Category Archives: Upper Canada

‘Bogle Corbet’ by John Galt

1833, 334 p.

You may not have heard of Bogle Corbet, or of its author the Scottish writer John Galt but he was an incredibly prolific author, celebrated in both Scotland and Canada as an important Romantic-era author who based his narratives on “theoretical history” drawn from his observations and empirical facts . Indeed, there is a whole field of “Galt Studies” with books and conferences- none of which had entered my Antipodean awareness, I must admit.   I have a particular interest in John Galt because he socialized with my research interest, Judge Willis, when they were both in Canada in 1828.  But although John Galt may have a higher profile in Canada, and especially in Guelph which he helped establish in the 1820s, he’s not exactly a household name in Australia.

Bogle Corbet  is fiction, but it is very much the sort of book that you might expect a land and emigration entrepreneur, as Galt was, to write.  It is not autobiography, but instead a distillation of the ‘typical’ immigrant experience that he observed as part of his own role, especially as it related to the Canada Company.   However, the span of his narrative works, and particularly Bogle Corbet has prompted a reappraisal of him as a transnational author, and hence important in historical and cultural studies today.

Bogle Corbet is,  I gather, amongst his many books the one  that deals most with the immigrant experience. It is a product of its time and taste, and rather forgettable.  It comes as a three-volume edition, available through the Internet Archive and, dear me, if ever a format encouraged verbosity it must have been the three-volume novel. It is a thinly-disguised immigrant tract, aimed at the gentleman settler market, and although the fictional young Bogle travelled far from his Scottish origins- London, West Indies, back to Scotland, then Canada- not much seems to happen in this book.

The historian in me enjoyed seeing the historical reality of British emigration fictionalized, but it’s not exactly riveting stuff.  Originally of Jamaican birth of Scottish planter parents, Bogle Corbet was sent back to Scotland for his education, as was the usual practice. He seemed to fall into a career as a Glasgow merchant, a very Scottish profession, and when business faltered after the Napoleonic Wars, he travelled to the West Indies to see how their contacts were faring over there.  His observations of slavery were of the time, but the language used in characterizing the negroes sits very uncomfortably today.  I don’t even want to quote from it:  it is better left submerged in this rather obscure book.  He returned to Scotland, married rather diffidently, and when his financial prospects failed to improve, he decided to emigrate to Upper Canada instead.  His status and contacts ensured that he became the leader of an emigration scheme, shifting poor Scottish labourers over to a dedicated settlement in Upper Canada, and although some were tempted to go south into America, several soon returned chastened by their experience to take up labouring jobs to raise the money to purchase their own farms eventually (in good rather Wakefieldian fashion).

There’s a rather neat little switch where his reminiscences all of a sudden burst into the present tense, and some clever meta-narrative with a couple of self-referential passages where he comments on the act of writing. But to be honest, such gems are few and far between.  I have a particular reason for reading this book, but you probably don’t and frankly, there are better ways to spend 300-odd pages.

If I haven’t discouraged you completely, you can download all three volumes at the Internet Archive or as an e-book at Google Books.

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‘A Gentlewoman in Upper Canada: The Journals, Letters and Art of Anna Langton’

Barbara Williams (ed.) A Gentlewoman in Upper Canada: The Journals, Letters and Art of Anne Langton, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2008

Was Anne Langton a proto-blogger? At first glance you’d have to say no: mid 30s (huh!), spinster, she traveled with her parents and aunt to live with her brother on a property in Upper Canada in the mid 1830s.  She began writing a journal to send to the brother who remained in England as the rest of the family sailed away.  She knew that she couldn’t keep up her writing on a long term basis, so she divided the year into quarters, then wrote a daily diary for the first month of each quarter; then the next year the second month of each quarter; the next year the third etc.   In this way, she eventually covered the whole year although it ended up taking her four years.

But she certainly had the blogger’s sensibility of consciously framing everyday events as a potential blog-post:

Did you ever a write a journal with the intention of sending it to anyone?  I think it would be difficult to do with simplicity.  One is tempted to act sometimes with the page in view that has to be written, and a day’s proceedings would be often diverted from their ordinary course by the recollection that they were to be recorded.  It is different in stirring scenes where events are leading you; but in the employments of everyday life, especially when information has to be collected, inferences drawn, and an average estimate to be formed from the narration, journalizing does become difficult.  (Oct 1838)

Anne Langton was born in 1804 into an aristocratic, mercantile family and spent her early years at the family home, Blythe Hall, parts of which dated back to the 12th century.  Between the age of eleven to sixteen she traveled with her family, including her maiden Aunt Alice, on an elongated Grand Tour.  The desire to escape the shame attached to the decline in their family fortunes led to their extended absence, but eventually the family business in Liverpool foundered and they had to sell Blythe Hall.  Anne’s future took a definite turn for the worse: no coming out, and greatly reduced marriage prospects.  Her brother John, unable to make money by tutoring students, emigrated to Upper Canada and in 1837 his parents, Aunt Alice and Anne joined him, leaving behind another brother William, his wife and three small daughters.  John prepared a house for them, close by his own more humble cottage, although it was not completely finished by the time they arrived and it took over a year to paper the walls so that the logs were no longer visible.

The family was just the type of emigrant that Upper Canada wanted: English,  economically self-sufficient, and genteel.  They brought with them their furniture and possessions, and joined an elite circle of friends and settlers.  They engaged in regattas, ploughing matches, church activities and ‘bees’ to help their friends erect buildings but social distinctions were always maintained.  For example, the gentry would dine and dance in the house, while the rest would hold their own celebration in the barn.  The ladies of the house undertook charitable activities, and acted as healers and midwives among the sick and needy of the parish.

The life of the 30-plus spinster living with her family was a very constrained one.  She desperately wanted to see Niagara Falls but her mother would not allow her to; she was berated for walking alone in the woods, and her mother was very nervous about her boating on the river, their main form of communication during the winter months.  She was a talented artist, but mainly painted landscapes or just occasionally portraits of family and friends- never as a form of income.  She established a small school, and started the circulating library.

She has a quick, discerning eye and a Lizzy Bennett-like humour.  She does not seem to have any close female friends or, indeed, love interests, and the journal is silent about her brother’s marriage.  This must surely have caused her some qualms: she had reconciled herself to- even welcomed- the idea of them growing old together, acting as housekeeper in their shared home.

The diary entries are interspersed with letters written not only by her, but also her mother and occasionally the men of the family.  She finally achieved her goal of covering the whole year.  The entries become sparser after a few years, which is perhaps to be expected, but I found myself missing her as she moved off into middle age and relative silence.  The book has a generous, well-written introduction and its conclusion allows you to say your farewells to her.  The introduction in particular is interspersed with Anne’s sketches and portraits.  This is not the first published version of her journals: there were two preceding versions, and Williams has recovered some of the text that had been omitted from the previous publications.

What happened then?  Her mother and aunt died of a form of malaria, and after her mother’s death she returned to England, undecided whether to work as a governess in a friend’s school or not.  As it was, her brother John and his wife Lydia back in Upper Canada asked her to return to help with the children, which she gladly did.  The family moved to Peterboro where John pursued a political career.  She spent her life as a maiden aunt; she traveled with her many nieces and nephews accompanying them on trips, and died at the ripe old age of 88.

‘Roughing it in the Bush’ by Susannah Moodie

When I first started thinking about expanding my thesis to include Upper Canada and British Guiana, I thought that I’d read a bit of Canadian literature to ease myself into it.  I asked around a bit and several people suggested Susanna Moodie and her sister Catharine Parr Traill.  To be honest, I hadn’t heard of either of them.

It’s strange jumping into another country’s history with as little background as I have.  I find myself wondering about parallel books in Australian history and literature- do they exist? have I read them? did I like them?  I expect that Roughing it in the Bush would be categorized as biography/autobiography/emigrant literature.  Emigrant literature was very important to Upper Canada which was consciously trying to attract as many British migrants as possible to bolster the British identity of the colony, which was challenged by the French/Canadians of Lower Canada to the right and the Americans from the south.  Was there such a thing in Australia, I wonder?  I can think of edited books of diaries and letters, but these are not necessarily crafted as literature (hmmm.)  Flipping through Project Gutenberg Australia, there are all those travel books like A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia (never read it) or My Experiences in Australia: Being Recollections of a Visit to the Australian Colonies in 1856-7 (never read this one either) or this sounds good Cooee: Tales of Australian Life by Australian Ladies (and no, I haven’t read that either).   But I’m not really sure whether these qualify as emigrant literature- written specifically for people back home who are considering emigrating, as distinct from merely visiting, to Australia.

For this is what Roughing it in the Bush declares itself to be, right from the outset.  And a rather gloomy prognostication it is, too

In most instances, emigration is a matter of necessity, not of choice; and this is more especially true of the emigration of persons of respectable connections, or of any station or position in the world. Few educated persons, accustomed to the refinements and luxuries of European society, ever willingly relinquish those advantages, and place themselves beyond the protective influence of the wise and revered institutions of their native land, without the pressure of some urgent cause.

Emigration may, indeed, generally be regarded as an act of severe duty, performed at the expense of personal enjoyment, and accompanied by the sacrifice of those local attachments which stamp the scenes amid which our childhood grew, in imperishable characters, upon the heart. Nor is it until adversity has pressed sorely upon the proud and wounded spirit of the well-educated sons and daughters of old but impoverished families, that they gird up the loins of the mind, and arm themselves with fortitude to meet and dare the heart-breaking conflict.

The ordinary motives for the emigration of such persons may be summed up in a few brief words;–the emigrant’s hope of bettering his condition, and of escaping from the vulgar sarcasms too often hurled at the less-wealthy by the purse-proud, common-place people of the world. But there is a higher motive still, which has its origin in that love of independence which springs up spontaneously in the breasts of the highsouled children of a glorious land. They cannot labour in a menial capacity in the country where they were born and educated to command. They can trace no difference between themselves and the more fortunate individuals of a race whose blood warms their veins, and whose name they bear. The want of wealth alone places an impassable barrier between them and the more favoured offspring of the same parent stock; and they go forth to make for themselves a new name and to find another country, to forget the past and to live in the future, to exult in the prospect of their children being free and the land of their adoption great.

Susanna Moodie emigrated to Upper Canada with her husband John in 1832.  In the depression that followed the Napoleonic Wars, and as part of joint Colonial Office/local government encouragement of British immigration,  half-pay military officers were lured to Upper Canada on the promise of land grants.  This she saw as particularly unconscionable

A large majority of the higher class were officers of the army and navy, with their families–a class perfectly unfitted by their previous habits and education for contending with the stern realities of emigrant life. The hand that has long held the sword, and been accustomed to receive implicit obedience from those under its control, is seldom adapted to wield the spade and guide the plough, or try its strength against the stubborn trees of the forest. Nor will such persons submit cheerfully to the saucy familiarity of servants, who, republicans in spirit, think themselves as good as their employers. Too many of these brave and honourable men were easy dupes to the designing land-speculators. Not having counted the cost, but only looked upon the bright side of the picture held up to their admiring gaze, they fell easily into the snares of their artful seducers.

Certainly she and John were inexperienced, but it surprised me that at first they came into contact with several people who had emigrated to New South Wales for a couple of years, returned to England, then come across to Upper Canada.  I am aware of serial migration as a more recent phenomenon (I’m thinking here of Jim Hammerton’s work) but I hadn’t been particularly conscious of it for the 1820s and 1830s.   They were heavily reliant on their servants and in a small cabin they were forced into closer intimacy than they may have wanted.  I’d heard that Upper Canada had been denigrated as a place where gentlemen had to share their table with their servants, and that was certainly the case here.  Just as in Australia, there were complaints that servants were scarce, ‘uppity’ and too ready to seize their own opportunities in a new land.

The early part of the book involved travelling up the river to their destination- there’s that river-consciousness again– and their horror of the cholera that raged in the settlements they passed.  Cholera?!  I obviously labour under a misapprehension about Canadian weather- there’s heat and bushfires here, as well as snow.  I hadn’t been conscious of this same concern about health in early Australia.

Their first block of land certainly didn’t seem to be in what I think of as ‘bush’: they were deluged by their neighbours, mostly Yankees, who were boorish, acquisitive and relentless borrowers.  It was with some relief that they shifted further into the bush, even though there they had to battle with bushfires (a quite exciting chapter!) and isolation.  Her difficulties were compounded by her husband’s absence when political dislocations during the 1837 Rebellion caused half-pay officers to be enlisted for military duty, leaving her to cope with the farm alone with her servants.  There is a degree of familiarity and ease with the surrounding Indians which contrasts strongly with the wariness and repugnance of Australian settlers to the Aborigines whose lands they had appropriated.

Chapters in the book are topped and tailed with poetry- rather awful stuff- and halfway through the book her husband jumps in with his perspective.  The final chapter was odd, too- it was written by her husband, by now a public servant in Belleville,  full of facts and figures about Canadian progress and some interesting (for me) political analysis.  But frankly, I enjoyed her chapters much more.  Her descriptions of landscape are deft, and she conveyed well the heat and the cold, the loneliness and the sense of community at logging bees and their social interaction with their ‘equals’ (as distinct from those Yankees).

I can’t really think of an Australian parallel book to this.  I haven’t read Louisa Ann Meredith’s books My Home in Tasmania, during a residence of nine years or Over the Straits: A Visit to Victoria, which sound similar to this, but these were written in diary form as a stylistic choice.  The book that it reminded me most of, albeit in a different time and read many, many, many decades ago, is Mrs Aeneas Gunn’s We of the Never Never. Both Moodie and Gunn wrote in the first person, with dialogue, description and an emphasis on relationships.

Australian readers- can you think of other early, autobiographical novelistic books that might be similar?

E-reader update

This is the first book that I have read on my E-reader, and this is exactly the sort of text that I bought it for- an old book now in the public domain, which would nestle in the ‘special collections’ library of anywhere I could borrow it from here in Australia.   The reason I purchased an I-River Story was to have a keyboard for notes, and that function worked well enough, although it was clunkier to shift between memo and book than I anticipated.  I found it good for reading in bed- none of that grappling with the left hand page when reading lying on your side, and I certainly felt more relaxed reading it in this format than gingerly turning pages in an old volume.

Bringing ’em in

Pioneer homestead, Chatham Upper Canada 1828. P.J. Bainbrigge

Those of you following my academic progress (such as it is) will know that I’ve been turning my attention to Upper Canada, where Judge Willis presided on the Kings Bench in 1827-28.  It’s with an element of trepidation that I post anything about Upper Canada here at all on a blog ostensibly oriented towards Port Phillip in Australia, aware as I am of my lack of knowledge in the field.  Be that as it may, I find myself reading through bi-focal glasses now: alert to resonances in one colony that I’ve detected in the other, and conscious of parallel movements across the empire.

I’ve just finished reading an article by J.K. Johnson called ‘Land Policy and the Upper Canadian Elite Reconsidered: The Canadian Emigration Association, 1840-1841’ in an edited collection of essays in honour of the Canadian historian J. M.S. Careless. [Surely an unfortunate surname for any historian.  Careless himself reassured students in his survey of Canadian history course that they should not be concerned at having a lecturer called Careless, for a former head of the Department had been a Professor Wrong. (p. 21)]

Although this article falls beyond my 1827/8 pre-Rebellion interest in Upper Canada, I was drawn to read it because I was conscious of the emigration schemes operating within Port Phillip during the 1840s and was interested to compare them.  The ultimately-unsuccessful  Canadian Emigration Society was established in 1840 with a 2-pronged approach.  Prominent landowners in Britain (and particularly Scottish landlords)  would be encouraged to promote and support emigration to Upper Canada while, at the other end,  Upper Canadian landholders would offer free grants of 50 acres to incoming settlers.   There was a general feeling in Upper Canada that immigration per se was good for the colony, and the steep drop in incoming migrants after the 1837 Rebellion was viewed with alarm.  But, just as importantly, a number of well-connected Upper Canadians had amassed large landholdings as a speculative venture and their own land would increase in value if settlers could be attracted to the area.

There was a strong emphasis on land clearing.  I’m also reading Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush, and I’m very much aware of the presence of the forest- it seems almost disloyal as an Australian to refer to it as ‘bush’.  The imperative to clear land was built into the Canadian Emigration Association Scheme:

“To such emigrants with families as shall come out under the auspices or with the special recommendation of the societies at home, it is proposed to give fifty acres each, upon condition of actual settlement and clearing a space of ten acres of the front of their locations, erecting a dwelling house etc for themselves, and clearing one-half of that portion of road lying in front of the lot of which their grant forms a part.  The use and possession of this land will be secured to them immediately, and after three years’ actual residence, and the performance of the conditions above specified, a deed in fee simple, without charge, will be given to them”

In an article in Historical Essays on Upper Canada: New Perspectives called ‘Forest into Farmland: Upper Canadian Clearing Rates 1822-1839′ Peter A. Russell notes that the rate of clearing forest was seen as a crucial index of a man’s  economic success and social advancement.  He noted that at first settlers needed to clear to provide immediate shelter for themselves and their families, while often working for wages on a more advanced settler’s tract. After a couple of years, the land had to be cleared again because of secondary regrowth.   Darrell A. Norris’ chapter in the same volume ‘Migration, Pioneer Settlement and the Life Course: The First Families of an Ontario Township’ noted that often families lived temporarily in more settled towns before shifting to the bush once they had sufficient working-age children to make a go of it.

I find myself comparing this with Port Phillip emigration at much the same time. There were bounty migrant schemes, but the emphasis there was on attracting labourers, both agricultural and industrial, and domestic servants.  There was a general reluctance for newcomers to shift into the country where there was much more of an emphasis on pastoral activity than farming, and it was mainly ex-convicts and single men who took on the role of sheep-hand, for which labour was most scarce.

Postcard Family Hut Australia (1909)

Certainly ‘improvements’ were expected of selectors under the 1869 Selection Act- a house, boundary fences, clearing and cultivating at least 32 acres. (Some interesting, later images here)   Of course, the type of land dictated the emphasis given to clearing. Sparsely timbered plains posed no problem, but especially in Gippsland, the bush took on a daunting scale more similar to that in Canada.  But once it had been ring-barked and burnt,  the battle seemed won.  As one Gippsland selector W. M. Elliot, rejoiced at the end of his life

not a vestige remains of the vast forest that once so stubbornly resisted our labours.  Hill and vale covered in verdure as far as the eye can see! (cited in Dingle p. 67)

In the end, the Canadian Emigration Association was eclipsed by other developments.  The main proponent, Dr Thomas Rolph, became attracted by other (likewise unsuccessful) large-scale land development schemes whereby huge tracts of land would be purchased in England and sold to settlers, and by the early 1840s emigration had picked up of its own accord.  In Port Phillip, the bounty scheme almost bankrupted the government in a time of depression and by the early 1850s the gold rush made such schemes redundant.

References:

J. K. Johnson ‘Land Policy and the Upper Canadian Elite Reconsidered: The Canadian Emigration Association, 1840-1841’ in David Keane & Colin Read (eds) Old Ontario: Essays in Honour of J. M. S. Careless, Toronto and Oxford, Dundurn Press, 1990.  pp. 217-233

Peter A. Russell ‘Forest into Farmland: Upper Canadian Clearing Rates 1822-1839’ in (Ed.) J. K. Johnson and Bruce G. Wilson Historical Essays on Upper Canada: New Perspectives I ,Ottawa Canada, Carleton University Press, 1989. pp.131-149

Darrell A. Norris ‘Migration, Pioneer Settlement and the Life Course: The First Families of an Ontario Township.’ (Ed.) J. K. Johnson and Bruce G. Wilson Historical Essays on Upper Canada: New Perspectives I ,Ottawa Canada, Carleton University Press, 1989. Pp. 175-201

Tony Dingle Settling, NSW Australia, Fairfax Syme and Weldon, 1984

‘The Lion, the Eagle and Upper Canada’ by Jane Errington

The Lion, the Eagle and Upper Canada: A Developing Colonial Ideology

1987, 192 p & notes.

This book, developed from the author’s Ph D thesis of a similar title, won the Corey Prize for 1988.  So far I can still count the number of books I have read on Upper Canada on my fingers, but even I was aware while reading it that I was tiptoeing across what we would characterize in Australia as a “history war”.  Has Canada had its own history wars? I suspect, from this article, that it has.  No doubt I shall soon become more familiar with all this.

In her introduction Errington identifies the characterization of Canadian history that she is arguing against- i.e. that hardy British-American settlers fled the destructive influence of American democracy and republicanism and established a new, counter-revolutionary British society in Northern America that “rejected all things American while embracing 18th century British conservative values and traditions” (p. 4).

Instead, she argues, there were ongoing personal and intellectual links between settlers who had crossed to Canada, and the families and friends they left behind in America.  The major communications links with England passed through America; people crossed the border both ways, and there was a strong interest in federalist politics particularly as it played out in the nearby American state of New York.  She argues that rather than a horizontal line drawn between Canada and America, there was a cross-border sympathy between the Canadian reformers and their ideological brethren, the American federalists.  The settlers who crossed into Canada were not British themselves: they had been born in America and the vast majority of them never set foot in England.  She argues that Upper Canadian society was shaped by the dual influences of Great Britain and America, and that the political  controversies of the 1820s and 1830s had at their heart differing perceptions of the British constitution and parliamentary traditions- whether the principles, or the image,  of the British constitution should apply there.  There are resonances here with the same issue for Australian judges and governors at the same time:  the relevance of what we would now sneer as “one size fits all” law and policy.

Errington flags right from the beginning that she is taking a view from the top, restricting her analysis to the articulate elite:

This study is an attempt to understand what some Upper Canadians, those few individuals who were recognized as leaders of their communities, actually believed about themselves and about others, particularly the United States and Great Britain, and how their views of themselves intersected and depended upon their views of others and changed over time. (p.10)

She draws heavily on newspaper articles and the personal correspondence of a number of key individuals, particularly Richard Cartwright, John Strachan and  Stephen Miles whose perspectives appear throughout the book.  Perhaps it is because this area is new to me, but I found myself wishing that she had fleshed out these characters a little more, given that they were to be the chorus of voices heard throughout- perhaps in the way that Inga Clendinnen did in Dancing with Strangers, so that each time you encountered them again, it was like meeting an old friend.

I gather from some of the reviews I have read of this book, that it was felt that, by concentrating on the views of the elite,  she overlooked other arguments in making her own.  That didn’t worry me at all- it is the views of the elite that I need for my own purposes.   She does address the issue of her close focus in the introduction, but perhaps it was a methodological choice that she needed to prosecute more insistently.

I’ve already spoken of my interest in the way she integrated quotations into her analysis,  and I certainly felt as if I was reading a viewpoint, formed and promulgated over time by living, inconsistent, evolving people rather than a political stance delivered ready-made.  I like the way that she emphasizes the evolving and contingent nature of political ideas, the effect of generational change on political protest, and the way that British and trans-colonial ideas, events and politics played out at a local level.

‘Upper Canada: The Formative Years’ by Gerald M Craig

My research has moved onto another stage: Judge Willis’ Adventures in Upper Canada.  My Australian readers will no doubt agree with me that Canadian history does not figure highly in the Australian history curriculum and that I probably shouldn’t feel as embarrassed as I do by my ignorance about all things Canadian.

This book was suggested to me on a Canadian history blog as a good, if somewhat dated, starting point in researching Upper Canada.  Where’s Upper Canada? you may ask.  (I certainly did).  As one of my first surprises, it’s not particularly “Upper” at all- it’s the area of Southern Ontario, north of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. To my antipodean eye “Lower Canada” was actually closer to the north pole (and hence, upper)  than “Upper Canada” was.   It only officially existed until 1841, when Upper and Lower Canada were merged.

This, for me, was Revelation No 1- the river/lake eye view.  In his book, The Tyranny of Distance, Geoffrey Blainey emphasizes the importance of the lack of long inland waterways in Australia.  When you look at a map of Australia, there are none of those meandering rivers that weave , branching and converging across a continent.  Instead, apart from the Murray-Darling system,  there are stubby little twigs that start and break off, seemingly without reason.  No wonder explorers dragged their canoes with them into the Australian desert: their experience in other continents would have reassured them that there would be a river system somewhere, waiting to be discovered.  It also explains why early British settlement in Australia hugged the coast so tightly, and why they were keen to annex strategic harbours rather than the continent as a whole. (p. 122-3).  With a Canadian river-eye view, “Upper” refers to the reaches of the river, not the lines on a map, and “development” involves canals and river engineering works.

Revelation No 2 was the importance of borders, and here I remembered echoes of John Hirst’s first year Australian History subject where he emphasized the importance of Australia not having to share a border with any other colonial power.  I hadn’t considered before the significance in the time of the Napoleonic Wars of having French-Canadian neighbours, or the implications of “loyalists” coming across the border after the War of Independence, and the uneasiness that would evoke.  The book was a salutary reminder.

Revelation No 3 was the familiarity of policies across the empire. I was prepared for this, but it was still an “aha!” moment for me to see migration, land and church policies that I had thought of as “Australian” being applied in another context.  Our “national” history is not as unique as we might want to think it is- much of  it was part of what we would now deride as “one size fits all” empire-wide approach.  Policies that seem puzzling, like the insistence on restricting settlement around the Sydney area, make more sense in the face of Upper Canada’s experience when settlement was allowed to become too dispersed, a phenomenon exacerbated by the policy of reserving large tracts of land for clergy and Crown needs at a later date.  Of course “one size” didn’t fit all, and policies were subverted and ignored, but it’s interesting to observe the empire’s “corporate learning”, even if it only existed on paper.

Revelation No 4 was not strictly a revelation either: more a confirmation of the mobility of colonial careers.  For here we see George Arthur popping up as Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, having completed an earlier stint in Van Diemen’s Land- and there’s Charles Buller– I thought he was supposed to be “our” man in Whitehall!

The book was clearly written, with a strong chronological structure.  I found myself raising a sceptical eyebrow at the comment that unlike the United States, Upper Canada was never an “angry” Indian frontier- is that true?  The emphasis on the book was on politics and economics rather than social history, and I don’t think that there was a single woman in the whole book.  That’s fine: I’ve just started reading and plenty of time to rectify that.  There’s an almost laconic view of causality running through the narrative of this book: rebellions and ructions, when they occurred,  are portrayed as almost unnecessary, as structures would have collapsed under their own weight and events would have unspooled anyway.

The book, published in 1963,  was the first cab off the rank in the Canadian Centenary Series.  It concentrates on a defined geographical area within a clearly designated timespan.   The book ends optimistically, looking to the future and further progress.  The concept and premise of “Upper Canada” seems to be a phase in Canada’s history, and I sense that it has been left behind without regret or nostalgia in the march towards other things.