Britain and the Origins of Canadian Confederation, 1837-67

By Ged Martin | Go to book overview

4 The British and
their Perceptions

Who were 'the British' who desired to see Confederation brought about? How far did they appreciate the realities and challenges of British North America? What did they mean when they used terms like 'federation' or 'union'? This Chapter asks who? where? and what? as a preliminary to looking at the crucial questions of motive and means -- why? when? and how? 1 In each of these discussions, a good deal of vagueness will be encountered -- ignorance about the province of Canada and especially about the rest of British North America, imprecision in the use of terms, generalised and simplistic assumptions about the utility of an intercolonial union. Historians like to define and are expected to provide neat and, above all, logical explanations. Yet Confederation may be better understood through a blurred focus. Imprecision, even outright fuzziness, is an essential part of understanding British notions about their North American provinces.

This imprecision is encountered at the outset, in attempting to define that most basic term, 'British'. What is meant by references to 'British policy' or 'British support'? Who were these 'British'? Imperial historians have tended to use a shorthand form, 'the Colonial Office', an unhelpful compound exercise in reification, since it assumes not merely the existence of coherent policies, but their origin in an administrative super-brain or think-tank. 2 As already noted, Goodfellow's description of British support for South African federation in the 1870s as 'more of a hope than a policy' is a helpful caution against the casual over-use of that loaded word. 3 Certainly the mid-Victorian Colonial Office was not an immediately obvious location for a ruthlessly long-sighted policy machine. Its cramped building at 14 Downing Street was condemned in 1839 as beyond repair. Reconstruction was

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