October 03, 2005

Book Review: Painting the Map Red: Canada and the South African War, 1899-1902.

After repeated prodding from several blog contributors, I've completed some minor edits to a review written some months ago.

Earlier this year, after working my way through many of the books in the Annotated Bibliography from Jim Bennettís The Anglosphere Challenge, I became interested in the dramatic turn-of-the-20th century rapprochement between Great Britain and the United States. Books of the time which promoted the unity of the English-speaking peoples cited the Spanish-American War and the Boer War as influential in changing attitudes. I needed to familiarize myself with these two wars.

After I read First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country A World Power (Zimmermann, W., 2002) ... about the Spanish-American War era, Lex suggested a book by Professor Carman Miller called Painting the Map Red: Canada and the South African War, 1899-1902. (hdcvr 1993, ppbk 1998).

While calling Millerís book encyclopedic would be misleading, it would be accurate to call it comprehensive. Miller, chair of the McGill history department, has assembled a snapshot of the culture and politics of the time and written substantial chapters on the events surrounding the nine major contingents of Canadians in the Boer War (recruitment, supply transport, battlefield engagements, demobilization). In addition are chapters on more minor units (nursing, postal, etc.) and a constabulary force (based on the NWMP model) that was recruited in hopes of colonizing SA after service. Total participation was about 7,000. The detail in the book is amazingly rich, covering newspaper accounts of the time, official letters and government documents, and carefully reconciling conflicting battlefield accounts. The book would also appear to have had the great good fortune to be handled by a professional editor. It reads much more smoothly than the usual efforts from academic historians. The co-publication of this book with the Canada War Museum and the McGill-Queens University Press also suggests that the manuscript got much better treatment than usual. And indeed, the author states that the book is merely the condensation of a much more massive manuscript placed in the Public Archives.

Not only would this be the initial "go-to" book for military aficianados, it is also a great book from the Anglosphere perspective because it offers substantial commentary (referenced) to the major personalities of the time, the arguments about Canadian participation, and the implications for the Canadian political landscape. It also highlights the clash of Canadian and British military traditions that led to much more independent Canadian action in WW1 and WW2. A haphazard Canadian militia showed itself to be capable of feats of both courage and pragmatic adaptation to the Boer War battlefield. British generals like Smith-Dorrien and Baden-Powell came away from the Boer war very impressed with the physical stamina, flexibility, and quality of the Canadian troops. Those attitudes coloured subsequent Canadian participation in the European wars.

Regrettably, as another excellent book (Stephen Harris, Canadian Brass: The Making of a Professional Army 1860-1939, [1988]) outlines, the Canadian adventure was so brief that it did not allow a professionalization of the Canadian military. It was a "good war" for the national sense of self-confidence but political patronage continued to dominate the organization and staffing of the militia and armies through WW1 and up to WW2.

So what does Miller's book have to tell us about late 19th century Canada and its attitude toward foreign adventures? It's clear that in the quarter century after Confederation (1867) Canadians were searching for an identity. They were not quite American, yet constantly tempted by its opportunities. And they were increasingly touchy about British involvement in government, yet at the same time unwilling to shoulder any burden of defence. Large-scale immigration to English Canada and the expansion of the northwest frontier also encouraged a round of myth-building in which the major political parties and their respective newspaper allies had a vested interest. Commercial interests were constantly shifting. Talk of commercial union with the US was matched by demands for imperial tariffs, especially once the McKinley Act of 1890 appeared. Though many Canadian immigrants of the period were from the British Isles, many were not. The educated elites of English Canada (and to some degree in French Canada), were keen therefore to cast the Canadian identity in a manly, Christian context suitable for taming a huge and sometimes unforgiving country. Compulsory elementary education had just been instituted and curriculum were very patriotic. Music, drill, parades, holidays, flag display were all geared toward harnessing cultural, religious and institutional values. "Flag, Bible, the English language." Canadian history necessarily had to contrast itself with American history, and loyalty to the Crown and the British parliamentary system was a logical way to distinguish Canadian-ness. The Imperial Federation League founded a branch in Montreal in 1885. Its successor, the British Empire League, had 2,000 influential members. The establishment of the transcontinental Canadian railway was a source of great pride and, like a teenager near to leaving home, there was both anxiety and eagerness for Canada to begin to play a role as a "senior dominion." A clear direction or agenda, however, had not been set.

And into that situation, the Boer War suddenly appeared. What would Canada's role be? As the events in South Africa moved towards war (a tangled and compromised tale of its own), Canadian patriotism, nationalism, military careerism, Christian missionary zeal, commercial appetite, and partisan politics combined to create a situation where Canada's volunteers were very much supported. That much of this support was reinforced by the media of the day is worth noting. One hundred years ago, the media were self-confident proponents of the nation's values. Public support very much carried through the course of the militia's service and after the troops returned home. To a degree impossible to imagine now, the culture of the time was rural, partisan, and driven by ethnic and denominational differences. The response to the events of the Boer War emerged out of that welter of influences. The war accelerated both the maturation of the country and its confrontation with fundamental fault lines that had been papered over during Confederation in Britain's haste to unload its colony. The question of whether Canada should have anything to do with an imperial war on the far side of the world also brought to the surface the role that each of the communities in Canada felt they wanted to play, within Canada and the broader world. The case has been made by various authors, other than Miller, that the Boer War:

1. weakened imperial ties
2. strengthened English Canada's nationalism
3. split French and English Canada
4. launched French Canadian nationalist intellectual thought
5. broke Liberal PM Sir Wilfred Laurier's power base in Quebec
6. stimulated militia reform
7. served as a dress rehearsal for WW1.

Miller provides the concrete details to evaluate these claims in greater detail, and modify them as needed. The Canadian militia officer corps, educated elites, churches and newspapers in English Canada worked themselves into a self-serving lather. The British Governor-General (Minto) and the British Colonial Secretary (Chamberlain) were instrumental but not crucial to the promotion of a first volunteer contingent. Prime Minister Laurier was initially against involvement but the politics of the era demanded that he acquiesce, at the very least, to the volunteers heading off. Once the political decision was made, there was money to be made. And subsequent contingents were assembled in a rather ad hoc way, with individual mounted units often sponsored by wealthy or charismatic individuals. As for the troops themselves, a good many of them were looking for an adventure and a break from the routine of farm and office. Later contingents had plenty of ne'er-do-wells. Some volunteers were recent immigrants from Britain and so had clearer loyalties. The Royal Military College at Kingston, Ontario cranked out British Army commissions, it needs to be remembered, not Canadian militia commissions. Canadian graduate officers ended up playing a significant role in South Africa in British units. The Canadian experience in South Africa with British army logistics and medical care, driven as it was by class distinctions, was also a defining event in forming a sense of Canadian military uniqueness. The Canadians returned feeling that they could hold their own with any British unit, when properly equipped and supplied. And that their Canadian ways were often superior to those of the British Army. Canadian "autonomy" and a "sense of power" were increased.

After all the troops returned, my reading of Miller suggests that things were "the same, only moreso." Like modern war, Canada was domestically unaffected by the service of the troops. There was some commercial benefit from provisioning the troops, and of course, the ongoing care of the wounded and disabled. But the numbers, the time frame, and the minor overall percentage of the economy and population mobilized meant that the War did not impact the domestic scene in the way that WW1 and WW2 did. Questions about Canadian participation in the Empire were essentially unresolved. The imperial federation idea ... a grander political union ... died. Laurier tried to split the difference politically in Quebec ... as the man who gave the English what they wanted without demanding that the French be involved.

Nonetheless, the Boer War was a wake-up call to Quebec that their participation in future British dramas might only be a matter of time. War was ultimately a "party issue" as it was in subsequent years, and indeed is, right to the present day. Imperialists did try to take advantage of the War afterwards to increase the bonds between Canada and England. Knighthoods were dished out to Canadians. "Paardesburg Day" celebrations were elaborate. Veterans groups were established. Canadians were now garrisoning Halifax and Esquimault, and a Canadian was made GOC of the Canadian militia. Famous British heroes and generals of the war made speaking tours of Canada. A raft of institutions were created for the Canadian militia in light of the South Africa experience. Military training bases were purchased and constructed, many to operate until the end of the Cold War. Notably, of the 106 Canadian generals in WW1, 34 were Boer War vets. The watchword was to become "pragmatic, co-operative imperialism" rather than further imperial integration. Canada for Canadians. Canadian troops were in future to enter imperial service as distinct units ... a trend mirrored by Australia and New Zealand, and ultimately the South Africans themselves. In summary, Miller's book is excellent. Far more detailed, and far better written, than I could convey in this note. While it reflects a topic of limited importance in the grand scheme of things, for Anglosphere readers, it's an important snapshot of Canada at a time when the Pax Britannica was beginning to stumble. And in many ways, the controversies of 1899, about Canada's role in the world, have changed little in the intervening century.

Posted by jmccormick at October 3, 2005 05:49 PM

James, thank you for making this review available to a wider readership.

Posted by: Lex at October 3, 2005 10:49 PM

The Intrade futures market has Davis way ahead of Clarke

Go here, click on politics, then UK elections.


So I guess "stop Clarke" is working, so far.

Posted by: Lex at October 5, 2005 05:35 PM

An excellent review. Just to follow up on a few points. I disagree with Miller that the domestic situation was affected during the Boer war. It was, at least in Quebec. Henri Bourassa- premier at the time, spoke for many of his compatriots when he expressed mild opposition to the war. He regarded the Boers as a minority that had done nothing wrong but was in the way of British imperial ambitions.
Furthermore, the Boer war exposed an undercurrent that would explode in the '17 conscription crisis and Sam Hughes' squandered opportunity in 1914 when he refused to allow the French Canadian to create their own units.
The problem was that Quebecers were understandably skeptical of foreign entanglements like the Boer war and the Anglophones who identified with the British mission civiliatrice


Posted by: xavier at October 10, 2005 04:25 PM