Legends of Myself 46

Posted on May 17, 2012

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Continued from Legends of Myself 45

46. Prince Rupert, 1958/Spaksuut, 1793:  I Save Port Essington

The other Port Essington.

The Two Essingtons.  Sir William Essington of the Royal Navy—a clever, dashing fellow for his day, of course, despite his low profile lately—had two remote patches of territory named after him.  Port Essington on the northern coast of Australia, was settled in 1838, but blew down in 1839 courtesy of a cyclone, which also tossed ashore a bricklayer who helped rebuild.  After struggling along uncertainly for five more years, it was refurbished with convict labour in 1844, only to be finally abandoned in 1849, a mere eleven years after it was founded.  Thomas Huxley, passing through the settlement just before its demise, found it “most wretched, the climate the most unhealthy, the human beings the most uncomfortable and houses in a condition most decayed and rotten.”

That was the Northern Territory, Australia.  My own, and the second of the two Port Essingtons, was, I assure you, mostly not like that.

Captain George Vancouver, surveying the British Columbia coast in 1793 in the search of the Northwest Passage, added the name Port Essington to the place where the Eckstall River joins the Skeena Estuary. — He somehow missed the Skeena River itself, mistaking the estuary for an inlet.  But then, otherwise famously meticulous, he missed the Columbia and Fraser rivers, too.

The Eckstall was part of the territories of the Gitzaxłaał, one of nine tribes of Tsimshian who, in 1834, relocated to Lax Kw’alaams (Port Simpson) on Metlakatla Passage near present-day Prince Rupert.  The purpose of the move was to manage trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had constructed a fur-trading fort there.

The Gitzaxłaał obviously didn’t abandon the location (which the Tsimshian know as Spaksuut) as attested by the presence of people and plank houses in an 1863 painting by Henry Wood Elliott.  Nor did they forget their connection to it.  They made an official protest when Robert Cunningham established a store there in 1871.  They were right.  Cunningham opened his store in warm-up, as it turned out, to eventually appropriating, surveying and launching a town site.

It’s your land, well, what of it? asked the authorities who heard the Gitzaxłaał protest.  We set aside a reserve in Port Essington for you already.

Well, not really.

The first function of Cunningham’s Port Essington was as a launching point for transporting goods up the Skeena to the interior.  The people he arranged to help him do this were from Kitselas and Kitsumkalum, mostly.

They were the Tsimshian who eventually settled in Port Essington, the ones who stayed when it changed over time into a cannery town, and the ones who have title to the old government reserve site now.  These upriver folk, although sharing a culture and a language, are not at all the same as the Gitzaxłaał.

The Gitzaxłaał were connected to the Skeena for 1000s of years and the Tsimshian strongly remember and insist on that connection today.  The tribes who came from far away from Spaksuut and from the misty River Skeena, however, didn’t sustain their connection anywhere so long.

The fading of Cunningham’s dream.  The railroad in 1914 destroyed the river-freighting business, as well as stranding Port Essington as a permanent backwater on the wrong side of a two-mile-wide river.  Changing economies and technologies closed the salmon canneries there in the 1940s and wartime prejudice directly shipped out half its population, the Japanese, in 1944 with only the goods they could carry on their backs.

This may have been the fatal blow.  Workers come and go with the work, but families make a community, and the Japanese had their families there.  When you chase the families away, the soul of a community shrinks.

By 1958, with an ever-declining population, Port Essington had fallen below a benchmark which made it difficult to justify keeping a family there at all:  there were not enough children for a school.  My Uncle Gus and Aunt Irene, my cousins Art, Reynold and Trudy were still trying to live there.  I know from old correspondence school papers left lying around, that Art and Reynold had gotten by without a school to attend the previous year.  The magic number required by the provincial government to send a teacher and open a school was ten children.  In 1958, including Trudy, who had only become old enough that year, there were nine children of school age in Port Essington.

It was time for Tat to intervene.

It is sitting around Old Pop’s table in our rooms on 8th Avenue, 1958, that my Uncle Gus first swims into memory.  I already knew Gus, of course, and welcomed his wide open smile, his warmth, as someone I already delighted in.  That smile from my first memory of him in Prince Rupert could not have been any different from the smile he greeted me with the last time I saw him, at my father’s funeral in 2002.

Uncle Gus had arrived at the table with Pop, my father and me, for a reason.  He’d come to town with an idea and a request.  They’d open up the old school again in Port Essington if they had one more pupil, he explained.  Could Teddy come and stay with them?

Of course I would.  Why wouldn’t I?

Do the children need a school in ancient Spaksuut?—Got one here in my pocket.

And thus, after Halloween, 1958 (I don’t even remember eating my harvest of candy) I moved from Prince Rupert, out of the rooms of Candy George, and returned for my final time to the village of my first home.

Continued @ Legends of Myself 47

Posted in: autobiography