Canadian history is not boring! Surprise!
As I romped through Thomas Raddall’s lively and very informative history of my adopted city, I found myself wondering why I have never been interested in Canadian history. Whose fault is that? I’d blame boring teachers except that I can’t really remember being taught any Canadian history in school. I started reading historical fiction at the tender age of five–I still have my tattered copies of Jean Plaidy’s The Young Elizabeth and The Young Mary Queen of Scots–so can I blame my total oblivion to Canadian history on the absence of equally romantic and accessible historical novels with Canadian heroines? (There was Anne of Green Gables, of course, but in my childish mind she was eternal, not historical, just like Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.) Though in later years I took some detours into American history (via Gone with the Wind, mostly) and occasionally into French or Russian, it was British history that had caught and held my imagination, and it really never occurred to me that I was missing anything by not exploring the history of my own country. That was a failure of patriotism as well as of curiosity, I suppose–but then I’ve never been much moved (in fact, I’m usually annoyed) by pressure to be more nationalistic, especially culturally (and Canadians actually get quite a lot of that kind of pressure, what with the incessant feeling of being encroached upon or drowned out by our noisy neighbours to the south).
Anyway, I remember various class trips to the Museum of Vancouver or the B. C. Provincial Museum, and to Fort Langley (where we’d get the obligatory square nail souvenirs) and I think at some point we made dioramas of scenes from Vancouver’s early years, but none of this competed with the thrilling stories of Lady Jane Grey or Eleanor of Aquitaine or Good Queen Bess. That was the good historical stuff! Later, as a history major in university, I stuck to Britain and America for my coursework, along with the intellectual history and historiography that were my main interests–there must not have been a Canadian history requirement, and of course it didn’t occur to me to take any Canadian history voluntarily!
Well, better late than never, right? I thoroughly enjoyed Halifax: Warden of the North, which I bought in the gift shop at the Halifax Citadel after touring the fort for the first time in my almost 17 years living here. I figured it was time I stopped moping quite so much about not living in Vancouver and tried to learn to love the east coast–and you know, the ironic thing is, Halifax actually has a lot more to offer a British history buff than Vancouver does, because so much of its early history actually is British history–obvious, I know, but reading Warden of the North finally made that sink in. From the earliest days of French and British competition for control over the area, through the drama of the War of 1812 to the nearby chaos of the American Civil War and the heyday of Victorianism–Halifax was a British outpost, for better or for worse, and right in the thick of things, too. Why, the British force that captured Washington and burned the White House was sent from the naval base in Halifax!
A couple of excerpts will convey the rapid pace and dramatic flair with which Raddall tells his story. The first tells of the sequel to the humiliating surrender of the royal frigate Guerriere, overcome by the US frigate Constitution. Young Captain Dacres was court-martialled for the loss of his ship, and Captain Broke of the HMS Shannon came away from the spectacle “eager to avenge Guerriere”:
One day he walked into the bookshop of William Minns, opposite Grand Parade, and cheerfully declared: ‘Well, Minns, I’m going to Boston to challenge the Constitution.’ Like most Haligonians of his time, Minns knew something of fighting ships; and the fate of young Dacres was fresh in his mind. He ventured a notion that Shannon‘s eighteen-pounders had no chance against Constitution‘s twenty-fours. ‘Ah,’ said Broke, ‘but I intend to close with her quickly–and board!’ Off he went, a confident figure, to his destiny.’
Broke cruised the waters around Boston for months without getting a chance at the Constitution, but learning that the frigate Chesapeake was in Boston Harbor for a refit, he challenged her captain, and “Chesapeake came out accompanied by a flotilla of Boston pleasure craft eager to watch the fight.” And what happened?
On a fine Halifax Sunday, June 6, 1813, someone slipped into morning service at St. Paul’s and whispered to a friend. The friend departed swiftly with him. So did others within earshot, and as the whisper spread, almost the entire congregation. All Halifax was running down the steep streets to the wharves. Two ships were coming up the harbor. . . . The first was Shannon, worn by a three-months’ cruise. The second was Chesapeake, with the fresh paint of her refit shining in the sun. The tall corpse of her Captain Lawrence lay on the deck covered by the folds of the surrendered Stars and Strips. His last gallant words–‘Don’t give up the ship!’–are the motto of the United States Navy to this day.
The ships came slowly into the roadstead. The garrison bands marched down to the waterfront to greet them with brass and drums. The troops and people cheered. One venerable Halifax merchant was seen at the end of his wharf playing ‘Rule Britannia’ on a vast ‘cello, and capering as he played. Handkerchiefs waved. Ships in the anchorage manned their yards. Young Tom Haliburton … was one of the boys who swarmed aboard the prize; and he never forgot what he saw:
The coils and folds of rope were steeped in gore as if in a slaughter-house. She was a fir-built ship and her splinters had wounded nearly as many as the Shannon’s shot. Pieces of skin and pendant hair were adhering to the sides of the ship, and in one place I noticed fingers protruding as if thrust through the outer wall of the frigate . . .
And from a much later and very different war, here’s another evocative moment:
In April 1940 there was thunderous news from Europe–the German invasion of Denmark and Norway. This was followed in May by the German thrust into Holland, Belgium, and France. By June 18 Britain stood alone in Europe against the whole might of Hitler’s war machine, and Winston Churchill was making his greatest speech. With all the ports of western Europe, short of Spain and Portugal, in their hands, the Germans began to carry the war into the North Atlantic with aircraft, surface raiders, and submarines. Thus by the summer of 1940 Britain like a diver in deep waters was dependent for life upon a slender and fragile line stretching across the sea, and that line began at Halifax.
Here came the Americans’ “every aid short of war”; here came the products of the Canadian forests and fields and factories; here came the Canadian troops bound overseas; here the convoys assembled; here the escorting warships were refueled, provisioned, and refitted for the long and dangerous ocean passage; here the grey merchantmen damaged by enemy action, by storm, or by collision in the dark thick nights, were repaired and sent back into the struggle.
It’s narrative history, popular history, told with enormous gusto and a great sense of timing and character: Raddall was primarily a novelist, and Warden of the North was enough fun that I think I might try some of his fiction too. I learned a lot from the book and gained a better appreciation of this particular place: names I have known only as streets or schools or towns I can now connect with the people who made the city what it is today, while at the same time I’ve been here long enough that I could recognize many landmarks or topographical features as they came up in the story and take a personal interest in things like the development of the part of the city where we now live, or in the historical background of King’s College and Dalhousie where I work, most of which I had more or less picked up but which now has its part in a larger story.
Warden of the North was first published in 1948, and though it was updated several times by Raddall himself and has now been ably brought up to date by my King’s colleage Stephen Kimber, the narrative does show its age a bit (repeated uses of the term “savages,” for instance). But the occasional flinch did little to take away from my overall enjoyment. Maybe if someone had given me this book to read years ago it would have changed everything…or maybe it was just the right time for me to learn to love what’s right in front of me. I still miss Vancouver, but now Halifax is more to me than someplace I kind of got stuck–now I see that it’s part of the same history I loved all along, and that it has a history of its own that’s pretty interesting too.