Windsor 4: imperial monuments 1

I promised in my last post to write something soon on two monuments that I recently discovered along the Windsor waterfront, and which demonstrate two moments of Canadians’ participation in the long history of imperialism. One, a Russian cannon, is perhaps less a monument than a military prize, shipped from Crimea and displayed at what was once the periphery of British dominion; the other, a multi-part memorial to Canadians who died serving in the Vietnam War, makes great pains to disassociate itself from the politics of the war while honoring those who lost their lives in pursuit of American aims in Vietnam. These are located near one another, just a few hundred meters from the Ambassador Bridge and in the green strip of parkland and biking and foot trails along the Detroit River. The Vietnam memorial is rather large, with several components to it, including enormous American and Canadian flags painted on the berm behind the monument, and likely visible from the Detroit side of the river. I have not yet had a chance to observe the Windsor side from Detroit in the same way, as the American shore at this point in the river is an industrial landscape marked by large mounds of gravel and construction materials. The Russian cannon, on the other hand, sits near the top of the berm along Riverside Drive, visible to passing motorists and foot traffic, though it is situated near one of the few exit and entry points to riverside parking lots for park and trail users. If you weren’t looking for it, or didn’t know how to read the bits and pieces on it that tell you what it is, it’s the kind of thing that you would pass by without much thought, mixed into the landscaped grounds with other public art.

I came across these two monuments in mid-March when I and my colleague Rob Nelson, head of the Department of History at Windsor and the co-instructor of our MA-level course on the Spatial History of the Windsor-Detroit Borderlands this past semester, took the class on a brief walking tour of the riverfront and adjoining university neighborhood in an attempt to teach them how to get down to ground level and ‘read’ the landscape. I’m not sure if that worked, in fact. It was a biting cold, windy day, few of them seemed to have done the reading (a piece by William Cronon and several of his students on … you guessed it, how to read a landscape), which in turn meant none of them had really prepared themselves for what it might mean to engage with the built environment at the nitty gritty, immediate, ground level. On the other hand, perhaps we could and should have prepped the class a bit better on what we wanted them to get from the field excursion. In any case, live and learn for next time, but it did give us the opportunity to look at these monuments up close. I identify these two pieces as “imperial monuments” not just to be provocative. Most scholars and Canadians would not normally identify Canada as harboring or pursuing imperial ambitions, though a case could be made that as a settler colonial state and society, Canada as an entity is and has always been founded and based in imperial practices, while others (most notably perhaps Yves Engler) have demonstrated Canada’s long history of foreign policy adventurism on behalf of empire. I mean something more like the latter point, and am looking at how the monuments reflect Canadian participation in British and American imperial endeavors, because of their relative and absolute locations (to use some basic geographic concepts), particularly their emplacement in Windsor at the international boundary. Why here? What do these pieces tell us about Windsor, Canada, their relationship to one another, and the relationship between Canada, Canadians, and empire? This is one of the primary functions of monuments such as these, to signal to others and ourselves what cultural moments, values, and ideals are most important in defining us; in so doing, they can produce social coherence and also ignite controversy, formalize a national mythology and also silence alternative histories, and remake places while attempting to cement the dynamic social relations that produce them. I have written a couple of pieces on this blog before about this topic, so I won’t go further into the background conceptual discussion here.

So first, this cannon. It doesn’t look like much, and we would have walked past on our magical mystery waterfront tour except that I saw it said “Sebastopol” across the base and I went for a closer look. There are faded Cyrillic letters on the sides of the cannon (if anyone can read and translate these from the photos here I would be grateful) and a Russian imperial eagle on top. A piece of wood is jammed into the cannon, maybe from the moment it was shipped, but maybe was added later as a safety precaution.

The City of Windsor includes the 1855 “Crimean War Cannon” in its list of monuments around the city but does not include any specific details about its provenance, or how it made its way to Windsor and eventually the riverfront. The city has, according to local news columnist Anne Jarvis, sought to maintain the strip between the bridge and the Hiram Walker distillery on the east side of downtown, about 5km away, as public parkland since the late 1940s, with a more coherent strategy of acquiring private land to convert it to public green space articulated in 1963. So it would seem the cannon has perhaps been there at the top of the berm for a few decades, though whether it was placed in this exact spot with the establishment of the Sculpture Gardens at this western end of the park or predates that is unclear, and I am uncertain where it might have been located in the city prior to that, at least not without doing more sleuthing than I am currently capable of undertaking. This appears to be one among many of the dozens of “Sebastopol cannons” seized by the Anglo-French-Ottoman forces that laid siege to the city during the Crimean War in 1855-56, and which the British then shipped as war booty to the far corners of the Empire. A similar cannon sits, for example, in Queen’s Square in Cambridge, Ontario, near Waterloo and about an hour or so west of Toronto. As the linked article there states, several cannons were shipped to southwestern Ontario as recognition of colonial contributions to Britain’s imperial war efforts, especially the production of grain to feed the British military forces after Britain prohibited the import of Russian wheat with the onset of war. A 2003 article in Artilleryman magazine (which describes itself as “a quarterly magazine founded in 1979 for enthusiasts who collect and shoot cannons, projectiles and fuses, and mortars,” and yes, I was surprised to find there is such a community of enthusiasts large and active enough to have a 40-year run with their own publication) adds more of a wrinkle. This piece notes that the British shipped several captured Sebastopol cannons to other far corners of the empire, including New Zealand and Australia, shortly after the peace treaty was concluded, and in 1857, twenty of the cannons were sent to Canada, where they were on public display in Montreal until 1860. In addition to the one in Cambridge and one in Windsor, two are located today in Quebec City, at least one in Toronto next to the legislature’s entrance at Queen’s Park, and one in Brantford (this last link includes a history of the Brantford cannon, and a list of other cannons displayed in cities in Canada).

Even further back, the 2003 Artilleryman piece details the cannons’ manufacture, which involves a winding tale of international technology transfer involving a Scottish engineer, Charles Gascoigne, taking his leave and several of the best minds from his Scottish employer after falling into financial and political trouble for supplying weapons and know-how to the Russians throughout the last three decades of the 18th century. Gascoigne went to Russia in 1786 to help improve the Alexandrovsky foundry in Petrozavodsk, first established by the French and later taken on by the Russian tsarist state. (As an aside, Petrozavodsk was the site of one of the Soviet Union’s most widely witnessed and studied UFO sightings in 1977, the so-called “Petrozavodsk Phenomenon” or “Petrozavodsk jellyfish”, owing to its strange shape in the night sky.) The cannons manufactured in the foundry under the Scottish engineer’s direction were widely used by the Russian navy and army, and Gascoigne did so much to improve Russian military and industrial capacity at the time that he received numerous titles and positions of both honorary and political significance, even had a Russian name, Karl Karlovich Gaskoin, and founded the city of Luhansk in 1795, now in eastern Ukraine.

So the Sebastopol cannons on display across eastern Canada, including the one here on the Windsor riverfront, were possibly manufactured in Russia by a Scottish engineer (and Russian workers) as early as the 1790s, used for several decades until being captured as spoils of war in Crimea in 1855, then made their way to Canada for public display as a celebration of imperial military power and prowess since 1860. The allied armies captured several thousand cannon and artillery pieces from the Sebastopol fortifications, though, so there’s no telling if the Windsor cannon has the same provenance as the Quebec City ones discussed in the Artilleryman article, but it is possible, as many of the cannons Russian military forces used throughout the early part of the 19th century came from Gascoigne’s designs and improved foundry processes. While Canadian military forces did not formally participate in the Crimean War, many Canadians volunteered into the British naval and land forces, and this October 2014 National Post article argues, citing the work of historian John Castell Hopkins, that Canadian enthusiasm for the imperial war effort in Crimea in the 1850s led directly to the Militia Act of 1855, which paved the way for a voluntary militia force. This became the Canadian army and cemented Canada’s military infrastructure as the then-colony worked to establish an independent foreign policy, though this remained strongly in the orbit of British imperial policy for many decades yet.

The cannons thus reinforced at the time of their shipment and placement in the 19th century Canada’s position within the British empire, recognizing the material and political support provided to distant imperial efforts to bring Russian rivals (and French and Ottoman allies) to heel. I would hazard a guess that the cannon in Windsor was once placed in the main city square, though Windsor was only incorporated as a village and then a town in the 1850s, and had fewer than 4000 inhabitants when the cannon would have arrived sometime around 1860, which was also only six years after the town would have been linked to the Great Western Railroad and the rest of Ontario. It is also possible that the cannon originally could have been placed in the main square in the town of Sandwich, which was a northern terminus of the Underground Railroad by which slaves escaped from the US, and an important market center and larger than Windsor at the time. It is now the westernmost neighborhood of Windsor, having been incorporated into the city in 1935, but with the railroad ending in Windsor rather than Sandwich, it is most likely that the cannon has always been in Windsor officially. This would have been, at least in the portions of British Canada settled by whites up through 1860, one of the most distant posts of empire, and official urban incorporation followed swiftly by the coming of a rail line connecting the area to the rest of Canada, topped by the placement of a captured Russian cannon embodying the military and logistical power of Britain, would have acted as a strong symbol to the local inhabitants that their loyalties properly lay with British Empire and not the republic teetering toward civil war just across the river. Communities of settlers and native groups on both sides of the river had been strongly connected to one another, the river acting as a highway rather than as the boundary  between British Upper Canada and the US Northwest Territory it became in 1796, and even then cross-border traffic and socio-economic connections often defied the division imposed by the border. But the border was violated by American raids in the War of 1812 and support for rebels in the 1830s, so strategically placed symbols of British presence, strength, and control would have had significant resonance for locals. Anyone who knows more about the history of this cannon within Windsor, please let me know in the comments. It might take more archival work on my part, but that’s going to take time, which is currently in very short supply. Next time, a bit on the Vietnam monument that is nearby and which links Windsor and Canada to American imperial designs in Vietnam. I know this is perhaps a controversial framing of American military and political actions in Southeast Asia, but I’ll explain my reasons in that post.

One thought on “Windsor 4: imperial monuments 1

  1. I always find that Canadians like to minimize their own problematic history by overstating problematic American history. I’m really looking forward to your post about the Vietnam monument!

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