Glimpses of Canada in 1817
Fifty years before Confederation, the land we now call “Canada” consisted of the colonies of British North America: Upper Canada (southern Ontario), Lower Canada (southern Quebec), New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. British North America also included Rupert’s Land, which was nominally owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company and encompassed what is today northern Quebec, northern and western Ontario, all of Manitoba, most of Saskatchewan, south and central Alberta, and parts of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Through the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company, the British also had a permanent presence in what is now British Columbia. In practice, vast tracts of Canada were populated solely or mainly by aboriginal peoples. Here are some glimpses of Canada in 1817.
Newfoundland’s deplorable condition
Newfoundland had a terrible year. There had been massive Irish immigration to the colony between 1811 and 1816, due to Newfoundland’s prosperity during the Napoleonic Wars. Then, in 1815, the cod fishery collapsed, and in 1816, the harvest failed. As noted in a letter written in St. John’s on April 5, 1817:
Our condition in this island, generally, is deplorable: the consequence must be serious, if relief is not received from some quarter soon. All the stores here are completely empty. The surplus of provisions that were in the navy store is exhausted, and we have but a few tierces of flour to receive from the commissariat stores. Families of the first respectability are drained of the provisions they laid in for their own support. There are 2500 people supported by the charitable institutions, 1000 others by the inhabitants, in messes, where they get a dinner every day: biscuit is baked from the flour we receive from the king’s stores, and sold by small quantities, to such as are able to purchase. The whole of our stock is not sufficient to support us 3 weeks. (1)
To make matters worse, on November 7 and November 21, 1817, fire swept through St. John’s, destroying some 300 homes and businesses. The following was written by a St. John’s resident a week after the first blaze.
The news of the almost total destruction of our town by fire will no doubt have reached you before the arrival of this….
The real state and character of Newfoundland have been but little considered, and not at all appreciated in Great Britain, except by a few who have been immediately concerned in its trade. The barren rocks, the uncultivated inland, and the rigours of a long winter, with its produce only in the contemptible article of salt fish, have given an idea in England that such a place is hardly worth the notice of the mother country…. But never did any impression go upon a more false principle: for notwithstanding all the seeming disadvantages of climate and soil, Newfoundland, with its fish produce, together with oil and fur, stands forth as the emporium of British North America; and in the fall of St. John’s, the colonies have lost their metropolis. Halifax and Quebec, with their appended provinces, cannot supply the deficiency, nor answer for the loss to the British Empire. The Canadas, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Cape Breton, and Prince Edward Island have each an independent regular government: these provinces contain a population of about 300,000; the population of Newfoundland is about 80,000, and for these no regular government is provided, although the state of society in St. John’s, and some of the out harbours, is such as to demand all the assistance of a well-digested legislation, and a vigorous police. In the different ranks of society, shocking scenes of vice, intemperance, and excess have been witnessed, which have threatened ten thousand times over the most awful consequences….
It is now (15th Nov.) eight days since the dreadful catastrophe, and no measures have been taken by government to bring a vigorous system to bear against the horrors of the fast coming winter. We had but a short stock of provisions in store before the fire: much, very much of this is destroyed. St. John’s is full of people; and thousands must be fed by charity…..
It is a fact well known that this country is almost peopled by Roman Catholics, chiefly of the lower orders from Ireland. The depredations committed during the fire by these unhappy people were enormous; and were it not for the activity and vigilance of the priests, little of this plunder would be restored. But then what a sad reflection! … The Christian priesthood rallying round their standard a banditti of plunderers, and administering the ordinances of religion to a herd of vagabonds and incendiaries. It is this influence which the priests have over their people, which renders their services so valuable in the eyes of the Magistrates; for the priests are our police officers, rather than are the appointed agents of Government; and we are taught to believe that we are more indebted to the Catholic Priests for our safety and comfort, than to any other class of men in the island. (2)
Rustic Lower Canada
Lieutenant Francis Hall, a member of Britain’s 14th Regiment of Light Dragoons, travelled from Albany to Montreal in the winter of 1816-1817. Upon arriving in Lower Canada, he wrote:
Nothing could be more Siberian than the aspect of the Canadian frontier: a narrow road, choked with snow, led through a wood, in which patches were occasionally cleared, on either side, to admit the construction of a few log-huts, round which a brood of ragged children, a starved pig, and a few half-broken rustic implements, formed an accompaniment more suited to an Irish landscape than to the thriving scenes we had just quitted. The Canadian peasant is still the same unsophisticated animal whom we may suppose to have been imported by Jacques Cartier…. Now, too, the frequent cross by the road side, thick-studded with all the implements of crucifixional torture, begins to indicate a Catholic country: distorted virgins and ghastly saints decorate each inn room, while the light spires of the parish church, covered with plates of tin, glitter across the snowy plain. … We found the inns neat and the people attentive; French politesse began to be contrasted with American bluntness. … [T]he most prominent trait in the character of this people, is an attachment to whatever is established: far different in this respect from the American, the Canadian will submit to any privation rather than quit the spot his forefathers tilled, or remove from the sound of his parish bells. (3)
Hall continued on to Quebec City.
It would be acting unfairly to Quebec to describe it as I found it on my arrival, choked with ice and snow, which one day flooded the streets with a profusion of dirty kennels, and the next, cased them with a sheet of glass. Cloth or carpet boots, galoshes, with spikes to their heels, iron-pointed walking-sticks, are the defensive weapons perpetually in employ on these occasions. The direction of the streets too, which are most of them built up a precipice, greatly facilitates any inclination one may entertain for tumbling, or neck-breaking. (4)
James Wilson, an Irish Methodist preacher who sailed from Dublin to Quebec in the spring of 1817, wrote of Montreal:
In taking a view of this extensive city, I found it far superior in appearance to Quebec; the markets well supplied with beef, mutton, fowl, &c. selling at a moderate price. In this place I first took notice of the Indian tribe, who were very numerous, selling at market maple sugar, wild pigeons, and wrought baskets of every kind. Their curious dress and appearance excited my attention much; many of them were very grand in their way, and are called Mohawks: the women…wear large trinkets in their ears, large breast-plates composed, I suppose, of silver, made after the form of our military officers, with long fine blue cloaks down to their feet. …
This city is a place of great business, and likely to become very extensive, as building is carried on with much spirit. The houses are large, some composed of wood, and others of stone. The French here, as in Quebec, have a very splendid church, and are very numerous.” (5)
Joseph Sansom, a member of the American Philosophical Society from Philadelphia, toured Lower Canada in July 1817.
Montreal shows from the water like an old country sea port, with long ranges of high walls, and stone houses, overtopped here and there by churches and convents; with something that resembles a continued quay, though it is nothing more than a high bank, to which large vessels can lie close enough for the purposes of loading and unloading; in consequence of the unusual depth of water at the very edge of the current. … [I]t is only on the banks of its rivers that Canada pretends to any population, or improvement, whatever. (6)
Rough-mannered Upper Canada
C. Stuart, a retired Captain of the East India Company, lived in Upper Canada from 1817 to 1819, during which time he was a justice of the peace for the Western district of the province. He observed:
The state of society in Upper Canada, especially to a European, is not attractive…. Canadian society has rather roughness than simplicity of manners; and scarcely presents a trace of that truly refined, that nobly cultivated, and that spiritually improved tone of conversation and deportment, which, even in the most highly polished circles, and amidst all the inflations of real or imagined superiority, is so rarely to be found.
Yet the state of society in Upper Canada is not without its advantages. It is adapted to the condition of the country, and is consistent with the circumstances of which it forms a part.
Its general characteristics may be said to be, in the higher classes, a similar etiquette to that established at home, with a minor redundancy of polish, and minor extravagance; and in the lower, a somewhat coarser simplicity. As far as I have seen the people, they appear to me fully as moral as any other that I know, with as much mutual kindness amongst themselves, and more than commonly hospitable to strangers. They seem to me rather inclined to seriousness than to levity, and to need only the advantages of pious instruction and of pious example to become, under grace, one of the most valuable people upon the earth.
Their habits are in general moderately industrious, frugal, and benevolent. Their amusements, of course, are unhappily like those of the world. Horse-racing, betting shooting; and where leisure abounds, idle conversation, balls, cards, and the theatre, &c. Yet I have observed with pleasure, a somewhat more domestic tone amongst their women; and it has amply compensated to me, for the absence of the greater degree of polish, which at once adorns and disgraces the general mass of our European ladies. …
There are few towns or villages in Upper Canada, and those few are small. Kingston, the most considerable of them, being less extensive than the generality of the common country towns in Great Britain and Ireland. Agriculturalists, such as are almost universally the people of Upper Canada, scatter themselves over their farms, not crowd together, as do the votaries of commerce. …
The conveyances, where there are any (and such of any description are by no means universal), are generally poor; the surface rough, the bridges wretched, and attendance at the inns as defective, as must necessarily be the case where there is too great a tone of general equality and familiarity, amidst a scattered, independent, and uncultivated people. But greater kindness and fellow-feeling often exist here than are to be found in the more accomplished receptacles of politer people. Mixed with their equality, there are, in my opinion, generally speaking, a greater degree of spontaneous attention, and a more disinterested desire to serve, than we meet amidst all the elegant accommodations of the British roads. (7)
James Wilson became a traveling preacher in the Kingston area. He wrote:
The people here have many privileges: in the spring they make sugar by piercing the maple tree, which produces a sweet sap, and when well boiled, makes remarkably good sugar. Another advantage is most families make their own soap, by saving the ashes of the firewood: the people in general live well; there are here no poor, comparatively speaking; they have from the produce of their gardens, melons, cucumbers, and all kinds of vegetables, and of these they make preserves; and as each house has in general a cellar, they store their garden roots, potatoes, &c in these secure places, to protect them from frost.
The women here in general weave their own clothing, consisting of linen and woollen, diaper and fancy bed quilts and floor carpets; many of them are also well skilled in making both men and women’s clothing: this saves much expense, as tailoring is extremely high. Provisions are cheap, in general…. Cider is much in use here, and made by many families. (8)
War in the West
From that narrow stripe of territory situated along the St. Lawrence, to which we give the name of Upper and Lower Canada, a plain of illimitable extent stretches to the north and north-west, as far as the frozen regions. If the whole population of this vast expanse were collected together, it would not perhaps equal that of one of our moderate-sized English counties. In the absence of man, however, the track is covered with elks, deer, beavers, otters, martens, &c. &c. in swarms of which it is impossible for us to form any conception. This abundance of the most valuable fur-bearing animals has become the foundation of an extensive trade, carried on by a company established at Montreal called the North-West Company. The exertions made, and privations endured, by their agents, appear truly astonishing. It is said, that the track by which their goods are transported, occupies an extent of from three to four thousand miles, through upwards of sixty large lakes, without any means of transport but slight canoes of bark. In persons engaged in so rough a trade, so far out of the pale of civilized society, and having to deal with the most savage of the human race, it would be vain to expect a deportment always quite regular and peaceable. If any illegal act is committed, there is no redress but from the tribunals at Montreal, placed at the distance of several thousand miles, and to be reached only by a voyage more toilsome and dangerous than that across the Atlantic. In such a case, the remedy most prompt, most convenient, and every way suited to their inclination, is to take the law into their own hands.
The introduction of spirits among the Indians is the source of a thousand disorders and vices; and yet it seems difficult to say how we could prevent it. What cordon of excise officers could guard a frontier of four thousand miles? Could the traders be sent, without spirits for their own use, into a climate where the thermometer is sometimes forty degrees below zero? And when the spirits were there, how [to] prevent their being used in traffic? Would a permit or justice’s warrant be of any avail at Saskatchewina carrying place, or on the river of the Assiniboils? If the attempt were made to stop the trade altogether, it might perhaps meet a partial success; but if the object be, to make its agents assume the deportment of orderly and civilized persons, it will, we fear, prove altogether abortive. (9)
In 1817, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company (allied with the Métis) were in the midst of the Pemmican War, a series of armed confrontations between the two companies focused on the Red River Colony, situated in what is today Manitoba. The colony was founded in 1812 by Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, a majority shareholder of the Hudson Bay Company. On August 19, 1817, Mr. Shaw, an agent of the North West Company, arrived in Montreal with news from the colony.
Mr. Shaw reached the Red River most opportunely, as the stock of provisions had been in a manner abandoned by the people who had it in charge. On Mr. Shaw making the Forks, he was immediately joined by a large band of the natives, who offered him their services, not only to protect the provisions, but to assist in driving away what they term, the bad dogs, from the land. Mr. Shaw visited Lord Selkirk at Fort Douglas, who expressed great satisfaction at seeing him, and told him that himself and followers, about 160 in all, were almost in a state of starvation, having been obliged chiefly to subsist on cat-fish for the last month, and that he now looked to the provisions of the North West Company for the subsistence of his people. Mr. Shaw objected to this, for the reason of not diminishing his own supplies. His Lordship said he had the means to enforce compliance with his request, and endeavoured to prevail on Mr. Shaw to resign a part without compulsion. Mr. Shaw refused the supply, and ultimately maintained his point.
Col. Coltman then arrived, and made known to both parties the instructions he had received from Government relating to their disputes, which were to enforce ‘the cessation of all hostility both in Canada and the Indian country, and the mutual restoration of all property captured during their disputes, the freedom of trade and intercourse with the Indians, until the trials now pending can be brought to a judicial decision, and the great question at issue with respect to the rights of the two companies shall be definitively settled.’ (10)
The two companies merged in 1821.
You might also enjoy:
- The National Advocate (Washington, DC), May 22, 1817.
- Northampton Mercury (Northampton, England), December 20, 1817.
- Francis Hall, Travels in Canada and the United States in 1816 and 1817, 2nd edition (London, 1819), pp. 49-51, 74.
- Ibid., p. 54.
- James Wilson, Narrative of a Voyage from Dublin to Quebec, in North America (Dublin, 1822), p. 24.
- Joseph Sansom, Sketches of Lower Canada, Historical and Descriptive (New York, 1817), pp. 48, 54.
- C. Stuart, The Emigrant’s Guide to Upper Canada, or, Sketches of the Present State of that Province, collected from a residence therein during the years 1817, 1818, 1819 (London, 1820), pp. 120-122, 142, 160-161.
- Wilson, Narrative of a Voyage from Dublin to Quebec, in North America, p. 35.
- The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany: A New Series of the Scots Magazine, May 1, 1817, pp. 370-371.
- The Times, London, October 1, 1817.
Canada and the Louisiana Purchase
Parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan have a connection to Napoleon that cannot be claimed by anywhere else in Canada: they were once under Napoleon’s rule.
A question of boundaries
In 1803, short of funds for a planned invasion of England, Napoleon Bonaparte sold Louisiana – France’s territory in mainland North America – to the United States for $15 million. James Monroe (who appears in Napoleon in America) negotiated the purchase.
When it came time to specify the boundaries, there was a slight problem. Most of the land in question had never been explored, surveyed or mapped by a white man. Treaties transferring Louisiana from France to Spain in 1763 and back to France in 1800 had not included a specific delineation of boundaries. Perpetuating this lack of definition, the French representatives agreed to cede to the United States
the colony or province of Louisiana, with the same extent it now has in the hands of Spain, and that it had when France possessed it, and such as it should be after the treaties subsequently entered into between Spain and other states. (1)
When Napoleon was advised of the vagueness of the text, he replied “that if an obscurity did not already exist it would perhaps be good policy to put one there.” (2) He wanted a quick deal, and didn’t mind if the treaty led to conflict between the United States and its neighbours.
Everyone generally agreed that the territory was bordered on the south by the Gulf of Mexico and on the east by the Mississippi River (including New Orleans). The western border with Spain was much disputed. It was eventually fixed as the Sabine River in the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819.
As for the northern boundary with British North America, that was unclear. France had given up its claims to the area drained by Hudson Bay (Rupert’s Land, nominally owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company) in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, though the exact extent of the Hudson Bay land was not defined. When France ceded its colony of Canada to Britain in the Treaty of Paris (1763), the boundary between the Hudson Bay territory and Louisiana remained unspecified.
In October 1802, French Foreign Minister Talleyrand wrote this about the boundaries of Louisiana:
The farther north one goes, the more vague is the demarcation. Since that part of America is without European settlements and encloses only uninhabited forests or Indian tribes, the necessity of marking a line of demarcation has been less felt there. Neither has a line been drawn between Louisiana and Canada. Since both of these countries belonged to France before the treaty of 1763, there was little to be gained in separating exactly their boundaries, and that has not been done since…. (3)
The Missouri and its tributaries
Nonetheless, France believed Louisiana encompassed the watershed of the Mississippi River and its tributaries. According to François Barbé-Marbois, French negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase:
The charter given by Louis XIV to Crozat [the first owner of Louisiana] included all the countries watered by the rivers which empty directly or indirectly into the Mississippi. Within this description comes the Missouri, a river that has its sources and many of its tributary streams at a little distance from the Rocky Mountains. (4)
US President Thomas Jefferson also took this view. On July 11, 1803, he wrote to General Horatio Gates:
The territory acquired…includes all the waters of the Missouri and Mississippi…. (5)
A Cabinet decision of November 14, 1805, regarding the American stance on the western boundary of Louisiana also implied that the northern part of the territory included the tributaries of the Missouri River:
The boundary between the territories of Orleans & Louisiana on the one side & the domns. of Spain on the other shall be the river Colorado from its mouth to it’s source thence due N. the highlands inclosing the waters which run directly or indirectly into the Missouri or Misipi rivers, & along those highlands as far as they border on the Span domns. (6)
Napoleonic Alberta and Saskatchewan?
This is where Alberta and Saskatchewan come in. While most of the rivers and creeks in the southern part of these provinces flow toward Hudson Bay, some – the Milk River in Alberta and the Poplar River and Big Muddy Creek in Saskatchewan – flow south through the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers to the Gulf of Mexico. The lands drained by these tributaries could thus be regarded as having been part of the Louisiana Purchase.
This can be seen on this 1814 map, which depicts the “Missouri Territory Formerly Louisiana.” In 1812, the state of Louisiana was carved out of the Louisiana Purchase area, and the remaining lands were called the Missouri Territory. The area below the “probable north boundary of the Missouri Territory” encompasses the land around the Missouri River tributaries, including the Milk River and Big Muddy Creek (Martha’s River).
The “probable north boundary” soon changed. In the Convention of 1818, Britain and the United States established that the 49th parallel would separate Canada and its southern neighbour from the Lake of the Woods westward to the Stony (Rocky) Mountains – something that the two sides’ negotiators had agreed on in 1807.
As for how long parts of present-day Alberta and Saskatchewan were – at least in theory – under Napoleonic rule, the answer is not long. Although France had secretly acquired Louisiana from Spain in 1800, Spain continued to administer the territory. To effect the transfer of the Louisiana Purchase to the United States, France took control of Louisiana on November 30, 1803. The French handed Louisiana over to the Americans just three weeks later, on December 20, 1803.
If you wonder what might have happened if Napoleon had tried to play a greater role in ruling parts of North America, read Napoleon in America.
You might also enjoy:
- Louis Houck, The Boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase: A Historical Study (St. Louis, 1901), p. 5.
- François Barbé-Marbois, The History of Louisiana: Particularly of the Cession of that Colony to the United States of America (Philadelphia, 1830), p. 286.
- James Alexander Robinson, Louisiana Under the Rule of Spain, France and the United States, 1785-1807, Vol. 2 (Cleveland, 1911), p. 141.
- The History of Louisiana: Particularly of the Cession of that Colony to the United States of America, p. 290.
- Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Memoirs, Correspondence, and Private Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. III (London, 1829), p. 518.
- Paul Leicester Ford, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. X (New York and London, 1905), p. 180.
Canada Day in 1867
With the first dawn of this gladsome midsummer morn, we hail the birthday of a new nationality. A united British America, with its four millions of people, takes its place this day among the nations of the world. Stamped with a familiar name which in the past has borne a record sufficiently honourable to entitle it to be perpetuated with a more comprehensive import, the DOMINION OF CANADA on this First day of July, in the year of grace, eighteen hundred and sixty-seven, enters a new career of national existence.
Thus began an editorial by journalist and politician George Brown in the Toronto Globe on Monday, July 1, 1867. That was the date on which the British North America Act came into effect. This act of the British Parliament, to which Queen Victoria gave her assent, united the colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into the Dominion of Canada. Upon confederation, the new dominion consisted of four provinces: Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
‘From Halifax to Sarnia,’ said the New Brunswick Reporter (July 5) from Fredericton, ‘we are one people,– one in laws, one in government, one in interests.’ Summerside, Prince Edward Island, offered its congratulations to the new Dominion thus ‘launched upon the sea of history; and though we do not admire the build of the craft, we cannot find in our hearts to wish her other than a prosperous voyage.’ Even in Charlottetown some bunting appeared, as if to grace an occasion that most Islanders were glad to ignore. And it was an occasion. The Toronto Leader rested from its quarrels with the Globe to say, ‘This is the most important day for the Provinces of British North America on which the sun has yet risen … our public men … [must] rise to the height of our new destiny….’ ‘Our new destiny’ was the theme of many newspapers from Halifax to Sarnia, and even in Newfoundland and British Columbia the ‘memorable day for British North America’ did not pass unnoticed. Reports from the west coast had arrived of the unanimous resolution for Confederation; there was a swelling nationalism in eastern speeches and public demonstrations. The Northwest would soon belong, all of it, to the Dominion of Canada. The bright plumage of parade uniforms; the booming of guns in Halifax, Fredericton, Quebec, Toronto, and Ottawa; the swelling sails of the yachts in Halifax harbour and Toronto Bay; the brilliant summer day itself; who could fail to read the national barometer ‘set fair?’
There were some who failed to do so. In Fredericton on July 3 the Head Quarters said sombrely, ‘The future may be full of hope … but it is useless to shut one’s eyes to the fact that in New Brunswick there is discontent and indignation smouldering in many places, while in Nova Scotia these feelings are afire and in action.’ There was black crêpe in Yarmouth and Halifax; on July 1 the Acadian Recorder came out in black, and the Halifax Morning Chronicle published a bitter epitaph. ‘Here, alas!’ said the Examiner in Charlottetown that same day, ‘the great public of Prince Edward Island treat the thing with feelings akin to contempt.’ The very next day, July 2, plain George Cartier was sitting down to write his angry letter to Lord Monck on the K. missing from the C.B. The history of British North America between 1864 and 1867 can be written as a paean of triumphant nationality; it can also be written as a bitter comment on the machinations of Canadians and the ruthlessness of Downing Street. More than one bitter essay came from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick criticizing the selfishness of the Canadians. As the London Times had remarked, however, ‘Half the useful things that are done in the world are done from selfish motives under the cover of larger designs.’ Whether ‘useful’ could be applied to Confederation was a matter of debate; the British certainly thought so. (1)
A long and difficult maturity
Manitoba and the North-West Territory joined the Dominion of Canada in 1870; British Columbia in 1871; and Prince Edward Island in 1873. The Yukon Territory was created in 1898; Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905. Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949. In 1999, part of the Northwest Territories became the territory of Nunavut.
July 1, 1867 was the beginning of a long and difficult maturity. The diversity of the colonies, from Newfoundland to British Columbia was as remarkable as the distance between them. The reality of 1867 was frightening. It showed how naïve the dreams of the colonists were: Newfoundland, its population clinging precariously to a living wrested from the Labrador current and a hard land; Prince Edward Island, complacent, defiant, parochial; Nova Scotia, afloat on seven oceans, proud of herself and jealous of Canada; New Brunswick, half-American in politics and attitude; Quebec, determined to get every jot and tittle of privilege with or without Ottawa; Ontario, sleek, bigoted, and stentorian; a thousand miles from Toronto, at Red River, 9,000 mixed settlers and the Hudson’s Bay Company trying to keep the northwest from the Americans; in distant British Columbia, a dying gold rush with two small and hostile towns holding the mortgage. This was the reverse of the glory arguments that resounded in the speeches of 1864. One was the stubborn and almost intractable reality: the other was a political dream of wonderful audacity…. [N]o one knew, not Cartier, not even Macdonald, what really was involved in the creation, administration, and maintenance of a transcontinental state. An empire of this size had been created before; it could be done – that was the great example the Americans provided. But it had been done by a rich and powerful nation of twenty millions. The contemplation of the same thing by a struggling group of still discordant provinces, with a population of four millions was surprising; perhaps it was absurd. The railway that might have given such a union a semblance of reality did not yet exist. Union of the colonies was achieved in 1867; but it was hardly more than a beginning. The railways at Rivière du Loup and Truro that stared into the empty miles between marked a cause not yet won, a nationality not yet realized. These still lay in the difficult years ahead. (2)
Happy Dominion Day! Happy Canada Day!
You might also enjoy:
- B. Waite, The Life and Times of Confederation, 1864-1867: Politics, Newspapers, and the Union of British North America (Toronto, 1962), ) pp. 322-323.
- Ibid., pp. 328-329.
A tomb for Napoleon’s son in Canada
Did you know that a tomb originally intended for Napoleon’s son is sitting in a Canadian cemetery? Napoleon’s son, otherwise known as Napoleon II, the King of Rome or Duke of Reichstadt, died of tuberculosis in Vienna on July 22, 1832, at the age of 21 (see my article about his death). Since his mother, Marie Louise, was the Duchess of Parma, a burial monument for the young man was constructed in Italy. When the Duke of Reichstadt was interred in the Habsburg family crypt at the Capuchin Church in Vienna, the Italian monument was left unused.
Over 20 years later, William Venner, a prosperous merchant from the city of Quebec, came across the magnificently sculpted monument on a business trip to Europe. Venner had been born in Quebec on September 12, 1813. His father, also named William Venner (1785-1872), was a native of Devonshire who served on garrison duty in Lower Canada with Britain’s 10th Royal Veteran Battalion during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1812, William Venner senior married Ursule Boutin, from Saint-Gervais, at the Anglican cathedral in Quebec City. After William junior, Ursule gave birth to seven more boys and then a girl. William senior converted to Catholicism in 1825. Ten years later, William Venner junior married Mary LeVallée, with whom he had 14 children. Venner became a Catholic in 1842. (1)
Venner thought the tomb for Napoleon’s son would make a lovely mausoleum for his family. He bought it for a sum approaching $50,000 and had it transported to Canada in pieces. It arrived in Quebec City in 1858.
The Italian monument, in white Carrara marble, consisted of a sarcophagus topped with a statue of a grieving Greek goddess and a draped urn. Venner hired local architect and engineer Charles Bailliargé to design and build an even grander monument, incorporating the Italian tomb. Venner wanted it installed at the recently-opened Catholic cemetery of Saint-Charles, which had also been laid out by Bailliargé.
Built with Montreal stone, the monument resembles a small Corinthian temple. It is composed of six columns covered by three stacked pedestals decorated with carved laurel crowns, surmounted by the Italian urn. The whole thing rests on a thick, high pedestal decorated with bas-relief motifs. Bailliargé engaged skilled craftsmen to carve wooden models to guide the stone cutters. The Italian statue was placed in the centre of the temple. A crypt was constructed underneath, large enough to hold 30 lead coffins. A stone and iron fence was erected around the perimeter, precisely matching the fence Baillairgé was putting in front of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Québec. (2) The iron gate is ornamented with spirals and circles.
The Venner mausoleum was inaugurated in 1861, the year of Ursule’s death. It was the most sumptuous cemetery monument in Quebec at the time. An 1875 guidebook noted:
St. Charles Cemetery, on the Lorette road, is beautifully situated on the banks of the river St. Charles, near Scott’s bridge…. The great pines which adorn it impart to that cemetery a gloomy appearance which becomes very well the place and its object…. There are some fine and costly monuments to be seen in this cemetery, and the visitor shall not fail to notice that erected for the family of W. Venner, esquire. The statue is a splendid piece of sculpture. (3)
Sadly, the Mediterranean goddess succumbed to the Quebec winters. In the early 20th century, the original marble statue was replaced by a bronze Sacred Heart of Mary statue, made in France.
In 1876, William Venner married his second wife, Philomène Langevin (b. 1843). Venner died on October 27, 1890, at the age of 77. He and many other members of his family are buried in the crypt. One of Venner’s sons, also named William (1836-1905), was suspected of being involved in the assassination of Canadian politician Thomas D’Arcy McGee in 1868, though he was never accused of the crime. (4) One of Venner’s granddaughters, Irma LeVasseur (1878-1864), was the first female French Canadian doctor. The tomb remains the property of Venner’s descendants. If you would like to see it, the old part of Saint-Charles cemetery is at 1120, Saint-Vallier Ouest in Quebec City. There are more photos of the Venner monument on the Culture et Communications Québec website .
As for Napoleon’s son, his remains were transferred to Paris in 1940, a gift to France from Adolf Hitler. They rested for a while beside those of Napoleon in Les Invalides, before being moved to the lower church. The Duke of Reichstadt’s heart and intestines remained in Vienna, where they reside respectively in urns at the Habsburg Heart Crypt (Hofburg Palace) and the Ducal Crypt (St. Stephen’s Cathedral).
You might also enjoy:
- Pierre Prévost, “Tombeau royal pour un fils de Saint-Gervais,” Au fil des ans: Bulletin de la Société historique de Bellechasse, Vol. 21, No. 4, Automne 2009, p. 20.
- Christina Cameron, Charles Baillairgé: Architect and Engineer (Montreal and Kingston, 1989), p. 109.
- Jean Langelier, The Quebec and Lower St. Lawrence Tourist’s Guide (Quebec, 1875), p. 130.
- Jean-Marie Lebel, “Dans un cimetière de Québec, le tombeau de l’Aiglon,” Cap-aux-Diamants: La revue d’histoire du Québec, No. 81, 2005, p. 43.
Were there Canadians at the Battle of Waterloo?
If you’re ever visiting the Duke of Wellington’s tomb in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, take a moment to look for the bust of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister. Nearby you will find a plaque sacred to the memory of Captain Alexander Macnab, a Canadian who died in the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. Macnab, one of thousands killed in the battle, did nothing special to distinguish himself. How did he wind up being commemorated in such a place of honour? Macnab was not the only Canadian at the Battle of Waterloo.
Captain Alexander Macnab
In 1815 “Canada” consisted of the colonies of British North America: Upper Canada (part of present-day Ontario), Lower Canada (part of present-day Quebec and Labrador), New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. There was also a large chunk of territory known as Rupert’s Land, nominally owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Alexander Macnab was not born in any of these. He was actually born in Virginia around 1775, the second of four sons of James and Anne Macnab. James Macnab served as a surgeon for a Loyalist regiment during the American Revolutionary War. When the Patriots confiscated the Macnabs’ estate near Norfolk, Dr. Macnab moved his family to Canada. Dr. Macnab continued to serve with the Loyalists until his death at Yamachiche, Quebec in 1780. The family was later awarded land from the British crown as compensation for Dr. Macnab’s service and loss of property. Anne remarried at Trois-Rivières in 1782.
In 1797, Alexander Macnab was sworn in as a clerk to the Executive Council of Upper Canada at the provincial capital of Newark (now Niagara-on-the Lake).
After three years of clerical work, in no wise to his taste – for the military instinct in him was strong – an event occurred which enabled him to exchange the pen for the sword. (1)
General Peter Hunter, the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, was apparently responsible for this career switch.
It happened one forenoon that young Alexander Macnab, a clerk in one of the public offices, was innocently watching the Governor’s debarkation from a boat, preparatory to his being conveyed up to the Council-chamber in a sedan-chair which was in waiting for him. The youth suddenly caught his Excellency’s eye, and was asked – ‘What business he had to be there? Did he not belong to the Surveyor-General’s office? Sir! Your services are no longer required!’
For this same young Macnab, thus summarily dismissed, Governor Hunter, we have been told, procured subsequently a commission. (2)
Thus in 1800 Alexander Macnab became an ensign in the Queen’s Rangers, a colonial unit made up largely of Loyalists. When the Rangers were disbanded in October 1802, Macnab took a patent on a one acre plot of land in York (now Toronto), at the corner of Wellington and Bay Streets. Wellington was then called Market Street (click here to see how small Toronto was).
In 1803 Macnab joined the British army. He started out in the 26th Regiment of Foot, then moved to the 2nd battalion of the 30th (Cambridgeshire) Regiment. On January 16, 1804, Macnab was promoted to lieutenant. He was posted in Ireland until 1809. That year he was promoted to captain and sailed with his battalion to Portugal. Macnab served in the Iberian Peninsula until 1814. He was employed on staff, rather than in the field. Among other things, he served as commandant of the port of Figueira and, later, of Coimbra. In the fall of 1814 Macnab was sent to Antwerp, in the Netherlands.
When Napoleon escaped from Elba in 1815, Macnab’s battalion was part of the allied force organized to combat him. Though several sources say Macnab was seconded as an aide-de-camp to Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton, historian John R. Grodzinski of the Royal Military College of Canada has confirmed that Macnab continued to serve with the 2/30th Foot. The battalion was assigned to Major-General Sir Colin Halkett’s 5th Brigade of the 3rd British Infantry Division. Halkett’s brigade fought at the Battle of Quatre Bras on June 16, 1815.
Two days later, at the Battle of Waterloo, Halkett placed the 2/30th on the forward right of his formation. They were repeatedly attacked by Napoleon’s cavalry and artillery. In the evening, when Napoleon’s Imperial Guard began their attack, Halkett shifted his men.
There was a hedge to our rear, to which it was deemed expedient to move us, I suppose, for shelter from the guns. We faced about by word of command, and stepped off in perfect order. As we descended the declivity the fire thickened tremendously, and the cries from men struck down, as well as from the numerous wounded on all sides of us, who thought themselves abandoned, were terrible. An extraordinary number of men and officers of both regiments went down almost in no time. Prendergast of ours was shattered to pieces by a shell; McNab [sic] killed by grape-shot, and James and Bullen lost all their legs by round-shot during this retreat, or in the cannonade immediately preceding it. (3)
As this gallant young Canadian lay mortally wounded…he left instructions with his orderly, who had remained with him to the last, to convey his watch, ring, sword and regimental sash, with messages to his relatives in Scotland and Canada. (4)
Macnab was buried on the battlefield. Years later, his memory was resurrected by his nephew, also named Alexander Macnab (1812-1891), the son of Captain Macnab’s younger brother Simon. This Alexander Macnab became rector of the parish of Darlington (Bowmanville) and served for a time as president of Victoria College in Cobourg, Ontario. In 1868, Reverend Macnab successfully applied to the War Office for the Waterloo medal that would have been awarded to his uncle had he survived the battle. The medal was presented to him by the Duke of Cambridge.
The Reverend’s son, Canon Alexander Wellesley Macnab (1850-1926), wrote,
In addition to this special favor, the Chelsea Hospital Commissioners, consisting of certain members of the cabinet and veteran officers, finding a considerable sum of money lying to the credit of the deceased officer (though an act had been passed many years before, cancelling all claims for prize money), paid the amount over to my father, the late Dr. Macnab, Rector of Darlington. (5)
Reverend Macnab also at some point met
the veteran General Gore and learned from him, who had been Captain Macnab’s greatest friend, many characteristics of his Canadian uncle, how popular he was with the officers and men of his regiment, how brave and steady in time of danger, how patient and God-fearing in fulfilling his obligations in camp or on the battlefield. Just before the engagement with the French army at Waterloo these brothers-in-arms took snuff with each other, according to the custom of those days, and with a clasp of the hand parted, never to meet again. And the white-headed old general, with tears in his eyes made my father take a pinch of snuff from the same box, as he related the story of his friend’s virtues and soldierly qualities. (6)
The attention paid to Captain Macnab’s memory was a source of pride in the newborn country of Canada.
There seems to be a growing desire throughout Canada, now that Confederation has given us a country around which a national sentiment very naturally entwines itself, to preserve from oblivion such incidents as go to make up our country’s history, and to collect from witnesses, every day becoming fewer, such facts relative to the early settlers of these ‘backwoods’ as may be of interest in after times. … Though Canada is young, not a few of her sons have sought and won distinction in the service of the Empire. … The action [regarding Macnab], both as regards the medal and the prize money, indicates that a ‘colonist’ may sometimes command advantages with the Imperial Authorities that would be denied to one who still cultivated the paternal acres in England, and that Canada is esteemed in the highest quarters at home, very much more than some writers would have us believe. (7)
In 1876, the dean and chapter of St. Paul’s Cathedral allowed Reverend Macnab and his son to place the marble tablet in St. Paul’s crypt, preserving Alexander Macnab’s name for posterity.
For more information about Captain Alexander Macnab, see the article by John R. Grodzinski on the Military Re-Enactment Society of Canada website.
As for that acre of land that Captain Macnab owned in Toronto, it later became the site of the Andrew Mercer cottage and subsequently of the Wyld-Darling building, built around 1872. The latter was destroyed in the great Toronto fire of 1904. Click here to see some blurry film footage of the fire and haunting photos of the damage. The land is now occupied by Brookfield Place.
Private Job Gibbs
Though Alexander Macnab is believed to be the only Canadian who died at Waterloo, he is not the only one to have fought in the battle. Thanks to Jason Ubych of the Tain & District Museum in Scotland, I learned through the Napoleonic Wars Forum of Private Job Gibbs from Newfoundland.
Job Gibbs was born in St. John’s. He was baptized on January 31, 1790, at the Anglican church of St. John the Baptist. His parents were Benjamin and Mary Gibbs. His mother may have died when Job was young, as a Benjamin Gibbs married Ann Murray at the same church on August 12, 1797.
On December 10, 1813, at Bristol, Job Gibbs enlisted as a private with the Coldstream Regiment of Foot Guards. His service record began a few months earlier (September 25, 1813) and his age at enlistment was given as 21 (two years younger than what one would expect from his baptismal record). His pension papers credit him with five and half years of service as a private and almost seven years of service as a trumpeter or drummer. Gibbs also had two years of service as a private added for his participation in the Battle of Waterloo.
During the battle, the 2nd battalion of the Coldstream Guards was deployed to defend Hougoumont farm, the vital right flank of the British and allied forces. The British held the farm throughout the day’s fierce fighting. The Duke of Wellington later said,
The success of the battle of Waterloo…turned upon the closing of the gates of Hougoumont. (8)
The battalion took part in the subsequent occupation of Paris, remaining in France until the summer of 1816.
Job Gibbs was discharged on November 18, 1825 for “lameness, depending upon chronic rheumatism,” with the note that “he was wounded in the left thigh at Waterloo.” His general conduct as a soldier was noted as “good.” Gibbs was described as being about 33 years of age, 5 feet 8¾ inches tall, with dark hair, hazel eyes and a sallow complexion. His occupation was given as shoemaker.
It’s not clear what became of Gibbs after that. If anyone knows more about him, or of other Canadians at the Battle of Waterloo, please let me know.
A number of Waterloo veterans later moved to or were posted in British North America and played significant roles in Canadian affairs in the years leading up to Confederation. Some of them are listed in this article by Tom Douglas about Canadian place names tied to the Battle of Waterloo.
If you liked this post, you might enjoy:
- Alexander Wellesley Macnab, “A Canadian U.E. Loyalist at Waterloo,” The United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Ontario Annual Transactions for the year ending March 3, 1900 (Toronto, 1900), p. 77.
- The Canadian Journal of Science, Literature and History, Vol. 13 (Toronto, 1873), p. 567.
- E. Macready, “On a Part of Captain Siborne’s History of the Waterloo Campaign,” Colburn’s United Service Magazine, Part 1, March 1845, p. 400.
- “A Canadian U.E. Loyalist at Waterloo,” p. 78.
- Ibid., p. 79.
- Ibid., p. 77.
- The Journal of Education for Ontario, Vol. 24, No. 10 (October 1871), pp. 155-156.
- George Jones, The Battle of Waterloo, with those of Ligny and Quatre Bras (London, 1852), p. 86.
George Schumph and the death of Pierre Laffite
George Schumph, who meets with Napoleon in Charleston in Napoleon in America, is one of those shadowy figures about whom little is known. A native of Quebec, he is remembered in the historical record because of his association with the New Orleans-based pirates, Pierre and Jean Laffite. Thanks in part to Schumph’s testimony, we have the details of Pierre Laffite’s death.
In New Orleans
George Bankhead Schumph was a Canadian sailor. He may have been involved in the Champ d’Asile, the 1818 Bonapartist attempt to form an armed colony in Texas, which I wrote about here and here. Based on a list provided by Charles Lallemand, the Louisiana Courier of May 19, 1820 names “Schumphs” as one of the men at the Champ d’Asile.
By that time, Schumph was working with the Laffites. On March 7, 1820, after sailing from the brothers’ base at Galveston, Schumph landed with Pierre Laffite at New Orleans on the Pegasus, a schooner that had once been a United States gunboat. (1) When Jean Laffite abandoned Galveston in May 1820, George Schumph was one of the men who went with him.
Attack in Mexico
The following year Schumph was Pierre Laffite’s master-at-arms, privateering near Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. On June 17, 1821, off Campeche, they captured the schooner Constitution, which was sailing from Cadiz to Veracruz. On the ship they found 1,200 barrels of liquor, 900 bottles of oil, lace and leather goods, and silver worth $50,000 to $60,000. Wanting to dispose of the merchandise, Pierre made a deal with a man named Clemente Cámera on Isla Mujeres near Cancún. Cámara could keep half the goods for his own use in return for $6,500 and his commitment to sell the rest in Campeche.
In October, Pierre delivered most of the cargo to Cámera’s small farm. Pierre, his mistress Lucia Allen, and his men stayed at the farm while Cámera took some of the goods to Campeche. Around 10 p.m. on October 30, they heard a small group of men approaching. When the leader identified himself as Miguel Molas, commanding a dozen soldiers and civilian volunteers, Laffite’s men fired on them. Though Molas was wounded, his men soon forced the attackers back. A few privateers were killed and others wounded. Those who could get away, including George Schumph, ran into the interior or escaped in a canoe. Molas loaded five prisoners, including Pierre Laffite and Lucia Allen, onto his boats.
When Molas embarked for the mainland at dawn, he found Laffite’s fully armed vessel in his path. Molas ran his boats ashore. Most of his men panicked and fled once the privateers opened fire. Outnumbered by his prisoners, Molas was compelled to abandon them on the beach.
Laffite collected his scattered party, including Schumph, and boarded a small fishing boat. They sailed northwest around the peninsula to a protected lagoon known as Las Bocas, about 10 miles from the village of Dzilam de Bravo. Pierre was extremely ill with a fever, and perhaps wounded. Though his companions tended him as best they could, he died on November 9. The next day, Schumph and the others took Pierre’s body into Dzilam de Bravo. Schumph asked permission from the mayor to bury Laffite in the churchyard of Santa Clara of Dzidzantún, an old Franciscan convent. Pierre Laffite was laid in the ground “with honor” and with appropriate words from the curate. (2)
George Schumph was arrested shortly thereafter on suspicion of complicity with pirates. In particular, he was thought to have been involved in the gun battle on Isla Mujeres. Trying to explain his connection with Pierre Laffite without incriminating himself as a pirate, Schumph testified that he was a Canadian merchant who had come to the island to discuss some business with Laffite when Molas attacked. To explain his lack of travelling papers, Schumph said he had jumped into the water to escape the attack and thus left his trunk behind, with his passport in it. He was held for several weeks until he agreed to provide information on the location of hidden Laffite prize goods. On December 4, Schumph was released. (3)
After that Schumph disappears from history. He may have gone to Columbia with Jean Laffite to serve as a corsair. (4) As for his origins, in his testimony of November 1821, George Schumph is listed as age 26, a native of Quebec and a bachelor. This means he would have been born around 1795.
On a message board of the Ancestry genealogical website, there is reference to a George Christian Schump or Christian-Adolf Schumpfe (born in 1753), who came to Quebec from Enkirch, Germany. He married Marie-Monique Samson. One of their eight children was named George Burkard, baptized on February 17, 1796. Marie-Monique died young, and George was raised in an orphanage in Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec. (5) Though it’s impossible to be certain, the similarity of the names (George Bankhead Schumph vs George Burkard Schump), approximate birth year (1795 vs 1796) and location (Quebec) suggest they could be the same person.
- William C. Davis, The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf (Orlando, 2005), p. 428.
- Ibid., p. 454.
- The circumstances surrounding Pierre Laffite’s death and Schumph’s involvement are recounted in Davis, The Pirates Laffite, pp. 452-455.
- Isidro A. Beluche Roma, “Privateers of Cartagena,” The Louisiana Historical Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 1 (January 1956), p. 87.
- http://boards.ancestry.ca/thread.aspx?mv=flat&m=23&p=surnames.schumpp Accessed March 20, 2015. There is more information about the Schumph (or Jomphe) family on the Genealogy.com website: http://www.genealogy.com/forum/surnames/topics/chiasson/410/.
Napoleon in French Canada
I have been blogging about the historical characters in Napoleon in America in order of their appearance in the novel (here’s a list of those blogged about thus far). We now reach the point in the tale where Jean-Baptise Norau, from Saint-Constant, Quebec, arrives at Pierre-François Réal’s home in Cape Vincent wanting to see Napoleon. As I already wrote about Jean-Baptiste when discussing the history behind my short story “A Petition for the Emperor,” I will instead take a broader look at how Napoleon was viewed by French Canadians in the early 19th century.
This topic has already been masterfully covered by Serge Joyal in Le Mythe de Napoléon au Canada Français (Del Busso, 2013). If you read French, I highly recommend this book. Even if you don’t understand French, you will enjoy the stunning illustrations.
Fans of the ancien régime
Though Napoleon tends to be idolized today in French Canada, this was not the case when he was in power. Napoleon became First Consul of France in 1799, roughly 40 years after the Conquest, which is the term given to the British acquisition of New France (Canada) during the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). Any Canadian nostalgia for France was thus nostalgia for the Bourbons and the ancien régime.
French Canadians were stupefied by the execution of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1793. This reaction was shared by seigneurs and habitants alike. In their view, the French Revolutionists had perpetrated the most odious crime. The sin was compounded by the Revolution’s treatment of the Catholic Church. The abolition of the clergy’s privileges, the confiscation of their property, the massacre of priests and the despoliation of churches were regarded as a sacrilege by pious Canadians. Many of the affected clergy fled to Lower Canada (Quebec), giving a needed boost to the flagging colonial church and bringing firsthand tales of the terror.
French Canadians regarded Napoleon as the inheritor of the Revolution that had guillotined their king and overturned their altars. Political and religious authorities took advantage of this sentiment to combat the ideas of the Revolution and to solidify support for the British regime. The colony was full of articles, pamphlets and caricatures denouncing Napoleon. He was portrayed as a usurper and a tyrant aspiring to universal empire. He waged incessant war against England and her allies and menaced peace in Canada. England, the champion of the well-being and liberty of all Canadians, was combatting Bonaparte’s ambitions with courage and tenacity.
Napoleon the anti-Christ
These portrayals sprang as much from local church authorities as from the British colonial government. Joseph-Octave Plessis, the Bishop of Quebec from 1806 until his death in 1825, was one of the French Emperor’s most ardent critics. He was fully on board in helping the British Governor ensure that French Canadian clergy and parishioners remained loyal to their British sovereign. More than half of Plessis’s circulars and pastoral letters were devoted to the anti-Napoleon cause. Here is an example from March 1810:
[Napoleon] has repaid with ingratitude and cruelty the paternal condescension of the Sovereign Pontiff. Hardly had [Pope Pius VII] returned to Italy when [Napoleon] aspired to constrain him, not only to close the ports of his States to the vessels of enemies of France, but to again declare him the enemy of all the nations with whom France wants to make war. The just horror of the common Father at this proposition, and his peremptory refusal to agree to it, were the pretexts the ambitious conqueror used to plunder him…. The perfidious hand that overthrew the thrones of Naples and Etruria and prepares to overthrow those of Spain and Portugal, has dared, in a sacrilegious attempt, to do the same to the chair of Saint Peter. The Pope has been removed from the list of Sovereigns, his States invaded, his person insulted and proscribed….
Under the special protection of Heaven, we are, in this part of the world, sheltered from the scourge that elsewhere devastates the Church of Jesus Christ; by the beneficence and sound policy of the Government under which Providence has placed us, the Holy Religion that we profess rejoices in this happy land. (1)
And this from 1812:
Divine Providence has been liberal towards you, when she permitted you to become subjects of a government that protects your security, your religion, your fortunes; of a government that alone has maintained her honour and her glory in the midst of the debris of all the others; of a government with which oppressed people, dethroned sovereigns and the innumerable victims of the ambition and perfidy of an insatiable conqueror come to find asylum and the means of recovering their ravaged liberty and of defending the little that remains to them. It is in the breast of this paternal government that you live. (2)
Such pronouncements – promulgated from pulpits across the colony – had an effect on public opinion. Outside of Quebec, Montreal and Trois-Rivières, French Canadians lived in isolated pockets and had little communication with the outside world. Largely illiterate, they relied on their parish priests for news.
Little room for dissent
Anti-Napoleon positions were also taken by the French Canadian political elite. In 1809, Denis-Benjamin Viger, a deputy in the Lower Canada House of Assembly whose anti-revolutionary opinions regularly appeared in the newspapers, published a long pamphlet denouncing Napoleon’s dictatorial character. Viger’s cousin and fellow deputy Louis-Joseph Papineau was also, at the time, an enthusiastic monarchist. As Speaker of the House of Assembly in 1815, Papineau rejoiced at Napoleon’s downfall and joined in elegies addressed to “the illustrious Duke of Wellington.” (3)
All of the French-language newspapers in Lower Canada were opposed to Napoleon and rivaled English papers in their denunciations of him. Anti-Napoleon songs, poems and plays appeared. French Canadians contributed to voluntary public subscriptions to financially support England when she was threatened with invasion, and to erect a monument commemorating England’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. Nelson’s column in Montreal was built in 1809, over 30 years before the one in London. Almost half of the Montreal donors were French Canadians. They contributed 18% of the total amount raised, suggesting that a good number of the contributors were not from the seigneurial class, but were less exalted members of society giving the small amounts they could afford. (4) French Canadians feared that if Napoleon beat the British he would pillage Canada and then do what he had done with the Acadians in Louisiana – sell them to the United States.
The anti-Napoleon chorus coming from the Governor and his entourage, the clergy, the leaders of the House of Assembly, the newspapers and the seigneurial elite left little room for dissent, though there were isolated examples of it. Some Canadians served in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic armies. Others, left at home, undoubtedly had a sneaking admiration for Napoleon’s military skill. The writer Philippe Aubert de Gaspé quotes his father recounting how he appeared as a “bad subject” at a dinner at the Governor’s residence in Quebec in late 1805, when the impending Battle of Austerlitz was on everyone’s mind:
All the English declared that Alexander, with his terrible Cossacks, was going to wipe out the army of the usurper. I dared to say that I had every reason to fear a different result; that the genius of Bonaparte had triumphed up til now over the Austrian armies, which I considered the best troops in Europe, and that Tsar Alexander’s hordes of undisciplined barbarians would be a meagre accessory to the allied forces. The most civilized cried out in indignation and the others laughed frankly in my face. The blood boiled in my veins. (5)
Earlier that year, Jean-Baptiste Norau senior (the father of the Jean-Baptiste in Napoleon in America) had delivered to France a petition signed by twelve Montreal-area residents asking for Napoleon’s help in shaking off “the yoke of the English” (see the story behind “A Petition for the Empire”).
In 1807, Governor James Craig became erroneously convinced that the French Canadians were ready to revolt. He put out a call for the arrest of a Frenchman named Cazeau or Cassino for having tried to raise the Canadians in favour of Napoleon. But the vast majority of French Canadians were loyal British subjects. They had no desire to revolt.
Napoleon’s view of Canada
After some early, vague intimations of support for Canadian sedition (urged by Talleyrand), Napoleon displayed little interest in French Canada, which he predicted would one day fall into the hands of the United States. (6) He in fact wanted to maneuver the Americans into declaring war on England and tempt them into taking Canada, something they attempted during the War of 1812. In January 1815, Napoleon told a British visitor to Elba that the American war against Canada (during which French Canadians fought heroically on the British side)
was about nothing – a few feet more or less of lake. He then…observed, that [the British] should one day or other lose Canada; adding – ‘Of what great consequence is it to England, with her numerous colonies?’ (7)
He expressed a related sentiment when he was later in exile on St. Helena, telling a British visitor that
England would be better without Canada, it keeps her in a prepared state for war at a great expense and constant irritation; but it is a point of honour to keep it, and therefore nothing can be said. (8)
From ogre to myth
Joyal argues that the real Canadian winner of the Napoleonic Wars was the Catholic Church, and that French Canadians missed the start of the industrial era in part because of Napoleon’s continental blockade. His book goes on to show how the myth of Napoleon in French Canada emerged after Napoleon’s death, and was adapted to serve political, social, religious and cultural ends. Nostalgia for a past that didn’t actually happen became part of French Canadian identity. The myth of Napoleon lives on, integral to the collective unconscious of the Quebecois.
For more about relations between the French and the British in Lower Canada during the Napoleonic Wars, see my short story “Dr. Sym Goes to Heaven.”
You might also enjoy:
- Têtu and C.-O. Gagnon, Mandements, Lettres Pastorales et Circulaires des Évêques de Québec, Vol. 3 (Quebec, 1888), pp. 53-54.
- Ibid., p. 95.
- Serge Joyal, Le Mythe de Napoléon au Canada Français (Montreal, 2013), p. 114.
- Ibid., p. 137.
- Philippe Aubert de Gaspé, Mémoires (Quebec, 1885), p. 205.
- Le Mythe de Napoléon au Canada Français, p. 11.
- John Henry Vivian, Minutes of a Conversation with Napoleon Bonaparte During His Residence at Elba (London, 1839), pp. 23-24.
- Clementina E. Malcolm, A Diary of St. Helena (1816, 1817): the Journal of Lady Malcolm, edited by Sir Arthur Wilson (London, 1899), p. 94.