Tom Swanky is an unassuming figure. A humble, soft-spoken gentleman in his sixties, he believes he’s uncovered some of the most compelling evidence on the spread of smallpox in decades. A lawyer and legal historian by trade, Swanky has worked for over 10 years on what he calls a ‘detective story.’
A resident of Quesnel, Swanky was born in the hospital that was built on the site where five of the six Tsilhqot’in chiefs were hung in 1864. His conclusion that the spread of smallpox was far more intentional than previously recognized sprang from his interest in the defence given by the Tsilhqot’in chiefs at the time of their trial.
“They were supplied a defence council and the main reason they gave for their actions of war was the spread of smallpox,” he explained. “They saw it as a deliberate act of aggression and war on their people.”
Following this trail of evidence led Swanky to believe that smallpox was actually used as biological weapon against the natives by the colonial government of the time who were seeking to attain native land in places they knew harboured great resistance. This story corresponds with many tales told by native elders, who have long believed that the introduction of smallpox was a calculated move to eradicate their people.
In 2012 Swanky published a book entitled “The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific,’ which details his 10 years of research in 496 pages. Together with his son, Shawn Swanky, he is now working on a documentary film about the smallpox epidemic entitled ‘The Great Darkening.’
Bella Coola plays a pivotal role in the spread of the disease because of its position to the Coast and the Interior, which was of great importance in the early days of colonialism. Swanky visited Bella Coola last week to take some still shots of the Valley for the documentary, and announced that he is also working on a book specific to the smallpox story of Bella Coola.
While there is general acceptance that the spread of smallpox was an intentional move in some cases, most historians do not believe it was to the scale that Swanky proposes. Many are familiar with the intentional trading of infected blankets, but Swanky alleges that it was much more insidious that that.
Bella Coola’s strategic position made it a very attractive place for investment and development during the latter half of the 1800s, and it is precisely this reason that Swanky believes smallpox was introduced into the Bella Coola Valley.
“In the 1860’s there was great confidence that a railroad was going to be built to Bella Coola, and that goods would be transported from there down the coast,” Swanky said. “Alongside the colonial government, there were also multiple private investors that wanted to see this happen, and they saw native occupation as their main obstacle to acquiring the land they needed.”
Swanky alleges that the way the disease manifested in Bella Coola was too quick to be a ‘natural’ epidemic, and that the means of spreading the disease point to a very intentional infection.
“There were three main ways smallpox was intentionally spread,” he explains. “The first was through infected blankets. The second was intentional, direct contact with an infected person, and the third was through false vaccination programs.”
Swanky points to the World Health Organization’s factsheet on smallpox, which states that the disease usually takes months to spread through a population. “The WHO says that smallpox epidemics develop comparatively slowly, the interval between each generation is two to three weeks,” said Swanky. “Compare that to what happened in Bella Coola. There was nothing slow about it. In three weeks most were already dead. It is impossible that there was anything casual or accidental about this introduction.”
Swanky said that smallpox carriers were sent to every dwelling in the villages they encountered in Bella Coola, therefore ensuring individuals would all contract the disease at the same time. This accounts for the mass deaths that occurred all at once throughout the Valley. Tales were told of bodies ‘dying and rotting away by the score and it is no uncommon occurrence to come across dead bodies lying in the bush.’ Some villages were reduced to one survivor.
Although Swanky’s evidence seems compelling, his research is not without its critics. Robin Fisher, head of the Department of History at the University of Northern British Columbia and an expert on Native/European relations, states that the book delivers “some truth, but not the whole truth.”
While Fisher agrees with Swanky that governments and settlers in British Columbia deprived First Nations peoples of their land and undermined their traditional systems of government and introduced smallpox that resulted in a sharp decline in the Aboriginal population, he disagrees that there is an explicit connection between the two.
“I have several concerns with the way this conclusion is presented. The line of argument is circuitous, rather than straightforward, and therefore difficult to follow,” said Fisher in a review. “My fundamental concern is with how the conclusions in this book are reached: in other words the use of evidence. Like a coyote on the hunt, the route may be circuitous, but there can be only one outcome. And so the evidence is marshaled and manipulated to prove a predetermined point.”
Journalist Stephen Hume also takes issue with Swanky’s argument, but he does state that the book is a worthy read. “I disagree with Swanky’s assertion that the smallpox epidemic of 1862 was a case of deliberately instigated biological warfare, a genocide designed by the colonial administration of James Douglas to clear the landscape of troublesome natives so it could be settled by newcomers,” said Hume. “His book is well worth reading, though.”
However, Swanky sees the denial of his findings as a root cause for the troubles facing First Nations and government today, and believes reconciliation and compensation won’t be possible until this history is addressed.
“It was the depopulation of the British Pacific colonies through these epidemics that allowed the subjugation and dispossession of the indigenous peoples of B.C. without treaties or compensation to acquire native title to resources,” said Swanky. “The elders’ teaching of an ethnic cleansing policy in the founding of British Columbia on the one hand, and its denial by Canadian officials on the other hand, is now the root cause of what seems likely to be hundreds of millions in modern lawsuits. It is this denial, along with the associated lack of respect for the indigenous peoples, and not the truth consistently taught by elders, that creates today’s conflict and economic risks.”
You can find out more about Tom Swanky and his upcoming documentary at www.shawnswanky.com