The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 3

By William Roger Louis; Andrew Porter et al. | Go to book overview

23
Canada from 1815

GED MARTIN

In March 1815 news reached Canada that the war between the United States and the British Empire had ended with a peace treaty, signed at Ghent in modern Belgium. The War of 1812 had been fought and ended by the British. Indeed, Wellington's forces at Waterloo--only 24,000 of them British regulars--were dangerously weakened by the diversion of experienced troops to defend Canada. Colonial resistance to American incursions had been enough to found a patriotic myth, but only the British could effectively protect the northern half of North America. The small, scattered population could neither defend nor govern itself. Almost all administration was in British hands, subject to inefficient controls from London, and London was the sole source of minimal co-ordinating policy.

When Britain's security was again menaced by an invasion of Belgium in 1914, Canada proved not a liability but an asset. Population had grown tenfold to just over 8 million, including the separate colony of Newfoundland. With that sole exception, all the Imperial territories had coalesced into the transcontinental Dominion of Canada, a self-governing entity within the Empire. Canada promptly offered to send 25,000 men to Europe, and in October 1914 actually despatched over 30,000, probably the largest military contingent ever to cross the Atlantic. The preceding century had seen a remarkable political transformation, and well before 1914 the Canadian example was naturally studied for solutions of other Imperial problems. Yet the story seems incomplete, one of union and self-government achieved within a framework of arrested development. White settlers had served a seventy-year apprenticeship as 'ideal prefabricated collaborators',1 but there was no indication that Canada was moving towards decolonization and full nationhood. The Dominion was presided over by a Governor-General (in 1914 a son of Queen Victoria). It had no foreign embassies, and was barely even agreed upon a local flag. Not surprisingly, those appealing to Canadian precedents elsewhere in the Empire often cited them in support of conflicting solutions.

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1
Ronald Robinson, "'Non-European Foundations of European Imperialism: Sketch for a Theory of Collaboration'", in Roger Owen and Bob Sutcliffe, eds., Studies in the Theory of Imperialism ( London, 1972), pp. 124-25.

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