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The Many Voyages of Arthur Wellington Clah: A Tsimshian Man on the Pacific North West Coast

By Peggy Brock

Review By Penelope Edmonds

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 179 Autumn 2013  | p. 225-228

In 1900, after almost fifty years of assiduously keeping a daily diary, Tsimshian leader and Christian, Arthur Wellington Clah, feared he was losing his sight. “But my Lord Jesus Christ push my heart to write this History,” he recorded. Clah’s compelling and personal diary account of the changing world of the Tsimshian in the face of colonization and settlement in British Columbia, amounting to around 650,000 words, has been transcribed and contextualized by historian Peggy Brock in a major effort of historical reclamation. To date, scholars have made only limited study of this rich archival source held at the Wellcome Library, London, in part due to the challenges of working with Clah’s text: he began entries in his diary after a mere two months of learning English, and the early entries are rudimentary. This book therefore presents the first full-length study of Clah’s lifelong endeavour.

This scholarly contribution is part of a body of exciting work inspired by new imperial and postcolonial approaches that seek to interrogate the nuanced and shifting cross-cultural spaces of colonial contact and change of European newcomers and Indigenous peoples alike. While there has been a great deal of exploration of European missionary forays into Aboriginal worlds, and indeed their indigenization over a lifetime, it is rare to have a rich historical document representing the indigenous voice, such as Arthur Wellington Clah’s, to provide a first-hand and personal account over such a long period traversing extraordinary change.

Brock reads Clah’s diary as a “lens” though which to view the interactions of the peoples of the Northwest Coast, the mixed fur trade culture, and in particular as a vital first person account of the complex world of the Tsimshian and the political shifts in clans and chiefly relationships as Tsimshian encountered European colonialism. The diary records Clah’s “journey into colonialism,” as Brock puts it so well, and the “day-to- day observations of an indigenous person as he negotiated his way through a life marked by extraordinary change” (31). Intellectual, adventurer, chief, trader, and a man with a “keen eye for his own individual advantage” (40), Clah was well connected to indigenous trade networks, and was importantly a chronologer and rightly a self-described historian who understood himself as the “first man [among the Tsimshian] to believe the gospel of Jesus Christ in the mouth of William Duncan” (4), and one who throughout his life experienced the “full impact of the colonial system.”(18)

Propitious was Clah’s meeting with the newly arrived William Duncan of the Anglican Church Missionary Society. Duncan would teach Clah to read English at a school created for mixed-descent children; Clah, in turn, would teach him Tsimshian. Duncan considered Clah to be the first Tsimshian to grasp the significance of Christian teaching. Indeed, we might think of Clah and Duncan’s lives as leading both intertwined and parallel paths, each a cultural journeyman in his own way, yet representing alternative facets of the frontier. Throughout their lives, both crisscrossed the cultural borderlands of the contact zone. Besides chapters covering the diary, the fur trade context, gold, labour, and potlatch and feasting, three chapters are devoted to Clah’s spiritual journey into Christianity, a major area of Brock’s scholarly concern. She charts Clah’s relationships and tensions with Duncan, amongst others, and considers the distinctiveness of Clah’s Christianity. He was, writes Brock, an “independent Christian,” and while rather democratic in his own church-going practices, tending not to distinguish between denominations, he nevertheless had to negotiate the sometimes tense denominational entanglements and political alliances of other Native peoples. Clah was open to European ways and not caught between worlds, insists Brock, yet over the course of the book we see Clah struggle to support his family in the face of colonization, his increasing frustration with the alienation of land by Europeans from Native peoples, and his various attempts to broker his own land deals. Later, as choices for Northwest Coast peoples diminish evermore, his strong anti-colonial sentiments emerge: “they [will be] all in hell…they steal our land… I believe white people make us slaves” (47).

Brock’s study raises key questions concerning indigenous literacy and writing in the face of colonialism, highlights how Native people and Clah in particular used writing to negotiate a fast-shifting world, and importantly considers the cross-cultural journey this entailed, especially around issues of cultural translation, identity, and power. Brock argues intriguingly that Clah may have been influenced by the HBC trade journal genre, noting “with only a few role models, Clah took a genre [the diary form] that was evolving in nineteenth-century Britain and North America and adapted it to his own needs…It was one man’s means of coping with an era of rapid change” (32). Proposing that Clah acted as “God’s amanuensis,” Brock argues that Clah understood that he was “writing a history of the old people for the new people… and reporting on [their] moral state” (37).

Instructive here is Penny Van Toorn’s path-breaking meditation on Australian Aboriginal textuality from the time of British colonization, Writing Never Arrives Naked (2006), which perceptively traces the ways that Aboriginal Australians entered the colonizers’ “paper culture.” Van Torn evocatively describes the “spaces of exchange, entanglement, and transformation between Aboriginal and European signifying practices” (73). Brock, however, is sparing with theory. Yet, in her discussion of Clah’s keen awareness of his role as chronicler, of the power of the written word, and of his plans to one day publish his diary, there are suggestions of political intent, divine providence, and cultural performance, which at times left me hankering for more analysis of this intriguing example of indigenous textuality. In broad terms, Brock’s study is a conventional historical work, and the diary is used largely as valuable source material documenting Clah’s travels and political entanglements. The power of this study lies in its deep contextualization of the diary material within Clah’s times, which is no small feat. This is a thoughtful and important book, and will be a valuable resource for historians of the Pacific Northwest Coast.


Penny Van Toorn, Writing Never Arrives Naked: Early Aboriginal Cultures of Writing in Australia (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2006).

The Many Voyages of Arthur Wellington Clah: A Tsimshian Man on the Pacific North West Coast
By Peggy Brock
Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2012. 324 pp, $29.95