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The Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps

In 1859 when the colony’s volunteer Fire Brigade was being formed, several Black men volunteered to serve; but were rejected. These men then approached Governor Douglas to offer their services as a volunteer militia unit.

About 20 members of the Victoria Pioneer Rifles Corp stand in their ranks with the British flag in the background

Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps standing in their ranks, March 1864

With the possibility of a war between the United States and Canada over ownership of the San Juan Islands, which became known as the Pig War, Governor Douglas accepted their offer.

By the spring of 1860, 40 to 50 Black men were enrolled in the VPRC and were officially sworn in July, 1861. The Royal Navy supplied drill sergeants and the Corps built a drill house.

They were fully supported by the Black community, but financial support from the government was minimal and requests for monetary assistance, and even reliable weaponry went unheeded.

When Sir James Douglas retired as Governor, they were not allowed to officially attend his farewell banquet; and were refused permission to attend the reception for the incoming Governor Kennedy; and this marked the end of the VPRC.  British Colonist May 30, 1864: “parading in full strength to pay respects to Governor Kennedy. Governor Kennedy reviewed the company and in his address he regretted that he was compelled to refuse to give them official recognition, as there was no authority for their existence now that the Hudson’s Bay Company’s administrative posts were at an end, I  would advise you to disband.”

By the Spring of 1865 the group had disbanded. While their military presence was not fully utilized, their drill hall became a place for community meetings and social gatherings.  On this occasion “To raise funds to establish a public library for the colored people of Victoria”.

newspaper article

Notice in the British Colonist: February 26, 1866

Victoria Black People’s Society. “A Catalogue of Information and Sources of Information Pertaining to Blacks in British Columbia”, 1978;
Victoria Newspaper Archives.

The Pig War, so-named because it was triggered by the shooting of a pig; was a confrontation from 1859 until 1872 between the United States and United Kingdom over the British–U.S. border in the San Juan Islands, which lie between Vancouver Island and the State of Washington.