Splendid Isolation - Part II
Over the winter of 1864 and 1865, ships carrying delegates and official letters crossed the Atlantic. Back and forth, from Ottawa to London, London to Charlottetown, letters were read and filed away. Written and stamped. Delegates from Ottawa would walk the halls of Westminster knocking on doors, having long meetings with Colonial Office officials and chatting in gentlemen's clubs until the late hours.
On the night of April 24th, a pistol was raised to the back of Abraham Lincoln’s head in the Ford Theatre. He died early the next morning from the gunshot wound. On hearing the news of his death, Queen Victoria was so moved that she wrote a letter to his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Victoria’s own husband Albert had died four years previously from what was believed to be typhoid fever. She famously withdrew into decades of mourning in her Scottish estate at Balmoral.
“Though a stranger to you I cannot remain silent,” the Queen wrote, “when such a calamity has fallen upon you and your country and [I] must personally express my deep and heartfelt sympathy for you under the shocking circumstances of your present dreadful misfortune.”
One month later in May, the American Civil War was officially proclaimed to be over. With over a million people killed the nation began to rebuild much of what had been destroyed.
Then in June a letter arrived in Charlottetown. It was from the Colonial Office in London--the office that dealt with the empire’s far flung dependencies. In the last few months the topic of a unified British North America was surely a common topic.
Governor George Dundas read it and asked one of his aides-de-camp to “fetch our good premier and his men.”
Later that afternoon Premier Pope and a few select members of the Executive Assembly arrived at Fanningbank by horse and buggy. On the front lawn of the estate a man stood behind a camera with his head under a piece of cloth as he lined up his shot. He snapped a photo then poked his head out. It was the governor. He had a love of photography, although he was still practising how to keep a picture in focus.
“My Lord,” Premier James Pope said as he and his small entourage approached him on the front lawn. Pope had just taken over as premier. Two days after the delegation returned from the Quebec Conference, Premier Grey’s wife died. Grey was so struck with grief that he resigned.
The governor took a letter from his pocket and handed it to the premier. “You won’t like this,” he warned. Pope read it then handed it to one of his ministers.
“Bloody hell,” he cursed as he paced the lawn.
The minister read from the letter. “It is the strong and deliberate opinion of Her Majesty’s government that Prince Edward Island should unite with Canada.”
“The tenants are in near-open revolt and now London wants us to hand over our power,” Pope said. Since December almost all tenants on the Island had signed into the Tenant League. Their goal was to dismantle the proprietary land system. One of their methods was by withholding payments to their landlords.
In just a few months Governor Dundas would be forced to send the military to violently put down riots when the tenants still refused to pay officials sent to collect money.
“You need to understand, dear boy,” the governor said to the premier. “It only makes sense that British North America is consolidated for military reasons. If we or any of our sister colonies were attacked, well, is it better to be separate or united? Clearly, being united is in the best interest of the empire.”
No means No
Word spread across the Island that London was putting pressure on the colonial government to join Canada. It was met by harsh resistance. Politicians were sent back to the legislature with a clear mandate. No to Canada.
In 1866 the Governor sent the military to put down the riots in Belfast and politicians stood one by one in the Colonial Building and drafted a sternly worded letter to Her Majesty’s government in London.
“Confederation would be as hostile to [Prince Edward Islanders’} feelings and wishes as it would be opposed to the best and most vital interests of the people.”
Following this letter were other demands. First, the Island administration asked London to make the sale of the proprietary lands compulsory. Plus, the Islanders asked for a guarantee of a loan to help Islanders purchase land from the absentee landlords.
When these demands were read in London, the answer was “no. Absolutely not.” The official who read the letter had his secretary write a reply as he dictated it. “Her Majesty’s government suggests that the land question in the Colony of Prince Edward Island be settled in confederation.”
In May of 1866 the anti-confederation government of James Pope passed the “No Terms” resolution. It clearly stated that Prince Edward Island rejected the Quebec Conference and the possibility of Confederation.
Now the topic turned to how the Island would secure economic stability. The Reciprocity Treaty was an agreement put in place between Britain and the American states. It was a major trade agreement which many of the Island’s exports depended on. It had also just expired.
Snubbing Her Majesty’s Government
After a late night of pondering the problem, Premier Pope walked into the Executive Council chamber and took his seat at the table.
“Gentleman, we must do what is best for this island,” he said. “I propose that this council send a delegation to the United States to negotiate our own trade agreement.”
The ministers were astounded.
“What will the Canadians think? And the Colonial Office!” a minister asked. “That’s outside our jurisdiction.”
“They won’t be happy,” Pope replied. “That much is obvious. But we must do what is best for this island. I’m going to London myself soon. I will try to explain to them how important this agreement is. God willing, they will understand.”
That fall the London Conference took place. It would be the last time delegates would meet to discuss Confederation before it’s formation in July 1867. When Pope arrived in London he was summoned to the Colonial Office.
“Dear man, what do you think you are doing,” he was asked by an official. “This nonsense of a colonial government taking part in direct talks with a national government without Her Majesty’s approval. Perhaps it’s not clear on Prince Edward Island what the protocol is for such a thing. But I assure you, that is not it.”
“My responsibility is to Prince Edward Island and its people,” Pope replied. “Of course I am loyal to Her Majesty and the empire to which we belong. But neither myself or anyone else from Prince Edward Island has been able to make you or anyone in this government realize that Confederation will not be good for our people. It will destroy us. It will take away our prosperity and the prosperity of the Crown.
“Let me be clear. 99 out of every 100 of the people are against confederation.”
Leaving the Colonial Office, having been dressed down, Pope went for a drink. Sitting in one of London’s gentlemen’s clubs near Westminster, he was joined by two men from the Upper Canada delegation. One was Samuel Leonard Tilley. The other, Charles Tupper.
There was small talk. The weather in London. The many pubs and restaurants. The sites. The journey across the ocean. Family affairs. Then after a few stiff drinks Tupper made an offer.
“Listen James,” Tupper said to Pope. “We know that land question is a serious problem for you folks on the Island. Everyone around here has heard about the riots that were put down. You’re sitting on a real grass fire waiting to happen there.”
“I’m aware,” Pope replied, nonsensically.
“And no one is very pleased about you talking directly to the Americans.”
“I’m aware of that too,” Pope replied as he slid forward in his chair to stand up.
“Now just wait,” Tupper said ushering Pope back down into his seat. “Look, what I mean to say is that we want you to take care of land problem once and for all. That’s why we’re willing to give you $800,000 to buy out the landlords. If you come on board that is.”
Pope stared at the duo.”That’s generous. But is that it?” he asked.
There was still the problem of forcing the landlords to sell at a reasonable price. The question of the future of the island’s economy and self-sustainability. The fear of losing control and being taxed to death by a central government. The want for a railway to expand the Island’s economy.
“I’ll take your offer back and propose it to the legislature,” Pope said. “But I’m telling you now they won’t buy it.”
And they didn’t. “They can’t bribe us into confederation,” came the reply.
Come, the Americans
1867 was the fateful year that the Dominion of Canada came into existence. Upper Canada, Lower Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia now formed a large protective shield around the island in the Gulf of St Lawrence. The land and waters of Prince Edward Island were the only ones outside of the control of the new dominion. From a strategic viewpoint it was a vulnerability.
In 1868, a ship sailed into those waters that sent a shockwave through London. A ship flying an American flag with 37 stars came alongside in Charlottetown Harbour. From it came a Congressional Committee from Washington.
Premier Coles and his ministers welcomed them at the dock. They shook hands, smiled and introduced themselves as they went down the line.
“Good sirs, welcome to Prince Edward Island. I hope you’ll feel at home here.”
In the year 1868 in the United States President Andrew Johnson faced impeachment trial by congress. The Wyoming Territory was created. Little Women was published. And the use of a float in a parade was used for the first time at Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
The primarily reason the Americans came to Prince Edward Island was to talk about a trade agreement with the Prince Edward Island colonial government. But as they talked with Premier Pope and his ministers they learned about the absentee landlords, the want for a railway, the deep despise of being forced into union with Canada, and the strong sense of autonomy that Islanders maintained.
In the new year, 1869, the members of the Congressional Committee tabled their report to Congress. In it they talked about re-signing the trade agreement with Prince Edward Island. In which they would have free access to the fishing grounds of the Island. In return Prince Edward Island would be able freely export to the states. In the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, it was a very good agreement for the Islanders. However, just as much emphasis was put on keeping the Island from joining the Dominion of Canada.
Both the Islanders and American officials knew that there were other options on the table. Afterall, it was age of Manifest Destiny.
Nothing could be a more defining factor of what physically makes up the US today than Manifest Destiny. It was a belief that the United States was given the divine right from God to occupy all North America and morally lead the world by His providence. That destiny did fulfill itself to a great degree.
After the American Revolution, the original colonies occupied the eastern seaboard. At the end of the 1700s, the Republic doubled it’s size. Its border hugged the Mississippi River from Lake Michigan all the way down to the bayous of Louisiana. In 1803 the Louisiana Land Purchase double the size of the US.
In 1812 came war with Great Britain that last for several years. Afterwhich in the 1840s, much of what we know to be the USA was consolidated. It included the Republic of Texas, the Republic of California, the northern half of Maine, part of Minnesota, and a slice of Arizona.
In 1847 American troops occupied Mexico City. In the late 1800s they would go on to occupy Cuba, the Phillipines, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. It should be clear why the British kept a close eye on their actions on the continent. Much like in 1812 there remained a real fear that the Americans would try annexing their land.
It was to the advantage of the United States to have free access to the fishing grounds in the Gulf of St Lawrence. Whether they kept Prince Edward Island as an ally or annexed it into the American Union was up for debate. But whichever the case, neither London or Ottawa were pleased.
The intentions of the United States were very clear. They were dutifully working to consolidate as much as the continent as possible. In 1869, they made that very clear when Alaska was purchased from the Russians.
In the British Empire, and especially in the British North America, it was open feared that the Americans had their eye on Prince Edward Island. It was a threat to the new Dominion of Canada and the British Empire as a whole. It was common knowledge to politicians and peasants alike.
However, forces were at play--outside Islander's wishes, that would inevitably keep P.E.I. out of the hands of the Americans.
Next week the third and final instalment of Splendid Isolation. In case you missed it, check out Part I. Want to stay updated with our weekly publications? Then please subscribe to our newsletter below.