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Land of Promise: Robert Burnaby’s Letters from Colonial British Columbia, 1858-1863

By Anne Burnaby McLeod

Review By Penelope Edmonds

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 144 Winter 2004-2005  | p. 122-4

LAND OF PROMISE is a compilation of of the letters of Robert Burnaby to his family in England. These letters were written between 1858 (the first year of the Fraser River gold rush) and 1863, while Burnaby was living in colonial British Columbia. His letters are rich in detail and entertaining in narrative, and will be of interest to any reader seeking a vivid sense of nineteenth-century society in the colonial Northwest Coast. Introduced and transcribed by Anne Burnaby McLeod, with a detailed overview of Burnaby’s political, commercial, and social endeavours on the Pacific Coast by historian Pixie McGeachie, this book adds to the body of archival material on colonial British Columbia. 

The phrase “land of promise”- taken from Burnaby’s letter of 22 January 1859 – is full of the optimism of the colonial speculator and is steeped in biblical references. It conjures an “anticipatory geography” of a new land for the taking and reminds us of the spatial and imaginative qualities of imperial endeavour. In this sense Burnaby’s land of promise is akin to the “perfect Eden” of James Douglas, the governor of British Columbia, as he surveyed the future site of Victoria, Vancouver Island, in 1843. It is also the Australia felix of Major Mitchell, the British surveyor of Southeastern Australia. These men of empire sought to possess the new landscape, first, by imaginatively producing a space that could be appropriated, then by reaping material rewards through survey, mapping, allotment, and speculation. 

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, much imperial travel writing presented inland exploration as a heroic enterprise in the service of empire, and a thread of this attitude runs through Burnaby’s letters, which, at times, read like epic narrative. Burnaby’s destination, the Pacific Northwest Coast, is his “El Dorado” (49), the place where he hopes to make his fortune. Similar letters of this genre were coming from all points of Britain’s empire. Designed to provide both intimacy with entertainment for those at home (nothing like a good colonial yarn!), they have the rhetorical flourish and detail of a time well before e-mail, when letters took months to arrive at their destination. Part affectionate son and artful observer, part imperialist and hopeful speculator, Burnaby ensured that his letters embraced many facets of the colonial experience, from the social conditions in Victoria and the menu of a colonial town – oyster pies and “salmon, boiled turkey … rhubarb tart … and lots of bitter beer” (59) – to more serious topics, such as Native and European relations, colonial commerce, mining, and the British apprehension of the wilderness. 

Robert Burnaby’s experiences are recorded through the eyes of a privileged British man. Burnaby was well connected, arriving in the colony with a letter of introduction from Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the British Colonial Secretary. Burnaby is at times disparaging of Jews, Aboriginal peoples, Chinese, Irish Catholics, and anyone of the lower orders who pretends to a higher station. In this sense he was every inch the “true Victorian gentleman,” as the back cover of the book rightly describes him. He may have been at the edge of empire, but his prejudices remained intact. At times, Robert Burnaby is not altogether likable, but he is always interesting. 

Burnaby’s activities span many aspects of BC social and political concern, which is what makes his letters such a useful resource. He tries his hand at being a commission merchant; at being involved in real estate, insurance, law, and banking; and at selling blankets. He helped build New Westminster, the imagined “great city,” and attempted to speculate in gold and to discover coal. He founded the first Freemason lodge in Victoria in 1860 and was a dedicated member for Esquimault in the House of Representatives. He was, without doubt, a key figure in BC colonial society. Steeped in the male (homosocial) culture of colonial British Columbia, Burnaby turned to men of his own standing for company and for reference points in the socio-political landscape. His personal and amusing narrative style and keen characterization make for really compelling writing. And it is in his lyrical description of the landscape that he really gets into his stride, often referring to the grandeur of the BC landscape. Yet at other moments, this grandeur becomes the “monotonous sublime,” and Burnaby longs for the cultivated fields of England (69). He depicts a constant back and forth between “home” and “here,” the perennial malaise of the expatriate. 

Most interesting is Burnaby’s apprehension of Northwest Coast Aboriginal peoples. When he is on expedition, Aboriginal people paddle his canoes, haul his luggage, tend his fires, guide him through the landscape, and host him at their villages, yet he describes them as a “lazy and helpless set” (103). He refers to Native women in Victoria who appear at the balls and dance halls as “belles sauvages” and says “you can detect in their black eyes, high cheekbones, and flattened heads whence they came” (65). Later he comments, “you know that there are no eligible ladies of the right sort here” (95). Native peoples are generally viewed as degraded creatures or hopeless mimics of white culture. He writes about a “tour” of the Songhees village across the harbour to entertain his sister at home (143), evoking the voyeuristic accounts of journeys into the dark London slums found in many newspapers of the time. But there is much valuable detail here, too, and Burnaby’s account of a potlatch is fascinating (151). Crucially, Native peoples rarely figure in his accounts of the sublime, botanical, or scientific landscape. In Burnaby’s writings, as in many colonial accounts, we see the curious intimacy and distance of the colonial encounter, where Native peoples are at once in close vicinity and wilfully left out. This strange, bifurcated colonial vision is a phenomenon also present in many colonial accounts of Australia, and it is complicit with the marginalization of Native peoples in the face of progress. 

At times, like any expatriate traveller, he resents his “El Dorado.” At the height of the gold rush in i860, Burnaby’s “land of promise” becomes the “fag end of the earth … a chronic state of rocks, pine trees and natives …a population with Yankee cut and a Hebrew phiz, and a restless mass of miners” (134). But by 1862 he writes, “I am very happy” (169), and his enterprising nature and enthusiasm for the colonies seem as strong as ever, despite his being unrequited in love. 

That Land of Promise is published by the City of Burnaby’s Community Heritage Commission and co-authored by Burnaby’s descendant, Anne Burnaby McLeod, is an obvious testament to Robert Burnaby’s prodigious legacy. But it also presents a danger: that of a well-meaning community over-valourizing a founding father. It is to Anne B. McLeod’s credit, however, that Burnaby’s prejudices are left intact and that we get the whole man. Appendices 2,3,4, and 5 trace Burnaby’s genealogical lineage and the family coat of arms, which may be of interest to local historians and genealogists.