The Canadian Uprisings in 1837/38 - British Empire 1815-1914

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The Canadian Uprisings of 1837/38

Uprisings in both Upper and Lower Canada
The year 1837 saw uprisings in both Upper Canada (present day Ontario) and Lower Canada (present day Quebec). The existence of two uprisings in the same year arose out of the Constitutional Act of 1791, when in the aftermath of the American Revolution the British government attempted to keep both its French speaking and English speaking populations happy.

In 1791 Britain divided the province of Quebec into two, creating Upper and Lower Canada. Each province was to have an elected legislative assembly (only freeholders over 21 both male and female could vote) and also an appointed legislative council. The Act also gave the Protestant Church certain powers which created what was in effect an established church. With no responsible government and more financial powers granted to the council there was soon tension between the elected and appointed bodies. The French speakers resented the power of the Protestant Church whilst the English speakers thought the French speakers had too much power. In creating two provinces with some devolved powers, such as the right to levy taxes, the Act was the first step towards what would be federation.

The French speakers were concerned about their cultural  identity
The 400,000 French Canadians in Quebec (there were 200,000 British settlers) who were largely smallholders, were concerned about the erosion of their cultural identity and the lack of participation in the decision making process although during the American Revolution the French speakers had remained loyal to  the British crown, but continued migration of English migrants into North America threatened the position of the French speaking community. The 1830s was a period of agricultural depression, and migration from England increased as migration was seen as a way of alleviating economic distress. A number of migration societies in England helped migrants escape the agricultural poverty in England and provide hope of a better life overseas. The number of settlers in Canada, especially in Ontario and the Maritime provinces,  had  also been increased as a result  of loyalists fleeing the United States during its Revolution. With most new migrants arriving soon  after the Great Reform Act of 1832, these migrants came with ideas on democratising the constitution. An uprising in France at the same time also helped to foster support for a reform to the constitutions of the two provinces. In addition to concerns about increased numbers of migrants reducing the position of the French speakers, there was concern at the arrival of Irish migrants bringing cholera.

With grievances mounting in both Upper and Lower Canada in the 1830s and with very few regular troops based in Canada – in Upper Canada there were just 1,300 regular troops and in Lower Canada there were just 1,700 troops, the possibility of conflict or even civil war was very real.
Louis Papineau
Louis Papineau, who had been Speaker in the legislative assembly, emerged as leader of the separatist party, Les Patriotes, and called for reform and ultimately independence but with these calls being ignored, both French and British speakers sides began to form armed militia making the prospect of civil war a reality. With the situation deteriorating in 1837 the |British military commander Sir John Colborne moved his HQ to Montreal and issued arrest warrants for Papineau and other leaders, including Wolfred Nelson
Louis Papineau
Fighting in St Denis
On 23 November 1837 large numbers of French settlers gathered in the village of St Denis, south of the River Lawrence and east of Montreal and it was to here that Papineau fled to escape an arrest warrant issued in Montreal. It was here that a force of 300 French farmers from the surrounding area, intent on gaining independence from the British, prepared for an attack by British troops. The British attack was beaten off but three days later a second attack from a better armed British force breached the French defences and the villagers scattered following a bayonet charge. The British began to burn down 56 outlying villages as martial law was declared. Opposition to the British rule was wiped out with ferocity, including the setting fire to a church in St Eustache with villagers dying inside the church.
The Battle at St Eustache
Upper Canada
Meanwhile in Toronto in Upper Canada, citizens angered by the continued influence of the church and gentry and the lack of genuine constitutional reform attempted to gain control of the main city. The rebels were led by William Lyon Mackenzie, leader of the Reform Party, who had produced a Declaration of Independence of Upper Canada in August 1837, with a pledge to make common cause with Papineau.
Williamn Lyon Mackenzie
Mackenzie prepared to lead a rebellion in December. His supporters consisted of farmers, religious  dissenters and American loyalists from the farming communities around Toronto. They were armed with just staves, pitchforks and hunting rifles. On 5 December 1837, a group of 800 English speaking rebels tried to take control of Toronto , the seat of the government of Upper Canada, with the aim of establishing a republic.
Montgomery's Tavern
The rebels gathered at Montgomery’s Tavern just outside Toronto on the evening of 5 December and began to march into the  town centre down Yonge Street, to engage a smaller government force of soldiers and militia. On their way down Yonge Street they came into contact with a small  force of 30 riflemen who opened fire. The front rank of the rebels returned fire and dropped to their knees to ready themselves for the next round. Seeing the front rank go to the ground the rest of the rebels turned and retreated thinking that the front rank had all been  killed. Mackenzie had not even arrived in time to join the rebels on their march and when he realised  his plan was doomed to failure he fled to Navy Island in the middle of the Niagara River.
The fighting at Montgomery's Tavern
The end of Mackenzie
Meanwhile on 8 December, 1,000 loyalists marched on Montgomery’s Tavern to disperse the remaining rebels. The loyalist forces included 120 black soldiers under the command  of Colonel Samuel Jarvis.

On 13 December Mackenzie announced the declaration of an independent republic on Navy Island. He prepared for an invasion of Canada but once his supply ship was captured by militia his plans were doomed  and he soon fled to New York where he settled down. Other leaders were not as fortunate as Mackenzie – Lount and Matthews, Methodist Episcopalians, were both captured and condemned to death by the new governor of Upper Canada, the former organiser of the ‘black line across Tasmania which had planned to exterminate the aborigine population. They died in April 1838 after another attempted coup had ailed in Lower Canada.
Another uprising in Lower Canada
In February 1838, an army of supporters of independence numbering about 600 and led by Robert Nelson, brother of Wolfred, a leader of the 1837 attempted rebellion in Lower Canada, crossed Lake Champlain from the US. Nelson’s declaration of independence included rights for native Indians, land reform, abolishing the death penalty and the introduction of universal suffrage. Such a radical agenda gained little support in Lower Canada and in the first clash with local militia at Missisquoi, Nelson’s force was defeated.

A third uprising in Lower Canada
Later that year in November there was a third and final attempt to secure independence when Nelson again invaded Canada on 4 November from across the US border with 300 men.
The day before another force led by Pierre-Paul Desmarais gained control of the town of Beauharnois, hoping to cut the line of communications between Montreal and the land south of the St Lawrence and to cut off the possibility of British reinforcements reaching the Richelieu valley. The taking of Beauharnois was to be the general signal for an uprising of the French community south of the St Lawrence and achieved with the support of a radical secret society of ‘Brother Hunters’, organised along Masonic lines and with members organised throughout the province. Desmarais planned carefully for independence, arranging for ammunition and weapons to be distributed that had been previously taken from British settlers and from the local Mohawk Indians. Desmarais did not reckon though on the Mohawk tribe resisting the efforts to disarm them. They remained loyal  to the British and when Desmarais’ men marched into the Mohawk village opposite Montreal, the Indians surrounded the insurgents and disarmed them in minutes. Desmarais and others fled into the bush whilst those who were captured were handed over to the British. The sight of captured rebels ended the support of the ‘Brother Hunter’ Lodges and General Colborne was able to deal with the remaining resistance with ease.
British vengeance
Meanwhile the projected invasion of Nelson’s force never got off the ground as it was quickly defeated by a militia of anti-Catholic men  from Ulster. By the time Colborne arrived with a substantial force of 5,000 regulars and an extra 900 Indians and volunteers, Desmarais had gone. British troops now exacted terrible vengeance on the local people by setting fire to houses and farms. Colborne was determined that whereas there had been amnesties given the previous year there would be none this time and with martial law in force, prisoners were sentenced and executed.
In December 1838 about a dozen leaders were executed and a further 76 prisoners were sentenced to death although they had their sentences commuted to transportation to Australia, along with 47 found guilty of lesser crimes. In early 1840 the British frigate Buffalo arrived in Sydney to disembark 58 prisoners from Lower Canada and then sailed on to Tasmania to disembark a further 95 men from Upper Canada.
The gallows in Montreal
Significance of the uprisings
The 1837 /38  rebellions were small but not insignificant.  The British government at the time was led by Lord Melbourne who realised the situation had to be dealt with quickly.   The government did not want to give the USA the excuse to  launch its own invasion of the Canadian provinces and wanted to deal with the unease which clearly existed in both provinces. Melbourne despatched Lord Durham  to Canada at  the head of a three man commission to investigate what had happened and suggest a solution. Durham, a former member of the government, was nicknamed Radical Jack and was associated with a group of statemen and theorists called the ‘Radical Imperialists’ and Melbourne was quite happy to lose Durham for a little while for he had been a difficult member of the cabinet. Durham had a particular charm, a rigorous mind and great energy. He was wealthy so could not be bought.

Durham took with him two brilliant colonial  talents: Edward Gibbon Wakefield and Charles Buller. The three made a good team and produced a report which was highly respected and regarded as the blueprint for colonial government for the next 100 years, although recently the report has had its share of critics  who do not believe  the report had quite the influence historians have hitherto suggested. The three man commission was in the two colonies for just five months before Durham and his colleagues returned home to Britain.

Durham’s report criticised  the constant conflict between the executive and the elected members of the  legislature. He suggested that  the elected members appoint the executive  and that the Governor act as  a constitutional monarch. Ministers should be responsible  to the elected body and matters of imperial policy should be dealt with by the imperial government in London. The report also recommended the union of Upper and Lower Canada. Although Durham had established a good rapport with the French Canadians when he first arrived,  they had little input to his final report and they opposed the final settlement.

Durham’s report envisaged  a stronger Canada and one that was less likely to be incorporated by the USA.  It would keep Canada within the Empire and secure what was an important source of timber for Britain and the naval base at Halifax and its large merchant navy. The report paved the way for  a federal Canada although this would take another 25 years to come to fruition. There was though continual bickering between the USA and Britain which would last until the endo of the century with much of the  conflict over the border between Canada and the USA and the proposed Panama Canal.

If there had been thoughts among its population that joining with the USA might confer economic benefits they were soon dispelled in the 1860s. Armed raids by Fenians across the USA-Canada border, and the divisions in the USA brought about by the Civil  War told people it made more sense to bring about closer ties between the British colonies and so talks on a federal structure began in 1865 in Quebec. The talks quickly approved the idea of a federal  structure and resulted in  the British North America Act, which contained much of Durham’s suggestions.
In 1867 the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada (which had been previously united in 1840), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were united  in a federal structure to form the new dominion of Canada. In 1871 the federation expanded to include the colonies of Vancouver Island and Columbia which had united in 1866.  Manitoba joined in 1870 and Prince Edward in 1873.
The 1867 Act established the principle of self-government for colonies and a constitutional  position on which to base self-government for the future. It established a federal government and provincial legislatures and administration although the central government in Canada was given the final  word in disputes with the provinces.

The ending of Mercantilism and the introduction of complete free trade  by 1850 suggested that Canada might suffer economically and that the integrity of the empire might be threatened but Canada’s new federal  powers allowed the new dominion to introduce its own taxation regime.
The Durham Report had given rise to the federal structure although it had taken 30 years to be implemented and then not all of the report was accepted. It may have been the model for those colonies that were given dominion status but the vast majority of the colonies of the empire continued to be governed in the same ways with little if any constitutional reform.

By Peter Crowhurst, June 2020

Further reading:
Britain's Empire by Richard Gott, 2011
Empire by Denis Judd, 1966
The Rise and Fall of the British Empire by Lawrence James, 1994
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