Whew! Ok, so I have been a very bad blogger of late, and have neglected to write for some time, despite the fact that I handed in my last paper well over a week ago. But, since my new year’s resolution is better time management – a large umbrella of a resolution entailing a variety of things, from waking up at a reasonable hour to writing essays earlier and blogging more regularly – I here give you, dear reader, the first of my resolution’s posts! (Hmmm, in hindsight, perhaps I should have also thought about writing shorter sentences. I do tend to ramble).
Last semester, my Public History class took on a research project for an exhibition the Canadian Museum of Civilization will be putting on in 2014. The topic? The sinking of the Empress of Ireland, a Canadian Pacific Steamship Company (owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway Co.) royal mail vessel which went down on its 900-and-something-eth voyage crossing the Atlantic on its way to England. We were asked to pick a topic relevant to the narrative of the ship’s sinking, or how it might be presented to the museum’s large and varied audience.
At first, I was at a loss. While shipwrecks have always fascinated me, I wasn’t particularly engaged by this one. Finally, I decided to take a look at the context of the tragedy. The Empress sank in 1914, mere months before the outbreak of the First World War. But while one of my colleagues addressed the issue of memory and the War (specifically, why Canadians don’t tend to remember the sinking of the ship as a major event in Canadian history, and focus instead on WWI), I opted for a slightly different, though related theme.
My friend found the answer to her question in the British Empire, and Canada’s place in it. In the grand narrative of Canadian History, WWI was – and is – seen as a moment during which Canada could assert itself as an important, but largely independent, player within the Empire. The sinking of the Empress of Ireland, however, was perceived at the time as an imperial tragedy. This was largely because the majority of the first and second class passengers were imperial citizens from the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – though there were many Americans on board as well. (That being said, the majority of passengers were Southern and Eastern Europeans, mainly present as third class passengers, but also as a significant portion of the second class).
Empire also became the focus of my paper (didn’t see that coming, did you!). Well, not just empire, actually. Imperialism, technology, and mobility (woah! yup, I went there…but really, you should pay no mind to my silliness) were the themes I chose to explore. Initially, I was interested in using steam technology as a way to set the global context for the sinking of the ship: the world was coming out of the climax of 19th century new-imperialism (the European Scramble for Africa, consolidation of territories in Asia, etc.) of which advancements in weaponry, steam, and medical technology were crucial factors. But as I began to looking into the literature, I found something quite unexpected.I had thought, at first, that steamships were simply one of the ways in which European imperialism was consolidated. It was a way to move armies, “explore” territories, and move goods. It was also part of the umbrella of ideas, so to speak, that European civilization lorded over those they colonized. That is, they had the power and capacity to create steam power, and to use it. Their possession of this technology, they argued, gave them the right to rule those without it.
What struck me, though, as I did my research, was the extent to which people who I had thought were “powerless” against steam used it to their own advantage. Where I thought steamships were only available to the white citizens of empires, I began to see that the pursuit of capitalism actually meant this was not so. Steamship companies would sell tickets to whomever they could, much to the chagrin of white settler colonies such as Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, who were determined to keep out “undesirables” – Asians, blacks (from the Caribbean and the US), and poor Europeans and Britons. Those who worked on steamships too, though they were assigned jobs according to their “racial characteristics,” came from all over the world. Their jobs also required that they travel with the vessel they served aboard to places where they were not necessarily welcome. And though laws were set in place to keep them off of the mainland, they were often challenged or ignored.
The binaries set up by the British Empire (“white” vs. “other,” “moral” vs. “immoral – a.k.a. poor,” “gentility” vs. “labour”) could not be maintained given the mobility steamship travel offered people who were seen by the dominant members of society as subordinate. While this something I thought I knew, I was surprised at how basic of a reality it actually was at the time. I even found some newspaper clippings in the editorial section of the Times of London from the early 20th century where first class passengers wrote to the paper to complain of Southern and Eastern European immigrants travelling in first class to avoid being sent back home as “undesirables”! These men and women challenged the system that was about to start cracking at its foundations with the beginning of the Great War.
So, long story short, I learned a lesson that I thought I had already learned, but apparently had not. While it’s easy to think of the world of European imperialism as starkly divided between ruled and rulers, it was never really that simple. It was, in fact, challenged using the very tools that aided in the creation of the colonial world.