Category Archives: Upper Canadian history

‘Muddy York Mud: Scandal and Scurrility in Upper Canada’ by Chris Raible

raible

1992,  272 pages including appendix.

I came across this book just as I was about to go to Canada in 2011 to research the Upper Canada period of ‘my’ Judge Willis‘ career.  I began reading it and became increasingly excited that it captures the small-town, censorious attitude of a small Canadian outpost of Britishness in the 1820s so well. No wonder an English judge, full of his own importance, fell foul of this intermarried web of government officials!  But then there were bags to pack and planes to catch, and I didn’t finish it. I’ve just returned to reading it, some three years later, and almost at the end of my first draft instead of dabbling around in the shallows of my early research.   On this second and now completed reading, it doesn’t so much open up new areas (thank goodness, I must say), but it does confirm and add colour to the context of 1820s York (Toronto) in a highly readable and informed manner.

The central event of this book is what has come to be known as the Types Riot.  Late on the summer afternoon of 8 June 1826, when the editor of the Colonial Advocate newspaper was away, nine young  ‘gentlemen’ smashed their way into the newspaper office, emptied the type cases from their cabinets, strewed fully made-up printing frames across the office, then carried type cases across the road, along the wharf,  and threw them into the bay.  They were not drunk; they made no attempt to disguise themselves and they were watched without intervention by several bystanders, including two magistrates.

The argument of this book is that there is a direct link between the Types Riot and a series of satirical articles published some weeks earlier  in the Colonial Advocate known collectively as the Patrick Swift commentaries.  These articles, published at very great length over several issues, were a fictitious report entitled ‘A faithful account of the proceedings at a general meeting of the contributors to the Advocate, held in Macdonnell’s Parlour on the evening of Monday, May 1st 1826’.  These ‘contributors’ were ostensibly gathered to select a new editor for the Advocate as, supposedly, the present editor, William Lyon Mackenzie, had resigned.  ‘Patrick Swift’, [described as “a grand nephew of the famous Doctor Johnathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s in Dublin” and the author of Gulliver’s Travels]  was selected. The ‘report’ described the debate and ribald comments of this drunken group of fictional characters.

In this way, ventriloquizing through the fictional ‘Patrick Swift’, the real-life editor of the Colonial Advocate, William Lyon Mackenzie launched on a tirade against the pretences of the Upper Canada ‘gentry’. In a thirty page, small-font appendix to the book, Raible reproduces the commentaries, annotating them to identify the victims of the humour:  judges, lawyers, the attorney general, prominent clergymen and even the lieutenant-governor and his wife.

As Raible says:

The notorious “Patrick Swift” satires, published by William Lyon Mackenzie a few weeks before the Types Riot trashing of his Colonial Advocate printshop, contained a number of explicit barbs intended to prick the over-inflated egos of the members of the little York elite.  That he succeeded, and thereby provided a group of men with socially acceptable justification for acting out their personal grievances against the outspoken editor, has been a theme throughout this book. (p. 229)

In the short chapters of this book, Raible ranges chronologically and episodically over a number of grievances and scandals that led to and flowed from the Types Riot.   It’s not an easy task: many of the events occurred in geographically disparate locations, across a long period of time. Although by themselves they are trivial  and petty, together they add up to the abuse of power by a puffed-up and mutually distrustful clique with the levers of judicial power in their grasp.

Raible keeps the tone light, with no apparent historiographical framework. There are footnotes (called ‘Sources’) and a bibliography, but you’re certainly not aware of them while reading the book. There’s a tongue-in-mouth jocularity that runs through the book, and it reflects the rambunctious/nostalgic tone of the antiquarian books that have provided much of the source material.  For Australian readers, there’s definitely a touch of the ‘Garryowens’ about it.

‘A Biography of Robert Baldwin: The Morning-Star of Memory’ by Michael S. Cross

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Michael S. Cross A Biography of Robert Baldwin: The Morning Star of Memory, 2012, 367 p & notes

The first chapter of this biography begins with a jolt. It opens a month after the main protagonist’s death, with four men gathered around his corpse: his son, his brother, his brother in law and a surgeon. The surgeon cut across the abdomen to replicate a caesarean scar, and Robert Baldwin’s final wish was complete. His wife had died from long-term complications of a caesarean twenty-three years earlier, and Robert Baldwin was now to meet her in heaven bearing the same scar.

This opening chapter sets the tone for this biography, which seeks to unite the personal and emotional with the political. Australian readers are probably not familiar with Robert Baldwin, who is lauded as one of the founding fathers of self-government and who, along with Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine, headed the Reform party in joint Anglo-Canadian governments in Canada between 1836 and 1851 . In Australia, with an overwhelmingly British 19th century population, we are not particularly alert to the nuances of an Upper Canadian politician championing the political equality of the French Lower Canadian province. It was a luxury of mono-culturalism that Canada did not share.  Conversely, our own historiographical emphasis on self-government (in, for example Peter Cochrane’s Colonial Ambition) tends to see Canada as an example to emulate as a more constitutionally-advanced sibling, rather than a fellow colony going through much the same battles with the Colonial Office within the same time frame.

Robert Baldwin was born in Upper Canada in 1804. His father, Dr. William Warren Baldwin was one of those multi-talented colonial gentlemen who combined a career as medical doctor, school teacher, attorney and politician. W.W. Baldwin was wealthy, forthright and dominant, and Robert was very much in his father’s shadow. He was admitted to the bar and was eventually elected to  the Assembly, but he was no orator, often speaking in barely a whisper.  He married his cousin Eliza, initially against the wishes of his family, and was heart-broken when she died nine years later. Even though he had chafed against his father as a son, he became very much like him with his own children: critical, cold and domineering.

The author, Michael Cross, keeps the emphasis strongly on the psychological and emotional aspects of Robert’s personality. He was a son overwhelmed by the dominant presence of his father; he was prone to depression; he loved deeply and mourned obsessively. Each chapter begins with an italicized and imagined epigraph that counts down the years since Eliza’s death.

The triumph that the first Reform government had seemed to represent was melting away. He was beset on all sides as death had gain reached out and into the family. Only in memory could he find relief. Eliza had been dead for eight years. It was April 1844 (p.158)

Or another one:

It would be prudent and fitting to stop here, now that responsible government was accomplished. Little more was needed than to fill up the great achievement with the few institutions of national culture that would complete it. How proud Eliza would be. She had been dead nearly twelve years. (p. 230)

I can see what Cross is doing here, chapter after chapter, (using Eliza as a touchstone; using Eliza’s death as a tethering-point to the chronology) but it does become rather contrived and mawkish. He makes a good case for this extended grieving for Eliza being a bedrock emotion, fundamental to Baldwin’s personality, by keeping it running throughout the narrative, rather than consigning it to an early chapter and not referring to it again. But I think I would have appreciated a widening of context here. To our eyes his obsession with Eliza’s death seems morbid and bordering on phobic. Was it? I’ve been aware of similar, disabling, obsessive grief expressed by fathers in World War I- was that a new phenomenon or was there an older tradition of overwhelming masculine grief? Was Baldwin’s grief another (albeit earlier) version of that exemplified by Queen Victoria in 1861? Or was it aberrant even at the time?

Alongside this ongoing drum-beat of Baldwin’s emotional and psychological state, Cross writes a political biography that traverses many of the big issues of 19th century Canadian history: the 1837 Rebellion, the Durham report, the Montreal Riots of 1849, Irish immigration after the famine and the rise of the Clear Grits. I must admit that most of my reading about Upper Canada has petered out at 1841 with the Act of Union that combined largely- English Upper Canada with largely-French Lower Canada, but I was able to follow the political narrative fairly easily (if uncritically).

As an Australian historian, I’m interested that in the lead up to responsible government, Baldwin was so comfortable with what we would call party politics. In Australia at the time, there was still an aversion to ‘party’ as being something disreputable and compromising.

I have the advantage, I suppose, of familiarity with both Canadian and Australian history of the time that enables me to detect the empire-wide issues that each government had to grapple with. I found myself surprised that Canada was not, as I had believed, constitutionally streets ahead of New South Wales, which still felt itself hampered by its ‘penal colony’ origins. Instead, politicians in both colonies were tussling with the same Colonial Office personnel who had far more of an empire-wide perspective than can be detected when dealing with one colony alone.

I came across Robert Baldwin in my own work through his friendship with my research interest, John Walpole Willis. Cross does not spend a great deal of time on the 1820s, which preceded Baldwin’s election to the Assembly, although Willis’ dismissal became a rallying cause to the reform-party dominated government in the early 1830s.  The chronological weaving of this book is interesting and unconventional, with the 1837 Rebellion dealt with rather cursorily at first, but referred to several times in retrospect in later chapters.

Willis did not appear to make many firm friends in his life.  In Upper Canada, his main friendships seemed to be with John Galt and Robert Baldwin,  although Willis tended to downplay his social connection with Baldwin later. Although of a similar social background and education to the ‘Family Compact’ elite, Robert’s politics put him firmly in the Reform camp, and his actions as a barrister in Willis’ courtroom during his brief tenure in Upper Canada, meant that they were both oriented towards the same political direction. I was interested to see whether there was a similarity in political beliefs between the two men beyond the convenience of a common cause at the time. There probably was. Although Baldwin was staunchly in favour of responsible government, and devoted his whole political career to its attainment, he was no democrat. He was firmly committed to British institutions and declared that he hoped to die a British subject (p. 314). Like many of the British reform politicians who had supported the 1832 Reform Bill, he found that his Upper Canadian colleagues were not content to stop at responsible government, but wanted to push further.   He wanted change, but not rapid change; he wanted popular participation but not democracy, and he wanted to preserve the best of the gentry-dominated past (p. 284).

I find myself indulging in a flight of–‘if history’. If Willis had stayed in Upper Canada, would he have gone on to voice many of the political opinions that Baldwin later did? I suspect that he would have.

 

 

Putting history in its place

puttinghistoryinitsplace

Well, well, well- I’m on ITunes U! (and so are some of my fellow LaTrobe-ites who read this blog!) There’s some interesting papers there, and a video of Henry Reynolds on the History of Tasmania.

The full title of my paper is “Global Positioning Systems: Circuits of Empire Large and Small”.  It was delivered at Putting History in Its Place, a conference held at La Trobe University in September 2012.

It’s labelled as “Movement around the Imperial Network” on I-Tunes.  When I played it through I-tunes it seemed to be brutally truncated at the end, but my downloaded version ran through to the end.

https://itunes.apple.com/itunes-u/putting-history-in-its-place/id571785142

‘The Galts: A Canadian Odyssey’ by H. B. Timothy

1977, 175 p.

Well, now that I’ve read a book written by John Galt about Canada, an autobiography by John Galt, and now finally this biography of him, I’ve got to admit that the biography wins hands down.  It’s set me off wondering about the relationship between autobiography and biography, especially when considering a literary figure, as John Galt is.  I can only think of two other cases where I’ve read a writer’s autobiography followed by a biography penned by another person: Janet Frames Angel at my Table trilogy  paired with Michael King’s Wrestling with the Angel, and Patrick White’s Flaws in the Glass paired with David Marr’s Patrick White: A Life.  In terms of feeling that I understood the character, the biography trumped the autobiography each time, no matter how beautifully or incisively the self-penned work was written.

Am I surprised by this? I don’t know. The autobiography of a writer, by its very nature, will be framed by the author’s own self-image and imbued with a literary sensibility and becomes  source material itself for the biographer, as well as a work in its own right.  The biographer can challenge, contextualize and interrogate the self that is portrayed by the autobiographer, bringing the questions, perspectives and judgments of the outsider in a way that the autobiographer cannot. The autobiography is undertaken at a particular time of a life not yet fully lived- not on the deathbed as a rule!- and the biographer can know things to which the autobiographer is oblivious or blind.

This biography of the author John Galt is written by a Canadian academic who brings with him the nationalist agenda of claiming Galt as part of a significant Canadian family dynasty, even though John Galt (1779-1839) spent only a small proportion of his life in Canada itself, and  he set relatively few of his books there.  As a result, the author privileges Galt’s experience with Canada as a lobbyist and Canada Company promoter and administrator over his identity as a literary figure.  I’m interested in Galt’s Canadian connection, too, so even though Galt in his autobiography sees Canada as just one thread of his life story,  I’m glad that H. B. Timothy has teased it out in this way.

One of the things that I have been grappling with in dealing with my own research interest (Justice John Walpole Willis) is cracking through the brittle, rather volatile early-Victorian masculinity that is displayed by both men, cloaked in obsequious language and intellectual self-possession.  While living in Upper Canada Willis and Galt became friends, for whatever reason, and they obviously recognized some commonality between themselves.  The autobiography, because it emerges from such a  brittle, rather volatile man, exemplifies this sensibility but it does not interrogate it.  The biography is able to do so somewhat more easily.

Then there is the knowledge of subsequent events and broader context that a latter-day biographer can bring as well: the ‘unknown unknowns’ if we want to get all Donald Rumsfeldian about it.  In this case, Timothy suggests that there was an element of set-up at play: that members of the Established Church back in England acted in the interests of Anglican Church interests in Upper Canada in engineering Galt’s financial downfall (is ‘conspired’ too strong a word?).  He explores the possibility that Maitland and the Family Compact elite had Galt under surveillance even before he set foot in Canada, and that his links with people active in politics to the embarrassment of the administration rendered him suspect from the start.  If so, there’s an element of rather touching, unwitting naivete  about the autobiography because of his unawareness of these larger political forces at work.  This rather tragic edge enhances the autobiography, rather than working to its detriment.

‘The Autobiography of John Galt’ by John Galt

1833, 2 volumes

John Galt published this autobiography in 1833, some six years before his death in 1839 at the age of sixty.  It starts off with a number of early memories: falling into the fire at his grandmother’s house and causing his cousin’s legs to be scalded by the kettle; watching lilies grow, and seeing a postcard of Niagara Falls.  In a more carefully constructed memoir, he could have used these early memories as organizing devices because illness, the Romantic view of the sublime and nature, and the settlement of immigrants in Canada emerge as major themes of his life. However, apart from a mention of Niagara Falls later in the book, he does not do so and the book trails off near the end into a vindication of his work with the Canada Company and a list of his literary, cultural and (to a lesser extent) scientific contributions.   These are prodigious, if somewhat arcane today, as his entry in the Canadian Dictionary of Biography attests.

Although he only lived in Canada for four years, it takes up a large section of his autobiography, much of which is spent explanation of his actions and the injustice of his dismissal from the Canada Company, a company established originally to purchase the Clergy Reserves dotted throughout the new Canadian frontier lands, but which swapped these lands for a huge tract of land at Lake Huron purchased for a uniform 3 shillings and sixpence per acre.   Such land companies (seen also in the Van Diemens Land Company and Australian Agricultural Company) were part of the debate over immigration, crown land, ‘wastelands’ and Wakefieldianism of the time.  This section was my main reason for reading the book, interested in Upper Canada as I am, so imagine my consternation when the version I was reading had an editor’s footnote that a number of rather boring letters about his conflict with the Governor there had been omitted because they weren’t very interesting!  However, I’ve since found another version of the autobiography, and perhaps the editor was right.

A sizeable proportion of the book is also devoted to his literary work, largely influenced by his time in Europe doing the Grand Tour, hanging out with Byron and acting like an early-nineteenth century gentleman should act.  He does describe his methodology of “theoretical history” which underpinned his writing of Bogle Corbet, whereby he fictionalized factual material.  But there’s lots of impenetrable poetry, and further sallies into the literary debates of the day, much of which eluded my understanding.  It’s very much an autobiography of the head rather than the heart, and very much a work of its time.  If, in some sort of hackneyed time machine scenario, I were to meet him today, I think I’d be rather intimidated and wary of him. I would very much be aware as L.P Hartley famously said “The past is a different country; they do things differently there.”

Availability: Available online at Google Books and Internet Archive- downloadable as epub and pdf.  How grateful I am that I’m writing my thesis now and not 20 years ago. I’d be holed up in some Rare Books Room, if indeed I was even able to locate a copy of this book here.

Read because: The friend of my thesis topic is my friend too.  Mind you, he’d be my BFF (best friend forever) if he’d been a bit more forthcoming.  As it is, I read it for slightly thesis-oriented curiosity value.

‘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.

‘A Life of Propriety’ by Katherine M. J. McKenna

Katherine M.J. McKenna A Life of Propriety: Anne Murray Powell and her Family 1755-1849 , Montreal & Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994 , 260 p. & notes

Judges’ wives don’t tend to get much of a look-in in the judicial biographies written about their husbands. As you might expect, in such books the emphasis is on the judge and his interactions on the bench and amongst his judicial peers and government officials.  The wife and children- if they are acknowledged at all- tend to cluster off-stage in the folds of the curtains.

Not so in this book, which consciously focuses on Anna Murray Powell, the wife of  Chief Justice William Dummer Powell, of the Kings Bench Upper Canada. It was her husband’s position that gave Anna Powell her own prominence within York (Toronto) society, but I suspect that she would have been the subject of biography in any event.  The Powell family were prolific letter-writers, and more importantly, the letters were saved and now are scattered between archives in Ottawa, Toronto, Boston, New York and Washington.  Anne herself generated about 2,500 pages of letters alone, written over a span of 50 years, most particularly to her brother George Murray in New York.  These are rich letters for the social historian- full of family news and waspish commentary about York society- and they provide a solid basis for a study of Anna Powell and her family in her own right, not just as the wife of the Chief Justice.

Anna Murray Powell was born in Wells, England in 1755 to parents of a middle class background.  She emigrated at the age of 16 with her Aunt Elizabeth, who had herself emigrated to the New World at the age of thirteen and established a thriving millinery business in Boston.  On a trip back ‘home’, Aunt Elizabeth was horrified by the new ideals of middle-class female domesticity becoming popular in England, which did not sit well with her own ideas about female independence and business activity.  She did not have children of her own, and as seemed to be common at the time, ‘adopted’ her nieces and brought them back to Boston to manage her business.  What might have been a good solid business experience for a young man was greeted by Anne and her sister with reluctance and resentment.  She was mortified by working in ‘trade’ and she carried this sensitivity about her pre-marriage working life throughout her life, and indeed it may have contributed directly to the stiff-necked and inflexible ‘propriety’ that she demanded of her family, and all other York inhabitants in her social circle.

The book is divided into four parts. Part I ‘Learning and Living the Lessons of Propriety’ is largely biographical, tracing Anne’s childhood and adolescence, prolific childbearing years (nine births) and her establishment of her status within York society.  The narrative then bifurcates into a gender-based analysis of her family relations.  Part II ‘The Intersections of Male and Female Gender Roles’ examines Anne’s relationship with the men in the family: husband, brothers and sons.  Part III ‘The Transmission of Female Gender Roles’ examines education, marriage and childbirth within women’s lives in Upper Canada, and closes with a fascinating analysis of the lives of her three daughters.  Part IV ‘Conclusion’ deals with her life as widow and elderly matriarch- an aspect of women’s lives that is often dismissed in a few sentences- a life-stage which, as we (I) embark on an increasingly-lengthened old age will probably attract more historical scrutiny than it may have received in the past.

The book draws heavily on Barbara Welter’s 1966 article ‘The Cult of True Womanhood’ (American Quarterly, 18, 1966 p.151-74), a fairly dated article for such a recent book, and a choice that was questioned by several of the reviewers I have read.  McKenna cites Davidoff and Hall’s Family Fortunes, but it is the True Womanhood trope that she returns to most often.

Despite Anne’s strict insistence on ‘propriety’ and her incorporation of it into her own identity, you have to admit that her children were a bit of a disappointment.  The ‘good’ sons tended to die tragically, leaving the family with the duds.  Among her daughters, there was one ‘good’ daughter who trumped her mother in the fertility stakes, popping out ten children in an alarming succession. Another daughter remained the unmarried maiden aunt, a companion to her mother and built-in helpmate to her spawning sister.  The most fascinating chapter was that concerning the ‘unnatural’ daughter, Anne Murray Powell Junior.  It is  a very nineteenth-century take on the difficulties with parenting a wilful and troubled adolescent daughter.  The story of Anne Jnr.’s infatuation with John Beverley Robinson, the future attorney-general, has been told by other historians, but I suspect not with the sensitivity that McKenna brings to the situation.  It all ends tragically, and although the expectations and language of these unyielding 19th ‘pillars of society’ in their treatment of their daughter might not sit well with us today, the experience of parenting, loving, and losing transcends these differences.

Anne Murray Powell’s voice through her letters to her family is strong, censorious and inflexible.  Her letters are laced with a religious sentimentality which does not quite cover the snippiness, complaint and smugness that she expresses in almost the same breath.  Through the richness of the family archive, and through McKenna’s own insightful treatment, you feel as if you have been in the presence of a formidable woman.  I think I prefer her at a distance.

Sourced from : La Trobe University Library

Read because: it’s set in York at a time very close to my own research interest.