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Colonial Placenames in Victoria, B.C.

An examination of colonial placenames in and around Victoria, B.C., and the colonial figures for whom they are named.

Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken

The Hudson’s Bay Company brought Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken to Vancouver Island as a surgeon and clerk in 1850 (Marshall, para. 2). In addition to his political power as Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, he was surgeon to the HBC, founding president of the British Columbia Medical Association, president of the board of directors of the Royal Hospital (later renamed Royal Jubilee Hospital), and physician of the provincial jail (Marshall, para. 6), giving him power in deciding how to dole out medical care. This power became especially pronounced when it came to making decisions around preventing the spread of communicable diseases among Indigenous Peoples. 

Dr. Helmcken claimed to have vaccinated over 500 Native people in and around Victoria for smallpox (Van Rijn 551). Comparatively, Captain Henry M. Ball reportedly vaccinated the entire 1790 Indigenous inhabitants around Lytton, BC (551). Despite vaccination being “cheap and plentiful” in Victoria (552), Helmcken failed to vaccinate the entire Indigenous population. Insufficient vaccination numbers, fueled by “opportunistic self-interest, coupled with hollow pity, revulsion at the victims, and smug feelings of inevitability” (554) from settlers led to disastrous outbreaks. Van Rijn summarizes, “Estimates vary widely for the total number of Natives who died in the epidemic across Vancouver Island and British Columbia; Robert Boyd suggests that nearly 14,000 died on the coast alone. If such enormous estimates are roughly correct, then vaccination efforts must have been horribly insufficient or even counterproductive” (552). Smallpox damaged Indigenous communities irreparably, with limited concern from the elites of the colony. Some speculate that the disregard was actually deliberate neglect in order to weaken Indigenous communities and further colonists’ power (554). This theory would fit with the decision to set fire to Indigenous traders’ camps to force them to return to their home communities (550), thereby further spreading the disease to more communities.  

As the Speaker of the Vancouver Island Assembly, Helmcken opposed a fully staffed smallpox hospital, which he thought would cost too much, and expressed that Governor James Douglas was causing unnecessary alarm by suggesting it (The Daily British Colonist 3). In his Reminiscences, Helmcken shows little empathy for the lost lives, writing, “All men must die. These Indians obeyed the mandate perhaps a little earlier than they otherwise might... Socially, probably, their death is of little consequence; politically, it may be of more importance, although it does not seem as though they were intended to set to set the world on fire” (329). This comment reflects Helmcken’s dehumanizing attitude towards Indigenous Peoples. Helmcken seemed to prescribe to the racist belief that Indigenous Peoples were biologically inferior. Using metaphors of dog breeding, he characterizes some as “more wolf than spaniel” (328). He continues, “The breed remains, and will require a great deal of crossing to make a superior race” (329). He refers to them as “dirty greasy nasty-smelling creatures” (80) and “thieves and liars” (143). These comments reflect a deeply racist attitude toward Indigenous People and suggest a disregard for their lives, bringing into question his sincerity in treating the smallpox outbreak of 1862. 

Locations named after Dr Helmcken

  • Helmcken House, Victoria, B.C.

  • Helmcken Falls, Kamloops, B.C. 

  • Helmcken St, Vancouver, B.C. 

  • Helmcken Rd., Victoria, B.C. 

  • Helmcken Residence, UVic, B.C. 

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