In the course of this project it is inevitable that I come across the worst prejudices. Often this is depressing because the victims of prejudice are very clearly also the victims of the brutal injustice of colonial might. Sometimes though, when it is directed between equally powerful groups whose differences have largely been resolved, prejudice takes on the refreshing form of extreme snobbery, highly articulate and dripping with disdain. Such is the case with, Arthur Patchett Martin, the Australian biographer of Sir John Sherbrooke, Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia from 1811 to 1816. Here the light of age of reason dawns so bright that the world is best viewed from a darkened room after the application of a cold compress.
A link between the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, where he fought with Wellington, and the War of 1812 between Upper and Lower Canada and the United States, Sherbrooke went on onto win Maine for Britain and became Governor-General of Canada. His first battle though was with the pride of his predecessor, Sir John Wentworth, an American colonist, whose loyalty to the British Crown, in Patchett’s “impartial estimation”, bordered on the magisterial. This cost Lord Castleragh’s Foreign and Colonial Office £500 per year, a figure matched by the legislature of Nova Scotia with the addition of some fine real estate. Wentworth is said to have responded with “dignified and suitable terms”, as well he might.
Sherbrooke left no account of his life though. A fact his biographer commented on in 1893, remarking that “strange as it may appear in this age of reckless self-advertisement and inquisitorial journalism … military biographies would be ransacked in vain for the hero of Talavera”.* In the void created by Sherbrooke’s modesty, Patchett finds the historical vista clear and sets about eliciting robust sympathy for errant loyalists even as the spirits of Acadians, deported by the British, hang romantically in the air. Following the path beaten by Patchett, his readers know exactly what stance to take when they come to the arriviste incursions of 1812.
In reference to the old French colony, which Sir John Sherbrooke was now called upon to govern, it has been appositely remarked that: “Poetry, not fact, makes popular history.” The world, despite Mr. Goldwin Smith’s protest, will probably continue to place a childlike faith in Longfellow’s sweet poem of Evangeline. Nova Scotia, however, quite apart from the romance that still hangs around the story of the old French Canadians, has a peculiarly suggestive and interesting history of its own; for it was on her bleak shores that those colonists who had remained loyal to the British Crown during the War of Independence found a refuge after the triumph of Washington made it no longer possible to live in their old homes. At this distance of time we, who are of the same race, should be able to attempt an impartial estimate of these, sturdy, old fashioned American colonists who stuck to George III and his blundering ministers, in some case with a noble stubbornness. It was among such men that Sir John Sherbrooke found his best advisers and warmest friends in Nova Scotia.
So painfully true is the vulgar saying “Nothing succeeds like success,” that it will sound like an absurd paradox, and yet it is a literal fact, that there was at least one of these American “exiles” who in his day of prosperity and pomp in New Hampshire must have loomed before the eyes of men as a much greater figure than the young Virginian officer of the militia, George Washington (who had capitulated, everybody would then have remembered, to the French Captain de Villier), or than that somewhat aggressive and altogether bourgeois person, Benjamin Frankin, the printer. I refer to Sir John Wentworth, Baronet, the most remarkable loyalist, as Washington became the greatest “rebel” in North America.
Although Sir John Sherbrooke seems to have had no open differences with him, Wentworth was almost too great and conspicuous a man for a mere colonist and subordinate. Moreover, there was an element of delicacy about his position; he had actually been Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia and had ruled matters with a right royal hand, entertaining at one time Prince Edward, afterwards Duke of Kent (the father of Queen Victoria), who, we are told, “paid complements to Sir John and congratulated Lady Wentworth in her drawing room. His tour through the province were like royal progresses: and the Acadian poets of the period celebrated them in befitting strains:
When tyrants travel, though in pompous state,
Each eye beholds them with indignant hate;
But when our loyal Wentworth deigns to ride
(The Sovereign’s fav’rite and the subject’s pride),
Around his chariot crowding numbers throng,
And hail his virtues as he moves along.
But, as in New Hampshire, so in Nova Scotia, there were other prominent colonists who were uneasy at his favoured pre-eminence. As a connection of the Marquis of Rockingham he was always thought to have possessed undue influence in London by means of which he advanced his own family and friends, and correspondingly kept in the background other capable and aspiring provincials.
Nothing, perhaps is so disgusting to the colonial mind as the feeling that a brother-colonist is in a position to gain political privileges and social distinction from London. Such a presumption of favouritism is very apt to convert those who would be very glad to benefit by it into a species of red-hot republican patriot; and it may be quite true that the early system of appointing colonists to provincial governorships in America, may have had something to do with precipitating the War of Independence.
Consulted for this post
A. Patchett Martin, “Memoir of Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, G.C.B.” in Life and Letters of the Right Honourable Robert Lowe, Viscount Sherbrooke (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1893).
* Sherbrooke also fought with Wellington, then mere Arthur Wellesley, at Seringapatam, from whence came the Moonstone and the best detective story ever written.