In the Shadow of William Henry Seward: Canadian Expansionism and the British West Indies in the 1860s

19 09 2013

In the Shadow of William Henry Seward: Canadian Expansionism and the British West Indies in the 1860s.

That’s the title of the paper I will be presenting at St Antony’s College, Oxford on 4 November 2013. The co-author of the paper is Kirsten Greer, who used to be at the University of Warwick here in Coventry and who is now at Nipissing University in Ontario. She won’t be with me at the presentation.

Essentially, our paper examines what the Fathers of Confederation thought about the British West Indies and their future relationship with the British colonies in mainland North America.  In 1866, a group of prominent British North Americans were sent by the Fathers of Confederation to observe conditions in the West Indies and Brazil. Although ostensibly just about improving commercial relations,  the 1866 trade mission was a precursor of future Canadian proposals to annex all or part of the British West Indies.  [I’ve published on one such initiative and my co-author has published on other linkages between British North America and the British West Indies]. Our paper places the 1866 mission in its context, which included William Henry Seward’s expansionist programme, the cancellation of the Canada-US Reciprocity Agreement [i.e., free trade],   the racial politics of contemporary North America, the 1865 Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica, and the ongoing movement to federate the British colonies on the North American mainland. Our paper is based on correspondence in the Colonial Office files, Canadian archival materials, and newspapers.

Who was the William Henry Seward referenced in our title?  He was the Secretary of State in the administrations to Presidents Lincoln and Johnson. During the Civil War, Seward’s focus was, of course, on using US diplomacy to help defeat the South. After 1865, he focus turned outwards.  Seward had an ambitious program of territorial expansion he advocated the acquisition of a variety of territories in the Western Hemisphere by the US.  Had his plan been implemented, the United States would be larger and would have a population with a much smaller proportion of whites, which is one of the reason’s his plans were opposed. Seward’s plan for the annexation of Russian America (Alaska) was actually implemented: in 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from the Tsar for $7,200,000. Needless to say, the actual inhabitants of Alaska had no say in this process.  Seward also attempted, unsuccessfully, to acquire  others territories near the United States. In 1865, he attempted to purchase the Virgin Islands from Denmark.  He also attempted to increase US power in other parts of what might be called “Greater North America.”  Between 1865 to 1867,  the United States support the rebels in Mexico who were attempting to overthrow the French-backed Emperor. Seward also spoke about annexing all or part of Canada to the United States.  In the 1860s, it was seriously proposed by a number of US policymakers that Britain simply give Canada to the United States in lieu of a cash payment for the damage to the US merchant marine that had been done by the Confederate commerce raiders constructed in British shipyards. Such proposals overlooked the fact that British North America had its own elected governments and population with their own identity and belief in their right to self determination.

W.H. Seward

The mid-1860s were a crucial turning point as it saw Canadians going from being objects of Great Power politics to being actors in the international arena in their own right. The 1860s is also when we start to see the first stirring of Canadian sub-imperialism, that is the desire of Canadians to acquire overseas colonies of their own.  Seward and other Americans implied that Canadians could be traded from Britain to the United States are bargaining chips in a complex diplomatic bargaining game. In the 1860s, the Fathers of Confederation came to imitate Seward’s imperialism by developing their own expansionist vision that embraced both the British territories in western North America and the British possessions in the West Indies.

No actual tariff agreements resulted from the commissioners’ travels in 1866. In the short term, the main practical result of the mission being a semi-monthly steamer service between Halifax and the West Indies. The conversations British North Americans had around the trade mission are chiefly important because they reveal different elements of the emerging Canadian identity on the eve of Confederation. Even though the trade commissioners did not confine their attention to British colonies, visiting the New World monarchy of Brazil and two of the possession of the Spanish Crown, the ideology of Britishness influenced the commission, as did contemporary ideas about race. Monarchism and the belief that monarchical institutions of any sort were better than the republican constitutions that were predominant in the Western Hemisphere also influenced the commission. After 1867, all of these ideas would continue to shape public policy in the new Dominion of Canada.

Street Scene in Jamaica, 1861