Underlying Factors in the Operation of Colonial Justice
Ages 14-16

MysteryQuest 9

Underlying Factors in the Operation of Colonial Justice

Author: Dick Holland

Editors: Ruth Sandwell, Dick Holland

Series Editor: Roland Case


A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 14-16

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In 1867-1868, a tiny community on Salt Spring (now spelled as one word, “Saltspring”) Island off the coast of British Columbia was the scene of three brutal and seemingly unconnected murders. The victims were members of the island’s African-American community. These African-Americans had fled persecution in California in 1858, but the murders fractured the community and drove many back to the United States. Aboriginal people were widely blamed for the murders, but in only one of the murders was someone charged and convicted.

William Robinson was one of the victims. His body was discovered in his cabin, several days after he had been shot in the back. An Aboriginal man, Tshuanahusset, was arrested many months later, convicted, and hanged. Almost from the first news of the murder, people began to blame Native people. Were their reasons for suspecting Tshuanahusset valid or were their suspicions the result of broader social and institutional attitudes towards Native people?

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This MysteryQuest invites you to investigate the underlying factors leading to an Aboriginal man being charged for the murder of William Robinson — despite the fact that he was not an obvious suspect. Your task is to not to determine whether or not Tshuanahusset was guilty of the crime, but to identify the forces that seem to explain the justice system’s decision to charge him with the murder. You will begin by familiarizing yourself with the details of the case. Then, you will be introduced to three factors that help explain why events occur. You will practice using these factors to analyse a sample letter, and then you will apply these concepts to eight other documents related to the case. Based on this analysis, you will decide the extent to which these factors contributed to suspicions against an Aboriginal man. You will present your findings in a visual display that illustrates the degree of influence each of these factors had in the case.

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STEP 1: Learn the background to the case

Your first task is to learn more about the historical and immediate facts of the case by consulting other materials relevant to this MysteryQuest:

STEP 2: Identifying underlying factors

The task you have been assigned requires you to look at the historical context of the event. “Historical context” refers to the various factors, conditions, and circumstances operating at the time. Historians will examine the context to understand the underlying reasons why an event happened. This deeper investigation is assisted by considering three factors behind any human action:

  • Individuals: This refers to choices made by individuals, often for personal motives, that contribute to an event.
  • Institutions: This refers to structures and organizations that contribute to an event.
  • Ideas: This refers to societal beliefs or commonly held ideas that contribute to an event.

How these three factors might explain the underlying causes of an event can be seen in the following example:

Suppose a person tells a large group of people a sexist joke that demeans women. The question to ask is “What underlying factors explain why this person told this joke?” An obvious answer would be to focus on the joke-teller. This person made an individual choice to act in this way (Individuals). But is the telling of this kind of joke a symptom of something deeper? Why would the person believe that this kind of joke was acceptable? Perhaps the beliefs and attitudes about women held by many of the people in the audience and in society more generally might encourage this kind of behaviour (Ideas). Others might point to the contributing influences of television and other media that offer sexist portrayals of women, and of organizations such as business, government, school, and church that may not treat women as equals (Institutions).

These three concepts — Individuals, Institutions, and Ideas — identify the range of contributing influences to any action. They are also a tool for identifying solutions because they suggest areas where intervention might occur: at the Individuals level, by dealing with the particular people involved; at the Institutions level, by making structural changes; or at the Ideas level, by trying to change social beliefs.

For more about historians’ search for underlying causes, read the briefing sheet Causal Explanations in History.

STEP 3: Practice applying these factors

The next stage is to practice using these three concepts to analyse a document from the case of William Robinson. Carefully read over the Sample Letter written to the Premier of British Columbia in 1885 by a concerned official living on Salt Spring Island. Look for five elements of the letter that can be analysed in terms of Individuals, Ideas, and Institutions. Decide which of the three factors is suggested by each piece of evidence and explain your thinking. Record your answers on Analysis of Sample Letter. An example is provided on this sheet to help you understand what is required.

STEP 4: Analyse other documents

Now that you have some understanding of the application of these three concepts, you are to analyse other historical documents related to the justice system’s decision to charge an Aboriginal man for the Robinson murder. Follow the same procedure you used when you analysed the sample letter. Look for five pieces of evidence in each of the eight documents listed in the Evidence in the Case section of this MysteryQuest. Identify what kind of factor is in operation for each piece of evidence and explain your thinking. You will need one copy (eight copies in total) of Document Analysis to record your findings for each document.

STEP 5: Assess overall responsibility

Examine all the Document Analysis sheets you have prepared, think about the various pieces of evidence, and analyse them in light of the three factors (some evidence may overlap with two or perhaps all three factors). By looking at all of the information you have assembled, determine to what extent the decision by the justice system to charge an Aboriginal man for Robinson’s murder was influenced by individual actions, by institutional forces, and by common ideas and beliefs. You should not simply count the pieces of evidence for each factor. Consider which actions or conditions would exert the most pressure or influence on this decision. Decide what degree or overall percentage of influence applies to each of the three factors. For example, you might decide that one factor likely contributed one-half (50%) to the decision, and the other two factors contributed equally (25% each).

Construct a pie chart illustrating the percentage allocation for each of the three factors and accompany the chart with written notes that explain the reasons for your allocation. Additional instructions on how to assign percentages and to present this information visually are found in Creating a Pie Chart.

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The evaluation rubric Assessing Inferences Drawn from Evidence may be used to assess how well you were able to identify relevant statements from the historical documents and draw plausible inferences about the underlying factors.

The evaluation rubric Assessing Historical Conclusions may be used to assess your success in providing plausible conclusions, supported with relevant reasons, about the extent of influence of the three factors.

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Did Salt Spring Island have a racial problem?
Look for possible evidence found on maps and graphs to draw a conclusion about the nature and extent of racial tensions on Salt Spring Island. The sources below can be found in the Maps section at The Archives of the MysteryQuest 3 home website:

  • maps that document settlement by ethnicity;
  • graphed evidence from the census of 1881 about mixed race marriages;
  • the graph “Black-White Pre Emption History, 1859-1886.”

Insider profile of race relations
Sylvia Stark was a freed African-American slave who took up land on Salt Spring Island with her husband, her father, and her children in the early 1860s. Read “The recollections of Sylvia Stark”, found in three parts at the MysteryQuest 3 home website, and answer the following question: Did Sylvia Stark think that Salt Spring Island had a racial problem?

Cultural history of the Island
Using the Cast of Characters portion of the website, identify African-American, European, British, or First Nations individuals and write a summary of ‘life in British Columbia’ of that group.

Prejudice in the justice system
Read the different documents found in the Whippings and Hangings section of the MysteryQuest 3 home website. Does this evidence convince you that the justice system in the colony of Vancouver Island was prejudiced against First Nations people? If not, what other evidence, or other kinds of evidence, would you need to be convinced of this?

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Briefing Sheet: Relations Between First Nations People and Settlers

Briefing Sheet: Sample Letter

Activity sheet: Analysis of Sample Letter

Activity sheet: Document Analysis

Briefing Sheet: Creating a Pie Chart

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Newspaper article, “Salt Spring Island”, Daily Press [Victoria], August 31, 1861

Newspaper article, “From Salt Spring”, The Daily Chronicle [Victoria], February 28, 1866

Newspaper article, “The Indian Nuisance at Salt Spring”, British Colonist, March 2, 1869

Diary, Reverend Bishop Hills, September 5-11, 1860

Letter, Jonathan Begg to his family, Salt Spring Island, 1858-1862

Colonial correspondence, Community Petition, December 21, 1868

Chart, “Ethnic Origins of Salt Spring Settlers, 1881 Census”

Published pamphlet, “Salt Spring Island British Columbia, 1895” by Reverend E.F. Wilson of Salt Spring Island