Who Killed William Robinson? Race, Justice, and Settling the Land—A Historical Whodunit
Created by Ruth Sandwell and John Lutz; redesigned in 2000 by Patrick Szpak and the staff of the Humanities Computing Media Center, University of Victoria, B.C.
Reviewed January 2004.
In 1868, William Robinson, an African American, was murdered on Salt Spring Island in the British colony of British Columbia. Two other members of the island’s African American refugee community were killed in 1867 and 1868, but only Robinson’s death led to a trial. In 1869, Tshuanhusset, a Penelekut Indian, was convicted and hanged. Despite that outcome, the evidence fails definitively to establish Tshuanhusset’s guilt. The identity of Robinson’s killer is, true to the site’s title, a historical whodunit, a mystery that offers an effective hook with which to draw users into an exploration of frontier society and the nature of historical research.
This site is a well-conceived teaching tool. It shuns recounting the story of the murder in favor of providing several hundred pages of transcribed newspaper reports, letters, diaries, oral histories, official correspondence, and court records related to Robinson’s murder, together with several dozen photographs, images, and maps. That material also provides a picture of life in a community populated not only by African Americans, aboriginals, and British settlers but also by Hawaiians and a variety of Europeans. Users sifting this material for clues to Robinson’s murder confront ambiguous and contradictory evidence that challenges them to read critically and to come to terms with the different ways in which individuals thought and behaved in the past. Each document links to a pop-up window “About the Source,” an outstanding feature that provides guidance on how to approach evidence in the form of information on the document’s origins, why and how it can be used in historical analysis, and where it can be found.
The site’s presentation of sources has some limitations. All the documents appear as transcriptions; there are no images of the originals to showcase the difficulties of transcribing handwriting, as is done so effectively in DoHistory. Nor are there any images of newspapers to show the context in which particular stories appeared. The sources also appear in isolation, with the section of the site devoted to historians' interpretations password-protected. That feature gives instructors control over what their students see but at the considerable cost of implying that the work of other historians is marginal to the process of historical analysis.
The redesigned site is clearly laid out and easily navigated. There is disappointingly little use of hypertext, however. The only links included within the documents are to useful pop-up descriptions of the cast of characters. There are no links between documents, or between the four sections of the site: the Murder, Historical Contexts, the Archives, and Interpretations. That absence of connections is particularly damaging to the effort to provide contexts for the murder. While there is a wealth of material on settler society, murders, and hangings in the contexts section of the site, there is no guidance on how to relate that material to the murder. As a result, most students will quickly abandon this section in favor of material directly related to the murder.
Although students will find this fascinating site little help in grasping the importance and significance of context, they will learn much from it about archival sources and their analysis and about frontier society in British Columbia. Best of all, each will almost certainly come to a different conclusion about who killed William Robinson.
University of Sydney