British North America

Courtesy Ron Good, an article from the New Yorker sure to gin up controversy:

WE COULD HAVE BEEN CANADA

Was the American Revolution such a good idea?

And what if it was a mistake from the start? The Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, the creation of the United States of America—what if all this was a terrible idea, and what if the injustices and madness of American life since then have occurred not in spite of the virtues of the Founding Fathers but because of them? The Revolution, this argument might run, was a needless and brutal bit of slaveholders’ panic mixed with Enlightenment argle-bargle, producing a country that was always marked for violence and disruption and demagogy. Look north to Canada, or south to Australia, and you will see different possibilities of peaceful evolution away from Britain, toward sane and whole, more equitable and less sanguinary countries. No revolution, and slavery might have ended, as it did elsewhere in the British Empire, more peacefully and sooner. No “peculiar institution,” no hideous Civil War and appalling aftermath. Instead, an orderly development of the interior—less violent, and less inclined to celebrate the desperado over the peaceful peasant. We could have ended with a social-democratic commonwealth that stretched from north to south, a near-continent-wide Canada….

Justin du Rivage’s “Revolution Against Empire” (Yale) re-situates the Revolution not as a colonial rebellion against the mother country but as one episode in a much larger political quarrel that swept the British Empire in the second half of the eighteenth century. Basically, du Rivage thinks that the American Revolution wasn’t American. The quarrels that took place in New York and Philadelphia went on with equal ferocity, and on much the same terms, in India and England, and though they got settled by force of arms and minds differently in each place, it was the same struggle everywhere. “Radicalism flourished in Boston, Bristol, and Bengal, while fears of disorder and licentiousness provoked rural elites in both the Hudson Valley and the English shires,” du Rivage writes. “As radical Whigs gained strength in North America, the political culture of the British Empire became increasingly Janus-faced.”

Read the whole thing.

UPDATE: The author asks:

Why is it that, until now, the Civil War cast such a long, bitter shadow, while the Revolution was mostly reimagined as a tale of glory? One reason, too easily overlooked, is that, while many of those who made the Civil War were killed during it, including the Union Commander-in-Chief, none of the makers of the Revolution died fighting in it. The Founding Fathers had rolled the dice and put their heads on the line, but theirs was the experience of eluding the bullet, and, as Churchill said, there is nothing so exhilarating as being shot at without result. Of how many revolutions can it be said that nearly all its makers died in their beds? In the American Revolution, the people who suffered most were not the people who benefitted most, and the lucky ones wrote most of the story. Like everything in history, amnesia has its own causality.

I would go further and suggest that the postwar settlements had a lot to do with it. Former Loyalists were expelled from the new American republic; a lot of them moved to Canada, leaving behind a more ideologically uniform country. The Civil War saw the attempted secession of eleven American states. This attempt failed, but there were simply too many former Confederates to expel them all – reintegrating them into the Union became a priority, at the price of allowing them to wax nostalgic about their Lost Cause for all time.

Fenian Raids!

An article in the National Post today revisits a somewhat-forgotten chapter in Canadian history: the Fenian raids of the 1860s and 70s. These were conducted by the Fenian Brotherhood, a group of American-based Irish republicans who attacked Canada (at the time either a British colony or a dominion of the British empire) in the hopes that they could exchange it for Irish independence. (The title, as many commenters point out, is silly. Just because Osama bin Laden was a Saudi citizen does not mean that Saudi Arabia attacked the United States on 9/11.)

Ireland likes to brag that they’ve never invaded anyone. Too bad they invaded Canada

In 2015, Ireland’s justice minister Frances Fitzgerald attended a Dublin citizenship ceremony and proudly told 73 people that they were now citizens of a country that didn’t invade things.

“Ireland has never invaded any other land, never sought to enslave or occupy,” she told the crowd of newly-minted Irish.

It’s a uniquely Irish boast. On a continent jam-packed with invaders, the Emerald Isle is known to count itself as one of the few that has resisted the urge to charge onto foreign soil and plant a flag or two.

Too bad it’s not true.

Go back 150 years to the frontiers of Canada, and you’ll find no shortage of armed, rowdy, top-hatted militants who would beg to differ that they weren’t an invading army of Irishmen.

“Canada … would serve as an excellent base of operations against the enemy; and its acquisition did not seem too great an undertaking,” wrote Irish nationalist John O’Neill, an architect of what are now known as the Fenian Raids.

The plan was simple: Take a bunch of Irish veterans of the American Civil War, take over Canada and then tell Queen Victoria she could have it back in exchange for an independent Ireland.

That, or the whole thing would just be a good chance to shoot up some relatively undefended British land.

The wildly optimistic planners of the scheme figured they would only need about two weeks to take over Kingston, Toronto and the other major centers of what is now Southern Ontario.

From there, they would commandeer some ships, slap together a navy, sail up the St. Lawrence and demand the surrender of Quebec. Then, once the Atlantic Coast was swarming with Irish privateers, the English would have to deal.

The invasion’s organizers, the Fenian Brotherhood, even began funding the effort by selling bonds that would be promptly repaid by a future Irish Republic.

But like most rebellions throughout Irish history, the “invade Canada” scheme was big on romance but very deficient in strategic planning.

Although the Fenian Brotherhood had envisioned vast columns of battle-hardened Irish-Americans streaming into Canada, their peak showing was only about 1000. Of those, many forgot to bring guns, and many more deserted as soon as they hit Canadian soil.

All told, Fenian conquests added up little more than brief occupations of a customs house, some hills, a few villages and Fort Erie.

More at the link, and at Wikipedia.

Vimy Ridge

The Battle of Vimy Ridge, which took place 100 years ago this coming week, represented an allied victory over the Germans during the First World War. In particular, according to Canadian historian Pierre Berton, it marked the moment when Canada “truly emerged as a nation” – the four Canadian divisions coming together to take a fortified knoll outside Givenchy-en-Gohell and capture some 4000 prisoners. Wikipedia suggests that the nation-building story only came about during the latter part of the twentieth century (i.e. during the 1960s, when the Liberals were trying to downplay Canada’s British connection). Be that as it may, it is clear that the battle, as a rare victory in an otherwise disastrous and pointless war, has become important to Canada’s psyche. The British commanding officer, Field Marshall Julian Byng (elevated to the peerage in 1919 as Baron Byng of Vimy) was appointed Governor General of Canada in 1921, and Vimy Ridge was one of the eight sites granted to Canada for the construction of memorials; Walter Seymour Allward’s winning design was opened by King Edward VIII in 1936.

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Wikipedia.

And check out the Vimy 100 page at the National Post, whose current top story relates the news that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and 25,000 other Canadians are headed to France for ceremonies marking the centenary.

UPDATE: Dartblog covers Vimy Ridge also. Check out the photo of the current $20 bill and the link to Coach’s Corner.

UPDATE: This morning I discovered my Vimy pin. These appeared in the wake of the refurbishment of the monument in 2007.

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Gift of Ron Good.

I also noticed that Mike Babcock was wearing one last night as his team made the playoffs for the first time since 2013. (I don’t know why he wasn’t smiling more).

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Apparently the Vimy pin is now “April’s poppy,” according to the Vimy Foundation website. It proceeds to explain that:

The four coloured boxes represent the four Canadian divisions which fought together for the first time on April 9, 1917 at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The red represents the First Division, the dark blue the Second Division, the grey-blue the Third Division, and the green the Fourth Division. The order of the ribbon’s colours (left to right) reflects the positioning of the four Canadian Divisions facing the German defences on the day of the battle.

Disasters

• What caused the Bronze Age Collapse? Eric Cline, author of 1177, gives an interview about it:

The urge to find a single explanation as the cause for such calamitous events seems to come from a modern human need for an easy explanation as often as possible. Certainly some of the members of the general public who have left reviews of my book on Amazon seem to want that still, and are miffed that I even-handedly go through the evidence and then conclude that there isn’t a simple solution. I actually think that it is far more interesting to delve into a multi-causal explanation, because in this case Occam’s Razor (that the simplest solution is the most likely) just won’t cut it. Although I think it seemed very logical to early scholars like Gaston Maspero and others to blame the Sea Peoples, they originally formulated that hypothesis based on Ramses III’s inscription at Medinet Habu and not much else. But, it has long been clear that it took much more than a single cause to bring down the Bronze Age civilizations. As you point out, the mere fact that the inland empires like Kassite Babylonia, Elam, and Assyria also declined shows that we can’t just blame the Sea Peoples for everything, much as one might want to do so.

Thus, my main thesis is that there must have been a ‘perfect storm’ of calamitous events at that turning point in order to cause the Late Bronze Age civilizations to collapse shortly after 1200 BC. There is both direct and circumstantial evidence that there was climate change, drought and famine, earthquakes, invasions and internal rebellions, all at that approximate time. Of these, I would rank them in that specific order of importance: climate change; drought and famine; earthquakes; invaders; and internal rebellions. Although human beings have survived such catastrophes time and again when they come individually, such as rebuilding after an earthquake or living through a drought, what if they all occurred at once, or in quick succession?

• From the National Post:

Everyone was dead: When Europeans first came to British Columbia, they stepped into the aftermath of a holocaust

Everywhere they looked, there were corpses. Abandoned, overgrown villages were littered with skulls; whole sections of coastline strewn with bleached, decayed bodies.

“The skull, limbs, ribs and backbones, or some other vestiges of the human body, were found in many places, promiscuously scattered about the beach in great numbers,” wrote explorer George Vancouver in what is now Port Discovery, Wash.

It was May 1792. The lush environs of the Georgia Strait had once been among the most densely populated corners of the land that is now Canada, with humming villages, harbours swarming with canoes and valleys so packed with cookfires that they had smog.

But the Vancouver Expedition experienced only eerie quiet….

“News reached them from the east that a great sickness was travelling over the land, a sickness that no medicine could cure, and no person escape,” said a man identified as Old Pierre, a member of what is now the Katzie First Nation in Pitt Meadows, B.C.

After an emergency meeting, the doomed forebears of the Katzie decided to face the coming catastrophe with as much grace as they could muster: Every adult returned to the home of their parents to wait for the end.

“Then the wind carried the smallpox sickness among them. Some crawled away into the woods to die; many died in their homes,” Old Pierre told the anthropologist Diamond Jenness in 1936.

• Just over one hundred years ago, the steamer Eastland overturned in the Chicago River, killing some 800 people. From the History Channel website:

The disaster was caused by serious problems with the boat’s design, which were known but never remedied.

The Eastland was owned by the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company and made money ferrying people from Chicago to picnic sites on the shores of Lake Michigan. When the Eastland was launched in 1903, it was designed to carry 650 passengers, but major construction and retrofitting in 1913 supposedly allowed the boat to carry 2,500 people. That same year, a naval architect presciently told officials that the boat needed work, stating unless structural defects are remedied to prevent listing, there may be a serious accident.

On July 24, employees of Western Electric Company were heading to an annual picnic. About 7,300 people arrived at 6 a.m. at the dock between LaSalle and Clark streets to be carried out to the site by five steamers. While bands played, much of the crowd—perhaps even more than the 2,500 people allowed—boarded the Eastland. Some reports indicate that the crowd may also have all gathered on one side of the boat to pose for a photographer, thus creating an imbalance on the boat. In any case, engineer Joseph Erikson opened one of the ballast tanks, which holds water within the boat and stabilizes the ship, and the Eastland began tipping precariously.

Some claim that the crew of the boat jumped back to the dock when they realized what was happening. What is known for sure is that the Eastlandcapsized right next to the dock, trapping hundreds of people on or underneath the large ship. Rescuers quickly attempted to cut through the hull with torches, allowing them to pull out 40 people alive. More than 800 others perished. Police divers pulled up body after body, causing one diver to break down in a rage. The city sent workers out with a large net to prevent bodies from washing out into the lake. Twenty-two entire families died in the tragedy.

John Diefenbaker

From the National Post, re: John Diefenbaker, Prime Minister of Canada 1957-63:

The bizarre reason John Diefenbaker is entombed in concrete: He was afraid enemies would steal his corpse

There’s only one definite way to figure out if John Diefenbaker really did father illegitimate children; dig him up, extract a DNA sample and perform a paternity test.

It’s unlikely that any judge would allow the exhumation of an official National Historic Person. But there’s another, more technical, barrier at play: John Diefenbaker cannot be exhumed.

After the 13th Prime Minister was consigned to the earth on August 22, 1979, the coffins of he and his wife Olive were then covered over with a healthy layer of wet cement — at least according to one account of his life and well-choreographed funeral.

In the 1995 book Trumpets and Drums, Diefenbaker associate Dick Spencer wrote that “the final service rendered Dief by Saskatoon funeral attendants was the pouring of wet cement into his grave, around and onto the casket below.”

Spencer’s description remains one of the only surviving accounts of the unusual measure.

The reason, according to the book, was that Diefenbaker was worried about having his body stolen. Specifically, he had been spooked by an 1876 criminal plot to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body that was foiled at the last minute by an undercover Secret Service agent.

After that, Honest Abe was interred in a steel cage encased by concrete.

“What many weren’t aware of was the Chief’s fascination with Abraham Lincoln’s rites,” wrote Spencer.

“Lincoln had been so protected in his final resting place. Dief requested, and was given, the same precaution.”

More at the link.

Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion

My friend Bruce Patterson sends me a blog post about the Canadian Cyclist Corps in the First World War.

The Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion was formed from the Canadian Divisional Cyclist Companies and existed from May 1916 until the battalion was disbanded on 15 November 1920.  Ironically, the “gas-pipe cavalry” was done-in by peace and not war.  As has been outlined in other historical texts, the Cyclists were an instrumental unit of Brigadier-General Raymond Brutinel’s “Independent Force” (also known as the Canadian Automobile Machine Gun Brigade or simply “Brutinel’s Brigade”) in the 100-Day offensive which brought about the conclusion of the First World War, and the Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion distinguished themselves in the offensive.  Today, the Intelligence Branch of the Canadian Armed Forces perpetuates the Canadian Cyclists as they were originally formed from the Corps of Guides troops massed at Valcartier Camp, outside Quebec City, and were intended to fill what we would recognize today as a tactical field intelligence/reconnaissance role on the battlefield.

Of particular interest is their recruiting poster. Bruce writes: “In terms of sugar-coating the reality of the Western Front, this can’t be beat.”

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Desiring a Better Motto

The Order of Canada was established in 1967 as part of Canada’s centennial celebration. It was to be a native equivalent of the various British orders of merit, in particular the Order of the British Empire. If you’re interested, see my friend Chris McCreery’s book for more.

The motto of the Order of Canada is “Desiderantes Meliorem Patriam,” that is, “They desire a better country.” If you’re in the Order at any level, and you’ve got a coat of arms, you can insert a circlet bearing this motto around your shield. This is a British tradition: motto-circlets were invented so that members of other orders (e.g. the Order of the Bath, the Order of St. Michael and St. George, the Royal Victorian Order, etc.) could have something to put around their shields parallel to the Garter, the device of the oldest and most prestigious order of all; Canada continued this tradition, especially after the establishment of the Canadian Heraldic Authority in 1988. From Wikipedia, two illustrations of this phenomenon:

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Coat of arms of HM the Queen in right of the United Kingdom. As the Queen is sovereign of the Order of the Garter, the Garter, bearing the motto “Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense,” encircles her shield.

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Coat of arms of HM the Queen in right of Canada. Note motto-circlet bearing “Desiderantes Meliorem Patriam” around the shield.

Now, I’m all for tradition! And I’m happy for the existence of the Order of Canada, the CHA, and the heraldic motto-circlet. But the other day in church something caught my attention: a reading from Hebrews 11 (verse 16):

But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.

So, I wondered as I sat there, is this where the motto of the Order of Canada comes from? (Just as the motto of the country itself, “A Mari Usque Ad Mare,” comes from Psalm 72.) Alas, no: here is verse 16 from the Vulgate:

nunc autem meliorem appetunt id est caelestem ideo non confunditur Deus vocari Deus eorum paravit enim illis civitatem

“Meliorem” picks up on “patriam” from two verses earlier, but look at the verb: appeto -ere, meaning “to make for, grasp at, seek, (of places) to make for or go to,” not desidero -are, which means “to long for what is absent or lost, to wish for; to miss, find a lack of.” I guess the word “desiderata” (things desired) also fits in this sense, because you don’t have those things yet. So members of the Order are desiring a country that doesn’t yet exist, or once existed but does not anymore? Surely this is not what the government wants to imply! Should we therefore introduce a resolution to the House of Commons changing the Order’s motto to “Appetentes meliorem patriam,” implying that members are seeking a better country, even though the one they have is still pretty good – and also making the motto congruent with a biblical source?

I have enough experience with making these sorts of suggestions to know what the answer would be… still, one can always dream….

Farley Mowat

My hometown of Port Hope, Ontario has had a number of notable residents, among them Joseph Scriven (author of the hymn “What a Friend we have in Jesus”), artist David Blackwood, impresario and explorer William Leonard Hunt (the Great Farini), and author Farley Mowat, who died in 2014. I remember seeing Mowat around town, and everyone knew the story about him mooning the guests at a banquet, by means of illustrating that no underclothes were worn under a kilt. Now Chris Robert, a high school teacher of mine, sends me images of a monument constructed to honor Mowat and moved this past weekend to its current site on the east bank of the Ganaraska River. You can see Port Hope’s town hall in the background.

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Photo: Chris Robert

Why an upside-down boat, you ask? Well, this is a reference to Mowat’s book The Farfarers (1998), which impressed the Port Hope Friends of Farley Mowat. From the plinth:

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Photo: Chris Robert

I had never heard of this before, and I confess that the passive-voice construction “are believed” in the first paragraph made me suspicious (Wikipedians will automatically insert a superscripted [by whom?] whenever they find stuff like this). Moreover, there is a long tradition of imagining the arrival of pre-Columbian explorers to the Americas for various reasons – is this just the latest example? Who were these people, and what exactly did Thomas Lee discover on the Ungava Peninsula?

I do not have a copy of The Farfarers to hand, although you can look inside the book at Amazon. According to the summary at Wikipedia, Mowat claims that even before the Vikings, settlers from the island of Orkney, chasing walrus ivory, reached Iceland, then Greenland, and then arctic Canada. Mowat calls these settlers Albans, after “Alba,” a Gaelic name for Scotland, and believes they were the descendants of the prehistoric inhabitants of the British Isles, pushed to the fringes by Celts and then Romans. Thomas Lee was an archaeologist at Laval University; his excavations on the Ungava Peninsula uncovered stone building foundations that Lee thought were temporary shelters built by Vikings around the year 1000, the same time as their settlement of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Lee also found a stone landmark that he dubbed the Hammer of Thor on the assumption that it too was Viking, although it could simply have been an Inuit inukshuk. So it seems that Mowat was reinterpreting Lee’s data – Lee did not originate the theory of the Albans.

Thus, it probably comes as no surprise that the editors of Canadian Geographic designated The Farfarers as “highly speculative” and noted that “no professional archeologists are known to share Mowat’s theories.” Stuart Brown of Memorial University noted the “small problem” of a complete lack of “reasonably compelling evidence,” with the book being “entertaining as fiction, [but] far from convincing as fact.” As much as I hate to run down a hometown hero, these assessments are probably accurate. Mowat did indeed have a reputation of never letting the facts ruin a good story. I recall a 1996 cover story in (the now sadly defunct) Saturday Night magazine, with Farley Mowat as Pinocchio.

farleymowatsatniteReporter John Goddard investigated the research and composition of Mowat’s bestselling book Never Cry Wolf, and discovered quite a few things that he simply made up.

As a historian, I confess that I cannot approve of this schtick….

Ho for the Hols

• In honour of Canada Day (yesterday), a rendition of the Royal Arms of Canada from a 50-cent piece from 1946. I always liked the style of this one.

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“KG” = Kruger Gray. I like how this one has a real compartment (actual ground that the supporters are standing on), as opposed to the rose-thistle-shamrock-lily “bouquet” that one normally sees. I also like the omission of the motto, helmet, mantling, and crest, and and the depiction of the old-style “Imperial” crown. The maple keys on the branch are a nice touch.

• Also, don’t forget that today is America’s real Independence Day! (And the Millennium didn’t really begin until 2001!)