Seven Shillings a Year: The History of Vancouver Island


248 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-920663-03-6




Reviewed by David T. McNab

David T. McNab was Senior Indian Land Claims Researcher, Toronto.


Charles Lillard, poet and popular historian, a British Columbian currently residing in Victoria, has written a number of popular histories of British Columbia. Seven Shillings a Year, which began as a “historical sketch,” covers the period from pre-contact to the onset of World War II. Notwithstanding the author’s introduction on “The West-Coast People,” his approach to the history of the island is liberal, progressive, and colonial: “Not one of the major events that shaped Vancouver Island’s history grew from native soil. All were external and while some were more important than others, to ignore one is to throw the others out of kilter.” To be sure, to deny the British imperial context of Vancouver Island’s history would be wrong; to disavow the other part of the story is also misleading.

This narrative, for there is little overt analysis, is uneven and inconsistent. It also contains, from a native perspective, a number of remarkable assertions. The author apparently has eschewed native oral traditions and relied on European written records. He clearly considers his own cultural bias to be the only viable one. Thus, there are non-sequiturs, as when the author states that the “basic purpose” of the potlatch was “increasing the family’s social status,” and also that “although there was a great deal more to the potlatch than this, this is what many Europeans saw in the latter half of the nineteenth century. There were many reasons for potlatching” (emphasis is added). To compare Nootka “religion” and “shamanism” with “modern Mardi Gras celebrations” is unfortunate and trivializes native culture. Moreover, why is it “surprising” that a “large number of Nooka Shamen were women?” Why is it that “as a profession, Shamanism was the only way in the earliest years of bettering one’s social position substantially”?

This book concentrates on the late eighteenth-and the nineteenth-century history of Vancouver Island. The early twentieth century is dealt with quite unsatisfactorily, in about 40 pages. Although this emphasis reflects, in part, the preponderance of the historiography of the island, it also illustrates the difficulties of periodizing the history of British Columbia and Vancouver Island. The author concludes that, notwithstanding the continued presence of native people, the history of British Columbia is in “four relatively distinct periods”: e.g. “Fur Trade and Exploration (1740s-1860s), the Gold Rush Era (1840s-1890s), Urbanization and Industrialization (1870s-1920s) and Metropolis (1920- ).” There are some good photographs and other illustrations included in the text but the maps are unclear.

Seven Shillings must be used with caution. There are a number of errors, inconsistencies, and unsubstantiated statements in the text. And Lillard’s attitude toward cultures other than his own is unfortunate. But this book is not without merit. James Douglas’s career, the coal and gold discoveries, agricultural settlement and natural resource exploitation in the late nineteenth century are well described. There is an interesting account of opium and “two opium factories” at #24 and #32 Cormorant Street in Victoria. There is a place in Canadian historiography for popular history such as Seven Shillings a Year. However, despite its merits, this book is clearly not the history of Vancouver Island. That history remains to be written.



Lillard, Charles, “Seven Shillings a Year: The History of Vancouver Island,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed September 28, 2022,