Who was Maggie Sutlej? Humanitarian aid group reaches out to Ahousaht 150 years after wartime abduction of child

Denise Titian, October 11, 2018

The story of a young Ahousaht girl who was “adopted” during British attacks on Ahousaht villages in the 1860s is unfolding through a connection that has developed between the First Nation and a Sikh charitable organization. (Submitted archive photo)

Vancouver Island — 

A little Ahousaht girl poses for a formal portrait. It is the early 1860s and she is dressed in the finest Victorian era dress complete with lacy petticoat and boots. She clasps a little basket of flowers. Her hair, parted in the middle, is slicked back into a bun, showing off her round cheeks, still plump from early childhood. She is not smiling and her eyes betray a haunting sadness.

She was taken from her home in Ahousaht during a war between her people and the Royal Navy. The story being told is that she was pulled from beneath the body of her mother after a battle in Ahousaht and given to the admiral’s wife.

Her story starts in August of 1864 when a trading sloop called the Kingfisher anchored in Matilda Inlet, just outside of the present day village of Maaqtusiis (Ahousaht). The Daily Colonist, a Victoria-based newspaper, reported that the three-man crew was attacked and killed by a group of 12 Ahousaht men, led by Chief Cap-chah. The reason for the attack is not clear.

Retaliation from Victoria was swift as Vancouver Island Governor Arthur Kennedy directed the Royal Navy, stationed in Esquimalt, to dispatch a boat to Clayoquot Sound to investigate.

The colonizers believed that the motive was greed. But history tells us that the trade vessels that bartered with coastal First Nations were not always honourable.

“[G]rowing tensions, suspicion and acts of verbal and physical abuse on the parts of coastal traders towards First Nations on the coast may well have served to provoke the attack,” wrote David Griffiths, executive director of the Tonquin Foundation.

In addition to the pre-existing tensions, Captain Stevenson of the Kingfisher had been prosecuted in 1863 for illegal whiskey trading with the First Nations communities.

A series of events followed where Royal Navy ships attempted to land in Ahousaht villages to demand the surrender of Chief Cap-chah and his men, but they were not successful. They resorted to attacking Ahousaht villages; firing cannon balls, burning longhouses, destroying canoes and killing people.

Following the attacks in October 1864 it was reported that 15 Ahousahts had been killed, 11 Ahousaht prisoners were taken, including Chief Cap-chah’s wife and child, and nine villages were destroyed.

In the aftermath of one of the attacks, a little Ahousaht toddler girl was pulled from beneath her mother’s body and taken prisoner aboard the HMS Sutlej.

According to information at the Royal British Columbia Museum, she was ‘adopted’ by Admiral Denman’s wife and renamed Margrette Sutlej Davis, after the Admiral’s wife, the ship she spent the rest of her life on and after Corporal Davis who worked aboard the HMS Sutlej.

History says that she was adored by all and was spoilt by everyone she encountered. She never made it back home, having died at sea off the coast of Chile about two years later. She was buried at sea.

More than 150 years later a man living in Victoria, B.C., was intrigued by a street name he encountered in Cook Street Village. Sutlej Street brought Jatinder Singh back to his heritage in India and it had a special, spiritual meaning for him.

“I thought it was cute that there was a street named after a river in Punjab,” he said.

He didn’t think any more about it until Victoria City Council started talking about reconciliation with Canada’s Aboriginal population. In their discussions, Sutlej Street came up amongst other Victoria-area street names that might be deemed offensive to the Aboriginal community.

It was then that he learned about the history of the name Sutlej as it pertains to Vancouver Island.

For Singh, the name Sutlej has special meaning. The word Punjab means five rivers and Sutlej is one of the five rivers.

“It is extremely important because the ashes of at least three gurus are in the Sutlej River and its shoreline is dotted with Sikh temples,” said Singh. “It is associated with many Sikh historical events – it has lots of significance,”

One of the things the Sikh Empire had in common with the Ahousaht is that it also fought the British Royal Navy during the 1840’s.

“Punjab lost to the British Empire in the Battle of Sutlej and became a colony of the British Empire,” Singh said.

HMS Sutlej was itself named to celebrate the British East India Company’s win at the Battle of the Sutlej against the Sikh Empire, and led to the colonisation of the Punjab.

“So when this child, pulled from under her dead mother, was named Maggie Sutlej, I thought, wow, it just gets worse and worse,” said Singh.

“We were very distraught to hear that the HMS Sutlej was used to destroy a number of Ahousaht villages in the 1860s…which also led to the loss of many lives…we are equally horrified to hear that a girl who was found under her dead mother at Maaqtusiis was ‘adopted’ by Rear Admiral Denmans’s wife and renamed Maggie Sutlej,” Singh said in an email message to Ahousaht Chief Councillor Greg Louie.

“She is almost forgotten to history and an early example of children kidnapped from their families and westernized,” he went on to say.

Because of their reverence for the Sutlej name, Singh and the Khalsa Aid Canada proposed to Ahousaht a project that they could collaborate on.

“We want to build a friendship,” said Singh. He said that Sikh people have been in Canada for more than 100 years and even though they had nothing to do with the captivity of little Maggie or her death, they wish to reach out to Ahousaht to learn each other’s history and build relationships.

“It is our desire to partner with the Ahousaht nation through an annual donation towards a mutually agreed upon project,” wrote Singh. He told Ha-Shilth-Sa that the projects could be youth programs or assistance with their search and rescue training and equipment.

They propose that the project be called the Maggie Sutlej Project. The idea is remove the negative connotations that have been attached to the Sutlej name.

Chief Greg Louie has accepted the invitation to meet with Khalsa Aid to discuss plans. Khalsa Aid is an NGO charity that provides humanitarian aid around the world, including disaster areas and civil conflict zones. The organisation performs its work based upon the Sikh principles of recognising all of the human race as one, selfless service and universal love. They rely on donations and also raise funds through gala events.

On Oct. 10 Khalsa Aid Canada issued a press release announcing the launch of The Maggie Sutlej Ahousaht Project, in collaboration with the Ahousaht nation in the spirit of reconciliation and healing.

Chief Louie was pleased with Khalsa Aid Canada’s offer of friendship.

“You know, we hear the words nation-to-nation, government-to-government – nice words but where’s the action?” he asked. “This project is about a new relationship with the Sikh community, it means remembering the history and it shows that we can work together and get along with other cultures.”

“We were saddened to hear of Maggie Sutlej’s story and reached out to the Ahousaht. The culmination of this was the Maggie Sutlej Ahousaht Project, which will keep memory of her alive and bring our two communities together,” said Singh.

Little Maggie, whose real name couldn’t be identified, was buried at sea off the coast of Chile, probably in 1866. A monument that bears an inscription of her name, along with other sailors that lost their lives aboard the HMS Sutlej, stands in a cemetery in Victoria.

An inscription on the monument recalls, “The Little Indian Girl Maggie Sutlej who was Captured During the Indian Outbreak on the West Coast in 1864…who Afterwards Died at Sea.”

A gala fundraiser had been organized by Alberni Valley friends of Khalsa Aid Canada. One such event will take place in Parksville on Oct. 26. A delegation from Ahousaht is expected to attend.