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The Victoria Pioneer Rifles

Vancouver Island once hosted an all-black militia, created in part for military defence, and to demonstrate the local black community's desire to contribute to their new, shared home. This is the story of the Victoria Pioneer Rifles (1859–1864).
The Pioneer Rifles were popularly known as the African Rifles. Image C-06124 Courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives, Victoria

Editor’s note: the following is an excerpt from City in Colour by May Q. Wong, a remarkable collection of stories that illustrate Victoria’s vivid multicultural history. Full copyright information follows the excerpt. 

Although the colony now had a police force, a militia was still needed to deal with international disputes. Thus the Victoria Pioneer Rifles, known popularly as the African Rifles, was born. This all-Black group was created out of the need for military defence on Vancouver Island and the recently arrived Black community’s desire to actively contribute to the safety and social order of their new home.

Around this time, a number of security issues ranked high on Governor James Douglas’s radar, and all concerned the Americans. The first was a continuing dispute over land, in this case, the sovereignty of the San Juan Islands, situated between what is now Washington State and Vancouver Island. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 had loosely established the border at the forty-ninth parallel through the “middle of the channel” separating Vancouver Island from the mainland, extending from the Strait of Georgia in the north to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the south.

As a compromise, all of Vancouver Island, even the part below the established latitude (including Fort Victoria) remained in British hands. The sticking point was the definition of the “middle of the channel,” because the San Juan Islands are bounded on the west by Haro Strait and on the east by Rosario Strait.

Bilateral negotiations were started in 1856 to determine the east-west boundary. Then gold fever was sparked in 1858, when the news was leaked that gold had been found on the banks of the Fraser River. Tales of greed, murder, and lawlessness had abounded during the California Gold Rush; Governor Douglas was determined to maintain law and order.

When New Caledonia became the Crown Colony of British Columbia in August 1858, also under his governorship, he claimed all land and mineral rights for the British government. Anyone going to the goldfields had to purchase a licence and was made subject to British law; a British naval warship stationed at the mouth of the Fraser River checked for documentation and prevented foreign ships from invading the colonies.

Licences were only available in Fort Victoria. It also became the place to buy tools, supplies, and food for the journey overland and to get the latest information. Thousands of miners, land speculators, and outfitters hoping to strike it rich inundated Fort Victoria. Fortune seekers came from as far away as Europe and Asia, but most came from California. Between April and November of 1858, almost 30,000 people left San Francisco to come to Fort Victoria. The Americans vastly outnumbered the 500 Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) employees and their families. With no housing available, the transients created a tent city. Douglas was concerned that the Americans would call for annexation.

During the year 1858/59, 400 to 800 Black Americans also came north from. Although it was a free region at the time, mounting racism was increasing the threat of making it a slave state. As a group, Blacks were not drawn by dreams of quick riches but rather hopes of a safe, peaceful place to settle and establish productive lives. The possibility of a civil war in their old homeland also increased concerns for ongoing safety.

For many years, the San Juan Islands were cohabited by British and American settlers, with minor disputes settled without major impacts. But on June 15, 1859, an American farmer shot a neighbouring British-owned pig for trespassing and ruining his crops. The American owned up to the deed and offered compensation, which was rejected. The incident escalated and led to occupying American troops and British naval warships, fuelled by the presence of American Brigadier-General William Harney, who preferred aggression over diplomacy.

Neither the American nor the British government wanted the “Pig War,” for they were each facing more pressing issues. Cooler heads prevailed, the American general was recalled, and an equitable resolution maintained peace and stability for over a decade. In 1872, an expert panel voted three to one for the middle of Haro Strait as the border, and the German Kaiser, who had been chosen as the arbiter, rendered the decision. The British flag was lowered for the last time on San Juan Island on November 21, 1872.

In 1859, the Black community, under the financial sponsorship of entrepreneur Mifflin Gibbs, offered Governor Douglas its services as the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps (VPRC). A request to join the all-White volunteer fire department had just been soundly rejected. Modelled after the San Francisco department, it was composed mostly of Americans.

Also known as the African Rifles, this group of forty to fifty men was officially sworn in on July 1861. All were Black, except for the bandmaster. The following is a partial list of members and their rank (and occupation, if it was listed in the Victoria Gazette when fifty-three of them applied for British citizenship):

  • William Brown, Captain (merchant)
  • H. Johnson, Captain
  • Fortune Richards, Captain (ship carpenter)
  • B. Johnson, 2nd Lieutenant
  • Randel Ceasar, Sergeant (barber)
  • A. Stevens, Corporal
  • Edward A. Booth, Paymaster (water carrier)
  • Adolphus C. Richards, Secretary (plasterer)
  • Paris Carter (grocer)
  • Francis

Mostly self-financed, they ordered their uniforms from England. These followed the British style and included green jackets with orange facings. The Royal Navy supplied drill sergeants and Douglas issued them old HBC flintlock rifles, with the promise of newer weapons to be ordered from Britain. On this promise, the troop built a drill hall on Yates Street, which became a social gathering place for the Black community. The women were kept busy holding fundraisers to maintain the VPRC, and the band kept in practice playing at parties and dances. The annual August 1 celebration of the end of slavery in the British West Indies was a popular event.

Despite the grave security issues the colony faced, Douglas never did deploy the African Rifles, and by 1863 the group was running short of funds and even shorter on enthusiasm. Members felt betrayed when they were denied the right to participate in Douglas’s retirement ceremonies in 1864. Too late and too little, they were loaned new rifles to practise drilling for the parade celebrations of incoming governor Arthur Kennedy. They had intended to be his honour guard and escort him to his residence, but were again banned from participating. Kennedy met with them later, but did nothing to support them.

Two years later, when they returned the rifles to the government on its request, they added a note that said:

The VPRC had not disbanded, but had not met for drill because of government discouragement and the depletion of its ranks by Blacks returning to the United States.

Several different militia groups were subsequently formed and disbanded. When British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, existing militias were absorbed into the Canadian militia.

Reprinted with permission from City in Colour by May Q. Wong, 2018 TouchWood Editions. Copyright © 2018 by May Q. Wong.