Splendid Isolation - Part I
Small ripples in Charlottetown Harbour quietly slap against the hull of the H.M.S Spartan. A gentle wind causes the flags on its masts to occasionally flutter . The Captain looks at his watch. Almost noon.
Soldiers are lined up in single file on shore in front of Fanningbank. An NCO shouts commands.
The soldiers lift their muskets into the air at a 45 degree angle.
On the second floor of the Colonial Building, Sheriff Watson motions for two ladies to walk onto the balcony. Eight men go next, then himself. Under one arm he carries a large piece of paper. On the balcony he silently stands and looks around. On the streets below people are slowly walking up and down the sidewalks.
Three people walking past see the sheriff come out onto the balcony with a small group. “What’s this, than,” is their reaction. They stop and look up. Puzzled.
Sheriff Watson looks at his watch again. Noon. He glances at the group flanking him on the balcony. A man lifts his eyebrows as if to say it’s time.
The sound of cannon fire blasts out over the city. In the distance musket shots are heard coming from the Battery. That evening people would speak about how the sudden noise had caused them to jump as they were out walking around town.
Sheriff Watson raises the paper up in front of him. It is July 1st, 1873. He and his small group and the three strangers below are taking part in history. Making history!
Taking a deep breath he starts to read loudly.
“Whereas. By an act of parliament…”
The Golden Age
Islanders were not pleased to join Confederation. Their hand had been forced. For ten years they opposed the pleas of the Canadas and even the Imperial Government in London to become part of the dominion.
The true ambiance of the day has been lost to history. As years passed, certain details would be omitted, embellished or even inserted into the official history of that day to make it sound as if Islanders were jubilant about joining Confederation. Today, Canadian Government webpages say that even though Islanders resisted Confederation so much they still celebrated the day. And that that “group” at the Colonial Building sang the national anthem, God Save the Queen. Perhaps Sheriff Watson and his friends did sing it--awkwardly. Perhaps the three people below joined in. Or perhaps that laughed at the absurdness of the scene and walked away. Most likely, that never happened at all. It was a small ingredient added to build-up Canadian nationalism.
1851 was a big year for the Island. That was the year that Charlottetown was handed the power of Responsible Government from London. The gentlemen in charge of Prince Edward Island were essentially free to carry out its own affairs. And they did this quite well.
There can be no doubt that the era of the 1800s was the Island’s golden age. The colony traded timber, fish and agricultural goods to New England, Britian and the West Indies among others places. The real success behind the Islands well-being was its ship-building industry. In an empire that was built and sustained by the size of its navy and merchant fleet, Prince Edward Island was the largest shipbuilding centre outside Great Britain on a per capita basis.
For a period, Prince Edward Island was even the richest colony per capita in British North America.
But there were real concerns. The land question is still remembered today as being a defining problem for the Island. Most Islanders were tenants to feudal lords and ladies who lived in Great Britain or other colonies. The hard work and money of the tenants were syphoned abroad to make the rich even richer.
Plus, the American states were in the midst of a civil war. Millions of men had raised arms against one another. The instability was a real worry to British colonies who feared the fighting would slip across the border. Montreal and Quebec City had been briefly occupied during the revolution. And Charlottetown was also raided by American privateers at one point. The War of 1812 had brought fighting back to the continent for several years. So a third armed conflict against the American powers was still a real fear.
In the Island’s stately homes--Fanningbank, Greenhill, Beaconsfield, Falconwood, men and women would talk by candle light about the harms of Confederation.
“It would be foolish to give up our trade rights. The Canadas have just as much fisheries and agriculture as we do. They would look out for themselves and we would be left holding our hats,” one would say sitting in a parlour chair, glass of wine in hand. “And we don’t have any mining like they do. No. To give our power over to them would destroy our economy.”
Another man, leaning against a table while puffing on a tobacco pipe: “Then they would tax the rest.”
In the legislature Premier Edward Palmer and his government were staunchly against confederation. “A union with Canada would prove politically, commercially and financially disastrous to the rights and and best interests of our people," he declared.
At the end of August 1864, there was a circus in Charlottetown. Families travelled from across the Island to stay in the capital for a night or two. They took in the events. The bearded man. The elephants. The fortune teller. Little did they realize that a ship sailing into Charlottetown harbour was carrying delegates from the colonies of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. They had come to attend a conference to talk about a Maritime Union. Unfortunately for those delegates there were very few hotel rooms left in town. They struggled to find beds.
The next morning the newly elected Premier John Hamilton Gray and his delegates stood on the docks of Charlottetown Harbour. They quietly watched a steamship glide between Keppoch and Port-la-Joie and made its way toward them. The S.S. Queen Victoria dropped anchor.
“Wasting their time,” Palmer said to the premier. “Unless they came for the circus.”
“Let’s just see what they have to say,” said George Coles, a former premier and Liberal leader who supported Confederation. His fellow liberal on the dock, Andrew McDonald would later oppose it.
“Here comes the welcoming committee” William Pope said as he climbed into a fishing boat and sat on a barrel of flour. “I’ll let them know that if the don’t want to go to the other circus than they’re welcome at ours.” He was slowly rowed out to the steamship in the harbour where several people watched him approach from the deck.
Although William Pope supported confederation, his brother James did not. Their debates over dinner would lead to eruptions of yelling and profanity. Eight day after his brother was elected premier in 1870, William would write a secret letter to John A. MacDonald. It was time to “put on the screws” he wrote to the new prime minister. Merely three years later the colony would be on the brink of financial collapse.
Premier Gray was named chairman of the conference and the maritime delegates began discussing a union among themselves. The conference was soon hijacked by the Canadian delegates who tried to coax their hosts with grandiose dreams. Boxes of alcohol and parties that lasted into the night helped too.
Still Premeir Gray and the Island delegation were not sold.
“We would be absolutely foolish to freely hand our power over to them,” Palmer whispered to Gray as a party raged around them one night. A glass of brandy in hand.
Two months later in Quebec City, Palmer would stand at the top of the citadel and quietly look east over the St. Lawrence River. He thought about the American military threat and fortifications such as that citadel. Prince Edward Island currently had strong trade agreements with the American states. There were even faint whispers of joining them. The Island’s colonial government was being courted by major powers. With all the wealth and a weak military threat compared to what Upper and Lower Canada faced, Prince Edward Island was very much in a position to negotiate.
Looking east from that citadel made Palmer miss the Island. As he and his fellow delegates left the conference and disembarked on their ship they were in general agreement that Confederation was not in the Islands favour. On the return trip they discussed it at great lengths between meals and walks along the deck.
As their ship came alongside in Charlottetown Harbour, Islanders held their breaths as they waited for their leaders to step foot on red soil. As Palmer and the rest left the ship they brought with them the news everyone was waiting for. It was still no to confederation. No to Canada. Prince Edward Island would remain independent.
Letters were written and sent. London received one. So did Ottawa. John A. MacDonald would read his twice then take a few drinks as he mulled it over.
“The Prince Edward Islanders no longer wish to take part in talks about a union,” MacDonald would say. “They wish to stay independent.” Then after a pause. “They wish to follow a policy of splendid isolation.”
As winter set in, men and women on the Island sat around their dinner tables for supper. Wood stoves and fireplaces were lit to stay warm. Trees had lost their leaves and cold gusts of wind whistled through barns.
“The question remains, how will the government raise the money to buy out the landlords?” a woman said as she scooped carrots onto her plate.
“Nevermind that,” her husband replied. “It will come in time. Whether it takes ten years or a hundred. At least we still have the ability to govern ourselves. Joining a union would have taken that away and whatever prosperity we have.”
“Oh aye, we can govern ourselves alright,” his wife replies. “Until the Queen over there in London says that’s enough. Get in line there, you little island,” she says as she waves a wooden spoon around.
- End of Part I -
Part II of Splendid Isolation will be published on Monday, November 13th. Please sign up to the newsletter below to get notified when it and other articles are published. Or like us on social media.