Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone




A Short History of the Canadian People. By the Rev. George Bryce, M.D., L.L.D. [1888] London: Sampson Low, Maraton, Soarle & Rivington.


"To make history picturesque must be the aim of the modern historian," says Dr. Bryce in his preface. With this creed, Dr. Bryce has succeeded in writing what must, I think, be accepted as the best history of Canada yet available to the general reader. Vivacious and direct in style, it is essentially interesting; and it puts in attractive form the results of wide research and careful consideration. It carries us easily and rapidly through periods which most of our historians, by a multiplicity of unessential detail, have made for us a weariness to the flesh. In general, it may be regarded as trustworthy and thorough. In a word, it does effectively what it sets out to do,—it tells its story in a way to hold attention, and furnishes a compact and thoughtful account of this young Canadian nationality.

Having thus testified to the prevailing excellence of the work, one finds himself compelled to quarrel with it in certain points of detail. Its defects are not inherent in its plan; a little revision of that second edition which it is to be hoped may soon be called for would render it, in its own field, comparatively safe against attack. In the first place, there are traces of unevenness in its composition. Certain chapters do not seem to have been written with the care or revised with the assiduity which have been expended upon the bulk of the book. In the second paragraph of Chapter III. occurs the following, which, whether by fault of the author or the fault of his printer, must be classed with the hard sentences of old: "At the time when any portion of this continent had reached the stage in its development which it now retains, was undoubtedly years ago, at the period when there were yet only archæan or primitive rocks." The very next sentence, by reason of the omission of commas, is structurally ambiguous: "Then only the north-eastern part of North America appeared as an island in the midst of the tepid ocean which surrounded it." The succeeding paragraph contains an instance of what is a somewhat frequent fault with Dr. Bryce—the dragging in by the heels of irrelevant quotation, with the idea, apparently, of lightening the style. "These have contained hidden in them from that primeval day till now the veins of gold and silver and copper and iron which men are discovering to-day, but at that early time referred to not even Mammon, ‘the least erected spirit that fell from heaven,’ had poured into their glittering crevices." One feels inclined, moreover, to question timidly Dr. Bryce’s authority for so sweeping an assertion as this last. What literary sins will not even our wisest commit in the name of the picturesque! A little further on, Dr. Bryce informs us that "At first, no doubt, the wide expanse of rock, rising above the sea, was like ‘the burning marl’ of Milton, but was slowly cooling down." The whole of this section, sketching the geology of Canada, is peculiarly unhappy, adopting as it does the tone of a school primer, while leaving unexplained a few highly technical terms. It strikes one also that Dr. Bryce goes back even beyond the twin eggs of Leda, when he begins the story of the Canadian people in the dust out of which were formed the ancestors of their red predecessors.

The sphere of such a work as this does not seem to me to include a discussion of the lost Atlantis or the Kingdom of Fusang, still less a study of the American Indian and his customs,—unless there be any large portion of the Canadian people ready to claim an Indian ancestry. Chapters II. and III. take up a great deal of space. Dr. Bryce is capable of filling this space more profitably. We could spare, too, the frequent instances which these chapters exhibit of that straining to be popular, that "writing down" to a supposed half-cultured audience, which so injures the effect of any work of weighty intention. On page 39 we are favoured with the information that "among the Roman writers shortly after the Christian era was the philosophic Seneca. He was the teacher of the young, afterwards cruel, Emperor Nero." It would be interesting to know what sort of an audience Dr. Bryce was talking at when he framed this sentence.

In his treatment of the north-eastern boundary disputes Dr. Bryce is neither sufficiently full nor strictly accurate. He gives reasonable attention to the Commission of 1842, but not so much as hints at the embroilment between Maine and New Brunswick in 1839, known as the "Aroostook War," which was what directly inspired the appointment of the Commission. In February of 1839, Maine sent an armed force into the Disputed Territory (then under jurisdiction of Great Britain, pending a final settlement of the points at issue,) for the professed purpose of punishing certain trespassers on the timber lands. This force captured some New Brunswick lumbermen, and sent them captive to Bangor. Upon this an irregular force of angry lumbermen gathered to avenge their comrades. The leaders of the Maine expedition, not relishing camp life on the Aroostook in mid-winter, had forsaken the quarters of their followers and betaken themselves to feather-beds in the house of a settler some miles distant. Here they were surprised by the New Brunswickers, and carried off to prison at Fredericton. Maine retorted by arresting the accredited Warden of the Disputed Territory, who had been sent by the New Brunswick government to warn off the force as trespassers. In a blaze of military excitement the militia of Maine and of New Brunswick were called out, the assistance of the regular troops on both sides was summoned, sister provinces and sister states ranged themselves in support of the contestants, and war seemed inevitable. On the brink of battle the danger was averted by the tact and conciliatory courtesy of General Winfield Scott, who was sent into Maine as special emissary by the United States government. With the Governor of New Brunswick General Scott arranged a modus vivendi, to allow of the work of a commission. In regard to the settlement arrived at by this commission, Dr. Bryce indorses the generally received, but, I think, quite unjustified view, that Webster drove a sharp bargain and that Ashburton made disgraceful concessions. He lays much stress upon the famous "Sparks map," by the revelation of which in secret session to the dissatisfied Senate Mr. Webster secured a suddenly cordial acceptance of the treaty. This map, as is well known, was one found in the archives of France, and bore upon it an emphatic red line which was supposed to mark the boundaries of the United States as agreed upon by the Treaty of Paris in 1783. It concedes more than the utmost of the British claim; and it was taken by Sparks, as well as by Webster himself, to be the one which Franklin referred to in the following letter, written to the Count de Vergennes:

                                                             "PASSY, December 6, 1782.


Sir,—I have the honor of returning herewith the map your Excellency sent me yesterday. I have marked with a strong red line, according to your desire, the limits of the United States, as settled in the preliminaries between the British and American Plenipotentiaries.

With great respect, I am, etc.,

                                                                       B. FRANKLIN."

Dr. Bryce hastily declares that the map in question was a copy of the one referred to by Franklin. But recent investigations on the part of Mr. Justin Winsor have pretty conclusively proved what was suspected at the time by Senator Benton, namely, that the two maps had no connection with each other. That discovered by Mr. Sparks, on the contrary, represented an old French claim against the Province of Massachusetts. It was marked, probably, by Vergennes, with an eye to the possibility of a resumption of French supremacy in Canada, and was intended to suggest to England the advisability of enlarging her demands against the infant republic. The red line, it is true, outlined a just claim of England, seeing that all New France was acknowledged hers, and that the limits of the new states, upon that side, could only in justice be those which England had claimed for them while they were her colonies. But this had nothing to do with the intention of the Treaty of Paris; and it was with the intention of the Treaty of Paris that the Commissioners of 1842 were concerned. What was this intention, and how completely favorable it was to the American claim, Mr. Winsor has shown in a paper lately read before the Massachusetts Historical Society. Mr. Winsor refers to two other maps whose existence had been forgotten,—one a sketch map used by Franklin and Hartley, the other a "Mitchell" map which had been in Sir Robert Peel’s possession all the while that Webster was concealing so jealously the existence of the dreaded Sparks map. On the Mitchell map was drawn a boundary which conceded to America all she asked; and this line was endorsed, in the hand-writing of George III. himself, with the words, "Boundary as described by Mr. Oswald." It marked, assuredly, a disgraceful concession, but those responsible for the concession were Oswald and Strachey, in 1783; and it is told that, on his journey homeward from Paris, poor Oswald wept tears of mortification over the manner in which Franklin had over-reached him. From this map,—which Sir Robert Peel made use of in somewhat the same manner as that in which Webster employed the Sparks map,—it may be seen that Great Britain regained, in 1842, some five thousand square miles of territory, with important connections, which had been lost to her by the weakness of her agents in 1783. The full credit of this recovery cannot, it is true, be allowed to Ashburton, whom Peel had kept in ignorance of the map lest his scruples should stand in the way of his success. But he knew the terms of the award of the King of the Netherlands, which had been accepted by England and rejected with scorn by America; and he secured to England terms which were more advantageous by the extent of over a thousand square miles. It seems reasonable to suppose that Lord Ashburton (then Mr. Baring), chosen out of so many for his responsibility, and realizing that upon his success rested his future, would at least not be guilty of the gross ignorance and carelessness which we are wont to lay to his charge. A dispassionate review of his action seems to me to show that he strove for absolute fairness, refusing to be misled by consideration of the errors of his predecessors. Among us in Canada there is current a ridiculous story as to the fashion in which the line was at last laid down. The story goes that this representative of England, with the eyes of two continents upon him, was bored by the whole affair, and one night, being with Mr. Webster in his cups, and good-humored, got up suddenly and walked over to the map which lay spread out on a side table. After squinting at it a moment upside down, through his single eye-glass, he reached out at arm’s length and poked his pencil at random across the territory; and thus, we are gravely assured, was the question solved. On the judgment of an impartial and well-equipped historian like Dr. Bryce, such stuff, of course, would exert no shade of influence; I only tell it to point my suggestion that the conduct of Ashburton be submitted to a fresh scrutiny, and to discredit certain irresponsible rumors which Dr. Bryce has referred to in this connection. I doubt not that Dr. Bryce will modify somewhat, in later edition, his paragraphs on this question, and will embody the important results of Mr. Winsor’s researches.

In his paragraphs on Canadian Literature Dr. Bryce lays himself open to criticism. This section might almost better have been omitted than inserted in its present inadequate form. If Dr. Bryce does me the honour to read this notice, he will probably smile just here, and will shrewdly account for my disapproval by the fact that he has ignored my own literary efforts. Nor will he be altogether astray. There are several Canadian writers overlooked whom he owed it to his readers to mention, and without mention of whom his chapter is not what it professes to be. We are occupied in the beginnings of a literature; and work which in a mature literature might not demand much notice is to us of inceptional significance. Dr. Bryce has treated the subject, as it were, en passant; but it is one which bears appreciably upon the development of our young nationality, and it demands a treatment which, however brief, shall be very fully considered and scrupulously balanced. By his own confession, Dr. Bryce has not even taken time to make up his mind as to the merits of those works which he has looked at. Of that striking and imaginative drama, "Tecumseh" by Mr. Charles Mair, he says that "it may be the truest of Canadian poems." Let me urge upon Dr. Bryce the desirability, in his next edition, of a less perfunctory survey of this struggling literature, in which his own work occupies so important a place.


"Bryce's Short History of the Canadian People," Dial 8:96 (April 1888), 290-92 [back]