Monday, August 3, 2015

John Graves Simcoe, Napoleon Bonaparte & The Politics of Horse Shit

This is a photo of horse shit. But it's not just any photo of horse shit. This horse shit is on Woodbury Common — a beautiful patch of heathland in the English countryside. And with horse shit on Woodbury Common, you can tell a story about the founder of Toronto — John Graves Simcoe — and about a man who challenged him to a duel over that dung.

This was a few years after Simcoe founded Toronto. He'd come back home to England by then, returning to his country in a deeply troubled time. England was at war with France.

The French Revolution had started many years earlier; it was already well underway by the time Simcoe and his family left home for Canada. But things had gotten even bloodier while they were gone: Simcoe founded Toronto in July of 1793; the Reign of Terror began just a couple of months after that, while the Simcoes were living in a pair of fancy tents pitched at the mouth of Garrison Creek. 

And even there — six thousand kilometers from the guillotines of Paris — news of the atrocities reached them. In August, the Simcoes were visited by a pair of fleeing French aristocrats hoping to settle in Upper Canada. They told a morbid story about King Louis' botched attempt to escape his captors. By the time they shared that anecdote, the French king had already lost his head.

A few months later, Marie Antoinette followed her husband to the guillotine. News of her death took many weeks to travel across the Atlantic and up the St. Lawrence to the Canadian frontier. When it did, Simcoe marked the occasion with solemn respect. That evening, the settlers of Toronto dressed all in black, postponing the dance they had planned for the night. They might hate the French, but they were staunch monarchists — many of them had already suffered through the horrors of the American Revolution and were deeply upset by the idea of yet another bloody, democratic uprising.

It was a frightening time. The French Revolution sparked decades of war between France and the monarchies of Europe, including Britain. At the very same time that Simcoe was busy planning the first few blocks of Toronto, he was also busy worrying that the war back home would spread to North America. Even now, French revolutionaries were stirring up trouble in the United States, trying to get the Americans to join the war and invade Canada. Some had even travelled into Québec, where they hoped to convince the French Canadians to rise up and launch their own revolution. As the Simcoes slept in their tents at night, they worried that at any moment an enemy ship might sail over the horizon — or enemy soldiers burst from the woods. Simcoe's wife, Elizabeth, had nightmares about it.

John Graves Simcoe
Things only got scarier when they began to head home for England. As the Simcoes sailed out of the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, French warships were waiting. They chased them out into the Atlantic, seizing other English vessels who were sailing nearby. As the Simcoes' ship dodged icebergs off the coast of Labrador, Elizabeth and the children hid themselves in the cramped quarters below deck. They could hear guns in the distance. It took weeks to sail across the open ocean before the Simcoes finally reached the safety of home.

Even then, it wasn't over. The British would be at war with the French for most of the next twenty years. And things would only get worse. By the time the Simcoes got back to England, a new French general had begun to make a name for himself. Napoleon Bonaparte would prove to be one of the most brilliant and most power hungry dictators in history.

The wars against the French would dominate the rest of Simcoe's life. In the end, he would die fighting them.

But first, he had an important role to play. Simcoe didn't always get along with his superiors, but he did earn the respect of some of the most powerful men in England: Prime Minister Addington, Admiral Nelson, the Duke of York; he even spent time with "Mad" King George. His experience was especially respected when it came to military matters. He'd been one of the most celebrated heroes on the British side of the American Revolution. And as the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, he'd been responsible for preparing the defences of the new province in case of an American invasion. And so, just a couple of years after his return to England, Simcoe was given a new job: preparing part of England in case of a French invasion.

At times, it seemed as if that invasion could happen at any moment — especially once Napoleon was in charge. Having already expanded his empire on the Continent, the French general began to assemble an army to bring England to its knees. Two hundred thousand men were being trained on the coast of France: the Armée d'Angleterre. A whole flotilla of barges was built to carry them across the English Channel. For a while, Napoleon was even toying with the idea of deploying the world's first air force: a fleet of hot air balloons to support the attack. There were rumours of a giant tunnel being dug beneath the Channel. And of a massive raft powered by windmills. To pay for it all, Napoleon had already sold the Louisiana Territory to the Americans. He was so sure his invasion was going to succeed that he built a triumphal arch to commemorate it before it had even happened.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Channel, Simcoe was getting ready for the invasion. The British government had put him in charge of the entire defence of the West Country. Devon, Cornwall and Somerset would be under his command. If the French landed there, Simcoe and his men would answer with a scorched earth campaign. They would evacuate all women and children, the elderly and the sick — and all the livestock, too. Everything they left behind would be destroyed. The French would find nothing to eat.

Instead, they would be met by the biggest military force Britain had ever assembled. More than six hundred thousand men were ready to fight — nearly 10% of the entire population of England. In the West Country alone, Simcoe was in command of twelve thousand men.

Woodbury Common
But they weren't all experienced soldiers. Professional troops were joined by volunteers and conscripted militia. They needed lots of training. And to do that training, Simcoe sometimes took them to Woodbury Common.

Woodbury Common is high in the gorgeous green hills of Devon. It's just a few kilometers from the Simcoes' summer home in the seaside town of Budleigh Salterton. And it's not too far from their country estate in the Blackdown Hills, either. It's a beautiful place: gently rolling hills covered with flowers, shrubs and short grass. It's typical heathland; in fact, if you look up "heath" on Wikipedia, the first photo you'll see is a photo of Woodbury Common. It's one of England's official Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

At the very highest point on the Common, you'll find a patch of trees. They're growing on the remains of massive earthworks. The big ditches are what's left of the ancient Woodbury Castle: an Iron Age hill fort built in the days of the druids; it's more than two thousand years old. From the lands around the castle, you can see for miles and miles in every direction — all the way back down to the sea. It's the perfect spot for a military base. In fact, the British army still trains there to this day.

And so about two hundred years ago, you could find thousands of Simcoe's troops camping on Woodbury Common as they awaited Napoleon's arrival — and with those camping men came hundreds of horses.

That, finally, bring us to the horse shit.

With all those horses trotting around, there was, of course, plenty of dung on Woodbury Common. And the question of who was ultimately responsible for it — Simcoe's troops or the local land owner — sparked a fight that nearly ended in a duel. But not for the reason you might think.

The principal owner of the lands around Woodbury Common was a man by the name of Lord Rolle. History would eventually remember him as the man who tripped during Queen Victoria's coronation and rolled down the steps to the throne. He and Simcoe didn't get along at all. Rolle was pretty pissed off by the inconvenience caused by all the men camping on the Common. And he was even more pissed off by the fact that they were cleaning up after themselves. Simcoe was making sure that all the horse shit was being collected and taken away. Rolle was furious. He wanted that horse shit for himself. It was valuable manure.

Rolle began a letter-writing campaign. He complained to the authorities, insisting that tradition dictated that any horse shit left by the military on common land belonged to the local lord of the manor: him. Simcoe was stealing his shit. And if Simcoe got away with it, it would set a dangerous precedent: any British general would be allowed to trample the rights of any lord. The question of the horse shit on Woodbury Common, Rolle argued, was a question of importance to every single subject in the British Empire.

Simcoe, for his part, sent a flurry of his own letters arguing the opposite. And as the letters flew back and forth, the fight escalated. Before long, Rolle was ordering his men to physically stop Simcoe's troops from removing the shit from the Common. The dispute was getting so serious that it was eventually forwarded all the way to the man in charge of the entire British military: the Duke of York,(the son of "Mad" King George III and the guy who Simcoe had originally named Toronto after — back when it was still known as the town of York).
 
Woodbury Castle
In the end, Simcoe lost the battle of the Woodbury Common horse shit. His orders came directly from Whitehall — the heart of the British government at Westminster. The manure belonged to Rolle. He would be compensated for the shit that had already been taken way. And he would be allowed to keep any dung produced by Simcoe's horses in the future — as long as he sold it to the public at an appropriate discount.

But Rolle still wasn't satisfied. He was so angry with Simcoe that he challenged him to a duel. He wanted, he declared, to have a fist-fight with the founder of Toronto.
 
Simcoe was not impressed. Gentlemen, he replied, didn't fight with their fists. It was unseemly. If Rolle wanted to have a duel, they could have a duel: with pistols or with swords. It didn't count if there was no chance you might die.

Rolle backed down.

And so did Napoleon. The tiny French Emperor never did invade England. Instead, he marched his army east into the heart of Europe. But it wasn't the end of Simcoe's connection to the man. There was one sad chapter left to come.

It didn't take long for the French army to invade Spain and Portugal. The Peninsular War — as it was called — would rage for years on end. It was a bloody campaign. Tens of thousands were killed or wounded. Simcoe's own son, Francis, would die during the Siege of Badajoz in Portugal. (Just a toddler when Toronto was founded, his parents had jokingly named their log cabin in his honour: Castle Frank. We still remember it today in the name of a subway station.)

By then, John Graves Simcoe was already dead. He died during that same campaign. His preparations for Napoleon's invasion had earned him a promotion: Commander-in-Chief of the entire British army in India. But just before he left for his new post, he got new orders: his services were once again desperately needed in the fight against the French. Simcoe sailed to Portugal. But the ship he sailed on was damp and newly painted. He had always suffered from terrible respiratory problems — in fact, that's why he'd been forced to come home from Canada.

Simcoe was deathly ill by the time he made it to Lisbon. He would never recover. He was loaded back onto the same sickly ship and sent home across the Channel to England. He died in Exeter just a few days later.

As for Napoleon, well, he did finally make it to Devon one day. But it wasn't at the head of an invading army. Instead, he saw those rolling green hills from the deck of a British ship as it sailed by. It was all over; he'd lost the Battle of Waterloo and was now being held prisoner. Defeated for the final time, the French general asked if he could retire in England with a small parcel of land. His request was refused. The British didn't let him off that ship; he was never to set foot in Devon. Instead, they kept sailing, taking him far away to the isolated island of Saint Helena where he would live out the rest of his days in peace and frustrating quiet.

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More than two hundred years after Simcoe founded our city, Toronto is still wrestling with the question of who is responsible for our horse shit. You can read more about that on the CBC News website here.


The first person to alert me to the story of Simcoe and the shit was Michael Downes at the Fairlynch Museum in Budleigh Salterton. You can find the museum at their website, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

Simcoe's biographers, Mary Beacock Fryer and Christopher Dracott, cover the story in their book, which you borrow from the Toronto Public Library here or buy here.

You can learn more about Napoleon's brief stay in Devon in Devonshire Magazine here.

Photos of Woodbury Common and Woodbury Castle by me: Adam Bunch.



This post is related to dream
01 Metropolitan York
John Graves Simcoe, 1793

This post is related to dream
30 The Conference of the Beasts
Francis Simcoe, 1796

This post is related to dream
34 The Upper Canadian Ball
Elizabeth Simcoe, 1793


Friday, July 31, 2015

Emerging Artists at the Gardiner Museum

Oh hey, so I don't think I've mentioned this on here, but when I'm not busy Dreams Project-ing I work as the Creative Lead at a little marketing and communications agency. We're called Ripple Creative Strategy. We mostly work on stuff for not-for-profits and cultural institutions and the like. One of our most recent projects is a series of videos about the new exhibit currently showing at the Gardiner Museum — which, since you obviously enjoy history and art and stuff, you might quite like.

It's the Gardiner's yearly showcase of five emerging Canadian ceramic artists. The public gets to vote for their favourite; the winner gets a bunch of money and the RBC Emerging Artist People's Choice Award. The voting is open until the end of this long weekend and the show runs all the way until the end of August.

You can learn more about it on the Gardiner's website here.

The artists were all fascinating people to talk to, with interesting thoughts on the incredibly long history of clay and how their own experimental, contemporary artwork fits into that ancient tradition. I'll embed the video that serves as a quick little overview of the exhibit below. And you can watch very short videos with the results of my interviews with each of the artists: David R. Harper; Lisa Henriques; Veronika Horlik; Derya Akay; and Zane Wilcox.

You can also learn more about Ripple — and what I get up to over there — over here.
 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Dream 18 "Russell Creek" (Peter Russell, 1799)

Peter Russell dreamed that his sister Elizabeth had fallen ill. She’d taken a drink from the creek that ran through their property at Petersfield and within moments it seemed like her mind was failing her. She went quiet; stared at him blankly. When he asked, she couldn’t even remember his name.

Russell was in a panic. With his heart hammering in his chest, he hurried off to look for help, sprinting down the path of the creek toward the town below. He met plenty of people along the way — and they all agreed to help. But every time, they paused first for a drink. And as soon as the creek water touched their lips, they forgot who Russell was and what he’d asked of them. By the time he reached the outskirts of the town, there didn’t seem to be anyone left in York who remembered anything about him at all.

He collapsed — out of breath, dejected, exhausted — in the middle of the road. And when the new Lieutenant Governor came to him with a cup and suggested that a drink might do him good, Russell didn’t fight it. He just dipped the cup into Russell Creek and drank deep until he forgot who he was.

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Peter Russell was a slave owner, a gambling addict and Toronto's first truly terrible leader. He temporarily filled in as the head of the province while John Graves Simcoe, the Lieutenant Governor who founded our city, was sick at home to England.

You can read more about Russell's life on Spacing here. Explore more Toronto Dreams Project postcards here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Toronto's Small Piece of a Wonder of the Ancient World

You'll find him on the third floor of the Royal Ontario Museum. He's tucked away in a quiet, easy-to-miss corner far at the back of a room filled with artifacts from Asia and the Middle East. He's a big, snarling, golden lion on a field of blue brick. And once upon a time, he was part of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Two and a half thousand years ago, the ROM's lion sat at the heart of the city of Babylon.

Back then, Babylon was the greatest city in the world. It was home to 200,000 people — more than any other city on earth. It stood on the fertile banks of the Euphrates River, in a spot that's now part of Iraq (not far from Baghdad), but was then in the middle of a mighty empire that stretched all the way across the Middle East. The Babylonians ruled everything from the shores of the Mediterranean in the west to the Persian Gulf in the east. And their ruler was one of the most famous rulers in history: King Nebuchadnezzar II.

Nebuchadnezzar is best remembered for being in the Bible and for being a great warrior. He waged war against the pharaohs of Egypt. Captured and destroyed Jerusalem. Brought Tyre and the Phoenicians to their knees. Under his rule, Babylon flourished. And to celebrate his empire's wealth, he embarked on ambitious new construction projects, lavishing the city with some of the most famous landmarks in history. It was Nebuchadnezzar who finished building the giant tower in his city — thought to be the source of the story of the Tower of Babel. And it was Nebuchadnezzar who is said to have built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It's not entirely clear if they ever really existed, but that didn't stop them from being listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

And the gardens weren't the only Babylonian wonder on that list. The walls of the city were just as impressive. During his reign, Nebuchadnezzar made them even more so. In about 575 BC, he built a new entrance to the inner city — it was the most spectacular of them all.

The Ishtar Gate was a great double-gate the size of a fortress, towering nine storeys into the air above the citizens who passed through it into the inner city. It was built of bright blue brick; the technology required to make a glaze of that colour is so advanced that even today we're not entirely sure how they managed to pull it off. It was dedicated to Ishtar — the goddess of love, sex, fertility and war — and became the focal point for a yearly religious festival, as enormous statues of the gods were carried by huge crowds down the wide street toward the gate.

A small part of the Ishtar Gate
In fact, the street itself had been included in the construction of the gate. There were bright blue brick walls extending along either side of the processional way, decorated with golden flowers, dragons and bulls. Plus: lions. Lots of ferocious lions. The big cats were the symbol of Ishtar.

It wasn't until hundreds of years later that tourists from Ancient Greece began to travel around the Mediterranean making lists of the most amazing things they saw. They liked to call their lists "The Seven Wonders of the World" — an ancient version of a travel guide. And when they did, they made sure to visit Babylon. Many of the oldest versions of the list included the Ishtar Gate, or even all of the city's walls.

But by then, Babylon was in ruins. The empire had crumbed. It didn't last long after Nebuchadnezzar's death. Soon, the Persians swept in from the east and conquered the Babylonians. The great city fell into disrepair, doomed to be buried by the shifting sands. In time, history and legend were mixed and confused. More than two thousand years later, no one was sure if Babylon had ever really existed at all — or if it was just a wonderful myth.

It was in the early 1900s that the city was finally discovered again. It was a self-taught German archeologist who found it. He spent the next eighteen years digging at the site, uncovering the mysteries of the ancient metropolis. His most impressive find was the enormous blue gate. The ruins were dismantled; the bricks shipped to Germany where they were cleaned, catalogued and then reconstructed. The Ishtar Gate now stands in a museum in Berlin — at least, part of it does: not all of it could fit inside the building.

Many of the beasts who once stood watch over Babylon's processional way have now found new homes in museums around the world. There are dragons and bulls and lions in Istanbul, Copenhagen, Munich and Vienna, in Boston and Chicago and at Yale, at the Louvre and at the British Museum and at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

One of them even came to Canada. In 1937, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, the Royal Ontario Museum bought one of the lions from the State Museum in Berlin. He was shipped all the way across the ocean to a new home on Bloor Street. And so today, one of Nebuchadnezzar's snarling lions stands tucked away in a corner of the ROM, watching over Torontonians and tourists as they marvel at a tiny slice of one of the Wonders of the Ancient World — nearly ten thousand kilometers away from the ruins of the marvelous city that he once helped to guard.

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You can watch a whole documentary about Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon on YouTube here. And there's a short video about the Ishtar Gate here.

You can access the ROM's own webpage about the lion by scrolling down this search page here (for some reason, linking directly to the web doesn't work, sorry). You can learn a bit more about the gate from the Ancient History Encyclopedia here. And there's a bit more about the archaeologist who discovered the ruins here. And on Wikipedia here.

Saddam Hussein was convinced he was the reincarnation of Nebuchadnezzar. He had his palace built on a spot overlooking the ruins of Babylon, and constructed a smaller copy of the Ishtar Gate which was going to be used as the entrance to a museum that never got built — the whole getting executed thing derailed his plans. His government had also asked that the Germans return to the Ishtar Gate to Iraq.

UNESCO reported that the American occupation of Iraq caused "major damage" to the ruins of Babylon. You can learn more about that on the United Nations website here. Or even read the full report as a PDF here.    

Photo of the lion by Adam Bunch. Photo of the Ishtar Gate at the museum in Berlin via Flickr user "Rictor Norton & David Allen". 

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Dreams Project in the Summer Issue of Spacing

For some reason, I've always thought it would be cool to get drunk at the Legion on the lake shore, but I assumed the opportunity would never present itself. Now it has! The new summer issue of Spacing is on the way and the launch party is being held at the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 344. It's just a little east of the Palais Royale. The party kicks off this Wednesday at 7pm (the first hour will be dedicated to the presentation of this year's Jane Jacobs Awards and then the regular festivities get started at 8).

And — as if getting the chance to pretend you're in that really weird episode of Mad Men wasn't reason enough to attend — this edition of the magazine features one of my own articles. It's one you might already be familiar with if you read the blog: it's all about the Canada Water neighbourhood in London and the connection between our history and that small patch of English soil near the Thames.

You'll find all the details about the party on Facebook.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Toronto's Rebel Mayor & His Pirate Admiral

William Lyon Mackenzie ran for his life. His rebellion had failed. It was a disaster. His rebel army was crushed on Yonge Street. His headquarters at Montgomery's Tavern were burned to the ground north of Eglinton. Some of his men were already dead. Others would soon be hanged for treason. Just a few years earlier, Mackenzie had been the first Mayor of Toronto. Now, he was the city's most wanted fugitive. The Lieutenant Governor was offering a £1000 reward for his capture. So Mackenzie was forced to flee the city he loved, smuggled through the countryside by his supporters as gangs of angry Loyalists searched for him. He ran all the way south to Niagara, getting rowed across the river just a few minutes ahead of the men who had come to arrest him. He was lucky to escape Canada with his life. He would spend the next decade living in exile.

But Mackenzie wasn't ready to give up. Not yet. His failed rebellion in Toronto was just the beginning. Now, he and his supporters would launch a war against the British government in Canada, hoping a series of bloody border raids would spark a full-scale democratic revolution. It would last a year — for pretty much all of 1838. We call it the Patriot War.

And the rebel's admiral in that war was a man by the name of Pirate Bill Johnston. He was a smuggler, a spy, a veteran of the War of 1812 on both sides and, weirdly, an IRS agent. The rebel mayor was the most wanted man on the western shore of Lake Ontario. But the pirate admiral Bill Johnston would soon be the most wanted man in the east. 

He'd been born in Trois Rivières, but he grew up just outside Kingston. And it was there that he would make his name as a young smuggler. By the time he was in his early 20s, Johnston was the captain of his own ship. He sailed his schooner through the labyrinth of islands at the spot where the St. Lawrence River meets Lake Ontario. We call them the Thousand Islands — but there are actually almost two thousand of them. It was the perfect spot to be a smuggler. Johnston would make runs through the confusing warren of islands, bringing contraband goods across the river from the United States. And he wasn't alone. Some estimates say that as much as 90% of all the tea in Upper Canada had been smuggled into the province to avoid paying taxes — and plenty of the rum, too.

The Thousand Islands by Elizabeth Simcoe
Still, while Johnston might have been a smuggler, he was also a loyal British subject and Canadian. That is, at least, until the War of 1812.

When the Americans first invaded, Johnston fought on the Canadian side. But he'd never been very good at following rules: he clashed with his superiors so much that he eventually beat one of them up and got tossed in jail for a time. Meanwhile, he'd also developed a soft spot for the ordinary American citizens who were being held in Canadian prisons during the war. He kept bailing them out and smuggling them back across the border so they could go home to their families. That landed him in jail again. The Canadians accused him of being a spy.

This time, he'd had it. Pirate Bill defected. Once upon a time, his own parents had fled from the United States — they were Loyalist Americans driven from their homes for taking the British side in the American Revolution. Now, their son headed in the other direction. He climbed into a canoe with a few American refugees and rowed himself all the way across the lake to the American naval base at Sackets Harbor. There, he found the man in charge of the United States' fleet on Lake Ontario — Commodore Isaac Chauncey — and pledged himself to the American cause. Now, Pirate Bill would fight for the stars and stripes.

Johnston spent most of the next two years fighting against the British and the Canadians in the Thousand Islands. He waged war in a big rowboat armed with a cannon, a vessel light enough that he and his men could slip through the islands more easily than the big warships, striking quick like lighting and then evading capture. Pirate Bill would witness some of the most famous moments in the entire war, including the Battle of Sackets Harbor and the failed American invasion of Montreal that ended in disaster at Crysler's Farm. By the end of the war, it seems that he had earned a reputation as a notorious pirate — at least as far as the British were concerned.

After the war, Johnston went back to his old job: smuggling tea and rum into Canada. But now, he did it from the American side. And he also worked for an early precursor of the Internal Revenue Service, spying on Canadian smugglers for the United States government. For the most part, the next twenty years were quiet ones for Pirate Bill. He grew into middle age, raising his family on the American banks of the St. Lawrence, just across the river from his old stomping grounds in Canada.

The burning of the SS Caroline
And then came Mackenzie's rebellion.

Johnston was in his late 50s by the time Toronto's rebel mayor marched his army down Yonge Street. But Pirate Bill followed news of the events from far on the other side of Lake Ontario. He heard of the rebellion and of Mackenzie's escape to the United States. There, the rebel mayor immediately set to work rallying supporters, giving speeches, raising money, collecting guns and ammunition, getting ready to launch his new war in the name of democracy.

Just a few days after his harrowing escape across the border, William Lyon Mackenzie and his supporters seized an island on the Canadian side of the Niagara River — Navy Island, just above Niagara Falls — and declared themselves to be the provisional government of the new Republic of Canada. They even had their own flag and currency. The Patriot War had begun.

The first major incident happened just a couple of weeks after that. The rebels on Navy Island were being supplied by an American steamship called the SS Caroline. One winter night, a band of Loyalists snuck across the river, attacked the ship, forced her crew off the boat, set her on fire, and watched as she floated down the river, sinking as she burned. Charred chunks of the vessel plunged over Niagara Falls.

The burning of the Caroline sparked a diplomatic crisis. It was, for many Americans, an absolute outrage — reason enough to declare war on Canada. The Caroline was an American ship in American territory. One of the crew members — a Black man by the name of Amos Durfee — had been shot dead, his body left on the dock. His corpse would be carried to Buffalo and displayed outside the Eagle Tavern as a recruiting tool for Mackenzie's new war. Durfee's body, one reporter wrote, "was held up — with its pale forehead, mangled by the pistol ball, and his locks matted with his blood! His friends and fellow citizens looked on the ghastly spectacle, and thirsted for an opportunity to revenge him." Newspaper accounts of the battle, grossly inflating the death toll, made things even worse.

"The loyalist troops," the New York Herald cried, "have made an assault upon our territory. They have murdered in cold blood our citizens. They cannot escape our vengeance... Niagara's eternal thunders are sounding their requiem! and from the depths of that mighty flood come the wails of their spirits, calling for the blood of their murderers!"

The body of Amos Durfee
Few were as angry as Pirate Bill Johnston. Soon, he was in Buffalo himself, meeting with Mackenzie and other rebel leaders at the Eagle Tavern. He was joining their war. Mackenzie named him the Admiral of the Patriot Navy in the east. Of course, they didn't actually have a navy, but they weren't about to let that stop them.

They would start with an attack on Fort Henry in Kingston. It seems to have been Pirate Bill's idea. It would be a huge victory if they could pull it off, seizing the biggest military base in the province. But it would be difficult. One force would attack Windsor as a distraction in the west. Another, led by Pirate Bill, would head to the Thousand Islands and attack Gananoque as a distraction in the east. The main force would gather on Hickory Island, not far from Kingston, ready to march across the ice of the frozen St. Lawrence and launch the final attack.

The day they picked to begin their operation was February 22 — George Washington's birthday. They spent the next few weeks getting ready. In towns across upstate New York, American volunteers and exiled Canadians trained to fight. Pirate Bill and the Patriots broke into military depots and stole thousands of guns — sympathetic American guards simply melted away. Some of the weapons were smuggled into Canada, into the countryside around Kingston, where hundreds of rebel supporters secretly waited to join the attack once the invasion had begun. At least one spy inside Kingston fed the Patriots information and was ready to act on the fateful day.

But things didn't get off to a very good start. The attack on Windsor quickly failed. And in the Thousand Islands, the Patriot rebels were having trouble keeping their plans a secret. A young teacher from Gananoque — Elizabeth Barnett, hailed as the Laura Secord of the Patriot War — caught wind of the invasion while she was visiting family on the American side of the St. Lawrence. She rushed back home to Canada to warn the authorities. And by then, the authorities already had their own suspicions. They were building defences. Holes were being cut in the ice. Mohawk reinforcements were called in. The spy was unmasked and sent into exile. Suspected rebel sympathizers were warned: they would be killed if they so much as left their houses.

Still, it was the name "Pirate Bill" that sparked the most fear. "When [Elizabeth Barnett] mentioned Bill Johnston's involvement," the historian Shaun J. McLaughlin writes on his great Pirate Bill Johnston blog, "the townsfolk had fits. Women and children fled to the country for safety. Men gathered their weapons. Couriers rode at a gallop to‎‎ Kingston, Brockville, and other towns to spread the warning."

Fort Henry, 1839
Meanwhile, on Hickory Island, the rebels were gathering. But it wasn't going well there, either. It was the dead of the Canadian winter. The temperature had plummeted to -33ºC. And the Patriot General in charge of the attack — the awesomely named Rensselaer Van Rensselaer — was a drunk who doesn't seem to have inspired much confidence in his men. More than a thousand began the trip, but only a few hundred ever made it to Hickory Island. In the end, Van Rensselaer turned around and went home. He never even started his attack.

It was a devastating blow to the rebels. And things only got worse from there. By now, the Patriot leaders were beginning to turn on each other.

Mackenzie blamed the failure at Hickory Island on Van Rensselaer's alcoholism and incompetence. Pirate Bill agreed. "If Mackenzie or any other decent man had been at the head," he said, "they would have taken... Kingston." And Van Rensselaer was no fan of Mackenzie's either. He called the rebel mayor a "meddling craven" and "a cruel, reckless, selfish madman... the greatest curse of the cause he pretends to espouse..."

But their disagreement was about more than just personal hatred. It was a symptom of a growing split in the movement — between the Canadian Patriots and their American allies. Van Rensselaer was an American. (He was from one of the most powerful families in New York State: his grandfather had signed the Declaration of Independence; his uncle was one of the richest Americans ever.) And the Americans were having more and more influence over the Patriot War. They even created a secret society — the Hunters' Lodge — to support it. Tens of thousands of Americans joined; some estimates put the number as high as two hundred thousand. They were all promised free farmland in Canada once the war was won. Many of the soldiers who volunteered to fight with the rebel mayor and his pirate admiral were members of the Hunters' Lodge. It made Mackenzie uneasy. What had begun as a Canadian rebellion against their British overlords was beginning to look more and more like an American invasion of Canada.

It was also beginning to look more and more like a failed invasion. A couple of weeks after Hickory Island, Van Rensselaer launched another attack: this time his men seized Pelee Island in Lake Erie. But the Loyalists fought back. By the time the dust had settled, the rebels were defeated and Van Rensselaer was dead.

The Battle of St. Eustache in Québec
Meanwhile, things weren't going any better on the war's other front. Mackenzie's rebellion wasn't the only democratic uprising in the Canadian colonies that winter. At the same time he'd been marching his army down Yonge Street, his allies in Québec had been fighting their own battles against the British government there. They too had been driven into exile in the United States; Mackenzie had been coordinating with them as they launched their own border raids into Canada. But they didn't seem to be having any more success than the rebel mayor was.

Mackenzie was finally losing faith. War didn't seem to be getting him anywhere. Over the spring and summer of 1838, the rebel mayor's thoughts began to turn to peace. He moved to New York City where he launched a newspaper called Mackenzie's Gazette. At first, he used it to support the Patriot violence. "One short war well managed might give this continent perpetual peace," he argued. "Until Canada is freed the revolution in America will not be complete." But by the end of the summer his tone had changed. Now, Mackenzie was arguing in favour of a bloodless, political solution to the problems in Canada.

Johnston felt betrayed. But even with Mackenzie gone and Van Ransselaer dead, Pirate Bill fought on.

His next move: he would finally find himself a navy.

Late one stormy May night, a Canadian steamship carried her passengers through the Thousand Islands on her way west to Toronto. But the Sir Robert Peel wasn't alone in those choppy waters. She was quietly being followed by a pair of rowboats. It was Pirate Bill. He was in command of at least twenty Patriots, some of them — just like the American rebels at the Boston Tea Party — were disguised in a crude parody of First Nations clothing. They had come to steal the Peel and then use her to steal a second ship. Between them, the two vessels would be the beginning of Pirate Bill's rebel fleet.

It wasn't a random attack: the ship was owned by members of the Family Compact. They were the powerful, pro-British, Tory elites whose anti-democratic policies had sparked Mackenzie's rebellion in the first place. They were the enemy. 

When the Peel finally pulled into port to pick up more wood for her boilers, Pirate Bill and his men were ready. They landed a few hundred meters away and crept through the dark forest, getting ever closer to the Canadian ship. Finally, letting their war cries fly, they rushed from the darkness, raced across a clearing, and charged up the gangplank onto the decks. They quickly seized the vessel, forcing the crew and the groggy passengers back onto land at gunpoint. It was easy. Almost no one put up any resistance — there was one fistfight and that was it. The ship was theirs.

The burning of the Sir Robert Peel
Johnston was now expecting more rebels to arrive. In fact, he was counting on them — none of his men knew how to run the boilers on a steamship. So he waited. And waited. But they never came. In the end, he had to abandon his original plan. Instead, he ordered his men to set the Peel ablaze.

As the rebels lit the flames, they cried out: "Remember the Caroline!"

Pirate Bill finally had his revenge. But now, he had really pissed people off. And not just his enemies. As Johnston hid in a cave in the maze of the Thousand Islands, both the Canadian and American authorities launched massive manhunts.

Still, even in hiding, Pirate Bill was a thorn in the side of the Family Compact. He published a proclamation of war from his island hideout. "The object of my movement is the independence of the Canadas," he declared. And all the while, he kept trying to raise money and find guns for his men. "I will warrant," he promised one potential supporter, "that they shall kill four times their number of Tories and give you their scalps if you shoud whant them."

Once, when Johnston was spotted by a passing ship, he couldn't resist chatting with some of the starstruck passengers. "One thing you may rest assured of," he told them, "I will never be taken alive... Whoever comes after me must bring his own coffin..." As the ship sailed off into the distance, one of the passengers saluted the rebel by flying a handkerchief in the breeze. Pirate Bill responded by unfurling the flag of the Sir Robert Peel.

"Bill Johnson [sic]," said one of his greatest enemies, "laughed at the efforts of the Governor and all the authorities." The pirate admiral made narrow escapes: racing through island forests under a hail of musket balls, slipping out of Loyalist traps, flaunting his nerve by throwing a huge party just before abandoning one hideout for another. His daughter Kate, who smuggled him supplies, became a celebrity in her own right. She was famous for her uncanny ability to evade the authorities. People started calling her the Queen of the Thousand Islands.

But the Patriot War wasn't over. And Johnston was still the rebel admiral. He had one more big battle to fight.

It would happen in November, a few dozen kilometers east down the St. Lawrence. The Patriots were planning an attack on Prescott. They hoped to capture Fort Wellington. Pirate Bill would play an important role.

The Battle of the Windmill
Things, yet again, got off to a rocky start. This time, quite literally. As the battle got underway early that morning and church bells rang the alarm on the Canadian shore, two of the ships that the rebels had stolen ran aground near the battlefield. Johnston was forced to come rescue them — and even he could only get one of them free. As a third Patriot ship tried to rescue the other stranded vessel, an American boat turned her cannons loose. The pilot of the Patriot ship had his head blown off by a cannonball; the new Patriot general, terrified, suddenly claimed he was sick, ordered the ship back to shore, and spent the rest of the battle hiding in his cabin.

Meanwhile, Pirate Bill had begun to ferry hundreds of soldiers across the river, taking them from the American side over to fight on the Canadian shore. Their first assault on Prescott fell short: the Canadian authorities, once again, knew the attack was coming. But by the end of that morning, the rebels had seized control of a big windmill outside town. (It's still there nearly two hundred years later; it's a lighthouse today and a National Historic Site.) The battle would become known as the Battle of the Windmill.

It lasted for days. The Loyalists attacked the windmill the very next morning, but it made for a pretty good fort. It had thick, stone walls and a commanding view of the St. Lawrence. Rebel snipers peered from the windows. It wouldn't be easy to drive them out. More than a dozen Loyalists died in that first attack; dozens more were wounded. It seemed as if things had reached a stalemate.

But then, the Americans arrived.

Many ordinary American citizens supported the rebel cause. But the American government was a different story. The Patriots had long hoped that President Van Buren would come to their rescue — or that the bloody battles on the border would eventually spark another full-scale war between Britain and the United States, which might end in a new, democratic Canada. At the very least, the rebels hoped the American government would look the other way — allowing them to use the United States as a safe haven from which they could launch their attacks. The United States, after all, was still no fan of the British. It had only been a couple of decades since the War of 1812. And indeed, it didn't seem as if the American authorities were in a rush to prosecute the rebels or their supporters.

But there was a limit. And the rebels had finally reached it. Van Buren wasn't going to allow them to drag his entire nation into war. He was going to put a stop to it. He was going to close the border. And he was going to do it right in the middle of the battle.

As the fight between the Patriots and the Loyalists raged, suddenly there was a new arrival: the United States Navy. The Americans seized the big Patriot ships. And an American vessel took their place, patrolling the water in the middle of the St. Lawrence, cutting off the rebel supply line and making it nearly impossible for Pirate Bill to ferry any more soldiers across the watery border.

The windmill, now a lighthouse
That night, the pirate admiral roamed the port on the American side, desperately trying to convince his troops to hazard the short journey across the river. Some agreed and he rowed them over himself, sneaking by the American patrol. He spent the next two days trying to convince more men to join the fight — and watching the battle at the windmill from across the river. He barely ate and he barely slept. He watched his dream crumble from the roofs of the American town. Now, the Royal Navy was moving in. Big guns were beginning to arrive. The rebels had run out of ammunition, reduced to firing door hinges and whatever other scraps of metal they could find. The end was drawing near.

On the final day of the battle, the Loyalists bombarded the windmill with artillery. The rebels were doomed. And with all their escape routes cut off, there was nowhere for them to go. Dozens would be killed or wounded. The rest, finally, surrendered.

The Patriot War was now pretty much over. The Pariotes rebels in Québec had finally been crushed just a few days earlier. There would be one more attack on Windsor, but that was crushed too. A year after William Lyon Mackenzie led his army down Yonge Street, the Canadian revolution was finally over. It had failed.

Many of the Patriots would be hanged. Some didn't even get a trial. Nearly a dozen men from the Battle of the Windmill were executed. Dozens more would be sent into exile in Australia — some of those would die there from the poor treatment and harsh conditions of the prison camps.

But times were changing in Canada. The days of the Family Compact were numbered. With the most radical Canadian democrats dead or exiled, the moderates took over. Just ten years after the end of the Patriot War, they were able to win at the ballot box what Mackenzie and his rebels had been unable to win at the end of a rifle. The supporters of Toronto's Robert Baldwin and Montreal's Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine joined forces to bring Responsible Government to Canada. Democracy had finally arrived.

And with it came pardons for those who had fought in its name. The exiled Patriots were finally allowed to come home. Even the rebel mayor was officially forgiven. William Lyon Mackenzie returned to Toronto, where he would live out the rest of his days. He was even re-elected to parliament.

As for Pirate Bill Johnston, well, at the Battle of the Windmill he'd narrowly evaded capture yet again. But with the war over, he soon turned himself in to the American authorities so his son could collect the reward. He had always said there was no prison in the world that could hold him. And over the following months, he proved that to be true: over and over again, he would get caught or turn himself in, only to escape when the mood struck him. Eventually, they just stopped trying to find him at all.

Pirate Bill returned to his quiet life in the Thousand Islands. And once President Van Buren had been tossed out of office — thanks in no small part to his wildly unpopular intervention in the Battle of the Windmill — the American government even gave Johnston a plum post as the lightkeeper of the Rock Island Lighthouse. The man who would be remembered by history as a pirate, spent his later years watching over the treacherous waters he knew so well — making sure others could travel them safely.

-----

Shaun J. McLaughlin's great Pirate Bill Johnston blog is here. His "Raiders and Rebels" blog, about the history of raiders, rebels, and pirates in the Thousand Islands is here. He also has an entire book about the Patriot War which you can buy here.

Lilian F. Gates wrote a whole book about William Lyon Mackenzie after the Rebellion of 1837. You can buy it here, borrow it from the Toronto Public Library here, or read it online with a Toronto Public Library card here.

The village of Alexandria Bay, on the American side of the Thousand Islands, still hosts a Bill Johnston's Pirate Days festival every year. It's apparently ridiculously inaccurate, historically-speaking.

Shaun J. McLaughlin discusses that festival and the many myths that have grown up around the story of Pirate Bill on the Thousand Islands Life website here. They've also got more about the burning of the Sir Robert Peel here (which is also where I found the image of it). And a whole page of reference material for the Patriot War here (which is where I found the image of Fort Henry). 

Mark Totten writes about the Caroline affair in his book, "First Strike: America, Terrorism, and Moral Tradition" on Google Books here. Meanwhile, Lieutenant-commander Paul Rutkus discusses the Battle of the Windmill and its influence on the Canadian laws around the issue of "unlawful combatants" in a PDF here.

The photo of the windmill turned lighthouse is from Flickr user Dennis Jarvis. You'll find it here. The portrait of Pirate Bill Johnston comes from Wikipedia here. And the image of Amos Durfee's corpse does too, from here. And the image of the Battle of the Windmill here.

I also made this rough timeline to help wrap my head around the order of events. So I supposed I might as well share it just in case anyone ever finds it useful:

 
PATRIOT WAR TIMELINE

Dec 11, 1837: Mackenzie reaches US
Dec 12: Mackenzie gives speech in Buffalo.
Dec. 13: London Rebellion fails
Dec. 14: Republic of Canada proclamation goes to the printers
Dec. 14 or 15: They take Navy Island
Dec. 19: the Governor of NY speaks out against sympathy leading to the breaking of the law
Dec. 19: second proclamation adds $100 silver.
Dec. 21: third proclamation
Dec. 26: Rolph visits Navy Island; won't have further involvement
Dec. 29: Caroline burns
Jan. 5, 1838: Van Buren doubles down rhetoric — plus a marshal gets sent to block supplies to Navy Island
Jan. 10: Navy Island has gone days without supplies, running out of money
Jan. 14: Abandon island
Jan 16ish: Mackenzie meets Pirate Bill and the other guys for the plan
Feb. 22: date they want to attack; Washington's birthday
Feb. 24: Fighting Island/Detroit failed attack
Feb. 28: Hickory Island/non-attack
Feb. 28: Lower Canadian Patriotes cross the border
Late Feb/Early March: Mackenzie & Van R have split. Mackenzie will head toward peace.
Mar. 3: Pelee Island: rebels capture and are quickly driven from Lake Erie island
Mar. 29-30: Sir Robert Peel burns — in the wee hours of the 30th.
June 10: Pirate Bill's Proclamation of War
June 11: Pirate Bill spotted, waves flag
June 21-23: Short Hills Raid; McLeod & other cross at Niagara, failed to rile up trouble
July 4: Fort Wallace party
July 21: Mackenzie preaching peace now (in NYC I think)
Nov. 3-10: Second Lower Canadian Rebellion
Nov. 12-16: Battle of the Windmill ***CLIMAX!***
Nov. 28: Pirate Bill is custody by now; escapes on this day
Dec. 4: Battle of Windsor
Jan. 29, 1839: Pirate Bill, in custody, still gets to attend a benefit for himself (and will attend other stuff too)
Apr. 12: Toronto rebels Lount & Matthews hang
June: Mackenzie's trial begins
August 19: Pirate Bill arrested yet another time
1841: Pirate Bill asks Van Buren for a pardon. Doesn't get it.




This post is related to dream
10 The Battle of Montgomery's Tavern
William Lyon Mackenzie, 1837

Thursday, July 2, 2015

UK Tour Photos: Northamptonshire, Birthplace of the Simcoes

A year later, I'm still posting photos from the Toronto Dreams Project's UK Tour. I hadn't originally planned on visiting Northamptonshire, but upon my arrival in England, I was invited to spend a day in the lovely county of spires and squires. It's the part of the country where both John Graves Simcoe, the founder of Toronto, and his future wife, Elizabeth, were born. It's a strange coincidence — despite being born within a few kilometers of each other, it seems they didn't meet and fall in love until many years later far away in the rolling hills of Devon.

My hosts for the day were Ioan and Alice Thomas. Ioan a retired biology teacher who used to work at the local Oundle School — he inspired one of his students to pursue a career in science: a boy by the name of Richard Dawkins. Ioan and Alice are both very interested in their local history, which means that they are both very interested in the history of the Simcoes. They were nice enough to show me around the countryside, stopping to visit some of the Simcoes' childhood haunts, including the churches they attended as children and the mansion where the founder of Toronto was born.

You can check out all of my photos from my day in Northamptonshire on Facebook right here:


And, as always, you can follow me on Instagram at @todreamsproject.