Researchers at the University of Victoria are bringing to light the early history of colonial British Columbia by painstakingly transcribing the mass of 19th-century correspondence between the colony and London, and placing it online.
These colonial dispatches, covering the period from 1846 to 1871, contain valuable new information previously inaccessible to historians. But the documents are aged and worn, and the calligraphy is often hard to decipher. Adding to the difficulty, the researchers are working from microfilmed copies – the originals are archived in Ottawa and the United Kingdom.
Jim Hendrickson, now an emeritus professor, began the project in the 1970s. Martin Holmes, the programmer behind the current conversion, says it took someone “incredibly resourceful and energetic” to take on the daunting task. There are 54 reels of microfilm, 500 to 600 pages each.
However, Dr. Hendrickson’s hard work was nearly lost. Just before the university’s last IBM mainframe was to be shut down, his seven years’ worth of transcriptions – in a dated software format – were discovered by one of his former students.
After a year of transcribing this work to a modern format, historians and volunteers are now posting the documents onto a public website (bcgenesis.uvic.ca), as a resource for researchers, lawyers and the merely curious.
Dr. Hendrickson continues to work diligently by writing introductory material and footnotes for the texts. He says he decided to start decoding the dispatches because no one completely understood the evolution of British Columbia. “I set to figure it out,” he says.
Among his discoveries was that colonial governor James Douglas, known as the “father” of the province, was fired from his post rather than retired, as was previously thought.
UVic history professor John Lutz says with proper funding it will take at least another three years to complete the project. Without it, he says, they’re looking at more than five years.