John Douglas Belshaw: The Miners' First Steps: Radicalizing the Working-Class in British Columbia
Fourth Annual Robert S. Kenny Prize Lecture, April 29, 2004
In 1912 the Miners' Federation in South Wales produced a document that would galvanize colliery communities around the world and would send a shiver of terror down the spines of coal mine owners everywhere. That document was entitled "The Miners' Next Step." It was in essence a syndicalist manifesto that called for a leaderless form of rank-and-file unionism; it demanded the ownership of the mines by the mining communities themselves; and it voiced a radical spirit in the coal mining population that would echo around the globe. Repeatedly in the twentieth century the miners of South Wales - and indeed miners elsewhere - struggled to take that next step. Some met with a degree of success; others were mostly frustrated. But the legacy of this little pamphlet can still be invoked in the Rhondda and in Yorkshire.
It is a historic document, but it obscures as much as it reveals. In its powerful language it offers convincing evidence of a deeply rooted culture of resistance and rebellion. While it is true some of those roots did run deep, others were slight tendrils, finer than hairs and running only just below the temporal surface. The effect, however, is for historians and the public to look back across the bloody twentieth century to see coal miners standing watch at the far end, the enormity of their challenge to the established order and their towering rhetoric giving the impression that it was the culmination of years and years of radical debate and experimentation. In fact it was not. While there were radical threads running back to the Charter of the 1830s and indeed beyond, much of that mass had been assembled in the 1890s and during the so-called "Indian Summer of Edwardian Britain". Coal miners were not always radicals.
What does this mean for the history Canadian labour militance in the coalfields, specifically those coalfields on the west coast? It means simply this: British miners (and not exclusively the Welsh) developed a twentieth century reputation for radicalism that has conditioned our understanding of what went on in the nineteenth century. So, if Vancouver Island miners demonstrated radical behaviour (and they did), and if those miners were made up largely of British miners (and they were), then in large measure the latter explains the former. Easy-peasy. To be sure, the historical literature agrees that the Vancouver Island coalfield was home to robber barons - namely the Dunsmuir family - who provoked the miners, but implicit in that literature has always been the belief that the British miners arrived on the coalfield equipped with the ideological toolkit with which to deal with their oppressors. My study concludes that, in point of fact and with few exceptions, those miners came pretty much ideologically empty-handed. I hasten to add, however, not empty-headed.
This revelation should come as no surprise. British coalfield radicalism developed after the resettlement of the Vancouver Island coalfield was well underway. The timing of the long-standing orthodox history of growing working-class consciousness on west coast was simply wrong. In the few studies that recognized something faulty with the chronology we are presented with a slight variation on this theme: they make a case for (or at least the suggestion of) an ethnic predilection for radicalism. In that interpretation the British miners didn't take organizations and ideology with them to Vancouver Island; they took British working-class orneriness. This explanation essentializes the British working class and is thus without merit.
One has to ask: why then did the British miners on the Island turn Left? Clearly they did so by the end of the nineteenth century and it is just as certain that they're legacy has been a powerful left-wing tradition in British Columbia. So, under what circumstances did these Canadian miners take their first step? If we can dispense with ethnicity and political/cultural baggage then what we are left with is a story that is, at bottom, Canadian: the story of the making of the British Columbian working class.
Unlike the stories that begin once upon a time, this one begins once upon an island....
Vancouver Island in the mid-nineteenth century was still politically and economically dominated by a constellation of First Nations, including the Kwakwaka'wakw and the Hul'qumi'num peoples on the east coast coal beds. Europeans - led by the Hudson's Bay Company - had established one cluster of largely permanent economic activity at Victoria in the 1830s. The Company made forays deeper into and along the coastline of Vancouver Island but it was not until 1848 - the year of the Communist Manifesto - that they began to work coal. Initially they turned to aboriginal labour but, largely because that supply was not deeply interested in a long-term wage-labour relationship, the Company resorted to Scottish miners recruited from Ayrshire. In the first instance, the coalmining operation at Fort Rupert (near what is now Port McNeill) was something of a flop. The Kwakwaka'wakw resisted the loss of control over their resource, the Company demonstrated appalling industrial relations skills, and the Scots miners proved not especially good at sinking shafts to the coal seam. The first strike in the history of colonial Vancouver Island was one result. Another was the relocation of the mining operations in 1850/51 to a second coalbed located at what became Fort Nanaimo. Once again, the possibility of employing local First Nations women and men was explored and mostly rejected, but the project advanced with the labour of the Ayrshire Scots and a second contingent of miners from South Staffordshire in England. The European footprint on the colony remained slight into the 1860s, at which point in time Vancouver Island joined British Columbia in an imperial enterprise that came to be viewed as a sub-chapter in the Canadian saga.
The effects of a massive smallpox epidemic in the 1860s, the rise of a British naval presence, and the extension of British administrative power constituted a reinvention of the region that was effectively complete by 1871. In this new version native power was illegitimate and wage-labour relations increasingly became the norm. By the late 1870s there were several pits working on the east coast of the Island and by the 1890s the coal mining frontier stretched from the Nanaimo area north to Cumberland. This was a frontier far more durable than the gold-mining frontier of the Cariboo, an important fact that is often obscured by romanticized visions of British Columbia. The wage-labour tradition was and is far more powerful than that of the independent entrepreneur, although it does not lend itself as easily to merchandizing.
Now, the vast majority of the labour necessary to this industrial revolution was not obtained locally. It had to be imported. And within the context of conflicting British and American claims to the region it was mostly obtained from Britain.
Let's turn back to the Fort Rupert false-start, because it reveals almost all of the ingredients that would be with the Vancouver Island miners through the next fifty years. First, there is the role of the First Nations. Their agenda was clearly not the same as that of the HBC. Nor were they immediately pleased about the arrival of the region's first industrial proletariat. The Kwakwaka'wakw did, however, provide labour in exchange for goods, working mainly as longshore-men and -women. And they did, over time, make a kind of peace with the Scots workers. Race, however, and the categorizations of race was clearly manifest early on.
Second, there are the miners. I say "miners" but what I mean is, the miners and their families. In the mid-nineteenth century arguably no place on the planet was as far away from Britain as Vancouver Island. A sailing ship leaving Glasgow or Liverpool or London would travel south to Africa, head west to the Caribbean, fight the contrary winds from the south to Tierra del Fuego, battle its way around Cape Horn, skirt the west coast of South America before following the trade winds to Hawaii, returning east to San Francisco, and then north to Vancouver Island. In all the voyage could take as little as three months or as much as a year. Under these circumstances there is no surprise that the miners left Britain mostly as family units, although they typically arrived as smaller family units. This was true of the Fort Rupert Scots and the Nanaimo English. Why they did so, why they took on this enormous voyage is, of course, of fundamental importance to the story of Island labour militance.
Third, there is the employer. The HBC would not hold on to its privileges in the coal industry for very long but the Chief Trader's industrial policy at Fort Rupert would be a legacy for years to come. Faced with an unproductive Scottish workforce, one that was disoriented after its voyage to the North Pacific, uncertain of its aboriginal neighbours, and frightened for its future, management's response was to chain up a pair of strike leaders in the fort bastion for two weeks and feed them nothing but bread and water. At the first opportunity the miners and their families fled Fort Rupert and the colony. The company had to eat crow. And eat they did. But there is another element to the ownership of the mines that is worth noting. The state and capitalism were one. The HBC ran the colony and it ran the mines. A similar situation would develop in the 1890s. Whenever distinctions between the employer and the state are nullified, confrontations between employer and employee become less about industrial relations and more about the legitimacy of the regime. That occurred in 1850 and with increasing frequency from the mid-1890s to the Great War.
Radicalizing the Island Miners
What the Fort Rupert experience revealed to all parties was this: race mattered; the mine owners were completely dependent on imported labour; promises of high wages were a fraud; employers lacked the authority to effectively control taciturn workers; the cost of obtaining labour put the employer in a position that was largely untenable and which would invite if not necessitate an oscillation between dramatic confrontation and dramatic compromise.
As the second half of the nineteenth century unfolded some of these concerns were mitigated while new issues emerged. The issue of race relations with First Nations did not disappear but the collapse of local indigenous populations in the 1862-63 smallpox epidemic effectively reduced its purchase. In its stead, a cheaper workforce was obtained from China and the split-labour market for which British Columbia became infamous was established. Race on the coast in the 1860s meant one thing; in the 1880s it would mean something rather different. Throughout the period, however, racially-based assumptions of British entitlement to the region framed labour relations on the coalfield. The questions that would dominate and drive the miners down a critical path (critical in the sense of finding liberalism deficient in some important qualities) were, however, principally associated with security and survival.
British miners were sought out by the HBC and their successors principally because they were reckoned to be the most skilled coalminers on the planet. The fact that they were British was a happy coincidence so far as the colonial regime was concerned but it was less of a bonus for the employers. The skilled hewers had but one thing to offer: their skills. They expected to have a monopoly on those skills and they pretty much did. But their ability to control the market for their sons' labour was less effective. British boys were in direct competition with Chinese men because neither had mining skills. And the Chinese would accept even lower wages than the boys. This had the effect of hardening racist attitudes along an economic divide because it (a) impacted miners' household wages; and (b) reduced the ability of miners' sons to acquire the skills that would make them better-paid hewers. One solution was to remove the Chinese from the mines and, in point of fact, this was largely accomplished by the late 1880s. Once above ground, however, the Chinese men went into competition with miners' wives and daughters by providing laundry, cooking, cleaning, and retailing services that were also a part of mining families' survival arsenal.
Survival underground was another matter. No coalfield in the British Isles contained the variety of fatal ingredients to be found in the Vancouver Island pits. Asphyxiating gases, flooding, a high incidence of roof-falls, and horrific explosions were all combined on this one coalfield whereas elsewhere one finds a lot of one or two but not much of the rest. Death underground was more common on the Island than it was in Nova Scotian mines, in Welsh mines, and vastly more so than in Appalachian mines. Miners, tired of funeral processions, looked for explanations that went beyond geology. Fingers were pointed at Chinese mine labourers who, it was alleged, were not following safety practices in the pits. This was almost certainly wrong-headed. And the allegations long ago caught the eye of historians of racism, much to the detriment of the miners' other causes, one of which was holding the mine owners responsible for inadequate ventilation, poor water pumps, cut-rate roof timbers, and primitive winding gear.
These concerns - and there were others - produced responses from the miners and their families. Keeping pigs or a cow, growing a few cash crops, fishing for salmon and herring, and hunting in the hills beyond Nanaimo, Wellington, and Cumberland were modest ways of exerting some control over household expenditures and reducing dependence on company stores. Taking in boarders, opening small retail operations, setting up on a farm, finding employment for sons outside of the mines, investing in a daughter's education - these were also means of buying some autonomy from the mine in a mining town. Institutionally, miners banded together in a variety of organizations. The benevolent societies - and these existed for whites at one end of town and Asians at the other - were largely a response to mine hazards; the Foresters, the Oddfellows, and the Ancient Order of United Workmen provided funeral benefits and widows' pensions, sometimes in enormous quantities. The unions, including the Knights of Labor, the Miners and Mine Labourers Protective Association and, eventually, Big Bill Haywood's Western Federation of Miners were part of this story. Too, there were political organizations, including the Workingmen's Party, the Labour Party and eventually the Socialist Party of British Columbia. Few of these strategies were mutually exclusive and miners adopted complex identities on the coalfield as Masons and Labourites, unionists and footballers, market gardeners and debating club members, all to the same end: to secure a degree of independence from the mine owners.
Now, all of this might be interesting if largely unremarkable but for a few important details. Our understanding of the rise of west coast radicalism has been, as I said at the outset, for decades predicated on the belief that it was a product of British immigrant settlement. I am arguing that the 'Britishness' of these miners did not lead to radicalism: if anything, their Britishness made them conservatives. It does not take much effort, however, to see how the myth of the British radical serves a variety of political purposes on the west coast. 'Britishness' in a radical sense was invoked by Victorian and Edwardian employers and legislators (themselves often British immigrants) as a kind of 'foreignness'. The elite of nineteenth century British Columbia was, after all, mostly Home Counties English and C of E; the British miners were from somewhere north and west of Watford, and were Methodists to boot. Coalminers in Britain were viewed as a race apart there; that they should be characterized as imported hooligans determined to upset the imperial beanpot on Vancouver Island was utterly consistent. Played differently, the Vancouver Island working-class embraced its British radical heritage because Britishness offered legitimacy in 'British' Columbia and because it made them part of something bigger than Nanaimo. By promoting the vision of a radical British working class on the west coast, Nanaimoites and their neighbours effectively purchased shares in The Miners Next Step. The manipulation of this aspect of the labour history of the west coast highlights other, comparable manipulations, and it is to those that I will now turn because they reveal much about how labour in our past is understood. In that respect, this story has a significance that goes well beyond Vancouver Island.
Canadian Labour History & the BC experience
British Columbia's nineteenth century was not isolated from Ontario's. Similar forces, helped along by steam and telegraph, were at work. Coalmining itself was a global nineteenth century phenomenon because of steam and industrialization. And coal-mining took place within the ideological context of advancing liberalism. Professor Ian McKay has drawn historians' attention to the "liberal revolution" of mid-nineteenth century Canada and its ultimately successful attainment of ideological hegemony. We see the same process - material, institutional, and intellectual - at work on the west coast but in a more compressed timeframe. As a result, the gloves come off. There is a sense that what we observe around Nanaimo is ideological bare-fisted boxing. As a result, the experiences on Vancouver Island, reveal much of the larger working people's experience in Canada. Time constraints limit me but I want to introduce what I see as four key elements to this story, all of which point to a persistent tendency at the time and since to draw attention away from Canadian working people's movements.
First, there is resettlement and race. Like all other parts of post-Columbian North America, Vancouver Island was fundamentally about the replacement of one group of peoples by another. The marginalizing, removal, dispossession, and systematic racist oppression of First Nations peoples is the white noise that buzzes behind the story of industrialization and class. On Vancouver Island the First Nations were a sizeable potential workforce but they were not landless. Only by being made landless could they be obliged to undertake wage-labour. Landless Scots and BlackCountrymen would, in effect, have to stand in during the meantime. Before the aboriginal population could be stripped of their land, however, and thus converted into a proletariat they had the further misfortune of a devastating smallpox epidemic. Into the vacuum left by 50-60,000 First Nations deaths stepped the British colonial regime and its imported British workers. Together they recast the region in an imperial framework that invalidated other narratives. The region, the economy, the fundamental social relations were thereafter framed within liberal capitalist industrialism. The Scots miners at Fort Rupert were witness to this process and were able to briefly resist it; after 1862, however, the speed of the economic transformation obscured the North Pacific alternatives. The 'inevitability' of Euro-capitalist relations in Nova Scotia or Ontario was legitimated more gradually but on Vancouver Island we find a much more explicit confrontation between an older, alternative order and the emerging forces of industrial wage-labour. In the process, the liberal revolutionaries spell out very clearly their means and their ends.
First Nations experienced racist oppression but it was against the Chinese that the white miners were most publicly arrayed. Coalmining in the nineteenth century was marked by ethnically and racially diverse workforces everywhere - in Pennsylvania, Nova Scotia, South Wales, and Lethbridge - because of its enormous appetite for labour and its structural need to squeeze wages. Just as geologists sought out new coal seams, employers scoured the earth for new peasant workforces to conscript into their mines. Seen in that light, the racist rhetoric of the west coast coalfield is not extraordinary. Indeed there are parallels found across the USA, where miners were divided by race; in Scotland, where the fault lines ran between Scot and Irish; in Nova Scotia, where local miners resented and resisted the arrival of British miners. So race - or something like it - was ubiquitous and I would argue almost inevitable in colliery towns, as miners fought to preserve their rights (usually rallying around the flag of 'skill'). On the west coast the explicitness of this division between whites and Asians reveals the ways in which race and difference was used in the coal industry worldwide. The Vancouver Island miners used to say that management used the Chinese to "screw down wages", and they were right. The white miners' response - the call for a ban on Chinese labour in the colony - would have been lethal to the interests of the mine owners. With that in mind we can understand why the uber-capitalist Dunsmuirs would wrap themselves in the flag of not only individual rights and the rights of capital, but racial tolerance as well. The upshot is that the miners' radicalism and their class experience becomes obscured in the 19th century and in 20th century literature by their ostensible racism. I'll take this opportunity to quote myself: "'Anti-Orientalism' stands out on the miners' agenda as a 'a powerful stimulus ... for increasingly radical political action' just because the other equally persistent and strongly-held concerns were impossible to characterize as 'anti-overworkism', 'anti-underpayism', or 'anti-death-in-the-workplace-ism'. Even the most vocal contemporary opponents of Asian immigration and employment were sensitive to the fact that white working-class hostility to the Chinese was being characterized as 'the vaporings of a low mob' and that their larger and, on the whole, more palatable social and economic objectives were in danger of being tossed out with the racist bathwater." Once again, we are deterred from talking about the reality of class and class struggle by raising the unspeakable subject of race.
Historians, as I have indicated, are as responsible for this shell-and-pea game as the miners' contemporaries. This is especially clear when we look at histories of the miners' radicalism. There was a litany of ways in which miners took steps to challenge the power of their employers and, I would argue, unions were not the most effective. From keeping a cow to running a boarding house, from joining a benevolent society to refusing to live in tied housing, miners and their families were able to exercise a variety of strategies on Vancouver Island that were, explicitly, anti-capitalist. But the focus of labour history in Canada has been very much on organization as an expression of class consciousness. The Vancouver Island miners' organizations lacked the impact of their Nova Scotian contemporaries but in their other strategies we see class experience and class consciousness and, indeed, radicalization as well. Think of how this works in the interests of capital! Either the miners were ideologically too weak to organize, in which case colonial capital looks the easy victor, or there was no need to organize because conditions were so good for workers, in which case colonial capital again preens itself. Even when the trail of radical organization goes cold, as the west coast story shows us, class and class response are there.
Finally, there is a demographic element to this story. The orthodox metanarrative teaches us that the Vancouver Island mining towns were home to a largely single and male population with little to lose in confrontations with capital. But the demographic evidence points to a community comprised in significant part by nuclear families and by consanguineal families made up of siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Radicalism, resistance and militance were thus not the work of disaffected young bucks but mainly settled families. This is a problem for capital and the emergent nineteenth century state, especially but not exclusively in the context of a colonial project. The equation is simple: families are good, single men are bad. Families are permanent and by their heterosexual energies they contribute the growth and vitality of the colony. Single men are here in the colony for a good time, not a long time. It follows that if working men invoke the welfare of their wives and children they are more difficult to resist than a bunch of carping single guys with too much time on their hands. By depicting the miners as difficult single males, many of whom were essentially transient they come across as disconnected from the community and thus non-residents, non-citizens ... illegitimate whiners. That argument, so often made by British Columbian employers and the state, was bogus, but these miners were families. The miners of Nanaimo who struck against wage reductions, who organized themselves into funeral societies, who played in brass bands and in football clubs, who took in laundry and delivered milk, these people were the community. The 'single worker' as disaffected and disconnected is a red herring, but the ways in which he was exploited by employers and the state at the time and the way in which it has become imbedded in the historical literature ought to alarm us. And it ought to teach us something about class relations in Canada as a whole.
And this is where I shall close (not least because I recognize that I am not a theorist of socialist history and lack some of the tools to go much further). The experience of the west coast Canadian miners, in an environment bereft of the niceties of central Canadian society (not that central Canadian niceties were especially nice), can show Canadian labour historians what some of the liberal script was truly about. Racism existed and was used against various peoples, but it was and is also used to deflect attention from legitimate class issues; demography is invoked to question the legitimacy of community claims; the legitimacy of the colonial industrial regime, on the other hand, is presented as axiomatic. Labour historians need to recognize that, to borrow a phrase, housemaid's knee in Belleville is about challenging the liberal metanarrative. I believe we would do well to turn from unions and radical pamphleteers to the wealth of class consciousness evident in the fabric of day to day life. It is there that we will find a challenge to the liberal orthodoxy because it was there that the miners took their first step.