottish merchant and a mixed race Guyanese mother. My aim is to update this information.

The mother of James Douglas was Barbados-born, Martha Ann Telfer; she is described as mixed race, coloured, Creole, mulatto, among other things. She and her mother sailed to Demerara, British Guiana [Guyana] to work on the Douglas sugar plantations. She was also known as ‘Miss Ritchie’. Miss Ritchie was not a slave; she was a concubine of the father of James Douglas. In old English, all of the foregoing is true. Today, however, no one refers to their spouse as a concubine; and no one refers to their – or anyone else’s – child as illegitimate; Miss Ritchie would be a black woman from Barbados and the mother of Sir James Douglas.

In 1803, James Douglas was born in Demerara, British Guiana to a sugar plantation owner from Scotland and a mother from Barbados. Around 1812, his father took James and his older brother to attend school in Lanark, Scotland. James subsequently emigrated to Montreal in 1819 to work as a clerk at the North-West Company. After the merger of the North-West and Hudson’s Bay Companies, James continued his employ at HBC. In 1839, he was appointed HBC Chief Factor; and around 1851, while Chief Factor; he was appointed Governor of Vancouver Island.

Around 1857, as the California Gold Rush was dying, word got out that gold was discovered up north in the Fraser Valley area in New Caledonia [British Columbia]. James Douglas was alarmed at the influx of miners from the USA and wrote to Queen Victoria expressing his concerns that the British and First Nations Peoples on Vancouver Island would be outnumbered by the miners coming up from California.

The Queen responded to the Governor that he was overly concerned and cautioned that we do not want to antagonize the Americans. However, the Governor witnessed the loss of Oregon and Washington States to the USA with the stroke of a pen from some disgruntled Chief Factors; and he was bound and determined that the same fate would not befall Vancouver Island and New Caledonia.

As you can imagine, those were the days of the ‘Wild West’ with miners disembarking from their ships firing their six-guns and shotguns; drinking, carousing and disrupting the community all hours of the day and night. There was no military presence on the island at the time, so James Douglas invited some disgruntled freed African-Americans to come north, he told them there were opportunities here; they took him at his word and sailed to Vancouver Island. Douglas formed what is commonly called the ‘African Rifles’ and they brought civility back to the community, until the arrival of reinforcements in the form of the Royal Navy and Royal Engineers led by Barbados-born, Colonel Richard Moody.

The proclamation was read at the birthplace of British Columbia, National Historic Site Fort Langley on Friday, 19 November 1858 establishing British Columbia; appointing Guyana-born, James Douglas, Governor and Barbados-born, Colonel Richard Moody, Lieutenant-Governor. It has been said that if there is one man that could be credited with keeping British Columbia in Canada, it would be Sir James Douglas. Barbados and Guyana are celebrating 50-years of independence next year [2016].