Sunday, August 26, 2007

Donald Lowry and British Loyalty in Empire

Donald Lowry and British Loyalty in Empire

Donal Lowry, in his article The Crown, Empire Loyalism and the Assimilation of Non- British White Subjects in the British World: An Argument Against ‘Ethic Determinism’, attempts to challenge the previous imperial historiography that claims that British citizens and their descendants expressed little loyalty towards the British crown and empire. He argues that, in fact, some non-British citizens exhibited a fervor for empire just as genuine as that of the British settler loyalists and their descendants in the colonies. To prove this, the author primarily focuses on the Catholic communities of the settler colonies like Canada and Australia, but also discusses Jewish loyalism.

One of the arguments that Lowry makes is that for many non-British ethnic minorities, loyalty to the crown was not only a necessary defensive measure (“George-etienne
Cartier subsequently became fearful of the threat to property of the ideas of Proudhon and other socialists”) but also presented an opportunity to further their own nationalist interests (“Lafontaine became convinced that french-Canadian heritage would be best consolidated under the crown”). Another theme of the article is religion, which Lowry argues was prominent in consolidating empire loyalism of the non-British subjects in Canada and elsewhere. The crown became a guarantor of religious rights that french-Canadian bishops could depend on, at the time of the “misery and shame of the French Revolution.”

Many non-British subjects even became willing participants in the imperial project as they sought to spread the reach of their catholic religion to the rest of the empire. In other words, the author seems to suggest that as more time passed, the more the non-British populations in the colonies became loyal to the empire, as they sought to appropriate it for their own advantage. Another theme that is introduced in the article is the discord that exists in the ethnic communities regarding their role within the empire and loyalty to it.

While Lowry demonstrates the great contribution that ethnic communities like the Irish Catholics have made to the empire (D’arcy McGee), he also discusses their constant struggles in forging their own identities and the place it ought to occupy within the empire. Henri Bourassa for example, while fearing the threat of potential American annexation, also spoke of U.S. “aggressive imperialism” and the threat this posed to the french nation.

Lowry goes a long way in demonstrating the enthusiasm of many members of the non-British ethnic minorities for empire, as well as their important historical contributions to it. No one can doubt that many Irish Catholics or french-Canadians were willing imperialists and fiercely loyal to the crown. But Lowry, despite a few sparse reminders of the prevalence of French-Canadian nationalism (“monarchist sentiments were greatly weakened by the quiet revolution”), over-emphasizes the empire loyalism that was prevalent at the time. The majority of the sources, secondary in nature, tend to concentrate on the political elites of the non-British peoples. Very few references are made to the loyalty of average citizens, notwithstanding the popularity of the monarchical visits to Montreal and Toronto, hardly evidence of a profound “sense of loyalty to the crown and empire.”

In order to explain empire loyalism, Lowry refers to adoptive nationalism, where “the
monarchy could be imagined selectively by...imperial subjects.” He goes on to see traces of French-Canadian loyalty to empire in as late as 2001. Certainly, this is a redundant argument not worth mentioning. If a modern Quebec MP is making deference to the British monarchical heritage of the Canadian political system, is this truly a genuine loyalism to the British crown or rather mere sentimentalism? If Quebec were to have successfully gained independence, would its first task be to appoint a governor-general? Is it not more likely that immigrant arrivals adopt the prevailing nationalism, but without necessarily sensing a profound duty to a distant Queen?

It is this weakness that pervades Lowry’s earlier analysis of empire loyalism in the 19th and 20th centuries. The author fails to show that empire loyalism, where presumably the subject peoples were prepared to defend the crown in combat if necessary, was anything more than a sentiment present in the minority of the political elite or population as a whole.