"There is a deep and active conviction awake, that the great task of this generation alloted to the English race is Colonization." -- James Edward FitzGerald, 1848

"The history of the world presents no example of a monopoly so monstrous and so prejudicial as that of the Hudson's Bay Company." -- William Gladstone, 1848

One of the main whistleblowers who prevented the Hudson's Bay Company from gaining title to Vancouver Island was James Edward FitzGerald whose energetic participation in the debate surrounding the future of Vancouver Island was partially motivated by his desire to help alleviate desperate conditions in Ireland in the aftermath of the potato famine of 1846. In the spring of 1847 FitzGerald submitted a detailed plan to the Colonial Office for the colonization of Vancouver Island.

The Hudson's Bay Company had the exclusive right to trade with Indians west of the Rocky Mountains until May, 1859. Ten years prior to expiration of that monopoly, the head of the HBC, Sir John Pelly, contacted Britain's Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey, politely enquiring about the status of Vancouver Island after James Douglas had successfully established Fort Camosun/Victoria at its southern end. Would the Crown, perchance, in return for HBC's custodial services--such as converting Indians to Christianity and stopping the influx of Americans by encouraging more British settlement--be willing to give ownership of Vancouver Island to the Hudson's Bay Company? As word emerged that Britain might make a gift of Vancouver Island to the HBC, James Edward FitzGerald, who wanted a joint stock company to take over the coal fields on the island, heightened his campaign to create a colony on the island instead of a HBC protectorate. Supported by the prairie-born half-breed Alexander Kennedy Isbister, former Colonial Secretary (1859-1864) Lord Lincoln, former Colonial Secretary and future prime minister of England, William E. Gladstone, FitzGerald's articulate opposition to the Hudson's Bay's monopolistic mandate was an important seed in the field of opinion that gave rise to British Columbia.

In 1847 Isbister had ignited a public relations battle for the HBC when he released a petition to the Colonial Office to outline the plight of "the Natives of Rupert's Land." FitzGerald concurred with Isbister. "The agents of the Hudson's Bay Company have discouraged settled habits among the Indians, and communicated to them the worst vices of civilized society without its redeeming qualities." To obviate criticism from Isbister and FitzGerald, the Hudson's Bay Company hired a well-travelled hack named Robert Montgomery Martin to publish a pro-HBC book called The Hudson's Bay Territories and Vancouver's Island (London: T. Brettell, 1848). Martin (1803-1868) would write numerous books between 1830 and 1860. FitzGerald confided to Gladstone in a letter, "The whole tenor of the book is sufficient evidence that the Company's purse has stimulated the author's brains." To counteract Martin's lavish praise, the far more erudite FitzGerald published, in turn, An Examination of the Charter and Proceedings of the Hudson's Bay Company with Reference to the Grant of Vancouver's Island (London: Trelawney Saunders, 1849). The Latin motto on his front page was Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant. 'Where they make a desert, they call it peace.'

Unfortunately for FitzGerald, by the time his counter-offensive was available in January of 1850, Queen Victoria had already formally endorsed the HBC as "the true and absolute lords and Proprietors" of Vancouver Island. The island was famously leased to the HBC, in conjuction with the wishes of Sir John Pelly, for the sum of seven shillings a year. James Edward FitzGerald lost the battle--but his position would ultimately win the war. Eventually the Chief Factor for the Hudson's Bay Company in Victoria, Sir James Douglas, would opt to serve solely as Governor of Vancouver Island instead of juggling both positions. Thereafter the twin colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia were united as one province and joined Confederation in 1871.

FitzGerald's little-heralded importance to B.C. has been examined in some detail by historian John S. Galbraith in the July-October issue of B.C. Historical Quarterly, 1952, and again by Jeremy Mouat in BC Studies: The British Columbia Quarterly, Number 145, Spring, 2005. Galbraith argued it's an over-simplication to interpret the Hudson's Bay Company's efforts to support colonization as being cynical or insincere, as FitzGerald claimed them to be. In fact, directors of the HBC, notably Edward Ellice, North American Governor George Simpson and HBC Secretary Archibald Barclay, hadn't wished to be saddled with the grant of Vancouver Island in the first place. "It is in my view worthless as seat for a colony," Barclay wrote to Simpson in 1848. "It is about the last place in the globe to which (were I going to emigrate) I should select as an abode." Ellice was consistently hostile to accepting HBC responsibilities for Vancouver Island and pleaded directly with his friend Earl Grey, Secretary of State for Colonies, NOT to surrender control of Vancouver Island to the Hudson's Bay Company.

If there was cynicism afoot, it resided with the British Government. In order to stop further encroachments by Americans, Vancouver Island was placed into the hands of a private company as an alternative to burdening the British taxpayer. Mouat outlines how this decision was at odds with a growing English prejudice against monopolies, and a rising clamour for free trade, in keeping with the increasing respect for Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, in which Smith had written, "Of all expedients which could be found for stunting the trade of a new colony, that of an exclusive company is the most effectual." In the British Parliament, Gladstone spoke for two hours on August 18, 1848, denouncing any plans to annex Vancouver Island to the HBC. "There never was a case in which the evils of monopoly acquired a more rank development than in the instance of that Company. In the case of the Hudson's Bay Company, the monopoly of land and trade was aggravated by absolutism in politics covered by the cloak of impenetrable secrecy," he said. Gladstone's chief informant for his attacks on the HBC was Fitzgerald.

The HBC accepted administrative responsibilty for Vancouver Island largely because Pelly had good reason to worry about a different joint-stock association being accorded plenary powers west of the Rockies. Vancouver Island was a pawn in a larger chess game, mainly valuable as a blocker to rivals.

Born to Irish gentry in Bath, England, in 1818, James Edward FitzGerald was educated at Bath and Cambridge. Unable to join the Royal Engineers due to poor eyesight, he became a junior assistant at the British Museum in 1844, becoming assistant secretary of the Museum by 1848. His position was far from demanding, allowing him ample time for research and politics. He gained his introduction to Benjamin Hawes of the Colonial Office via Anthony Panizzi, principal librarian at the museum. As a result, on June 8, 1847, FitzGerald wrote a letter to the Colonial Office outlying his plan for a joint-stock company to be called the Company of Colonists of Vancouver's Island. Echoing the scheme of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, FitzGerald suggested this new company would be controlled by shareholders resident on Vancouver Island, profits from lands sold would be reinvested in the transport of young married couples to the island and six labourers would be sent to the colony for each 100 acres purchased. Uncapitalized, this plan lay fallow until early 1848 when London received news of coal deposits on Vancouver Island. The shipping magnate Samuel Cunard promptly warned the British Admiralty that actions must be taken to protect the coalfields from possible American control. FitzGerald hatched a new plan, one chiefly designed to exploit the coalfields. He suggested Vancouver Island could be 'saved' from the Americans by a necessary influx of coal miners. If Fitzgerald had financial backers, his proposal might have been accepted, but ultimately, as Galbraith concluded, "FitzGerald's effervescent enthusiasm and youthful vitality could not outweigh the resources of capital and experience of the Hudson's Bay Company."

FitzGerald's correspondence reveals he was far from altruistic. He was at first led to believe the Hudson Bay Company (primarily Pelly) was willing to assign a grant "of all the coal mines" and possibly provide some capital for his scheme. He only became virulently opposed to the HBC when he learned George Simpson had issued instructions to occupy the mines. Fur reserves of Vancouver Island were severely depleted, whereas the potential importance of coal for steamships altered Simpson's attitude. HBC directors Lord Selkirk and Andrew Colvile also favoured the HBC grant of Vancouver Island for the exploitation of coal but they opposed colonization. Colvile, Deputy Governor since 1810, held sway. He believed the HBC could rigidly conrol immigration, chiefly by selling land for at least one pound per acre. If the HBC could control the pricing of land, Colvile advised Simpson, "you need not be afraid of too many settlers." Feeling betrayed, FitzGerald began his campaign to convince the public that colonization was "opposed to the interests of the H.B. Co. necessarily," a viewpoint he hadn't previously taken.

FitzGerald was no hero, but he was proven right. The royal grant of Vancouver Island to the Hudson's Bay Company on January 13, 1849 contained a clause whereby the Government could revoke its authority within five years if the Company failed to adequately encourage settlement. Consequently James Douglas in Fort Victoria initially recommended an infusion of 20 families totalling 100 people. Douglas was rebuffed by Sir George Simpson in February of 1850. Simpson pleaded lack of arable land (distinct from the land already controlled for HBC purposes) and lack of police or military force. Far from serving as the 'Father of British Columbia' from the outset, Douglas consistently did the bidding of his HBC superiors until the conditions for fur trading were no longer advantageous to the Company. At Fort Victoria he did his best to emasculate the presence of the first British Governor of Vancouver Island, Richard Blanshard, who arrived in 1850, and his encouragement of settlement remained sincere but scrupulously minimalistic, in accordance with the dictates of Simpson, until the Hudson's Bay Company decided its fur trading game on Vancouver Island was no longer worth the candle.

As for FitzGerald, he remained intensely interested in colonial reform and active in the Colonial Reform Association. He married Frances Erskine Draper on 22 August 1850 and soon departed with her on the Charlotte Jane for New Zealand where he became prominent in the 'Little England' of Canterbury, a model Anglican community on New Zealand's southern island. He soon became a newspaper editor and a Member of Parliament, but returned to London in 1957, partially due to ill health. While he was in England where he served as Canterbury's immigration agent, he was offered the job of Governor of the newly created colony of British Columbia in 1859, but he declined. He declined a similar governorship of Queensland in Australia, choosing to return to New Zealand in 1860. Resuming his activities in politics and journalism, he was an active proponent of Maori rights, opposing land confisication. As Native Minister in the New Zealand parliament he passed a declaratory Native Rights Act and started a Maori newspaper. He retired from politics in 1867 and died in Wellington on August 2, 1896, one of the strongest proponents of self-government for Britain's colonies in the 19th century.


FitzGerald, James Edward. Vancouver's Island, The New Colony (London: Simmonds, 1848). Reprinted from the Colonial Magazine, August, 1848.

FitzGerald, James Edward. Vancouver's Island, the Hudson's Bay Company, and the Government (London: Simmonds, 1848). Reprinted from the Colonial Magazine, September, 1848.

FitzGerald, James Edward. An Examination of the Charter and Proceedings of the Hudson's Bay Company with Reference to the Grant of Vancouver's Island (London: Trelawney Saunders, 1849).

Report of the Provincial Archives Department of the Province of British Columbia for the Year Ended December 31st, 1913 (Victoria: King's Printer, 1914). [Containing FitzGerald's colonization scheme for Vancouver Island as outlined in his letter to Benjamin Hawes of the Colonial Office, June 9, 1847.]


Knaplund, Paul. "James Stephen on Granting Vancouver Island to the Hudson's Bay Company, 1846-1848," BC Historical Quarterly 9, 4 (1945).

Anonymous. Perils, Pastimes, and Pleasures of an Emigrant in Australia, Vancouver's Island and California (London: Thomas Cautley Newby, 1849).

Selected Speeches of Sir William Molesworth, Bart., P.C., M.P., On Questions Relating to Colonial Policy, ed. Hugh Edward Egerton (London: John Murray, 1903).

Owran, Doug. Promise of Eden: The Canadian Expansionist Movement and the Idea of the West, 1856-1900 (University of Toronto Press, 1980).

Munsell, F. Darrell. The Unfortunate Duke: Henry Pelham, fifth Duke of Newcastle, 1811-1864 (Columbia: University of Missourri Press, 1985).

Cooper, Barry. Alexander Kennedy Isbister: A Respectable Critic of the Honourable Company (Ottawa: Carelton University Press, 1988).

[BCBW 2005]