November 22, 2003

Bad Writing and Lord Lytton

Mark Liberman's post on bad writing made me think of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Edward Bulwer-Lytton seems always to come to attention these days as the epitome of bad writers, the author of the infamous passage:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents - except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. (Paul Clifford, 1830)

Personally, I don't think that this passage is so bad - I like it. It seems to me that people have lost the ability to appreciate complex style. But in any case, as a student of the native languages of British Columbia, I'd like to point out that Lord Lytton played a more important role in history. In 1858 and 1859 he served as Colonial Secretary in Lord Derby's government, in which capacity he gave instructions to Sir James Douglas, governor of the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia regarding the conduct of relations with the indigenous peoples of the two colonies. (The correspondance between Lord Lytton and Sir James may be found in British Columbia Papers Connected with the Indian Land Question 1850-1875 (Victoria: The Government Printer, 1875).)

These instructions have figured in several ways in recent litigation over aboriginal rights in British Columbia. On the one hand, the Supreme of Canada in Calder v. Attorney-General of British Columbia (7 C.N.L.C. 91 (SCC)) cited his letters as evidence of delegation of power by the Crown to the colonial government (a position criticized by Bruce Clark in his important but controversial book Native Liberty, Crown Sovereignty at p. 64). On the other hand, his instructions give rather clear evidence that the Crown recognized aboriginal title and took the position that it could only be extinguished with the formal consent of the Indians. This evidence is of some importance since there has been long-standing controversy as to whether the Royal Proclamation of 1763 applied to British Columbia.

The colonization of British Columbia led rapidly to the loss of the indigenous languages. Three languages are already extinct; almost all of the remaining 33 are dying.

Posted by Bill Poser at November 22, 2003 02:15 AM