Colonial Relations: The Douglas-Connolly Family and the Nineteenth-Century Imperial World: A Review

Ann Little

Adele Perry, Colonial Relations: The Douglas-Connolly Family and the Nineteenth-Century Imperial World (Cambridge University Press, 2015), Critical Perspectives on Empire series.

If you’re on Twitter this summer of 2017, perhaps your timeline is like mine: full of #Canada150 (insert Maple Leaf emoji here) mentions this summer, both filiopietistic from the settler colonial perspective on Canadian history, and snarky or sarcastic uses of the hashtag by the First Nations scholars and activists I follow. So it’s a propitious time to sit down and read Adele Perry’s Colonial Relations: The Douglas-Connolly Family and the Nineteenth-Century Imperial World (Cambridge University Press, 2015), a title in the Critical Perspectives on Empire series edited by three distinguished historians of the British empire, Catherine Hall, Mrinalini Sinha, and Kathleen Wilson. Perry’s book is a model study that puts four generations of one family’s history into the larger context of the rapidly evolving North American colonial world across the nineteenth century, ranging from colonial Demerara to Scotland, Rupert’s Land, Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River (now in the U.S. state of Oregon), and finally to Vancouver Island, British Columbia. In sum, everybody with pre-1867 ancestors in Canada—whether you identify as Indigenous, white, or Black—probably has a connection to the world this book brings to life.

Perry’s book is a “translocal” study of the family formation strategies of transnational creole elites set against the backdrop of the hardening racial lines of the emerging settler states of the U.S. and Canada in the nineteenth century (15). But as she warns, “this is not a story of cheerful pluralism and timeless multiculturalism, about how we were all happy then. It is very much a history of slavery and the racism that remained after abolition and the exploitation of the fur trade. . . . At its very core, it is a history of Indigenous dispossession and settler ascendancy” (19). Duly warned, we proceed into the pages of a book that feels like those photo albums in antique stores that are labeled for sale as “instant ancestors”—they’re not necessarily blood relations, but they look a little familiar.

Who were the Douglases and the Connollys? James Douglas (1803-77), one of the two central actors in this family history, was a longtime officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the second governor of Vancouver Island and eventually of the crown colony of British Columbia. Traditional histories of the governor (like his entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography) note that he was born in the West Indies, but they don’t delve too deeply into the circumstances of James’s birth. Like many West Indians who eventually emigrated to mainland North America, he was the child of a Scottish merchant and a taxpaying, slave-owning free woman of color, making him the only colonial governor of African descent anywhere in early North America. While James’s father John Douglas never married his mother, they had a family together consisting of three children, including one born after John Douglas had returned to Scotland to start a family there with a white wife. Building on Charlotte Girard’s discovery of his mother, Martha Ann Telfer, and his grandmother Rebecca Ritchie, Perry shows that his family background was typical for his time and place in the Dutch West Indian colony of Demerara (after 1815, British Guiana), where “concubinage with colored people, negro, or Indian women” was customary among the European merchants and adventurers in the colony. However typical in the West Indies, this background made James atypical in terms of the wealth and position he achieved in the Pacific Northwest.

Of course James Douglas didn’t accomplish all of this on his own. Mariage a la façon du pays had been a critical strategy for colonial development at least as much (if not moreso) in the mainland fur trade since the seventeenth century as it was in colonial Demerara at the turn of the nineteenth century. In time-honored tradition, James married his boss’s Metis teenaged daughter, Amelia Connolly (1812-90) who was herself the product of a fur trade marriage of Quebec-born Fort Vancouver Chief Factor William Connolly and a Cree woman named Miyo Nipay (or Suzanne Bellfeuille). This gave James kin and trade connections among the Indigenous and bourgeois Metis communities upon whose labor and knowledge the HBC’s profitable business was built.

As accountant at Fort Vancouver in the 1830s and as the chief factor there in the 1840s, he and Amelia lived frugally and suffered more than their share of domestic tragedy with the deaths of seven of their thirteen children. Notably, most of the short-lived children were born very early in their long marriage, from 1829 to 1838, when five out of their first six children perished before age 3. Whether this reflects the nutritional and epidemiological conditions at Fort Vancouver shortly after its founding in 1824, or whether this reflects the fact that Amelia was too young and frail as a teenager and young adult to sustain healthy pregnancies and infants, it’s interesting to note in our age of panic over “advanced maternal age” that most of her surviving children were born when she was between the ages of 27 and 42. The experience of losing so many infants and toddlers early in their marriage made its mark on James, who “still recalled theirs as a ‘family of 13,’” rather than a family of six children (168).

But the fur trade world built on nearly three centuries of intermarriage and the creation of an influential Metis bourgeoisie was coming to a close by the time of the Douglas-Connolly marriage in 1828. James’s rise through HBC ranks was doubtlessly accelerated by his alliance with a powerful and wealthy Metis family (the Connollys), but in a world that was rapidly filling with white Canadian and American women, the position of women like Miyo Nipay and her daughter Amelia was increasingly precarious. Fur trade marriages were usually built on several interlocking hierarchies that privileged husbands over wives—such as the absolute practice of whiter and lighter men marrying darker-skinned women, the fact that the women were frequently young teenagers and the men well into their 20s or 30s (or beyond), plus the access that many men still had to metropolitan marriage in Eastern cities or in Britain and the means to retire into white family life—it nevertheless offered advantages to Metis and First Nations women that patriarchal Christian marriage did not. So Perry argues convincingly that it was significant early on in their “country marriage” in 1837, after a Protestant missionary arrived at Fort Vancouver, that James and Amelia consented to have their union formally blessed by Anglican rite. The arrival of protestant American missionaries represented the rise of not only settler colonial ideas about supposed racial purity and superiority, but also the rise of patriarchal values over the authority that women in Indigenous and Metis Catholic families exercised in their families and therefore over the business of the HBC. After the British relinquished the Columbia River valley and all of its lands south of the 49th parallel, in 1849 James left Fort Vancouver and moved HBC headquarters up to Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island, where in 1851 he was named both the governor and the chief factor for the HBC. In 1858 he became the governor of all of British Columbia.

Like their father had before them, the youngest Douglas-Connolly children (the only surviving son and a daughter) were sent to Britain for their educations. As their children reached marrying age, James and Amelia Douglas worked to secure alliances with the newly arrived white settler elite, as fur trade intermarriage among creole mixed-race elites was no longer prestigious or economically necessary. Although they encouraged their children and grandchildren to marry into settler society and although James remained non-specific about his own family background, Perry insists that “passing” is “too simple” a description for this behavior “because [James] Douglas never really passed,” (204). “Discourses of passing cannot account for James’s clear and public connection to the self-identified Black community in and around Victoria and are also predicated upon a highly distinctive post-Civil War American reckoning of Blackness,” (205).

In Perry’s telling, Canada appears to have been more tolerant of mixed-race creole elites into a later period than in the United States when we compare the experiences of the Douglas-Connollys to the John and Marguerite McLoughlin family described in Anne F. Hyde’s recent Empires, Nations, and Families: A New History of the North American West, 1800-1860 (University of Nebraska Press, 2011). John McLoughlin, the superintendent of the Columbia Department based at Fort Vancouver, stayed in Oregon Territory after the border dispute between Britain and the United States ended. A few decades older than James and Amelia, John and his wife Marguerite were both from elite Metis families. After building a house in Oregon City (near Portland), John was frustrated in his efforts as a “half breed” to become a U.S. citizen and to have his land claims respected. He was eventually recognized as the [presumptively white] “father of Oregon,” in the twentieth century but Hyde argues that Marguerite, with her dark skin and more obvious Indigenous heritage, could not be the “mother” of the settler state. By the early twentieth century, Hyde notes, John’s “mixed-race heritage had been wiped entirely ‘clean’ so that” a granddaughter “who lived on the Kootenay reservation and labeled herself as ‘Indian,’ was refused admittance to his house, now a museum, during a ‘Pioneer Day’ celebration (143).

Perry’s story ends with no such injustice, although she can’t offer a happy ending to this family story. The children and grandchildren of the Connolly-Douglas clan marry into white settler society with partners of their own choosing, but their examples suggests that once marriage was separated from its economic function as in the fur trade, divorce followed soon after. (Or maybe the divorces were due all of that time spent together in modern urban households. By comparison, early fur traders and HBC employees were frequently away from home, which may have increased the pleasure partners took from one another’s company and family life when they could enjoy it.) Recent immigrants to North America from countries in which arranged marriage is still commonly practiced might take note: our transnational early history demonstrates that companionate marriage is often less durable than the arranged kind. Nevertheless, Perry’s use of the richest qualitative sources from the Douglas-Connolly family, mostly family letters from the 1860s and beyond, makes for absorbing and affecting reading. James was an involved and affectionate paterfamilias, and Amelia was perpetually visiting family to welcome and help care for another grandchild or moving divorced or widowed children and orphaned grandchildren into her own home. Maybe that’s as happy an ending as most families get, then or now.

Adele Perry has written a model of a transnational history of empire, one that makes an outstanding case for non-Canadians to read and learn Canadian history. Her mastery of multiple historiographies is impressive, and the manner in which she telescopes from the familial and the local to the imperial and global and then back again is impressively smooth and non vertigo-inducing. She has crafted a moving story about the Douglas-Connolly family that also tells the story of a century of imperial transformation. But at $117.95 CND (the list price now at, or $90.87 USD (today’s price at the influence of her work is likely to be unjustly blunted by the outrageous price of the book. (The e-book version knocks only $10 off the hardcover price in both the U.S. and Canada, making it far too expensive to consider for course adoption.) Selling books like Perry’s and others in this series at a reasonable price would be the most “critical perspective on empire” Cambridge University Press could offer this scholarly field. Perry’s work, and the other titles in this series, should be read widely by all North American historians as well as historians of empire. It would be a wonderful model of translocal history to share and discuss in detail with graduate students, if only they could afford it.

Ann Little:  Born on the Great Lakes near the U.S.-Canadian border, Ann M. Little is Associate Professor of History at Colorado State University and the author of The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (2016) and Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England (2007).  She also blogs at


Featured image: Detail of the book’s cover art, which is based on Peter Rindisbacher, A Halfcast with his Wife and Child, c. 1825, Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

Continue the conversation ...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s