Remembering the Lord Elgin Hotel .. and the Scotch .. Montreal riots .. V.S. Naipaul strikes back

Apr 26th, 2008 | By | Category: Heritage Now

When 55% of Canadians say they support “Canada’s ending its formal ties to the British monarchy” (and only 34% oppose), the bad old colonial days of British North America are on at least the beginnings of their very last legs. Yet who can deny that the old anglophone global empire has left a few enduring marks on the modern true north, strong and free? And even ardent multicultural democrats in 2008 may allow that some of them have been … well interesting, at any rate. The Ottawa visit of the 11th Earl of Elgin on Friday, April 25 was a case in point. Among other things, he more or less officially turned over “to the people of Canada” some rocks hurled at his great grandfather, the 8th Earl of Elgin, by rioting residents of Montreal in the middle of the 19th century. The 84-year-old 11th Earl from Scotland had already visited John Kenneth Galbraith’s Scotch in the family namesake Elgin County in southwestern Ontario – where he also inspected the “31 Combat Engineer Regiment (The Elgins),” of which he is honourary colonel. He may have noticed as well that certain residents of Montreal still like to riot. Back in the old country, however, it remains unclear just how well he knows the contemporary relic of empire Sir Vidia (V.S.) Naipaul, whose current wife, Lady Naipaul, is from Pakistan, and who is “regarded by some – certainly by himself – as the greatest living writer in English” today.

1. The 11th Earl of Elgin in Elgin County, Ontario …

The Earls of Elgin are so-called Scottish peers, descended from one Edward Bruce in the early 17th century. The present 11th Earl seems a genial fellow. He first visited the family namesake Elgin County in southwestern Ontario 60 years ago, in 1948. Since then has “been able to make the trip from his home in Fife, Scotland, about every other year.”

This in itself has some intrigue. Elgin County is otherwise most famous as the home of the rabble-rousing Ontario populist premier of the 1930s and early 1940s, Mitch Hepburn (aka “Canada’s Huey Long“) – and as the home of the US arch-liberal economist (and ambassador to India) John Kenneth Galbraith, who wrote about his childhood in the area in a 1960s book called The Scotch.

2. Remembering the 8th Lord Elgin – the most impressive (and constructive) British imperial proconsul in all of Canadian history? – His early education etc …

In the wider world, the present 11th Earl is not quite so famous as two of his more illustrious ancestors – the 7th and 8th Earls. The 7th Earl, e.g., is nowadays notorious for removing some marble sculptures from the Acropolis in Athens in the early 19th century, when they were under threat from invading Turks. (Or so the story goes.) These “Elgin Marbles” are now in the British Museum in London. In 2008 a “new museum in Athens” is hoping “to reunite its ancient Acropolis masterpieces with Britain’s Elgin Marbles.” But, even though Greece and Turkey are on much better terms than they used to be, the “London museum has repeatedly rejected Greek calls for their return.”

In Canada today James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin (18111863, and aka “Lord Elgin”) is or at least ought to be still more famous. He was an eminent aristocratic public figure of the mid 19th century global British empire “on which the sun never dared to set.” He played a key role in Canadian and/or British North American history, from the late 1840s to the mid 1850s. To some tastes at least, he was the most impressive and admirable of all the British imperial proconsuls who left marks of any consequence on the Canadian future. And it is not entirely an accident that he is still popularly (if casually) remembered in the name of the Lord Elgin Hotel, in the downtown Ottawa of the early 21st century.

Although James Bruce was born on July 20, 1811 in London, England, he spent much of his earliest life “at the family seat of Broomhall, near Dumfermline in Fifeshire,” Scotland. But the Bruce family apparently had ancient Norman as well as Scottish connections. And the young James who was born in 1811 also spent a great deal of time “in Paris where he acquired that mastery of the French language which, as events turned out, was to prove one of his most valuable accomplishments” during his later time in Canada.

He attended Eton college as well, with many subsequent celebrated managers of the 19th century British imperial dream. He then “obtained … a brilliant first in classics” at Oxford University. At Oxford too he began to develop a characteristic “political sobriety … liberal-conservatism … and … appreciation of sound and able administrative methods” – and “at the Oxford Union skill and experience as a speaker which stood him in good stead in later life.”

3. “Responsible government” … earliest beginnings of Canadian constitutional democracy and all that, etc, etc

The still young enough James Bruce became the 8th Earl of Elgin when he was only 30, on the death of his father in 1841. In 1842 he was appointed Governor of Jamaica, where he struggled (quite ably in the eyes of his superiors in the United Kingdom at any rate) with the challenges of social, economic, and cultural development that followed the abolition of slavery in the British empire in the 1830s. In 1847 he was appointed to deal with the somewhat if not altogether different challenges of French and English cultural diversity in the United Province of Canada – an exotic and politically turbulent union of what are now the southern parts of the central Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

As well as Governor of Canada, the 8th Lord Elgin served from 1847 to 1854 for certain purposes as Governor General of British North America. (This included the so-called United Canada and the British Maritime Provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. Newfoundland still remained somewhat aloof, as did the vast Rupert’s Land of the British North American Northwest, under the assorted governors of the Hudson’s Bay Company. And this included the Pacific Coast Crown Colony of British Columbia, which is this very year celebrating the 150th anniversary of its earliest official beginnings in 1858. At this point the 8th Earl of Elgin had already become British High Commissioner to China.)

James Bruce or Lord Elgin is most noted for two particular achievements as Governor of Canada and Governor General of British North America. The first is the implementation of so-called “responsible government,” or colonial self-government on the British or “Westminster” parliamentary model, in the old United Province – in 1848 ( also the “Year of Revolution” in continental Europe).

Present-day Atlantic Canadians can rightly urge that, technically, this same reform arrived in Nova Scotia a month and nine days before Lord Elgin’s creation of the first fully responsible Lafontaine-Baldwin ministry in what are now Ontario and Quebec. (All imperial officials in British North America were ultimately acting under instructions from the Colonial Secretary, Lord Grey.) But the advent of what Elgin himself called “constitutional government” also marked the beginnings of parliamentary democracy in what is now called Canada. And in the unique demographic circumstances of the old United Province, this also meant that the French-speaking majority in what is now Quebec gained a secure grasp on at least an early approximation of constitutional and democratic political power, at last.

4. The Elgin Rocks … then and now …

This last point is what leads to the story of the 8th Earl’s “Elgin Rocks,” then and now. Among many other things, the new Lafontaine-Baldwin responsible or reform ministry of 1848 passed a so-called Rebellion Losses Bill, to compensate French Canadian rebels for property and other losses in their half of the Canadian Rebellions of 183738.

This outraged the anglophone Tories of Montreal, which was at that point the capital city of the United Province (created in 1841 to address at least some of the political problems that the 183738 Rebellions had raised). The local Tories urged Governor Elgin to refuse to sign the bill into law, on the grounds that it was a great threat to the future of the British empire in Canada. But the bill had been duly passed by a majority in the elected legislature of the province. Under the new principles of responsible or constitutional colonial government Lord Elgin felt duty bound to uphold what the majority had passed.

On April 25, 1849 he finally signed the Rebellion Losses Bill into law. And the anglophone Tories of Montreal immediately began to riot. They would ultimately burn down the local Parliament buildings of the day in Montreal. But along the way they also hurled rocks at Lord and Lady Elgin, as they drove by in a horse-drawn carriage. Happily, the Governor and his wife survived essentially unharmed. But they did acquire a small collection of the rocks that were thrown at them. These rocks were eventually taken back to the Elgin family seat in Scotland, where they have remained until the present.

Now, on April 25, 2008, at a “ceremony at Library and Archives Canada” in Ottawa, the 11th Earl of Elgin will “officially turn over the rocks – and considerable other loot from his vice-regal ancestor – to the people of Canada.” As an article in the Ottawa Citizen has discreetly noted, the artifacts involved “number in the hundreds,” and along with the rocks include “stacks of documents … watercolours painted by Lady Elgin, a pair of moccasins,” and the “Cree wooden snowshoes Lord Elgin personally used to tramp five kilometres to work from his home in the Monklands area of Montreal … Some of the objects are being donated by the current Lord and Lady Elgin and others are being purchased from them. Funds were raised largely through an organization called Alberta Friends of Elgin, one of many efforts launched by Jennifer Considine, a Calgary-based energy analyst, to foster Scottish-Canadian relations.”

5. A 19th century father (or uncle?) of Canada-US free trade …

The 8th Lord Elgin’s second great achievement in the earlier colonial history of Canada today was the ultimately successful negotiation of the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854 – or what was in effect the first free trade agreement between what is now Canada (and was then more properly called British North America) and the United States.

The great stumbling block here was approval by the US Senate. According to legend, on a great flood of many crates of fine champagne, during an extended visit to Washington, the genial, worldly, and eminently diplomatic Lord Elgin finally convinced enough Southern Senators to get the Treaty approved.

In the immediate wake of the American Civil War, the US Congress subsequently abrogated or cancelled the 1854 Treaty, in 1866 – partly because it was upset at how the British empire had behaved during the Civil War. But Lord Elgin’s treaty nonetheless helped British North America over the immediate difficulties prompted by the empire’s progressive experiment with global free trade in the last half of the 19th century.

The abrogation of the 1854 treaty by the new and more aggressive (and even imperialistic in its own right?) United States that emerged from the Civil War, in 1866, helped set the final stage for the Canadian confederation of 1867 as well. From this point until as late as the late 20th century, many US politicians believed that if what are now the Canadian provinces wanted to trade freely with the States of the Union, they should simply become States of the Union themselves.

6. The Lord Elgin Hotel in Ottawa … and the RCMP raid on Conservative Party headquarters today

The Lord Elgin Hotel today, right in the heart of downtown Ottawa, on Elgin Street at Laurier Avenue, across from Confederation Park, was opened in 1941. It is a 12-storey limestone structure designed by the firm of Ross and Macdonald, and “named after James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, the first Governor General of the united Canadas.” The present-day 11th Earl has been an important patron and also “served as its Honourary Chairman.”

The hotel was apparently “built to primarily serve short-stay guests, particularly those who were in Ottawa on government and military business during the Second World War.” The Canadian prime minister at the time, the incredible William Lyon Mackenzie King (himself the grandson of the leader of the English-speaking/Ontario side of the Canadian Rebellions of 183738) nonetheless took some special interest in the building’s construction. More recently, after a period of some neglect in the 1970s and 1980s: “Significant renovations in the 1990s and 2000s resulted in the construction of large additions to the north and south of the building, the refurbishment and enlargement of existing rooms, and the addition of 60 new guestrooms, new meeting rooms and a new fitness facility.”

Most recently, the place has also figured in efforts by Stephen Harper’s present-day Conservative Party of Canada to offer information on a recent raid of its headquarters by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to a select group of Ottawa journalists only. As explained in the Globe and Mail: “On Saturday night [April 19], Mr. Sparrow [of the Conservative Party, still sometimes known as “Tory” in Canada] called a number of reporters to ask them to come to meetings that had been scheduled … at the Lord Elgin Hotel in downtown Ottawa saying it would be worth their while’ .. Shortly after, the Liberals found out about the briefings and advised all of the Ottawa press gallery, some of whom were quite miffed to find they had been excluded. When they threatened to show up at the Lord Elgin, despite the lack of an invitation, the meeting was secretly moved to the Sheraton.”

The RCMP had earlier raided Conservative Party headquarters at the behest of Elections Canada, in connection with ongoing allegations about illegal Conservative spending in the 2006 Canadian federal election that gave them their present minority government in Ottawa. For some most recent developments on all this, check out “Tories to alter spending ways to suit courts … Practices will conform to law, Harper says” in the Globe and Mail, and “Much is at stake for Elections Canada” (by Chantal Hebert, in the Toronto Star). What the 8th Lord Elgin would make of it all can only be imagined.

7. The latest Montreal riots

Whatever else, at least no one, Conservative/Tory or otherwise, has yet set the Lord Elgin Hotel on fire – as the rioting anglophone Tories of the mid 19th century set the old Montreal Parliament buildings on fire in April 1849.

For better or worse, however, the still famed Montreal Riot of 1849 has established an enduring tradition. And its latest outbreak has taken place just this past Monday, April 21, 2008, when: “Street celebrations following the seventh-game victory by the Montreal Canadiens over the Boston Bruins [in the National Hockey League playoffs] turned violent … after vandals torched and smashed more than a dozen police vehicles and damaged local businesses.”

This latest expression of Montreal’s riotous tradition has naturally prompted varying degrees of no doubt justified enough public alarm, as can be sampled in such recent press reports as “Merchants clean up after Habs riot,” “How a Habs playoff win became Montreal’s loss,” “Montrealers flood police with images of rioters,” and “Grabuge au centre-ville – La police profite de l’aide des citoyens pour mener son enqute.”

Montreal anglophone radio broadcaster Jim Duff has tried to set these latest events in some broader historical perspective as well: “So. Sixteen arrests, 16 Montreal police cruisers torched and the usual delerium about why the cops weren’t better prepared … Another Montreal riot … I was too young for 56, the Great Maurice Richard Hockey Riot, but I’ve become a student of Montreal riots. Did you know the 1849 Montreal riot was started by anglos infuriated at the passage of the Rebellion Losses Bill restituting the 1837 rebels and their supporters … I was on Ste. Catherine for the 1968 Murray Hill Riot … The Montreal cops got their own back at the 1969 McGill franais Riot … The 1973 La Presse Riot was huge and ugly … The 1993 Stanley Cup Riot I remember well … The 1995 Referendum Night Riot and the Medley Punk Rock Riot targeted more storefronts.”

Mr. Duff’s advanced technological solution for such civic problems in the early 21st century is “water cannon. Armoured trucks with armed outriders, equipped with turret nozzles capable of blasting someone off his feet from 100 metres. There’s nothing that cools a riot faster than being soaking wet. If I was feeling particularly dictatorial, I’d add some hog slurry or fish fertilizer to the brew. Then let em riot.”

Isn’t tradition a wonderful thing?

8. Sir Vidia (V.S.) Naipaul and Lady Naipaul today … a new official biography and a BBC TV show (that we alas don’t get in Canada, or any other part of North America)

All wonders of tradition aside, one reason that the bad old colonial days of British North America are on at least the beginnings of their very last legs is of course just that the British empire itself has now pretty much altogether declined and fallen into oblivion, even in its own home and native land of the United Kingdom.

(George W. Bush’s United States has sometimes seemed to want to at last inherit the ancient global burden here – and Stephen Harper’s minority government in Canada has sometimes seemed to want to transfer the ancient Canadian Tory allegiance to the old imperial metropolis in London to the new one in Washington. But nowadays this really does not seem to be working either, no matter who or what wins the US general election this coming November?)

As is not uncommon in the broadest sweep of world history, however, the old empire still has certain residues. And they remain vital, because they reflect so many fresh ingredients in the highly diverse new global village of our own era, for which all the old empires of the more recent past – British, French, Spanish, Ottoman, Russian, Japanese, and so forth – have helped lay sometimes quite ironic foundations. (Which have also had some rather loud echoes in such former self-governing British dominions as Canada and Australia too!)

A case in point is the career of Sir Vidia (V.S.) Naipaul – a now 75-year-old man of South Asian descent, who grew up in Trinidad in the old British West Indies. In his youth Mr. Naipaul migrated to the United Kingdom, where in a series of heroic struggles he set about becoming at least one of the greatest living writers in English today – in anybody’s considered judgment, and regardless of the increasingly well-known fact that, like many great men in all times and places, he has not exactly been an admirable human being.

It may not entirely be an accident that, around the same general time when the 11th Earl of Elgin is at last returning the Elgin Rocks of the mid 19th century to the modern free and democratic people of Canada, to whom his great grandfather helped give birth, both a new biography of and a new BBC TV program on V.S. Naipaul have helped make clear just how unpleasant he really is. As one reviewer of the new biography has explained, it succeeds brilliantly by presenting “a picture of humanity” in our often harsh if also inspiring global village today – and “of an intellectually incorruptible man battling to make sense of it all while failing as a human being.”

Naipaul’s human failures probably come into their starkest focus in his relations with women. In his youth in the UK, in 1955, he married “the white Patricia Hale, who is from a humble home in Birmingham. He makes her an amanuensis, a cook, a stay-at-home drudge and finally a drug-taker … After years of using prostitutes, the turning point in Naipaul’s life comes in 1972 when he finds a woman he desires: Margaret, whom he has met in Buenos Aires … It is no exaggeration to describe the relationship between Naipaul and Margaret as a version of The Story of O … Eventually Naipaul told his wife Pat about the relationship, divulging some details and showing her intimate photographs. She was devastated but stayed with him and he was reluctant to offer a divorce. He gave her literary jobs to do, went on reading his rough drafts of his fiction to her – in which the sex scenes were based on the rough sex he enjoyed with Margaret.”

Then Naipaul’s wife Pat gets breast cancer – a tragedy for which he seems to feel somehow responsible. Nonetheless: “Dissatisfied with Margaret” and “annoyed with Pat for having cancer … he meets a Pakistani divorcee in Lahore and very soon afterwards asks her, Will you consider one day being Lady Naipaul?'” (By this point he has been made Sir Vidia, in recognition of his undoubted great talents as a writer of modern English, whatever else.) Finally, in 1996: “He dumps Margaret without explanation. Pat (so as not to be a nuisance) forgoes more chemotherapy and dies miserably. Six days later, before the worms can pierce Pat’s winding sheet, the Pakistani woman has moved into the house.”

All this may be a long way from the world of the 8th Lord Elgin who was Governor of Canada and Governor General of British North America in the middle of the 19th century. Or maybe not. The larger-than-life British aristocrats who managed the “greatest empire since Rome” at its height were very worldly men, who often enough enjoyed quite bizarre private lives of their own. And the 8th Lord Elgin finally became Viceroy of India in 1861, and died in the summer headquarters of the old British Raj in the far northern outpost of Dharamasala in 1863.

In any case, for reviews and other commentary on The World is What it Is: the Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul, by Patrick French, see: “Ramchand: Abuse coloured Naipaul’s attitude to sex” ; “V.S. Naipaul, failing as a human being” ; “V V: V S Naipaul“; and “Paul Theroux claims new biography reveals the true monster in V S Naipaul.” For two reviews of the April 10, 2008 BBC4 TV program, “Arena: The Strange Luck of VS Naipaul” (unfortunately not yet available in Canada, or any other part of North America it seems), see Sam Wollaston in The Guardian ; and Robert Hanks in The Independent.

To me at any rate, it seems likely enough that James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin, and one-time Viceroy of India, as well as Governor of Canada, would not be altogether surprised by the 20th and 21st century career of Sir Vidia (V.S.) Naipaul. (Whose nephew and fellow writer Neil Bissoondath, by the way, lives in suburban Quebec City, Canada today.)

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