Victoria’s first police force remembered during black history month

Despite their authority, the presence of Victoria’s black constables was despised in the two short months they policed the newly founded colony.

“One of the failures of the unit was not from the unit itself, but from the attitude here,” said Const. Jonathan Sheldan, the Victoria police officer who’s spent more than a decade picking out and compiling the slivers of information on the beginnings of policing in the community.

“This story of the black constables isn’t as well-known as it should be and we should learn from it,” Sheldan said.

With the population of Fort Victoria expanding in the mid 19th century, protection was needed. The first police force in the colony was the Victoria Voltigeurs – a team of Métis patrols.

It’s not known why governor Sir James Douglas contacted a group of Caribbean men in San Francisco and asked them to form a policing unit 1,200 kilometres away in Fort Victoria.

But black history researchers, including Vancouver-based author Crawford Kilian, suspect it was Douglas’ own black roots.

The governor’s mother was Guyana-born, and though Douglas often tried to conceal his mixed race, he likely felt sympathy for the gross racism the blacks faced in San Francisco.

“One of the first things Douglas did … was to set up a police force made up of Jamaicans,” said Kilian, who has written two books on B.C.’s black history.

Sheldan said he can’t confirm the eight to 10 constables were specifically Jamaican. They arrived in Fort Victoria in April 1858 aboard a steamship, Commodore.

The men wore simple blue wool uniforms with tall blue hats. A red sash denoted their given authority. If they were armed, Sheldan said, it was with batons or staves.

The men were paid, but it’s not clear how much. Sheldan knows at least two examples of egregious treatment against the black constables.

When the current legislature grounds on Belleville Street were a tent city of workers and trappers, the officers were notified about a theft. One went to investigate and found himself being assaulted by the suspect and the victim of the theft, who were both white.

In another instance, an officer was patrolling the industrial area of Fort Victoria when a group of white workers began hitting and kicking him on the ground and trying to pull off his uniform.

They took exception to a black man having the right to arrest a white man.

Kilian said the men likely came north to escape racism, but conditions here were only slightly better than in San Francisco at the time.

“It was just simply a universally held belief that there were superior and inferior races, and blacks were inferior,” Kilian said. “As a result, I have a lot of respect for them because these folks were really ready to take lots of chances in a population that actively disliked them.”

Sometime in June of 1858, the black constables were stripped of their uniforms. Many became businessmen, many moved, and a few, including a man named Loren Lewis, went on to police other communities – the Songhees reserve, in Lewis’ case.

Today, VicPD actively tries to hire officers from different ethnic backgrounds, but diversity can be hard to come by, Sheldan said.

The black constables were an education in community and trust for current-day VicPD, he added.

“(The whites) didn’t trust these officers and it was a case of mistreating them,” he said. “The lesson from the bigger picture that should be learned is the police department is part of the community. It’s a member of its own community. (An officer) can’t be seen as somebody from out there because that really breaks the bond. (People) should know us personally and trust us.”

Black History Month

February is Black History Month. Here are two events going on in Saanich:

• The documentary Go Do Some Great Thing tells the story of the 1858 Black Exodus in which approximately 600 Blacks escaped intense racism in San Francisco by emigrating to Victoria at the start of the Gold Rush).

The film starts at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (Feb. 10) at the Victoria Genealogical Society meeting at the Gordon Head United Church Hall, 4201 Tyndall Ave.

• Ferguson Jenkins, Major League Baseball Hall-of-Famer, takes part in a stamp launch at the Gordon Head Rec Centre. Canada Post is issuing two stamps paying tribute to Jenkins, as well as journalist and activist for human rights, Carrie Best, founder of The Clarion, the first black-owned newspaper published in Nova Scotia.

The event takes place in the Gordon Head Rec Centre’s Multi-Purpose Room, 4100 Lambrick Way, from 10 a.m. until noon, Saturday, Feb. 26.