Miller – Painting the Map Red: Canada and the South African War, 1899-1902

[cross-posted at Albion’s Seedlings]

Miller, Carman, Painting the Map Red: Canada and the South African War, 1899-1902. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993. (Ppbk 2003, 584pp.)

In the first part of 2005, after working my way through many of the books in the Annotated Bibliography from Jim Bennett’s The Anglosphere Challenge, I became interested in the dramatic turn-of-the-20th century rapprochement between Great Britain and the United States. Books written at the time, which promoted the unity of the English-speaking peoples, cited the Spanish-American War and the Boer War as events which changed the public’s mind about whether America and the British Empire could get along. I needed to familiarize myself with these two wars.

After I read First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country A World Power (Zimmermann, W., 2002) … about the Spanish-American War era, Lex suggested a book by Professor Carman Miller called Painting the Map Red.

While calling Miller’s book encyclopedic would be misleading, it would be accurate to call it comprehensive. Miller, chair of the McGill history department, has assembled a snapshot of the culture and politics of the time and written substantial chapters on the events surrounding the nine major contingents of Canadians in the Boer War (recruitment, supply transport, battlefield engagements, demobilization, etc.). In addition are chapters on more minor units (nursing, postal, etc.) and a constabulary force (based on the NWMP model) that was recruited in hopes of colonizing South Africa after service. Total participation was about 7,000. The detail in the book is amazingly rich, covering newspaper accounts of the time, official letters and government documents, and carefully reconciling conflicting battlefield accounts. The book would also appear to have had the great good fortune to be handled by a professional editor. It reads much more smoothly than the usual efforts from academic historians. The co-publication of this book with the Canada War Museum and the McGill-Queens University Press also suggests that the manuscript got much better treatment than usual. And indeed, the author states that the book is merely the condensation of a much more massive manuscript placed in the Public Archives.

Not only would this be the initial “go-to” book for military aficianados, it is also a great book from the Anglosphere perspective because it offers substantial commentary (referenced) to the major personalities of the time, the arguments about Canadian participation, and the implications for the Canadian political landscape. It also highlights the clash of Canadian and British military traditions that led to much more independent Canadian action in WW1 and WW2. A haphazard Canadian militia showed itself to be capable of feats of both courage and pragmatic adaptation to the Boer War battlefield. British generals like Smith-Dorrien and Baden-Powell came away from the Boer war very impressed with the physical stamina, flexibility, and quality of the Canadian troops. Those attitudes coloured subsequent Canadian participation in the European wars.

Regrettably, as another excellent book (Stephen Harris, Canadian Brass: The Making of a Professional Army 1860-1939, [1988]) outlines, the Canadian adventure was so brief that it did not allow a professionalization of the Canadian military. It was a “good war” for the national sense of self-confidence but political patronage continued to dominate the organization and staffing of the militia and armies through WW1 and up to WW2.

So what does Miller’s book have to tell us about late 19th century Canada and its attitude toward foreign adventures? It’s clear that in the quarter century after Confederation (1867), Canadians were searching for an identity. They were not quite American, yet constantly tempted by its opportunities. They were increasingly touchy about British involvement in government, yet at the same time unwilling to shoulder any burden of defence. Large-scale immigration to English Canada and the expansion of the northwest frontier also encouraged a round of myth-building in which the major political parties and their respective newspaper allies had a vested interest. Commercial interests were constantly shifting. Talk of commercial union with the US was set against demands for imperial tariffs, especially once the McKinley Act of 1890 appeared. Though many Canadian immigrants of the period were from the British Isles, many were not. The educated elites of English Canada (and to some degree in French Canada), were keen therefore to cast the Canadian identity in a manly, Christian context suitable for taming a huge and sometimes unforgiving country. Compulsory elementary education had just been instituted and curriculum were very patriotic. Music, drill, parades, holidays, flag display were all geared toward harnessing cultural, religious and institutional values. “Flag, Bible, the English language.” Canadian history necessarily had to contrast itself with American history, and loyalty to the Crown and the British parliamentary system was a logical way to distinguish Canadian-ness. The Imperial Federation League founded a branch in Montreal in 1885. Its successor, the British Empire League, had 2,000 influential members. The establishment of the transcontinental Canadian railway (completed in 1885) was a source of great pride and, like a teenager near to leaving home, there was both anxiety and eagerness for Canada to begin to play a role as a “senior dominion.” A clear direction or agenda, however, had not been set.

And into that situation, the Boer War suddenly appeared. What would Canada’s role be? As the events in South Africa moved towards war (a tangled and compromised tale of its own), Canadian patriotism, nationalism, military careerism, Christian missionary zeal, commercial appetite, and partisan politics combined to create a situation where Canada’s volunteers gained widespread support. That much of this support was reinforced by the media of the day is worth noting. One hundred years ago, the media were self-confident proponents of the nation’s values. And public support very much continued through the course of the militia’s service and after the troops returned home. To a degree impossible to imagine now, the culture of the time was rural, partisan, and driven by ethnic and denominational differences. The response to the events of the Boer War emerged out of that welter of influences. The war accelerated both the maturation of the country and its confrontation with fundamental fault lines, papered over during Confederation in Britain’s haste to unload its colony. The question of whether Canada should have anything to do with an imperial war on the far side of the world also brought to the surface the role that each of the communities in Canada felt they wanted to play, within Canada and the broader world. The case has been made by various authors, other than Miller, that the Boer War:

  1. weakened imperial ties
  2. strengthened English Canada’s nationalism
  3. split French and English Canada
  4. launched French Canadian nationalist intellectual thought
  5. broke Liberal PM Sir Wilfred Laurier’s power base in Quebec
  6. stimulated militia reform
  7. served as a dress rehearsal for WW1.

Miller provides the concrete details to evaluate these claims in greater detail, and modify them as needed. At the time, the Canadian militia officer corps, educated elites, churches and newspapers in English Canada worked themselves into a self-serving lather. The British Governor-General (Minto) and the British Colonial Secretary (Chamberlain) were instrumental but not crucial to the promotion of a first volunteer contingent. Prime Minister Laurier was initially against involvement but the politics of the era demanded that he acquiesce, at the very least, to the volunteers heading off. Once the political decision was made, there was money to be made. Subsequent contingents were assembled in a rather ad hoc way, with individual mounted units often sponsored by wealthy or charismatic individuals. As for the troops themselves, a good many of them were merely looking for an adventure and a break from the numbing routines of farm and office. Later contingents, however, had plenty of ne’er-do-wells. Some volunteers were recent immigrants from Britain and so had clearer loyalties. The Royal Military College at Kingston, Ontario cranked out British Army commissions, it needs to be remembered, not Canadian militia commissions. Canadian graduate officers ended up playing a significant role in South Africa in British units. The Canadian experience in South Africa with British army logistics and medical care, driven as it was by class distinctions, was also a defining event in forming a sense of Canadian military uniqueness. The Canadians returned feeling that they could hold their own with any British unit, when properly equipped and supplied. And that their Canadian ways were often superior to those of the British Army. Canadian “autonomy” and a “sense of power” were increased.

After all the troops returned, my reading of Miller suggests that things were “the same, only moreso.” Like modern war, Canada was domestically unaffected by the service of the troops in South Africa. There was some commercial benefit from provisioning the troops, and of course, the ongoing care of the wounded and disabled. But the numbers, the time frame, and the minor overall percentage of the economy and population mobilized meant that the War did not impact the domestic scene in the way that WW1 and WW2 did. Questions about Canadian participation in the Empire were essentially unresolved. The imperial federation idea … a grander political union … died. Laurier tried to split the difference politically in Quebec … as the man who gave the English what they wanted without demanding that the French be involved.

Nonetheless, the Boer War was a wake-up call to Quebec that their participation in future British dramas might only be a matter of time. War was ultimately a “party issue,” as it was in subsequent years, and indeed is to the present day in Canada. Imperialists did try to take advantage of the War afterwards to increase the bonds between Canada and England. Knighthoods were dished out to Canadians. “Paardesburg Day” celebrations (noting a Canadian infantry battle victory) were elaborate. Veterans groups were established. Canadians were now garrisoning British naval installations at Halifax and Esquimault, and a Canadian was made General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Canadian militia. Famous British heroes and generals of the war made speaking tours of Canada. A raft of institutions were created for the Canadian militia in light of the South Africa experience. Military training bases were purchased and constructed, many operating right until the end of the Cold War. Notably, of the 106 Canadian generals in WW1, 34 were Boer War vets.

Courtesy of the Boer War, the geopolitical watchword for Canada was “pragmatic, co-operative imperialism” rather than further imperial integration. Canada for Canadians. Canadian troops were in future to enter imperial service as distinct units … a trend mirrored by Australia and New Zealand, and ultimately the South Africans themselves.

Professor Miller’s book is an excellent and thorough introduction to the subject. It’s far more detailed, and far better written, than can be conveyed in a short review. While the book discusses a topic of limited importance in the grand scheme of things, for Anglosphere readers, it’s an important snapshot of Canada at a time when the Pax Britannica was beginning to stumble. And in many ways, the controversies of 1899, about Canada’s role in the world, have changed little in the intervening century. With the change in government in the Great White North, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper will struggle to match Canadian military identity to a Canadian pocketbook owned by an often indifferent populace. In 2006, Canada must find some way to reconcile itself with a Pax Americana under new stress.

3 thoughts on “Miller – Painting the Map Red: Canada and the South African War, 1899-1902”

  1. “The Boer War”, by Thomas Pakenham (“IN THE SMALL HOURS, Sir Alfred Milner, High Commissioner for South Africa and Lieutenant-Governor of Cape Colony, was woken by a bright light in his eyes.”) is arguably the best overview of that conflict ever written. Canadian readers and military history buffs would be well advised to familiarize themselves with the general history of that conflict prior to extending too much “Canadian Nationalist” jingo to a conflict that was basically a repeat of a US type rebellion as handled by the Second British Empire, and a prologue to the “Great War” a decade later.

    Considering the utter fiasco of The League of Nations (sans the US) and the wholesale impotence of the “Commonwealth” substitute for the micro administration of the old colonial office, “Canadians” should especially be careful of historical over-reach. After all, wasn’t Jan Smuts the “father” of the Commonwealth? But more to the point…

    The Quebecuois are NOT “French Canadians” in the same historical sense as “British Canadians”. When Paris ceeded New France to London to settle the Seven Years War (or “French and Indian War” to Americans), there was already a rift between English colonists and French colonists, primarily over religion and colonial charters and territory. At the time, “Upper Canada” and “Lower Canada” were used in relation to the St. lawrence… i.e. the Ohio valley and Great Lakes territory English speaking settlements ended up 90% “American” after the revolutionary dust settled…

    The Quebecuois, quite reasonably, opted NOT to side with what became the US because at the time there was no English population in Ontario to speak of, and they’d been fighting American colonials off and on for 150 years (enough to HATE Yankees). During the Second British (Victorian) Era, the Quebecuois, whose population straddles the Atlantic waterborn trade lanes, enjoyed the best of being French AND British AND American. By the end of that era, Ottawa and London refused to extend via due process to the Quebecuois what the Irish Republicans had seized via uprising and rebellion. This DOES NOT suggest that the Quebecuois followed the “Boar” example, rather that THEY ARE following the Irish Catholic example… and doing so quite successfully.

    My point is that “English” Canadians, or more accurately, Ontario politicals, are deluding themselves regarding their future in part because they’re misrepresenting their past, with both Quebecuois AND Americans. This causes many Canadians to mistake THEIR regional and Provincial self-interest with that of Quebec, and more importantly, with Washington and Paris, in much the same way London failed to appreciate Irish situation in 1916-1919.


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