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M. B. Synge

Across the Seas

The first troubles in the new reign came from the colonies. Britain as yet took little interest in those sons and daughters who had left her shores to make fresh homes beyond the seas. There was no Colonial Secretary, no Colonial Office. Any difficulties with our distant possessions were settled by the War Office.

Australia was as yet only half explored. It was thought to be a great lone waterless land, fit only for convicts and idlers. Britain had not yet realized the importance of this great continent laid at her feet by Captain Cook. In Southern Australia, the town of Adelaide had already arisen. It had been named after the wife of William the Fourth, only a year before the accession of Queen Victoria. The new city of Melbourne, named after the Prime Minister, contained some 450 colonists. Sydney, with its magnificent harbour, was more thickly populated, but there was no Western Australia, Queensland as such did not exist, New South Wales and Victoria were one, and in the whole country there were but some 150 Englishmen.

Over the neighbouring island of New Zealand natives still ran wild, and it was not till 1839 that the New Zealand Colonization Company was formed, and a pioneer expedition sailed to colonize the new country. On the west coast of Africa were a few fever-stricken haunts, but the Cape of Good Hope offered a better home to British colonists. Here numbers of English lived side by side with the Dutch farmers. But just before the Queen's accession, the abolition of slavery had been resented by these Boers, as they were called, and they had marched away to the country beyond the Orange River, whence they migrated to another tract of waste land, known to us as the Transvaal. As yet Britain played no part in Egypt or the Sudan, Uganda was only partially explored, Rhodesia occupied by natives only, Nigeria was desert land.


Captain Cook.

Our nearest and oldest colony was Canada, at this time divided into two parts—Upper Canada, to which our people went, and Lower Canada, occupied mostly by descendants of the old French settlers who had possessed the land before Wolfe won it for Britain on the Heights of Abraham in 1758. Strife had arisen between the two provinces, strife between British and French colonists, between those advanced settlers from the mother country and the old settlers, who prided themselves on their isolation, and kept up the customs and traditions of a bygone age. The accession of the young Queen, received with rejoicing in Upper Canada, was greeted with sullen silence by the French Canadians, and soon smouldering discontent broke into open rebellion.


Monument to Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham.

Lord Melbourne selected a young statesman, Lord Durham, of whose ability he thought very highly, and begged him to go over and quell the rebellion, and in April 1838 Lord Durham left Plymouth for Canada. It was a month before the new Governor-General of Canada anchored at Quebec to take up his new duties. He found the whole country seething with rebellion, but he soon restored confidence.


Lord Durham.

He spoke to the people of the greatness of Britain, till he reawakened in their hearts the old pride of race; he entreated them to use every effort to develop their fertile soil and expand their trade, instead of quarrelling among themselves. They had thought Britain indifferent, ready to abandon them to their fate, but this idea was dispelled by Lord Durham.

It became clear to him that progress could only be assured if Upper and Lower Canada were united in one dominion.

But differences of opinion arose between Lord Durham and the Home Government, and reluctantly the Governor of Canada felt obliged to resign his post. In a broken voice and with tears in his eyes, he explained to the colonists the position he felt to be impossible.

For the sake of Canada he had decided to go home and explain in person the problems that yet remained unsolved. In spite of protest he sailed from Quebec in November—a proud but broken-hearted man. The first snows of winter had fallen overnight, but this did not deter the loyal Canadians from thronging the silent streets. They filled every window, they stood on the housetops, they pressed round the carriage that bore their Governor from hill to harbour. As he passed every hat was raised in silent homage, every eye strained to catch the last sight of the little frigate as she sailed down the St. Lawrence River under the heavy clouds of snow. As the ship ploughed her way to the great Atlantic, the colonists burst into the familiar strains of "Auld Lang Sync", but Lord Durham had left Canada for ever.

The triumph of his career was yet to come. It lay in the famous Report on the Affairs of British North America, which was laid before Parliament early in the New Year of 1839. It has been called the Magna Charta of the colonies, for it opened men's eyes to the possibilities of a colonial empire, with Britain as the centre.

Lord Durham had looked into the future. His report broke new ground, it proposed new methods, it was inspired throughout by a new spirit of justice and patriotism, it laid the foundations of colonial expansion, and roused at home a feeling of loyalty and devotion for our kinsmen beyond the seas.

Among other suggestions in this carefully written report were the union of Upper and Lower Canada, the creation of a self-governing body for internal affairs, State-aided emigration on a large scale, and the formation of a railway for the development of the country. The whole was a masterly achievement, born of true statesmanship. In the year 1840 a Bill was passed uniting the two Canadian provinces, according to Lord Durham's suggestion.

But the author of it all lay dying—heart-broken, some said, at the treatment he had received at the hands of the British Government. Five days after the young Queen had given her assent to the Bill Lord Durham died.