Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Face of Jacques Cartier

Hero Cover: Theophile Hamel's Cartier 1844.
A recent work on the famous explorer Jacques Cartier shows the specious origins of powerful historical images and the macabre uses they can at times be put to.  Alan Gordon's The Hero and the Historians:Historiography and the Uses of Jacques Cartier (2010) traces the rise and fall of "Cartiermania" in Quebec.  Gordon follows the construction of the public memory of the Breton explorer from its beginnings as the work of archive-obsessed amateurs,  to its height as a late nineteenth-century French-Catholic nationalist symbol, and on to its co-option by  federalists and eventual contemporary dispersal.  The beginnings of the spread of the idea of Cartier as heroic founding father was the popularization of his portrait in Lower Canada, which has an interesting story of its own.

In 1843, the remains of a ship believed to be Cartier's Petite Hermine from his second voyage (1535-36) were discovered by a hunter and examined by some Cartier enthusiasts.  (Gordon, 67) When these relics were sent to Saint Malo, France, (Cartier's home town) for confirmation, the news was revealed that the town hall contained a portrait of the explorer, whose appearance was still a mystery in Lower Canada.  The painting was the work of one Francois Riis, who claimed to have composed the portrait  by memory from a sketch found in Paris' Bibliotheque Imperiale.  In the 1840s this painting was copied several times and sent to Quebec City where Theophile Hamel painted the version which was lithographed and distributed widely, marking what Gordon sees and the beginnings of Cartiermania.  Hamel's Cartier graces the cover of The Hero and the Historians.

Theophile Hamel, Self Portrait, 1837.
The problem is, no one has ever verified that the Riis original was a faithful copy of an original sketch.  Researchers soon after the painting was commissioned attempted to find the work in the Bibliotheque Imperiale to no avail. It is highly likely that Hamel's painting is a copy of a copy of a copy of a total fabrication!  No contemporary portrait of Cartier has ever been found.

Uncovering Cartier's Remains. DEA.
The history behind the portrait borders on the absurd when tracing the events surrounding the 1949 search for Cartier's final remains. (Gordon, 169)  Saint-Malo had suffered extensively from Allied bombing during the war and the corpses from several tombs had become inter-mingled.  To further obscure the location of Cartier's bones, revolution in the 1790s had removed the church records, leaving only memory to guide researchers to the location.  Furthermore, there was a competing story that Cartier's tomb had been found in a chapel in the countryside!

In 1949, workers uncovered a skeleton under the Saint Malo cathedral, and examination of the corpse found traces of lime, which suggested that the corpse was Cartier's as he had (perhaps) died of the plague and adding lime was a common technique in the burial of affected bodies.  One final method of identification served to confirm the corpses identity
...comparison of the skull with portraits based on
Theophile Hamel's specious lithographs!
Copyright Happy Loving World Order

For a recent controversy surrounding the identification of Caravaggio's remains see:
Caravaggio's Remains...We Think - New York Times

For the latest in the ongoing saga of identification of the Mona Lisa see:
Mona Modelled on the Masculine? - Globe and Mail

For an article on the search fo Cartier's Remains and source of the discovery picture above see:

KELLY, E.. Bones of Contention: Gustave Lanctot's Pursuit of Jacques Cartier's Remains. Archivaria, North America, 1, jan. 1985. Available at: Date accessed: 04 Feb. 2011.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The King's Speech

A host of historians and journalists have sounded off on historical inaccuracies in director Tom Hooper's King's Speech.  This is no surprise as historians and nitpickers alike are notorious for ruining a good film.  The work of R.A. Rosenstone suggests that some historians are coming around to examining film as a different medium, requiring different methodology and criticism.  In 1988, Hayden White coined the term "HISTORIOPHOTY" to describe "the representation of history and our thought about it in visual images and filmic discourse."  This is to say that films are inherently different than text-based history, and demand a different mode of criticism and methodology.

In my humble opinion, the story of the King's Speech is much more about the emotional and psychological problems of George VI, than the abdication crisis or the transition from appeasement to the declaration of war which most critics focus upon.  The film speaks to the emergent
role of radio in the longstanding relationship between the English people and their monarch.

This being said, historical debate around the film gets people thinking about the broader issues on the periphery of the plot. Lee Ruddin seems to have some solid suggestions when noting the lack of F.D.R. in the film, who was apparently a great friend and psychological aid to George VI in overcoming his impediment.
George VI and Franklin D. Roosevelt had a close relationship not touched upon in the King's Speech
Ruddin also notes that the portrayal of Churchill as George's confident is off-kilter as well, given that this greatest of the British Bulldogs (in appearance and influence?) stood by Edward during the abdication crisis long after it was politically wise.  Christopher Hitchens, agrees with a poor portrayal of Churchill, and notes the unprecedented support for Chamberlain and appeasement given by the monarchy during the period is glossed over by the film.

Edward VIII's Nazi Sympathies are another omission criticized.
We Canadians rail our familiar refrain over the film: "More Canadian Content!" It has been noted that George's Empire Day speech during the Spring 1939 Royal Tour in Winnipeg was devoid of stuttering, thus disrupting the timeline suggested by the film, and the importance it places on the King's first speech after the declaration of war.  Christopher Moore appears to agree with suggestions that the King's diction had improved some time prior to the climactic September 1939 speech.  A recording of the speech featured in the film is found here.

CBC Archives has some material featuring King George VI speaking.  His December 1939 Christmas speech is featured and a whole section features the visit of the royal family to Canada in 1939.  The cultural display and contact (not to mention some good ol' fashioned racism) when the royals met with various Southern Alberta Native tribes near Calgary's Mewata armoury made a fascinating audio bite.

King George VI; Queen Elizabeth; Duck Chief, head chief of the Blackfoot; George H. Gooderham in back, Blackfoot agent. Blackfoot child hand in hand with Queen Elizabeth.  Photo Ludson. Glenbow Archives.
For more info on historians and filmic history see:

Robert A Rosenstone, “Does a Filmic Writing of History Exist?” Review of Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vicon. By Natlie Semon Daivs. Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard University Press, 2000. from History and Theory, Theme Issue 41 (December 2002), 134-144.

R. A. Rosenstone. History on Film/Film on History  Harlow: Pearson Education, 2006.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Sten Gun Grannies

Nothing like a smoke after a hard days work.

Perhaps you've heard of the Bren Gun Girl? Veronica Foster was a worker at the John Inglis Company plant in Toronto which manufactured the Bren Light Machine Gun.  "Ronnie" the Bren Gun Girl's image was used for propaganda purposes to boost the war effort. 

Less familiar will be this group of Sten Gun Grannies, who worked at the Lakeview Small Arms Munitions factory.  The Sten submachine gun was generally not admired by front line troops, due to its tendency to misfire, fire on fully automatic when in the semi-auto position, or discharge an entire clip when dropped.  The accompanying article from the Toronto Star of 1943 noted that some 70 "grandmas" worked the factory and were eager to show they could shoot as well as make guns. 
None of these matriarchs shot from the hip.
While propaganda depicting women in the workforce was used to recruit more workers, the idea that the Second World War opened the manufacturing industry up to women is not universally accepted by historians.  Conservative print media during the war suggested that women in the workforce would undermine family values, which, in part, explains their general retreat from industry at the close of hostilities.  Women were a valuable source of labour during the war, however, and their wartime integration into the industrial sector helped later arguments for equality.

19th Century Canadian Political Violence

The world of nineteenth-century Canadian politics could be surprisingly violent at times.  Election riots in  Newfoundland in the late century killed a number of voters due to the harsh sectarian divisions there.  The open-ballot, where one declared one's vote publicly, was considered the manly way to exercise one's right as a propertied citizen.  Due to this process, the tendency for political thugs to coerce voters with the threat of violence meant that voting could be a risky business unless you had your own mob to defend you.
Election Violence in the 1840s.

An incident recalled in J.M.S. Careless' biography of George Brown, fiery Reform party leader and editor of Toronto's Globe shows that the campaign trail could degenerate to all out brawling.  Brown was looking for re-election in Toronto in 1861, and had delivered a successful speech to a crowd of supporting liberals at St. Lawrence Hall on the 17th of June.  Two days later, however, he returned to the hall with a different environment, sharing the podium with his Conservative opponent John Crawford. No sooner had the meeting began, than it degenerated to heckling.  As the fervour of the crowd grew, the Reformers were pushed off of the stage.  Careless describes the melee that ensued as total pandemonium:
George Brown fending off a would-be assassin in 1880.  Infection from the bullet wound would later kill him.

"Highland blood up, torn coat flapping fiercely, Brown led a Liberal charge that almost reconquered the platform.  But out stepped Constable Jones of the Grand Trunk, and with a huge push tumbled them all back to the floor.  For good measure his friend Murphy swung at Brown's head with a cudgel, but Brown had rammed his hat on in the first attack and the blow smashed a good Victorian  top-hat - a useful safety helmet for the politics of the day."
More than just an elegant chapeau.