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Metlakahtla and the North Pacific Mission of the Church Missionary Society

By Eugene Stock

London: Church Missionary House, 1880.

Chapter II. The Call, and the Man

The Red Indian is in a peculiar sense, the child of the Church Missionary Society. More exclusively so, indeed, than even the Negro. In those efforts for the evangelisation of Africa with which the Society's name has, from the first, been so indissolubly associated, it has but shared the field with other excellent societies. In the Far North and Far West of British America, it has laboured almost alone. Nearly sixty years have passed away since its missionaries penetrated into the then remote regions of the Red River, and since that time, nearly the whole of the vast territories, stretching northward to the Arctic Sea, eastward to the borders of Labrador, and westward to the Rocky Mountains, have been trodden by their untiring feet. It was fitting, therefore, that when, in the providence of God, the day came for the Gospel to reach beyond the Rocky Mountains to the tribes on the shores of the Pacific, it should be carried thither by the Church Missionary Society.

But long before that time arrived, the eye of the Committee, passing round the globe, had rested upon those distant shores. In their Annual Report for 1819-20, the following interesting passage is to be found:--

From the C. M. S. Report, 1819-20.

"It has been suggested to the Committee that the Western parts of British America, lying between the high ridge called the Rocky Mountains and the North Pacific Ocean, and extending from about the 42nd to the 57th degree of North Latitude, offer a more extensive, promising, and practicable field for Missionary labours than any other in that quarter of the globe. The climate is, in general, temperate, the soil reasonably productive, and the surface of the country level. [Some of the information given to the Committee at that early date was not very accurate. The surface of British Columbia is anything but level and the soil is not too productive.] The people are not savage, ferocious, and wandering but settled in villages and in several respects somewhat civilized, though still in the hunter state, with few arts, no letters, no general knowledge, but a great desire to be taught by white men, whose superiority they clearly discern. Numbers of them are scattered over this great range of country, and it has hitherto been very little known that so great a portion of the North American continent is covered with a stationary, aboriginal people, still, however, very much in a state of nature. The North West Company trades through all the great space which lies between Montreal and the North Pacific, a longitudinal distance of not less than 4,000 miles, and keeps up a direct communication, by sea, between London and the mouth of the river Columbia, on the North West coast of America. A member of that Company, who is a highly respectable merchant in Canada, informs your Committee that he has been frequently among the Indians in question, and thinks the prospect of the introduction of Christianity very promising, while many of the principal persons in Upper Canada are anxious for the promotion of that object."

The Society's work, however, among the Red Indians, which was begun in the following year, was concentrated on Red River, and thirty-six years passed away before the attention of the Committee was again drawn to the more remote field on the Pacific shore.

In the spring of 1856, the late Rev. Joseph Ridgeway, Editorial Secretary of the Society, attended, as a deputation, the anniversary meeting of the Tunbridge Wells Church Missionary Association. There he met a naval officer, Capt. J. C. Prevost, R.N., who had just returned from Vancouver's Island. While in command of H.M.S. Virago, he had been much impressed by the spiritual destitution of the Indians of the Pacific coast of British North America and the adjacent islands. They were "scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd," and he, like his Divine Master, was "moved with compassion on them." No Protestant missionary had ever yet gone forth into the wilderness after these lost sheep; and in addition to their natural heathenism, with its degrading superstitions and revolting cruelties, a new danger was approaching the Indians in the shape of the "civilisation" of white traders and miners, with its fire-water and its reckless immorality. Capt. Prevost earnestly inquired of Mr. Ridgeway what prospect there was of the Church Missionary Society undertaking a Mission on the coast.

The reply was not encouraging. The Committee had just determined to signalise the conclusion of the Crimean war by planting a Mission at Constantinople, to extend their work in the Punjab by the occupation of Multan; and to accept Sir Robert Montgomery's invitation to Lucknow; and there was little hope of their having men or money to spare for the "few sheep in the wilderness" to be found scattered over British Columbia. The Editorial Secretary's sympathies, however, were touched, and he, at least, did what he could. He invited Captain Prevost to write a memorandum on the subject for the Church Missionary Intelligencer. The offer was thankfully accepted; and in the number of that periodical for July, 1856, appeared an article entitled "Vancouver's Island," in which Mr. Ridgeway briefly stated the case, and introduced Capt. Prevost's contribution. After an interval of twenty-four years, and remembering what wonderful and blessed fruit has sprung from the seed thus quietly sown, it will be interesting to reproduce here the Christian officer's own words:--

Captain Prevost's Memorandum, July, 1856.

"The country within which the proposed Mission is designed to operate extends from about the 48 deg. of north latitude to 56 deg., and from the Rocky Mountains on the east to the Pacific Ocean on the west. It includes several beautiful and fertile islands adjoining the mainland, of which the largest, most important, and most populous, is Vancouver's, being about 290 miles in length and 55 miles in its average breadth.

"The Government, impressed with a sense of its great commercial, and its growing political, importance, combining also great advantages as a naval station, erected it into a colony in 1838, and gave to the Hudson's Bay Company a charter, conferring on them certain privileges on condition of their carrying into effect the intentions of the Government. The climate of this island is more genial than that of England, its soil is more productive, and its coasts abound with the finest fish. It contains, too, the only safe harbours between the 49 deg. north latitude and San Francisco, and there have been discovered lately fields of fine coal of immense extent, from which the entire coast of the Pacific, and the steamers trading there, can be supplied. What has been stated with regard to these natural advantages of Vancouver's Island applies generally to the mainland."

"The seat of the Colonial Government is at Fort Victoria, where there is a chaplain, the only Protestant minister within the limits of the above mentioned territories. About three years since a Roman Catholic Bishop, a British subject, arrived at the same place, accompanied by a staff of Jesuit priests, and purchased a site for a cathedral there. Hitherto their success has been very doubtful."

"It is difficult to ascertain, with any degree of accuracy, the total amount of the native population, a mean, however, between the highest and lowest estimates gives 60,000, [Since 1856 many thousands have died of disease and from vicious habits.] a result probably not far from the truth. It 13 a fact well calculated to arrest the attention, and to enlist in behalf of the proposed Mission the active sympathies of every sincere Christian, that this vast number of our fellow subjects have remained in a state of heathen darkness and complete barbarism ever since the discovery and partial surveys of their coasts by Vancouver in 1792 1794, and that no effort has yet been made for their moral or spiritual improvement, although, during the last forty years a most lucrative trade has been carried on with them by our fellow-countrymen. We would most earnestly call upon all who have themselves learned to value the blessings of the Gospel, to assist 'in rolling away' this reproach. The field is a most promising one. Some naval officers, who, in the discharge of their professional duties, have lately visited these regions, have been most favourably impressed with the highly intelligent character of the Natives, and, struck by their manly bearing, and a physical appearance fully equal to that of the English, whom they also resemble in the fairness of their complexion, and having their compassion excited by their total destitution of Christian and moral instruction, they feel it to be their duty to endeavour to introduce among them the knowledge of the Gospel of Christ, under the conviction that it would prove the surest and most fruitful source of social improvement and civilization, as well as of spiritual blessings infinitely more valuable, and would be found the only effectual antidote to the contaminating vices which a rapidly-increasing trade, especially with California and Oregon, is bringing in its train.

"There is much in the character of the Natives to encourage missionary effort. They are not idolaters: they believe in the existence of two great Spirits--the one benevolent, and the other malignant; and in two separate places of reward and punishment in another world. They are by no means bigoted. They manifest a great desire and aptitude to acquire the knowledge and arts of civilized life; and, although they are addicted to some of the vices generally prevalent amongst savages, they yet possess some virtues rarely displayed by them. Some of the servants of the Hudson's Bay Company, who have married Native women, bear the highest testimony to their characters as wives and mothers, and to the manner in which they fulfil all their domestic relationships. Drunkenness was almost wholly unknown, until lately introduced by increasing intercourse with Europeans; but it is now spreading with rapid and destructive effect among the tribes. Loss of chastity in females was considered an indelible disgrace to the family in which it occurred, and was consequently uncommon. But here, again, European influence has made itself felt, and this is now far from being the case. Persons who are acquainted both with this people and with the New Zealanders, are of opinion that the former are mentally and physically equal, if not superior, to the latter; and that, were like measures taken to convert and civilize them, they would be attended by similarly happy results. As to the medium of communication, although the number and variety of languages is very great, yet the necessities of trade have given rise to a patois generally understood, and easily acquired, which might be made available for missionary purposes, at least as far as oral teaching is concerned.

"The expense of establishing and supporting a Mission would not, it is hoped, prove large. Fish and game are extremely cheap. Fuel, both coal and wood, is cheap and abundant. It is proposed that the first missionary station should be at Fort Simpson, on the mainland, as it offers many advantages for prosecuting the objects of the Mission. There the Missionaries would enjoy the protection, and, it is hoped, the cordial co-operation, of the Hudson's Bay Company; and, in return, the Company's servants would receive the benefit of the ministrations of the members of the Mission. The position is central to all the most populous villages; and here, in the spring of each year, a kind of great national fair is held, where the tribes from the most distant parts of the coast and interior assemble, to the number of about 15,000, and receive the commodities of the Company in exchange for the skins collected during the preceding season. On these occasions valuable opportunities would be afforded to the missionaries of conversing with the natives, and giving them religions instruction. Here, too, a school might be opened for the Native children, where they would receive an industrial as well as religious and secular education, and be secluded from the prejudicial influence of their adult relatives."

This earnest appeal was not long in eliciting a response. Shortly afterwards, in the list of contributions published monthly by the Society, appeared the following entry:--

Two Friends, for Vancouver's Island, £500.

Still the Committee hesitated; but two or three months afterwards, Capt. Prevost came to them again with the news that he was re-appointed to the same naval station, and was to proceed thither immediately in command of H.M.S. Satellite; and, with the sanction of the Admiralty, he offered a free passage by her to any missionary the Society could send out.

Here was the opening, here were the means; but where was the man to go? There did not seem to be anyone available; but, at length, only ten days before the "Satellite" was to sail, a student, then under training, was thought of. Who was this?

A few years before, one of the Society's Missionaries had addressed a village meeting in the Midland Counties. It was a very wet night, and but a handful of people attended. The Vicar proposed to postpone the meeting; but the missionary urged that the few who had come were entitled to hear the information they were expecting, and proceeded to deliver a long and earnest speech. Among the listeners were three young men, and the heart of one of these was deeply touched that night. He subsequently offered himself to the Society, and was sent to the (then existing) Highbury Training College to be trained as a school master, under the Rev. C. R. Alford, afterwards Bishop of Victoria, Hong Kong. That young man's name was WILLIAM DUNCAN, and it was he to whom now came the call of the Committee to start in ten days for British Columbia.

William Duncan was ready. On December 19th, 1856, he took leave of the Committee, and on the 23rd, he sailed with Capt. Prevost from Plymouth in the Satellite. [An interesting notice of Captain Prevost's offer, and of the valedictory dismissal of Mr. Duncan, appears in the recently published "Memoir of Henry Venn" p. 137.]

The voyage to Vancouver's Island took nearly six months. It was on June 13th, 1857, that the Satellite cast anchor in Esquimault Harbour, Victoria. But Mr. Duncan had still five hundred miles to go. His mission was to the Tsimsheans, and for them Fort Simpson was the point to aim at. Unable, however, to obtain a passage thither at once, he remained at Victoria three months, patiently preparing for future work by studying the language. Meanwhile the officers of the Hudson's Bay Company raised some objections to his settling at Fort Simpson. The Indians, they said, could not be allowed to come into the fort to him, and it would be quite unsafe for him to venture outside; and they recommended him to turn his attention to the tribes of Vancouver's Island, who, having been brought more into contact with white men, were presumed to be on that account more accessible to Christian influence. Mr. Duncan, however, justly felt that the advantage was rather the other way; besides which to Fort Simpson he was appointed, and to Fort Simpson he would go. The Governor of the Colony warmly entered into his views, and gave him letters to the officer in charge, directing that accommodation was to be found for him, and all facilities given him for the prosecution of his work.

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