First Nations & Their Slaves

Mark Milke describes Indigenous slave-holding in the Pacific Northwest and the largely Christian-driven movement for abolition -- even as the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, B.C. moves to "decolonize" exhibits in the name of "reconciliation."

Slavery in the Pacific Northwest

IN THE LUSH rainforests of the upper and isolated inlets and interior of the Pacific Northwest and Canada’s West Coast, the moral stain common to the rest of humanity – Slavery – was also present. “Slavery was a permanent status in all Northwest Coast societies,” wrote anthropologist Leland Donald in his 1997 book, Aboriginal Slavery on the Northwest Coast of North America. Slaves could end up in that predicament for any number of reasons: captured as part of inter-tribal warfare, after inter-tribal raids, born to an existing slave, or if they were an orphan (which could lead to enslavement even in one’s own tribe, as occurred among the Clayoquot, Lummi, Chinook, and Puyalup-Nisqually). A wife could be sold and enslaved through a deliberate attempt by her husband at humiliation (recorded among the Haida, for example). One could even end up in slavery voluntarily, this to pay off one’s debts, a practice that occurred in other societies where slavery was present. As with slavery elsewhere in the world, captives in the Pacific Northwest were considered property. They were sometimes given as gifts, including at potlatches; on other occasions slaves substituted as payment for fees due to shamans. 

Slavery in the Pacific Northwest developed at some point between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500, long before European contact, and at contact, slaves were clearly set apart from the existing tribal ranking system and prestige-seeking in the region. Early indigenous peoples also possessed other practices that predated contact with the British and Europeans: cannibalism and the killing of slaves, the latter of which also occurred and for a variety of reasons: funeral feasts, the building of a new home, a new title, the erection of a totem pole, or as part of the ceremony at potlatches. A Russian Orthodox priest recounted how in one Sitka ceremony where a new clan chief was appointed, four slaves were strangled as part of the ritual. 


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On another occasion, among both the Mowachaht and the Clayoquot, a slave was killed to celebrate the first whale kill of the season. In Tlinglit folklore, a memorial potlatch was necessary so fellow spirits in the village of the dead would not despise the newly deceased. The memorial included the murder of a slave. Among the Nuu-cah-nulth, a wolf dance also occasioned the taking of a slave’s life. Lastly, in one account of a ceremony at Fort Rupert, British Columbia, two female slaves were burnt as part of a ceremonial display, though they volunteered in the belief they would be resurrected four days hence. The regional slave trade was numerically smaller in absolute terms, though similar as a proportion of some local populations, ranging from almost nil to as high as 40%; the average was 15% of the local population.


ABOVE: Master and slaves. DETAIL BELOW: "Smiling Slave" in the B.C. Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver.

"THE SMILING SLAVE" in the B.C. Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver.

How slavery ended: evangelical Christians

ANTI-SLAVERY advocacy and animus in the United Kingdom and around the world was driven by evangelical Christian anti-slavery societies, whose religious objections to slavery were grounded in their view of men as made in the image of God regardless of race and equal in his eyes. Such abolitionists also found a political champion in William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian whose decades-long efforts to abolish slavery were inspired by his own evangelical faith. Wilberforce’s first known act of opposition to the slave trade occurred in 1773, when he was 14 years old, in a letter to a York newspaper where he wrote “in condemnation of the odious traffic in human flesh.” 

Seven years later, Wilberforce was elected as a member of parliament. Wilberforce’s early convictions showed publicly in his first major assault on slavery in 1789 with his May 12 speech in parliament on the matter. In it, Wilberforce condemns not the slave-holders first but instead takes responsibility himself and also for his nation: “I mean not to accuse any one, but to take the shame upon myself in common with the whole Parliament of Great Britain for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under our authority,” said Wilberforce. It was a long, eloquent, and even charitable speech meant to persuade slaveholders and their parliamentary supporters with reason and an appeal to conscience. Wilberforce then moved 12 resolutions including an early plea for abolition, though that and the others failed. The independent member of parliament followed up with anti-slavery bills in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, 1805, 1806, and 1807. Due to his efforts and others, in one month alone (in 1807), parliament received 800 separate petitions calling for an end to slavery, with 700,000 signatures. At the time, the population of Great Britain was just 10.9 million.

Wilberforce would expend his entire parliamentary career and ultimately his life to effect abolition. One of Wilberforce’s first abolition bills, in 1793, fell short by just eight votes, but successes included the Foreign Slave Trade Bill (in 1806) and the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act (in the House of Lords, in 1807). While the trade was outlawed in 1807, slavery in the empire was still allowed until 1833, when the government finally introduced the Slavery Abolition Act, which abolished slavery and freed slaves across the British Empire effective the following year. That was eight years after Wilberforce left parliament due to ill health. Gravely ill in 1833, when the Whig government introduced the compromises necessary to obtain passage of the Slavery Abolition Act, Wilberforce was informed of the government’s plans, and in what seems to have been a self-induced will to live until his cause reached fulfillment, Wilberforce would die just two days later on July 29, 1833, at the age of 73.


Canadian abolitionist actions

CANADA'S COLONIAL governors and justices took their lead from London and from Wilberforce. John Graves Simcoe, the governor of Upper Canada between 1791 and 1796 (under Lord Dorchester, the 23rd Governor General of Canada), was himself inspired by Wilberforce and pledged from the start of his governorship that any laws and policies in his domain that provided a framework and supported slavery were henceforth under attack. Thus, two years after his arrival, Simcoe introduced a “frontal assault” on slavery within the province, which made the importation of any more slaves illegal, a first step often used by abolitionists to erode slavery as an institution. While that act did not free existing slaves—there were yet businessmen and others who held slaves and supported the practice—Simcoe’s action set in motion slavery’s decline in Upper Canada, including placing slave-owners on the moral defensive. 

JOHN GRAVES SIMCOE as a young army officer


On the other side of the country, it was the British along with Americans who would end slavery in the region, though given the remoteness, the practice would continue for another six decades before it was fully abolished. As one example, in British Columbia, in 1840, six years after the Slavery Abolition Act took effect (it was passed in 1833 and effective in 1834), Sir James Douglas, later a governor of Vancouver Island but then commanding Fort Vancouver, wrote of how the Taku Tlingit prized slaves above all other property, slaves being “the most saleable commodity here.” He noted that in the case of the Haida, many predatory raids for slaves were undertaken not to revenge past battles, “but simply with a sordid view to the profits that may arise from the sale of the captives taken.”


Why it matters

IN THE CONTEXT of today’s grievance history narratives, the worldwide history of slavery including the forgotten captured from the shores of England and Europe aboriginal- on-aboriginal slavery in the Pacific Northwest are useful to recount to make this point: Any sensible person alive today should rather “break bread” with almost anyone in any country now rather than over-celebrate one’s ancestors, given almost everyone’s  ancestral tree has the awful mark of slavery on it, or worse. And a secondary point: It was only the colonial-era British who were determined to wipe slavery from humanity’s list of acceptable practices. That matters in an age where victim narratives are driven by a focus on the sins of Western nations but rarely those of other civilizations. Just as rarely do the critics consider what the world might look like had the West and its ideas and actions, including its positive contributions such as the abolitionist movement, been absent. Everyone’s ancestors, at some point, made everyone else’s life as per Thomas Hobbes’s description: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. It helps to recall that truth, lest modern victim-cults continue to be enamoured with long-dead tribes.

Slavery touched nearly every corner of our world, and until very recently. Two centuries ago, few desired its elimination and even fewer were willing to fight that assumption. The modern bias against the colonial British is often one- sided, tallying up colonial ills but not benefits. That makes history incomplete: That nation and imperial power was the first to even attempt to remove a longstanding scourge of mankind from mankind and over the objections of rulers and populations in much of the rest of the world, who only recognized such civil rights later. It is also why romanticizing our own tribes is often faulty and folly: We too easily ignore the benefits another tribe introduced into ours. 

The earliest abolitionists, British and imperial, helped rescue all of humanity’s tribes—be they European, those in the Americas, in Africa, and in the Arab world—from humanity’s most enduring sin and from their own contemporaries who practised it. It was a significant accomplishment. It is also why those of us alive today should prefer the company of each other, over too-easy identification with those of an earlier era, merely because they share some family bloodline, ethnicity, or national heritage. It is preferable to identify specific, heroic people in any society in any era and identify with them; after all, many of our ancestors were ignoble in comparison.


This is an excerpt from Mark Milke's book, The Victim Cult: How the grievance culture hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations. Published by Thomas & Black. Copyright 2021 by Mark Milke. Foreword by Ellis Ross. Published here with permission. A different excerpt will appear in the print edition of THE DORCHESTER REVIEW.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: In this excerpt from my book on reflexive victimhood and why it’s destructive, I detail how slavery was once routine in human history, including among indigenous Canadians and how it came to be abolished. I note how even Europeans and Britons were once enslaved by attacking Moors and Barbary sailors and slave traders from the Middle Ages until the 18th century, and later, how evangelical Christians led by English parliamentarian William Wilberforce would lead the charge against slavery in the United Kingdom, Canada, and worldwide.

The excerpt here and the point from this chapter in The Victim Cult is two-fold: First, for all the anti-Western civilization rhetoric today, it was the British empire in specific and evangelicals there and elsewhere who started, led and successfully fought to abolish slavery in the British empire and elsewhere. The second is that almost everyone’s ancestors were less than ideal, i.e., almost every society has the awful, evil mark of slavery on it. That should lead those of alive today to grasp this reality: We have a lot more in common with each other today than with our ancient tribes.  

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  • John Donohue on

    Thank you for illuminating this reality. Awful.

    I wish I had the 1491 population count of each of the tribes in the Pacific Northwest. Especially the tribes called out on this Microsoft training video:

    Added to this reality of slavery rampant in these tribes would then be ammunition to counter the “whites stole the land” propaganda. That vile claim is void, unless facts are confirmed for specific theft of specific demarked land in some way.

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