The Empire Writes Back

I mentioned below that there was always a strain of anti-British, republican sentiment among the denizens of British North America. The most glaring expression of this occurred in 1837-38, when simultaneous rebellions broke out in Upper and Lower Canada, led by William Lyon Mackenzie and Joseph Papineau respectively.* In contrast to the republican experiment of the United States, the British had set up colonial administrations that attempted to replicate the social conditions of rural England, with a local “aristocracy” holding power and everyone else minding their station. Needless to say, as the nineteenth century wore on, this setup became less and less tolerable to ordinary people, and by 1837 a significant number of them had had enough of the “Family Compact” and “Château Clique,” derogatory nicknames for the regimes that ran Upper and Lower Canada. These rebellions were not successful, although they did inspire a number of reforms

When studying the history of your own country, you can become somewhat myopic. That is, you assume that since this is your history, it’s only interesting to you and your fellow citizens, and only really influenced the subsequent events in your own country. But people forget that local happenings often have an international impact. This was especially true within the British Empire, in which events in the metropole affected the colonies… and events in the colonies could reverberate throughout the empire. Apparently the Rebels of 1837 had a lot of British fans, particularly among the Chartists, that is, supporters of the People’s Charter of 1838, who thought that the Great Reform Act of 1832 had not gone far enough. Chartists demanded universal male suffrage, the secret ballot, proper salaries (and no property qualifications) for MPs, constituencies of equal population size, and annual elections. It is worth noting that eventually every one of these demands, except the last, was met – although not without the threat of serious violence always lurking in the background. 

From Stephen Basdeo, I was pleased to learn about the Chartist song “On, On! Ye Brave Canadians!“, written by one “S.R.G.” and published in London in 1839. I reprint it, and the author’s explanatory note, in their entirety:

On, on! ye brave Canadians, with Freedom’s flag unfurl’d,
Shout hatred to Usurpers, to the despots of the world;
Long may ye stand, ye gallant band—make ramparts of your slain,
And drive the hireling scoundrels to their Island Hell again.

Up, up! ye honest riflemen, bold freemen of the States,
And aid your brothers in the strife their Mother Hag creates;
Bring over hempen-neckerchiefs for every bully’s neck,
And string or shoot them one and all, from Huron to Quebec.

The millions of the British Isles are with ye, heart and soul—
But, oh! their country’s destinies are wrench’d from their control;
They’d rather that Britannia’s flag should down to dust be hurl’d,
Than be, as ’tis, protection to the tyrants of the world.

Up!—French and British—both are men—both children of one sire,—
And both alas! are buried to their chins in British mire!
Then, on! ye brave Canadians, despite their martial law,
Nine glorious cheers for LIBERTY and three for PAPINEAU!

There is no country on the face of the earth where despotisms prevails with more horrible atrocity than in Canada. We can well conceive the sort of sympathies entertained by the Melbourne and Russell government, when they permitted that splendid colony to be devastated by inhuman fiends, whose names shall be consigned to eternal infamy, as samples of the cannibal spirit of aristocratic domination. May our beneficent CREATOR grant that the British People may yet prove the liberators of the brave, bleeding, and prostrate Canadians!

Other poems in the collection include “A Rhyme for Canada” (“The rifle is heard, and the flag is unfurl’d, A land to be free is a boon to the world”), “The Canadian Exile’s Invocation to his Country,” and “Canadian Ode to Liberty”:

When the proud land of Britain would sternly maintain
Over far distant lands her tyrannical reign;
When she sends forth her slaves to destroy Freedom’s sons,
May each slave that she sends prove a mark for their guns.

It’s always flattering to learn that your country is more consequential than you thought. I note that a proposed British republican flag was simply an inverted Patriote flag. (Although I don’t endorse all these sentiments. I would not describe the Upper Canadian government as a “despotism” ruling with “horrible atrocity,” for instance.)

* Canada’s contribution to the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War took the name “Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion,” or “Mac-Paps.”

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