In this sesquicentennial year, we are asked to reflect on the legacy of the Treaty of Cession. Alaskans are examining various aspects of the transaction: the Native perspective, what the Russians actually owned, the impact on other countries. One interesting question is its effect on the crown colony British Columbia.
William Seward imagined that the U.S. might one day acquire British Columbia and thus bring all of the Pacific coast north of Baja into American sovereignty. Others felt similarly; in 1866 the U.S. Congress debated a bill, which did not pass, inviting British Columbia voluntarily to join the United States. For his part, in 1867 Seward considered making an offer to Britain for the colony.
In 1867 Parliament passed the British North America Act, creating the Dominion of Canada — Canada (later divided into Quebec and Ontario), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Four years later, British Columbia joined the Dominion, and soon the first Canadian transcontinental railroad began construction, eventually tying the Pacific coast colony closer to the Dominion. When British Columbia joined the confederation, it did so without establishing what is called in Canada "responsible government," government dependent on the people. The elected assembly in the colony was responsible to the confederation, not to the people who elected it. Many students of history and casual readers have assumed that these developments after the American purchase of Russian America were motivated by Britain's determination to keep British Columbia under British, or at least Canadian, control, and out of the United States.
That's not what happened. In fact, British leaders would have been quite happy to let the colony go. At the time in Britain, colonies were seen as a burden, "a millstone around our neck," Benjamin Disraeli told the House of Commons. The English were embracing a "little England" movement, which directed attention and energy toward domestic issues, a kind of 19th-century isolationism, quite the opposite of England's later imperial vision. Colonies were seen as economic, political, and especially, military burdens. A British admiral told Parliament the Royal Navy felt no obligation to defend the far-flung settlements on the other side of the world. Similar thinking in Russia helps explain the 1867 sale.
Few in Parliament opposed the British North America Act. It was obvious to many, historian Richard Neunherz has written, "that Parliament would have granted total separation if the British subjects of North American had wished it."
That act was the result of a conference held in London in January 1867 to discuss the future of British North America. The Canadian delegate to the conference wrote of his disappointment at the sentiment in England regarding Canada: "I cannot shut my eyes to the fact that they want to get rid of us." A leader of the Liberal Party in Parliament stated that the government hoped only to please the British Americans, even if they "should desire to separate and form an independent nation." Neunherz concludes that at the time of the U.S. Alaska purchase, the British government anticipated an offer from the United States for British Columbia. "A tactful but firm approach to the subject," he writes, would have sealed the deal.
So, what happened? Quite simply, the British Columbians didn't want to annex to the United States. BCers had seen plenty of Americans who flooded the colony during gold rushes on the Fraser River, and they didn't much like what they saw. Debating annexation went on all through the summer of 1867, and a majority decided against it. In the east, the Canadians didn't want to be fully independent, partly because they didn't feel confident they could defend themselves against any American incursion.
In our habitual American exceptionalism — the conviction that with our brand of democracy and freedom, America is different, better, than anywhere else — we have trouble imagining someone would not want to be part of America. But our American obsessive focus on the bottom line, let's call it greed, does not appeal to everyone, especially to those in societies where the focus is on something larger than oneself, viz., the safety, health and morality of the whole society. That was majority sentiment in British Columbia in 1867, and it is in many places today.
Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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