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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope


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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

General Amherst's Montreal legacy

Nicolas Montmorency, a Montreal city councillor, has introduced a resolution to "Frenchisize" English street names in his home town. Monsieur Montmorency is particularly agitated by Amherst Street, named after Lord Jeffrey Amherst, the British general who commanded the forces that captured Montreal in 1760:

Montreal's French identity is being eroded by the creeping influence of the English language, examples of which include street signs that are graced with the names of genocidal British conquerors, says a Montreal city councillor.

In order to curtail the invasion, Nicolas Montmorency, an independent councillor in Montreal's east end municipality of Riviere-des-Prairies-Pointe-aux-Trembles, is proposing the city rename Amherst Street, named after the former commander and chief of the British army who captured Canada, Jeffrey Amherst.

He is also asking councillors to vote to cease using "non-francophone expressions" in public places and to "Frenchisize" existing English street names, such as McGill College Avenue and City Councillors Street.

The two motions will be proposed at the Aug. 24 city council meeting that he hopes will "bring back Montreal's French character," according to the Facebook group he has set up.

The first motion cites that Montreal's "essence and charter" make it a French city, and the French language is at the heart of the identity and culture of all Montrealers regardless of origin, therefore all public places should have French names and expressions.

The second motion claims that Jeffrey Amherst pioneered the practice of genocide in the Americas with the use of bacterial agents and also states that he had previously declared the native people a "vile race."

Amherst is a historical figure who conjures up strong emotions even 250 years later. At the end of the 18th century he was considered a great hero for concluding the conquest of New France; King George III rewarded him with a vast grant of land in New York and various towns & institutions were named in his honour (including the town of Amherst Nova Scotia, Amherstburg and Amherst Island in Ontario, Amherst New York, and Amherst College in Amherst Massachussetts). He was undoubtedly a figure of immense historical significance in North America; he was the Commander in Chief of the mighty British military machine that captured France's American colonies. He personally led the army that advanced north from Lake Champlain and captured Montreal in 1760, bringing an end to the North American phase of the Seven Years War. One could argue that by absorbing Quebec into the British Empire, Amherst helped make Montreal the great port and commercial metropolis that it is today. However, he had an unsavoury side and was undoubtedly in favour of practicing germ warfare against the Indians.

The germ warfare incident needs to be looked at in its historical context. It happened in 1763 during the so-called "Pontiac Rebellion" at the siege of Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh). The Indians in the "Old Northwest" under the leadership of Ottawa chief Pontiac and others had risen up against the British troops garrisoning the former French forts. Francis Jennings in his masterful book Empire of Fortune (1988) gives us some of the background:

In this war [Pontiac's Rebellion], civilians suffered greatest casualties. Rampaging warriors killed an estimated 2,000 colonial settlers (as compared to 400-odd soldiers), inflicting horrible tortures and forcing survivors to flee to refuge in the town and forts. This was something more than the satisfaction of bloodlust; though there was plenty of that, a Frenchman's blood presumably would have sated it as well as an Englishman's. The settler victims were mostly persons who had violated bans against invading Indian territory. If British officialdom would not or could not fulfill its pledges against such settlement, the Indians reasoned that they would have to use their own force to maintain their territorial integrity. Nation-states do the same thing. To say this does not explain the frightful cruelties of backwoods war, of course, and no effort will be made here to palliate or excuse them. Even so, distinctions must be made; among the Indians themselves the Delawares were disgusted by the cannibalism practiced by some other tribes. The Ottawa's ritual cannibalism was denounced to Pontiac's face by Chippewa chief Kinonchamek, and the chief of the Eries who spoke also for Delawares.

Amherst's order did not spring from nowhere - it was given in the context of a brutal uprising where horrible atrocities were being committed against English settlers. When news of the uprising reached Amherst in Britain he became almost unhinged. He already had a low opinion of the "savages" in America but this was something else. Jennings comments on Amherst's reaction:

The fallacy of homogenizing all Indians as indentical "savages" can be seen most clearly by turning the same sort of logic around to apply it to their British adversaries. Suppose that all Englishmen and English colonials were to be defined by the standard set by their highest authority in America, Commander in Chief Amherst. When the news of the rising reached Amherst, he raged without restraint. Demonstrating that he had attended closely to the methods of his former commander, "Butcher" Cumberland, Amherst ordered "extirpation" of the Indians and "no prisoners" to be taken. "Put to death all that fall into your hands," he ordered Captain Lieutenant Valentine Gardiner, and he asked Colonel Bouquet "to send small pox among the disaffected tribes of Indians".

Bouquet passed Amherst's directive along to Captain Simeon Ecuyer commanding Fort Pitt. Ecuyer summoned besieging Delaware chiefs into the fort for parley - a common occurence in backwoods warfare - and presented them with tokens of his personal esteem: blankets infected with smallpox from the fort's hospital. "I hope it will have the desired effect," gloated Captain William Trent, who provided the blankets; and so it did by his standards. An epidemic raged among the Delawares, after which some familiar chiefs appear no more in any account: Great Chief Shingas, for example, and his brother Pisquetomen.

Should Pennsylvania's Quakers be homogenized with Amherst, Bouquet, Ecuyer, and Trent under one judgemental identifying epithet?

Thinking persons must constantly ask themselves what they admire and what they want to be, What, then, do they think about this matter of germ warfare that was unquestionably effective at Fort Pitt? If it is admired, or even merely accepted as superior to the "savage" way of hacking at bodies, is there not a dead certainty that military advantage will provide sufficient motive for practicing it again? And for overlaying the enormity with cant phrases about civilization triumphing over savagery, or something of the sort?

Amherst was undoubtedly a racist who favoured extirminating the rebellious tribes. However, it's easy to view his actions through the lens of our modern concepts of war crimes, racism and human rights. The 18th century wasn't like that, and Amherst's actions must be viewed in that context.

And as for the idea of sending Amherst Street down Montreal's memory hole - General Amherst was an important historical figure in the history of Montreal even if Quebec nationalists don't like or accept how it turned out. I'll support Nicolas Montmorency's motion to expunge the name of Jeffrey Amherst from Montreal's streets when he also champions a similar treatment of racist anti-semite Abbe Lionel Groulx whose name graces, among other Quebec landmarks, a theatre, a CEGEP college and a busy Montreal subway station.

1 comment:

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