Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

'The Workings of My Own Mind': The Private Correspondence of the Governor-General of Canada, 1839-66(1)

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

'The Workings of My Own Mind': The Private Correspondence of the Governor-General of Canada, 1839-66(1)

Article excerpt

Historians of nineteenth-century British-Canadian relations use the rich archive of Colonial Office despatches, supplemented by the private correspondence of governors-general and colonial secretaries where such collections survive. This article contends that, from 1839 to 1866 - the period of the Canadian Union - the private correspondence constituted a parallel channel of communication, operating on a quasi-official and semi-continuous basis. Private correspondence was used to discuss issues too sensitive for the official record, material that was deliberately omitted from despatches. The correspondence was controlled by the secretary of state, who shared it at his discretion with political colleagues and bureaucrats. Its major shortcoming lay in the difficulty of securing continuity of information between successive ministers, as was shown in the British response to the Canadian federation initiative of 1858. Private correspondence gradually became less important after Confederation as Canada ceased to be a problem to British policy-makers. The correspondence between governors-general and colonial secretaries should be considered apart from current historical debate on imperial networks.

STUDENTS OF BRITISH-CANADIAN INTERGOVERNMENTAL RELATIONS in the mid-nineteenth century can call upon two forms of archival material. The official record, assembled by the Colonial Office (CO), comprises despatches between the secretary of state (colonial secretary) and the governor-general, complete with drafts and minutes that trace their evolution (Buckner, 1985; Messamore, 2006).2 Most office-holders also used the unofficial and usually more speculative channel of private correspondence, some of which has been published in scholarly editions.3 While using both groups of sources, historians tend to treat the private correspondence as subsidiary to the CO files.4 Broadly, there are three reasons for this. The first is the natural assumption that the official record must constitute the priority source, to which the private correspondence, with its often pungent expression, forms the icing on the archival cake. The second is that, in contrast to the government files - which have been available in toto for over a century - individual collections of private correspondence have emerged over time, and some have disappeared altogether; extracts from Elgin's letters were published as early as 1872 (Walrond, 1872), but correspondence between Lord Stanley and Sir Edmund Head on the 1858 federation initiative only came to light in 1976.5 A third, if more speculative, explanation may lie in the influence of the concept of the 'official mind of imperialism' applied to British expansion in the later nineteenth century, which perhaps gave credence to shorthand formulae assuming a 'Colonial Office view' of Canadian issues (a doubtful concept) and so obscured the importance of the parallel streams of formal and private communication.6

The thesis of this article is that private correspondence between individual colonial secretaries and governors-general should not be considered as simply personal and off-the-record, as might be the case in studies of mainstream political history, but rather as part of a quasi-official and nearcontinuous channel operating in parallel to the formal Colonial Office archive.7 Pressure of work upon cabinet ministers usually meant that the governor-general was the more prolific letter-writer, but the colonial secretary was the 'owner' of the correspondence. Private letters were shared with, or withheld from, political colleagues and bureaucratic subordinates as the minister saw fit. This study highlights the years between 1839 and 1866, when issues defining the colonial relationship were of importance to British policy-makers and the office of governorgeneral was generally held by appointees with political experience or personal standing sufficient to engage in confidential discussion at the heart of government on a basis of intellectual and social equality. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.