- Contesting Rural Space: Land Policy and Practices of Resettlement on Saltspring Island, 1859–1891
Contesting Rural Space: Land Policy and Practices of Resettlement on Saltspring Island, 1859–1891 shows us that big ideas can help us understand small places. Histories of rural, regional, and small-town Canada have tended to be the jurisdiction of local historians interested in approaching their subjects as sui generis products of local histories, cultures, and economies. Here historian R.W. Sandwell bucks this trend. Borrowing the techniques of micro-history, Sandwell argues that we should see this island on British Columbia's southern coast as an example of a unique kind of rural society, one that challenges historians to think in new ways about modernity, family, economy, and colonialism.
Sandwell's topic is particular and focused: one Gulf Island during the early years of non-Aboriginal resettlement. She balances this by casting [End Page 269] the historiographical net broadly. Contesting Rural Space is influenced by the scholarship on the history of the family, the methodology of micro-history, the history of rural Canada, and the local historiography of British Columbia. Sandwell's source base is equally wide and eclectic. Her arguments are based on close readings of land records, census data, newspapers, and the papers of the colonial, provincial, and Canadian governments. A rich visual archive accompanies Sandwell's words.
The central argumentative thread is that the lived experience of rural life on Saltspring Island differed from the assumptions of nineteenth-century policy makers and twenty-first-century historians. Sandwell begins with the land policy of British Columbia's colonial government, drawing out its assumption of the universal desirability of familial, agricultural settlement. The following three chapters are devoted to exploring how this brittle discourse influenced but never determined settlers' experience of rural life. Chapters 5 and 6 argue that Saltspring's settlers were occupational pluralists who stretched conventional definitions of 'farmers' by integrating wage-work, agriculture, and foraging into complex family economies. Such people, Sandwell argues, 'sit awkwardly on the margins of historical representation, not fully the idealized self-sufficient, "traditional" peoples of the European imagination, nor the successful yeoman farmers of the American imagination, nor yet members of a proletarian or "under-developed" class imagined by a more contemporary sociology.'
The final two chapters of Contesting Rural Space see Sandwell's methods shift. The tools of social history are put to the side and those of cultural history come to the fore as Sandwell analyzes three brutal murders of African-American settlers in the 1860s, and the subsequent charges and convictions of Indigenous men for each of these cases. This builds on the award-winning website Sandwell designed along with historian John Lutz (www.canadianmysteries.ca/sites/robinson/ home/indexen.html). Sandwell argues that the murders indicate the importance of race as a category of lived experience and discourse. More revealingly she associates the murders with a local land-grab and the wider process by which white dominance was asserted out of the multi-ethnic and multiracial resettlement of the Island and the continuing influence of First Nations people. Sandwell's final substantive chapter pushes this point further with an exploration of the range of fissures and inequalities – religion, age, life course, gender, and ethnicity – that were shot through Saltspring's society.
It goes without saying that I would have told the story of nineteenth-century Saltspring Island differently. I would have been less concerned with analyzing Saltspring as Canadian and more interested in exploring British Columbia as a particular colonial society with much in common with other pacific, mobile, resource-extractive economies. I would [End Page 270] have given greater airtime to conflict when characterizing relations between Indigenous peoples and settlers, as does Chris Arnett in his provocative Terror of the Coast: Land Alienation and Colonial War on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, 1849–1863 (1999). I would have drawn sharper links between Marjorie Cohen's pioneering arguments about the centrality of women's work to staples economies and the flexible...