Reflections of the “Roving Britishers”: British Travel Writing on Canada 1900-1915

Rebecca Mancuso. American Review of Canadian Studies. Volume 46, Issue 3, September 2016.

In 1912, the British author Bessie Pullen-Burry cited an “awakening interest circling around things Canadian” in British society as her reason for traveling from Halifax to Vancouver and writing a book about it. Through the “power of the pen,” she hoped to create a more accurate, complex picture of Canada to foster “a closer understanding between the Mother Country and the Daughter” (Pullen-Burry, 15). That same year, Thomas Wilby wrote of his journey by automobile across Canada, a nation that few in Britain knew, he asserted, and one still in the process of knowing itself. Once in Canada he became convinced that, based upon the tepid enthusiasm that his journey elicited among easterners, traveling to the west coast seemed to them as unrealizable as “a journey to the moon” (Wilby, 13). It was up to self-styled adventurers like him, a “Roving Britisher” as he called himself, to create a fuller portrait of the vast country for the entire Empire’s benefit. At Halifax, Wilby stooped to fill a glass flask with water from the Atlantic Ocean, and, with a letter from the mayor of Halifax to the mayor of Vancouver in his pocket, jumped in his REO touring car to begin his 4100-mile journey to British Columbia (11).

This study brings together ten published texts written during the Edwardian era (1900-1914) by six upper-middle class and elite British men and two women, all self-appointed explorers of Canada. Embarking on their individual journeys not for pleasure alone, the travelers aimed to educate and to inspire, and thus give both British and Canadian audiences a sense of imperial grandeur beyond what they could experience in their localities. Craving recognition as pathbreakers while it was still possible, they boasted being among the few to witness the pristine beauty of the Canadian wilderness before the inevitable “crushed” multitudes followed them from the Home Country (Lumsden, 355). Often risking their comfort and at times even their safety, these “Roving Britishers” journeyed vast distances to glean material on the Dominion’s economic and social conditions and to relate some of their more colorful travel episodes in the bargain. As they examined landscapes and interacted with locals from coast to coast, these authors primarily concerned themselves with larger questions of Empire and Canada’s place in it, namely the advantages and dangers Canada presented to their own imperial vision. The period in which the authors traveled was characterized by growing international competition for territory, when British dominance was no longer assured (Bridges, 54). Perceived weaknesses within the Empire itself appeared all the stronger when faced with the growing strength of Germany and Japan; thus, the authors hone in on perceived threats to Canadian unity and a seemingly fickle attitude toward Britain among English Canadians. The United States’ robust economy and cultural influence also provided reasons to fear a diminishment of the British-Canadian relationship.

Although each author had unique reasons for choosing Canada as a destination, the subsequent books reveal several common motivations: to convince British and Canadian readers of the enduring possibilities of Empire and to apprehend Canada’s crucial role in preserving imperial power and prosperity. Theirs was an era when British society came to identify the white settler colonies, or Dominions, as the foundations for a “Better Britain,” fertile ground where British people and culture would thrive. As the oldest Dominion and most populous, Canada was singled out by these writers as taking “the lead in the imperial game” (Kipling, 122) and earned praise as “the greatest star in the Imperial constellation” (Bradley, 250). In crafting a portrait of Canada as youthful and strong yet rather naive, they warned of a nation unaware of her great potential and consequently susceptible to going astray by rejecting the imperial tie, or worse, aligning with the United States.

Well aware that Canadians had not asked for advice on building a nation within the larger scheme of Empire, they nevertheless presumed authority over “youthful Canada,” as an older sibling or parent might do. To these white British men and women hailing from the metropolis, this was how Empire worked: they set foot on Canadian shores and demanded deference to their persons and their ideals. They were at times surprised to find that interactions with Canadians were not simple ones of authority and submission, leaving some of them more anxious about British-Canadian relations than before their journey began (Clark, 3).

When early European explorers touched what is now Canada, travel accounts about “a country that is crude, savage, and pagan” (Talon in Thorner, 56) were enthusiastically produced for European audiences just as enthusiastic to know what lay beyond. The Jesuit Relations, the seventeenth-century reports of the Society of Jesus in New France, and captivity narratives of Pierre Esprit Radisson and others provided fascinating accounts (récits devoyage) of hardship and gruesome torture, reinforcing notions of Canada as dangerous, exotic territory (Greer, 15; Warkentin in Radisson; Richardson). In the European mind, it was a country so harsh that even the most committed men of God came perilously close to abandoning the trappings of civilization, forced as they were to live among natives and sometimes adopt their ways. To be sure, the vastness of Canadian territory and its harsh climate mitigated for centuries against transportation, communication, and agricultural settlement of the French and English, its colonizing nations. Travel narratives proliferated throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as explorers penetrated the continent. Several such works have found a place in the canon of Canadian literature. Susanna Moodie’s (30) Roughing it in the Bush, of which the first volume contains rich descriptions of frontier travel, John Franklin’s published narratives of his 1820s voyages to the Arctic, and William Francis Butler’s The Great Lone Land from are prime nineteenth-century examples.

Canada still faced major developmental challenges when the Roving Britishers produced their work in the early twentieth century. The western provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were only formally created in 1905, and railway companies were struggling mightily to add transcontinental railway lines to the only one then in existence. Although growing cities and various resource industries encouraged the construction of roads in some areas, to drive a motorcar across Canada, as author Thomas Wilby and his companion attempted, was considered folly. Roads were hazardous and unpredictable, as were motorcars. Traveling, even by train, was still an adventure in many regions of the country.

Who were the Roving Britishers?

The term “Roving Britisher” never came into general usage among British Empire travelers, but it is used here to describe this group of self-styled explorers seeking to distinguish themselves from the common horde of tourists beginning to travel the globe. By the early twentieth century, vast networks of railways and expanded steamship service, in tandem with packaged tour offerings, allowed the British middle classes to descend upon the pyramids of Egypt, Rocky Mountain valleys, and other “exotic” locales worldwide. These developments, followed by the advent of the automobile, made it harder for aspiring travel writers to achieve unique voyages worthy of a book. Those who could afford it rushed to the remote places remaining on earth as a means to set themselves, and their commentary, apart (Jakle, 9; 18). Most of the authors discussed here, for example, eschewed Niagara Falls to comment on less frequently visited areas. Bessie Pullen-Burry, when writing about the Niagara region, remarked that visitors who followed her would enjoy the area as a “playground,” but emphasized her own interest in the economic potential of hydroelectric power and the Welland Canal (163-64).

The authors were all of middle-class or elite status who strongly identified as British subjects and regarded Canada’s experience, past and present, as an imperial one. Their books aimed to engage the Mother Country and her adolescent “child” in conversation, and for this reason, the authors’ voices, which richly elaborate on common metaphors of family, loyalty, and danger, are frequently incorporated here. The authors were neither emigrants nor, with the exception of Arthur Granville Bradley, long-term sojourners in North America. Their books give some attention to emigration promotion, as expected in a period when convincing poorer British subjects to “people the Empire” remained a crucial facet of Empire-building. Their manuscripts do not fall within the genre of emigration literature, although similar themes may emerge. Nor were their books considered travel guides that mainly contained hotel prices and tourist sites. Each traveler attempted to elevate his or her work to the status of literature by telling unique stories about the less traveled reaches of Canada, and providing expert commentary on the people and resources they encountered. If such books increased Empire migration, so much the better.

The narratives fall into various subcategories, such as adventure accounts with intent to thrill, or texts of an inspiring and educational character. Whether the authors negotiated mountains or chose more commonly traveled pathways, they boasted that their education and their social and professional connections gave them a unique ability to capture the authentic Canada. On the whole, the Roving Britishers represented themselves as much more than economic boosters or pleasure-seekers. With his party of fellow journalists, James Lumsden, for instance, boasted of “spying the land as … had never before been accorded to any body of inquirers from the Old Country” (Lumsden, xii; Mitchell, 15). John Foster Fraser, already well known for his popular account Round the World on a Wheel, which describes his bicycle tour through seventeen countries, assured his readers that even though he chose to journey by train in Canada, he was no mere tourist. Making his way toward Nelson, British Columbia, he stressed that there were “neither tweed-suited men nor Kodak-clicking women holiday-seekers on this train, crawling into a corner of little-known Canada” (Fraser, 208). He also dropped the name of Canada’s Prime Minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, on the first page of his 1905 book Canada as It Is, thanking him and other senior officials for providing him individual attention, which he claimed gave his monograph more weight than previous works. Kipling and Sir Harry Brittain made similar assertions. Each used their unusual itineraries and exclusive contacts to establish their expertise and distinguish their journeys from conventional travel (Korte, 130).

A number of the authors included here retained considerable renown and influence. Rudyard Kipling and Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin (the 4th Earl of Dunraven and Mount-Earl), as members of the British elite, may not have liked being categorized with less exalted authors in their time; however, their travel impressions fit well with other imperially minded works. Owing to their social status, Dunraven and Kipling suggested an enhanced ability to appreciate their surroundings and edify others through their writing. By implication, publication of their narratives was desirable because few in Britain or Canada could duplicate their achievements (Fussell, 203). Others were not as educated, as well connected, or as rich.

Kipling, invited to Canada to accept an honorary doctorate at McGill in 1907, might well be considered a writer who traveled rather than a travel writer, as the main purpose of his journey, unlike most of the others, was not simply to produce a manuscript (Carr, 74). He nevertheless wrote down his reflections on Canada in the course of his relatively comfortable train trip. His Letters to the Family, first published in London’s Morning Post and later as a monograph in 1920, are treated by scholars mainly as essays on British and imperial politics but require attention as travel accounts for their impressions of Canada and opinions on the British-Canadian relationship that his journey elicited. Wyndham-Quin, who wrote under his title “Earl of Dunraven,” was a professed adventurer who traveled the Empire (and in the United States) to stalk big game of all sorts. As was common among travel writers of the elite, Dunraven gave the impression of pressing alone across vast expanses but had in fact the invaluable support of skilled Native Peoples who followed, or more likely led, the expeditions with his belongings in tow and ministering to his needs. It was, moreover, not uncommon for such self-centered adventurers to demand supplies from the locals and press them into their service at various junctures as Dunraven appeared to do (Mewshaw, 6).

Thomas Wilby, the original “Roving Britisher,” made the first attempt to travel across Canada by automobile in 1912. Seeking an “all-red route” from Atlantic to Pacific—that is, a route fully on imperial soil—he never quite succeeded, for the simple fact that there were no paved roads in most of the country, if there were roads at all. At one point, the route required touching US soil briefly while in the far West (Nicol, 14). The Wilby party did, however, venture to places no one had attempted to reach by car before. At several junctures, the REO special touring car, manufactured in St. Catharines, Ontario, was hauled by train or boat to the next destination, so challenging were transportation networks in the early-twentieth century. That such a journey could be attempted confirms that accessibility to remote areas was indeed improving, and the travelers garnered attention in the newspapers for their tenacity (Nicol, 52; Thompson, 9). The trek was a hard one, and in A Motor Tour through Canada, Wilby recounts braving terrible terrain and weather, and frequently running out of fuel. This “petrol” problem resulted in pushing the car for long distances and careening dangerously down hills. What Wilby never directly disclosed was that he was not the driver; it was American-born Jack Haney, whose name Wilby never included in his book. Constantly upstaged by Wilby, the unappreciated Haney wrote his own diary that portrayed Haney as a helpless fop (Richardson, 86). So adversarial did their relationship become on the road that Wilby went so far as to remove Haney’s image from publicity photos. Wilby and Haney claimed to be the first to experience Canadian travel so extensively by car and accurately predicted that highways and cars would crisscross the nation within decades. One opinion they shared was that Canada needed a cross-country highway.

Several middle-class professionals regarded Canada’s place in Empire as a worthy subject of inquiry, including journalist James Lumsden, who traveled with fellow “British Editors” and focused on the Canadian West, and the aforementioned John Foster Fraser of Edinburgh. Fraser, “the Old World wanderer” who left journalism to devote his career to travel writing, later produced The British Empire and What it Means, and was knighted in 1917 (167). Another journalist, Harry Ernest Brittain, had achieved solid success by the time he traveled to Canada, having been employed at the Illustrated London News and The Standard. He was not of the nobility when he wrote his comparatively lighthearted book Canada: There and Back, but upon returning to Britain, he founded the Empire Press Union and would later win a seat in the House of Commons. He was knighted in 1918. Arthur Granville Bradley, author of two texts, Canada in the Twentieth Century in 1903 and Canada in 1912, was an historian and government worker who, as a younger man, had attempted to homestead in Virginia but abandoned the enterprise and returned to Britain. He became a prolific author of travel books on Britain and North America, determined to provide audiences with the most reliable firsthand accounts possible.

Also included with the Britishers were such women as staunch imperialist Bessie Pullen-Burry, whose book From Halifax to Vancouver was specifically designed to increase an appreciation for Canada among the British (248). A Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute and world traveler, Pullen-Burry also produced books on Jamaica and New Guinea, as well as a novel. In 1915, author Elizabeth B. Mitchell released In Western Canada before the War: A Study of Communities, a piece chiefly concerned with the precarious economic and social status of Canada’s farmers in a time of increasing urbanization. She, too, claimed to have special insights for having gone where few had ventured before and makes note of how others attempted to dissuade her from so adventuresome an agenda (15). Praised in her own time for contributing more than just a woman’s “impressionist sketches,” she, like Pullen-Burry, gave more attention to women’s lives in the rural West, but hers was not a text that aimed to give a gendered interpretation of phenomena she encountered (Porritt, 350). She published using only her initials, as E.B. Mitchell, and never mentions her gender identity in her work, possibly in hopes of being taken more seriously or to avoid the negative public opinion attached to women venturing forth on their own (Bassnett, 229). Though the decision to travel propelled these women into largely masculinized spaces, these particular texts do not offer significantly different interpretations for having been penned by women (Bassnett, 227-78; Thompson, 172-73). Pullen-Burry’s reflections are among the most political of all of the authors, challenging the notion that women’s texts might contain more sentimental content, or content related to domesticity, than men’s. Topics associated with women’s roles, such as home culture and the state of the family in Canada, are taken up by both male and female authors, because these areas were considered crucial to imperial growth (Lumsden, 382; Fraser, 176; Kipling, 177).

Arriving on Canadian shores, all of these travelers described the Canadian nation in gendered terms, as was commonly done in the period. However, the language of gender is unstable in the texts themselves. Few discernable discursive patterns emerge; authors portrayed Canada in female terms as well as male, calling the nation “mother,” “sister,” “daughter,” and “son.” In fact, there are instances where both male and female identities are assigned to the nation on the same page as in Fraser’s text, for example (168). Where economic growth was concerned, the depiction of the nation is often male, but robust cities and resource-filled landscapes could as easily be attributes of a colonial daughter. Unsurprisingly, England is most often referred to as the “mother” yet Canada also takes on a maternal identity in some texts, as when Kipling refers to her as the “Mother of Colonies” (33). What remained important were the bonds of kinship, put forth in various terms as a main source of imperial strength.

Certainly, these authors had personal motives for recording their experiences, including the material and social benefits derived from publishing. As Casey Blanton notes, travel writing was immensely popular with the British public in this period, as a means to edify whole societies (20). In the British Isles, an author could hardly hope for a more influential reader than King Edward VII (r. 1901-1910), a great enthusiast for travel books (Korte, 157). While only a few authors discussed here could expect personal notice from royalty, the king’s appreciation for the genre lent it greater status among all levels of society well after his death. The authors would have anticipated returning home to enjoy the renown that travel writing afforded them. After a taste of commercial success, authors such as Fraser and Bradley had left careers behind to devote themselves to travel writing. They, along with men of independent income like Dunraven and Brittain, sought new and adventuresome places to go.

Kipling’s travel accounts formed part of a larger treatise on the state of “Our Family,” as he called the British Empire, in the new century, and provides his opinions on Canada’s elevated position among the colonies. His ambitious North American travel schedule devoted considerable time to Canada because, as the “wisest” and “eldest sister” of all the colonies, the country deserved more attention from the British (129). In his reflections on Canada, published as Letters to the Family, the author positioned himself as an ideal intercessor between Britain, the august but tired parent, and Canada, the robust adolescent—two entities who needed to better understand one another if a bond between them was to remain strong. He maintained it was incumbent upon the British to understand Canada as emerging player on the imperial stage, to help her shoulder her responsibility as “bread basket” and “defender” of Empire. But it is also evident that he meant to leave something behind in Canada—reams of advice for Canadians on topics as diverse as land usage, sanitation, transportation, and foreign relations.

John Foster Fraser’s book struck a similar tone, explaining that Canada was emerging from its adolescence as a nation to become aware of its leading role in imperial commerce and, perhaps, defense. Through his “careful study” of Canada’s position as a child of Britain and cousin of the United States, Fraser aimed to educate the British and also to present his conclusions to Canadians, whom he suggested lacked the discernment to form an opinion of themselves. Complicating matters in this context, he maintained, was that a great deal of current information on Canada, even within Canada, originated in the United States, hence the urgent need for his book.

Destination Canada: “The Physical Basis for an Empire”

In the early-twentieth century, the British Empire was at its zenith, stretching across a quarter of the globe. Zeal for Empire had soaked into the entire fabric of life in Britain, crossing the seams of social class, urban and rural life, and age (Moyles and Owram, 5-6; MacDonald, 2). Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee of 1897 celebrated the monarch as the embodiment of Empire and set off a frenzy of activity including parades, balls for the elite, and street feasts for the poor. Photographs, books, housewares, and toys with imperial themes were also common. Riding on the wave of this “Great Awakening” in imperial sentiment, turn-of-the-century writers of travel books aimed not only to benefit personally but also to reinforce loyalties and therefore ensure the Empire’s endurance. They did not wish to contemplate a world without it.

Behind celebrations of Empire, however, there lurked an anxiety that in the British Isles, society and economies were growing moribund. This notion emerges clearly in the Britishers’ travel accounts as a main reason to seek out the “wild, free air of mountain and lonely valley.” (Wilby, 31). Industrial technology and economic growth, while still celebrated, earned criticism for the ruinous change they wrought on Britain’s cities and rural areas. As canals, railways, mills, and mines sprawled out into the countryside, these authors saw little escape from crowding and pollution in their own regions of Britain. Moreover, whole segments of Britain’s population were caught in the maw of industrial growth. “What is civilization, after all?” wondered the Earl of Dunraven during a woodland trek, but “masses of men struggling to survive under degrading surroundings” (Dunraven, 12-13). E.B. Mitchell began her travel monograph by quoting a poem of longing for escape from England’s cities, “whose skies are dark as death” (Rowland, quoted in Mitchell). While overlooking a bluff in New Brunswick, Thomas Wilby simultaneously expressed his awe of Canada’s wilderness and disgust for the state of the Mother Country. Canada’s beauty, he said,

seemed to mock the wretchedness and misery of the disinherited of the British Isles … [the] overcrowded cities, and their sickness and squalor on the one hand and on the other hand their countless organized charities which gnaw at the manliness of the nation even while they relieve its sufferings. (53)

In this promontory pronouncement, typical in British travel writing of the era, the landscape aroused grief for British peoples without hope, trapped as they were between inhumane working conditions and misguided, emasculating social policies (Pratt, 202). British civilization had simply become too far disconnected from the sustaining goodness of the land. The condition, dubbed “over-civilization,” arose from a combination of apathy and pessimism among the working classes so frightfully affected by industrialization but had also corrupted the elites. Symptoms among the wealthy included an inappropriate fondness for luxury and a general “softness” of mind and body (Lumsden, 340, 355; Fraser, 111). The British of all ranks were “born tired,” mired in decay and vanished personal pride, with little left at home to inspire them (Fraser, 49; Pullen-Burry, 355).

The British could yet find inspiration if they looked to the white settler dominions. In contrast to “the desolation of industrial England,” nation building was still in process in “youthful” Canada, where hope and energy prevailed (Wilby, 147; Lumsden, 340; Bradley, 212). Vaunting their firsthand observations, the authors explained that Canada had achieved an appropriate level of civilization, a balance in which her citizens enjoyed a bountiful life through a healthy amount of exertion and engagement with the land, in farming and resource extraction. Survival in Canada often demanded ingenuity in hardship, these writers maintained, creating a Ulysses out of everyman (ideally, the British man) who settled there. Multiple descriptions in the texts idealize Ontario’s forests and the Saskatchewan prairies as teachers of perseverance, humility, and good judgment and conclude that pioneer life did not make rough people, but rather strong and resilient ones. Visiting farms and ranches, several of the Roving Britishers claimed to identify with the “fighting spirit” of the pioneer settler; they realized as a result of their own journeys “the kind of man Canada wants, or makes” (Mitchell, 28-9). Passing through Canada during relatively good weather, these visitors considered nature a benevolent force; only Mitchell braved a “desperately long” winter in the West and found it less invigorating than she had imagined (21). Still, she joined the others in the general romanticization of “[n]ature and her gentle whims” (Wilby, 55; Kipling, 7).

Canada’s open spaces were regarded as especially healthy for women who, predictably, played a role in both the cause of and the cure for excessive civilization. Female bodies and behaviors were strong indicators of imperial health. In Montreal, Lumsden remarked on the presence of tall, healthy-looking women who contrasted sharply with the “pinched” female figures forced to work in England’s industrial towns (34). Mitchell’s critique centered on behavior, arguing that Britain’s wives and daughters remained in a dependent state, content to “fret over finery” while contributing nothing of substance to society (47; 109). In contrast, for women in Western Canada, “the ‘sphere of the home’ does not mean pouncing upon scratches on silver or decorating the drawing room with ‘masses of flowers,’ but feeding and clothing and cheering husband and children … woman is at her old task as the civilizer, not as the over civilizer” (47). Canadian farms or a small businesses managed by a husband and wife team averted unhealthy competition between the sexes, as each spouse took on tasks according to prescribed gender roles. On this subject, the authors again feared that as Canada’s prosperity increased, so too might Canadian women’s love of luxury, thus tipping the balance toward over-civilization. Women were encouraged to keep their focus on wholesome, useful tasks.

The Britishers clearly saw an image of themselves in some of the English Canadians they encountered, but in the mirror was an idealized imperial citizen significantly strengthened by the outdoor spaces and hard work. Fraser, describing the transformative effects of the wilderness, called Canadian pioneers “Britisher(s) with all the latest improvements” of vigor and resourcefulness (141). The Earl of Dunraven also had a story to tell about the ideal imperial specimen that Canada could create. His monograph, Canadian Nights, began with the tale of Willie Whisper, once an Irish nobleman who had abandoned his livelihood and possessions for a solitary life in the forest. Something of a legend among Native Peoples who respected him, according to Dunraven, Willie was a wise and awesome figure who communed with ghosts and whispered to wild creatures. Dunraven’s book, presented as a series of conversations between Dunraven and Willie, describes Willie’s Zen-like existence on the frontier—where “nothingness became everythingness”—in defiance of encroaching civilization’s strictures (15). Dunraven was perhaps constructing a fantasy self in his narrative, for Willie’s story mirrors much of Dunraven’s own life, from his noble birth in Ireland and English education, to his travels in North America. Dunraven wrote at length about the masculine affirmation he absorbed from bush life, and in describing the redemptive possibilities in the wilderness, he locates Canada as a source of strength for men of the Home Country. Dunraven and the other Britishers did not suggest, however, that the wilderness strengthened Native Peoples but that it left them wanting culturally and technologically; it was a combination only of New World resources and Old World Britishness that led to a “triumph of the race” (Fraser, 55).

Canada’s landmass astounded the authors. They marveled at the vastness of a country that could fit nearly countless Englands within its borders, and despite their complaints about deforestation or the Home Country’s smoke-choked skies, they praised the growth of Canada’s cities and resource industry towns (296). Passing through Canada’s “youthful” urban areas, some Britishers were quickly caught up in the infectious boosterism of the period, their enthusiasm evident in their texts. Ranking towns such as “mighty” Moose Jaw and Fort William, Ontario (now part of Thunder Bay), as among the world’s most important, these “wondrous” engines of imperial growth seemed all the more impressive for how they appeared to rise up out of empty wilderness (Wilby, 187; Brittain, 80; Lumsden, 289). The wide city streets and large size of many typical homes were striking to Europeans accustomed to tighter spaces, giving an impression that the unoccupied land around cities offered nearly unlimited possibilities for expansion (Kipling, 143; Brittain, 134; Wilby, 154; Fraser, 107, 154). On this subject, once again the Britishers claimed for themselves a unique, pivotal perspective: They were among the first of their countrymen to describe these isolated resource towns to large audiences and among the last to record their impressions before nature’s beauty faded in the onslaught of economic development and mass migration (Lumsden, 355).

Several authors followed their observations on industry with pleas to land conservation, recognizing that unchecked growth begot high costs. By this time, the Victorian concept of vitalism—which held that any entity, including a person, nation, or empire, possessed a finite store of vital energy that should not be squandered—had taken hold (Richards, 103-104). Vitalist thinkers applied the view to the colonies’ natural spaces and urged more careful oversight of resource extraction and settlement (Forkey, 356). “The time may come when, with the destruction of forests and the desolation spread by that industrial Tamerlane, the pulp manufacturer, the people of Canada may rue the desire which at present animates every mother’s son among them, to convert their seemingly inexhaustible physical heritage to mercantile account,” Lumsden warned, adding, “Man marks the earth with ruin” (Lumsden, 70-71; also Bradley, 29). Authors hoped that Canada’s enormous landmass would allow for balance between the capitalist growth imperative and the continued existence of pristine natural areas. And while they did not place themselves in a category with ordinary tourists, they saw some value in reserving land for recreation for the multitudes of British to come (Fraser, 297; Lumsden, 355).

Judging the Others

In almost any era, popular travel accounts have traits in common, as diverse as the monographs may be; they create stories of the self versus the other to validate the traveler’s world (Thompson, 10; Korte, 9). Works in the genre often take form around this desire to define the self while critiquing the other as the writer moves from one locality to the next, searching for evidence of the ways in which a society might be different, if not inferior, to their own (Blanton, 3; Fussell, 203). Travel narratives therefore describe inner journeys as much as physical ones and are usually more revealing of the traveler’s own values than those of the observed society. The Britishers’ impressions of the peoples they encountered bolstered their own preexisting, self-serving notions of imperial expansion and control, and they provide, fundamentally, comparisons in which British cultural mores were normalized and lauded, and colonized peoples judged and regulated (Pratt, 3; Hooper and Youngs, 10). Their texts exhibit what Paul Fussell has called the attraction-repulsion dynamic common in English travel narratives, as the writers grappled simultaneously with pride in Empire and, when observing the other, fear of drastic cultural change.

It is strongly evident that authors desired to titillate readers while simultaneously reassuring them that Canada remained a bulwark of imperial values. To underscore British superiority and yet add a dose of the exotic, writers made mention of cultural groups they deemed “outlandish” (Lumsden, 74), musing on ways in which such peoples conformed or challenged their imperial vision. For instance, the Earl of Dunraven regarded indigenous guides as completely servile and largely cultureless, and by referring to them as “my Indians” who navigated and set up camp, they were akin to nameless possessions. He also bluntly concluded that indigenous women were undesirable sexually and only useful for carrying burdens (249). The references to Native Peoples in various texts portray them as almost ghostly “vestiges of an older time” who lived silently and alone on the edge of white settlement, poised to disappear (Mitchell, 33; Dunraven 1914, 294; Moyles and Owram, Ch. 7). In ominous language to today’s reader, Fraser reported that indigenous groups were “admirably controlled” by the Canadian government, with help from various churches and their residential schools, which removed the young from their elders and thus from degradation (284). Wilby, motoring toward St. John, New Brunswick in 1912, noted that what remained of Native Peoples in the area were unusual names for towns, such as Plumweseep, Apohaqui, and Nanwigeauk. To Wilby, these words were “inhuman” in the impossibility of their pronunciation, and in what appears an attempt at humor, he calls their endurance a “crime,” suggesting the need for a thorough erasure of any remaining indigenous influence (33). Viewed as a necessary casualty of imperial expansion and at present an unthreatening group, indigenous peoples are mentioned briefly in most of these works.

The Britishers frequently remarked on the presence of non-British immigrants in Canada, whom they called “foreigners,” a common and somewhat derisive term for migrants from outside of the white imperial “family” in this period. The authors did not go so far as to say that Canada must be saved from an infusion of non-British cultures, but their texts reflect conflicting views of the non-British and arrive at few conclusions on immigrant peoples’ ability to contribute to the imperial project. Often these “others” were mentioned in passing, as if their role in preserving Empire was minor, and yet details on their homes, clothing, and the odors of their neighborhoods were included for an audience that likely craved vivid descriptions of difference. Observed from afar by the Britishers, these non-British migrants appeared culturally remote and mysterious, like “strange … shapeless creatures” (Wilby, 251) tilling prairie farms or laboring in resource camps and neighborhoods. Elizabeth Mitchell decided that Eastern European immigrants “do not mix well” and further claimed that the presence of the non-British constituted one of Canada’s “knottiest problems” (11). Dismissive treatment of the Chinese in Canada by Mitchell and others betrayed a belief in the unassimilability of non-Europeans; even intense efforts by established churches to acculturate them could not divest them of their incompatibilities (Mitchell, 11; Bradley, 300; Fraser, 125). Harry Brittain and Arthur Granville Bradley bestowed a slightly kinder but still condescending gaze; having arrived in Vancouver on the same weekend as that city’s anti-Asian riot in 1907, Brittain absolved the “peaceful” Chinese of any wrongdoing. Despite his claims that class distinctions barely existed in Canada, Brittain evoked white, working-class hooliganism as the culprit behind the violence. Brittain and Bradley’s privileged assumptions led them to wonder why Canadians would not be more tolerant of a people who made such obedient servants (Brittain, 115; Bradley, 394).

In the hierarchy of immigrants, Eastern Europeans, if not considered entirely white, were given the benefits of shared Europeanness through at least a grudging acknowledgment of their labor and ability to withstand the hardship of frontier life. Widely described as hardworking but brutish, they might “find their place” if Canada’s connection to Empire remained strong, otherwise they could pose a danger (Mitchell, 11; Fraser, 125; Kipling, 157). Mitchell mused that unity might be fostered through the nation’s publicly funded schools but added, “one wonders exactly what unity,” as it might not be a sentiment or vision based on Britishness (37). Recognizing that such unusual peoples once entrenched could not easily be gotten rid of, the onus remained on English Canadians to strengthen British political and cultural traditions. Continued British immigration was crucial, and, if the British could not be recruited, then Canada should seek the more desirable “foreign” settlers—the Dutch, Germans, and Scandinavians—who were more likely to further the imperial project through their supposed cleaner habits, Protestant traditions, and superior work ethic (Lumsden, 11; Mitchell, 11; Wilby, 150).

The Francophone people of Quebec were a source of great fascination. The “odd” member of the imperial family, Quebec won approval, in very condescending terms, from the Britishers after extensive observation as they journeyed through the province (Kipling, 130). Seen as traditional if not utterly backward and simplistic, Quebec’s “habitants” had “never swerved one iota from the faith and customs of their ancestors” and therefore posed little threat since Wolfe’s victory on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 (Lumsden, 23; see also Kipling, 126-7). The Roving Britishers’ reflections support the conclusions of historians Doug Owram and R.G. Moyles, who observed that British writers at the turn of the twentieth century generally regarded Quebec’s culture as antiquated, and the lifestyle quaint and romantic (89). The Earl of Dunraven, for instance, offers readers “glimpses of primitive life among French-speaking ‘habitants,'” and Wilby, in addition to describing Quebeckers as “semi-literate, easy-going, badly-dressed antique(s),” remarked that the voice of modernization “that has called to the rest of the New World has been unheard by the ‘habitant'” (64-5). Alongside such belittlement, Quebeckers were largely tolerated in the texts, even admired for their dedication to tradition, family, and locality. More unsettling might be the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, a retrograde and oppressive force according to the authors, but they assured readers that the Church’s influence had been constrained over the last century by English Canada’s sober Protestantism and could thus do little damage outside of Quebec.

Most of the authors spent time in Montreal. While in Canada’s largest city, they expressed concern for the prospects of a commercial center that still possessed a strong “French” character. Could a sound business environment exist where “French-like churches” reared their many spires, and a swarthy Francophone populace filled the Parisianesque streets? Mistrustful of a city that confused him culturally, Fraser admitted at first, “You cannot say what sort of town it is,” before offering a portrait of Montreal as a woman whose appearance was deceiving, perhaps deliberately so. “Ah, the simile comes: Montreal is as captivating as a well-gowned Frenchwoman; but her shoes are down at the heel, and you can’t help seeing the holes in her stockings” (23). Portraying Francophones as antiquated and shabby, his fears about the city’s future were somewhat allayed upon learning that the balance of economic power rested “in the hands of the British.” Their ownership of railways, shipping companies, and most large retail establishments “proves more than a treatise that the Briton is the business man” (23-4 and 80; see also Bradley, 106-07). Behind the “feminine French” face of Montreal, one could still find the ingenuity of London. The author makes a striking comparison with Toronto: it was lusty yet trim and clean, bursting with British patriotism. Also portrayed as a young woman, Toronto aimed to surpass her “bigger sister,” Montreal, in national importance (44). At least in Toronto, Fraser encountered the less ambivalent British loyalty he sought.

The authors conclude that Quebec, the backward, “un-English” province with seemingly no aspirations for greater influence in Canadian affairs, would provide a relaxing destination for British travelers, a place to be enjoyed and its unusual people to be wondered at rather than feared (Wilby, 64, 78; Fraser, 79; Bradley, 78). Harry Brittain again found little to criticize in the province, but he, like Kipling, spent his time among elites at exclusive business clubs. The authors deigned to reason that Quebeckers, though they might prefer to call France “Mother,” remained loyal to the British Empire out of an unquestioning respect for authority. The authors portrayed Francophones as slightly resentful but cooperative relatives by marriage—a mild way to describe the Conquest of 1763—and England as a “Mother-in-law” who demanded respect (Fraser, 87). Several of the texts reminded readers of the Conquest and resulting British dominance in Canada in self-congratulatory terms. Only Pullen-Burry comments, briefly, on strains of traditional nationalism in the Francophone press, which she relates back to the passivity and insularity of the province (71).

Despite their comments on the cultural difference they witnessed, the Roving Britishers erroneously assumed that Canadian communities remained untroubled by the socioeconomic divisions characterizing British life. This prosperity myth dominated descriptions of Canada as travelers crossed the continent. Lumsden determined after observing Montreal workers’ lives that no “real poverty” existed, an impression he carried throughout the rest of his journey (Lumsden, 38, 77, 340). While relaxing in a smoking lounge in Winnipeg, Wilby noted that a typical English Canadian “Jack” deemed himself “as good as his master—and often a good deal better” (155). He found it discomfiting to rub elbows with service workers in many settings. Harry Brittain reinforced the idea of general prosperity by suggesting, even after witnessing Vancouver’s poverty-stricken Chinatown, that a country containing “no slums, no unemployed, no workhouses … and general prosperity, cannot have very much the matter with it” (Brittain, 29; also Lumsden, 78). Cautioning against simplistic understandings of colonial economies and social relationships, Fraser and Mitchell remarked that the intense competition among Canadian cities for settlers and dollars had led each one to sing “so hearty a chorus of praise” for itself that little evidence of hardship could come through to the inquisitive British traveler (Mitchell, 111). But even the cynical Fraser concluded that Canadian society offered few social or economic impediments, though he again warned of dire consequences if the economy boomed too much, lest the people come to value nothing but material success (Fraser, 166, 171, 294).

Advice to Young Canada: “It is all in the family”

With the physical basis for Empire more or less assured, did Canada possess sufficient emotional connection to Empire? These writers maintained that for English Canadians, Britain’s concerns around the world were also Canada’s concerns to a great extent, a claim that held some merit. When Britain fought the Boer War (or South African War, 1899-1902) just after Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, Canada sent volunteer battalions to support the effort. But within a year, there was resentment stemming from the Alaska Boundary Dispute when Britain acceded to US wishes, resulting in a border unfavorable to Canada. The boundary decision was responsible in part for nudging Canada toward greater independence in the area of its foreign relations (Thompson, 93). Regarding its relationship with the Mother Country, Canada was moving into the new century with several possible paths in front of her: outright independence, annexation to the United States, or the status quo of “landlord” or “Mother-Daughter” colonialism, in which Canada maintained control over domestic affairs and Britain over foreign relations. In this era, British authors frequently mused on these choices (Moyles and Owram, 22). The Britishers naturally held the third option to be the best one, citing historic ties that, they hoped, the British and Canadians would continue to share—”blood is thicker than water” was the clichéd reminder (Pullen-Burry, 8). The authors, however, struggled to present tangible benefits inherent in the imperial relationship at a time when trade and defense were fiercely contested topics; it can in fact be argued that these authors relied so heavily on metaphors of family in their writing because Britain’s imperialists had little else to offer. Questions remained regarding Canada’s devotion to a united Empire’s future, and when assessing Canadian loyalty in communities across the country, what emerge in the texts are shared strains of unease.

The Roving Britishers’ encounters with English Canadians cast some doubt on the depth of Canadian devotion and resolve. English Canadians drew reproach for lacking an awareness of responsibilities inherent in becoming “the backbone of the British Empire,” a rather vague position that Canadians ought to accept nevertheless (Fraser, 41; Moyles and Owram, 217). The authors aimed to persuade English Canadians to elevate their thinking and to recognize the value of adopting more observable British cultural behaviors. In both rural areas and cities, Canadians were chided for being so heavily focused on “making good” that they had little time to contemplate national problems, much less the larger concerns of the Empire (Fraser, 106, 246). Mitchell at times defended Canadian obliviousness, claiming that the finest English gentleman would pay less attention to loftier issues when contending with the rough conditions prevalent in Canada (42). Kipling suggested that Canadians should at least look to other imperial cities for standards in street cleaning and traffic regulation, as well as for cultural edification (143). Thomas Wilby, interacting with the locals in Port Arthur, Ontario, asked why Canadians did not seek to transplant British poets and authors to remote areas instead of every “Tom, Dick, and Harry,” in order to intensify British cultural connections (150). Others placed some blame on British negligence, admitting that the Home Country had lapsed in its love and guidance of the colonies since the mid-nineteenth century, in essence leaving Canada to grow up unsupervised. On this question, Bradley adamantly called for renewed overtures of understanding from the Mother Country to Canada, of which his own books were to be models. His Canada in the Twentieth Century makes much of the decisions facing Canadians; would they devote themselves to family or become estranged? This crucial juncture, he declared, “is Great Britain’s last chance” (Bradley, 139). What these writers struggled to understand, as historians have pointed out, is that for English Canadians, imperialism and nationalism could coexist within the mind with little or no emotional conflict. A dual identity that was proudly Canadian and British was reasonable and sustainable to Canadians, who were therefore largely unreceptive to pleas for more formal ties to London (Berger; Moyles and Owram 35).

The Britishers saw Canada’s position as especially difficult considering her proximity to the antithesis of the British imperial spirit—the United States. Kipling reasoned that Canada remained “curiously unconscious of her position in the Empire,” perhaps because she was overshadowed, if not demeaned, by the might of her neighbor to the south (130). The United States, often called “the republic” or “Brother Jonathan” rather than by its proper name, loomed as a source of cultural, economic, and political danger. A nation which long ago renounced any connection to Empire had produced a “crowd of barbarians” intent on bragging, drinking, and daily murder (Fraser, 41; Brittain, 155). Its women, too, were vividly described as “evil” and “prowling” procuresses who crept across the border to snatch Canadian women (220). Despite such characterizations, the Britishers acknowledged the “insidious magnetism of the mighty republic” with whom closer relations, if not a union, offered real economic advantages (Bradley, 250; Fraser, 249; Pullen-Burry, 256). The authors warned, however, that annexation to the United States was akin to selling one’s soul to the devil, a short-term gain before perdition. To Fraser, the “sneer” from the States toward Canada’s tie to Britain made Canadians all too sensitive to childlike characterizations of dependency, and this in turn might lead Canada to reject Britain’s guidance and assert a greater independence. A country that had “come too late in the arena of nations to be able to stand alone … [Canada] could not resist the fate of being swallowed by the States” (Fraser, 6). This also concerned Kipling who commented on Canada’s need for British protection, writing, “If she continues wealthy and remains weak she will surely be attacked under one pretext or another. Then she will go under, and her spirit will return to the dust with her flag as it slides down the halliards [sic]” (201). The whole of Britain’s experience with worldwide conflict had given it the confidence to face down a bully, a skill Canada might learn from its “parent” under the shield of the Union Jack (Fraser, 4). The writers urged Canadians to grow thicker skins and accept their sage advice: “It is all in the family,” wrote Mitchell, “and I do not think the family will misunderstand” (xi).

Canadians had successfully resisted the republican impulse of the southern colonies in the late-eighteenth century, a decision they were urged now to repeat. Pullen-Burry and Fraser thus rejoiced in Canada’s 1911 rejection of wider trade with the United States, called Reciprocity, and the Canadian Liberal politicians who had championed it (Pullen-Burry, 256; Fraser, 236). As informal imperial ambassadors, the Roving Britishers praised such resolve to all they met. They counseled Canadians to meet the brash confidence of the United States with ever more forceful declarations of imperial loyalty and affection, thereby reinforcing to the United States a sense of Canadian identity grounded in Empire (Wilby, 34; Pullen-Burry, 137, 209).

The texts as a whole urge Canadians to nurture a love for Britain. If, however, appeals to sentiment and shared interests might not have the desired effect (and the texts suggest they would not), the Britishers resorted to scolding their ungrateful relative. “The Canadian has no special love for England—the Mother of Colonies has a wonderful gift for alienating the affections of her own household by neglect,” Kipling rather randomly tossed into his discussion of springtime in Vancouver (31). John Foster Fraser complained that “Canada doesn’t like to be instructed. He imagines—as young men, like young nations, are prone to imagine—he has nothing to learn” and he “snorts” when the Mother Country dares criticize (52 and 3; see also Kipling, 131). Further, Canadians’ selfish viewpoint held that “‘Empire’ when sifted, often means ‘Canada’ and ‘Canada’ often means ‘what is the best for me'” (Fraser, 243). Another example of imprudence according to Wilby was the tendency for railway lines and roads to connect with cities across the border, no matter that these routes might bring needed goods and services to Canadians. As he dutifully carved his (almost) “all-red route” across Canada, branch lines into Maine and Minnesota deeply offended him, as did Canadians’ decision to drive on the right side of the road (145, 110). Such scolding conflicted with frequent advice that Canada should demonstrate her confidence and resolve to the world. That Canada wished to be mistress in her own house was sometimes acknowledged, but Wilby insisted, “she also owes love and devotion and gratitude to the Great Mother that fought and bled and spent of her treasures that she might found for her children this new Empire” (11; Pullen-Burry, 16).

Whether Canadians remained emotionally withholding again stemmed from their lack of true understanding of the Empire’s greatness, the authors maintained, just as a young son cannot fully grasp the capability of a father whom he loves in a vague, sometimes resentful way—the child has not the hindsight nor the wisdom to understand the parent, like the parent does the child (Fraser, 54). To this, the authors expressed their sense of ownership and authority through their texts, musing that Canada represented their protected property, even “your own patch of garden written a little large over a few more acres” (Kipling, 151). As they traveled from place to place, they candidly gave British settlers much of the credit for Canada’s accomplishments and certainly for its political and cultural institutions. “Take the men who have really made Canada;” Fraser opined, “nine out of ten have British blood in them” (Fraser, 55; Pullen-Burry, 319-20; see also Wilby, 37).

“It’s a long step, isn’t it, from Halifax to Vancouver?”

At the close of a fifty-two-day journey, Wilby and Haney’s REO car dipped its “rubber toes” into the Pacific Ocean at Victoria. Surrounded by a cheering audience and clicking cameras, Wilby poured the bottled water gathered from the Atlantic Ocean into the Pacific, a gesture to symbolize the unity of Canada’s land and peoples, and of course, to celebrate his (and Haney’s) accomplishment (277-78). Ever eager for publicity, he repeated the ritual in several localities on the British Columbia coast. He wrote, “Where one automobile has traveled, a hundred will be ready to follow,” turning Canada into the “granary” and “tourist center” of the Empire and the world (282). His adventure finished, he gave over the responsibility of Empire building to Canadians and British immigrants who might emulate his resolve and fulfill his vision.

The Roving Britishers, taking the “long step … from Halifax to Vancouver” (Pullen-Burry, 348) urged their middle class and elite countrymen to “maintain Britain’s sway” by following their trails blazed in Canada, spreading the word of the country’s rising position in Empire and the importance of the imperial tie (Lumsden, 178; Kipling 130; Brittain, 156-57). They celebrated a sense of kinship with English Canadians but also expressed apprehension regarding Canada’s future as it emerged from its “adolescence.” As he contemplated Canadian-British relations while admiring Ottawa’s architecture, John Foster Fraser identified a paradox that Empire presented to Canadians, of which the British should take note: at times resentful of British domination, English Canadians nevertheless expressed a strong desire to contribute to imperial grandeur but wondered how best to do so (250). He would write his book to tell them how.

Fraser and his fellow travel writers endeavored to portray Canada “as it really was,” but their books in fact promoted a unifying imperial narrative by telling Canada’s story as they wished to present it. They continually evoked the parent-child relationship as the best metaphor for understanding this changing relationship and to stimulate ongoing conversation between imperial kin. In a period of intensifying global competition for dominance, the authors justified their sometimes vociferous calls for a close “family” connection by naming the dangers Canada faced, including “foreign” immigration and the American threat. Through their didactic and often presumptuous accounts of all things Canadian, they reinforced their own sense of shared community that spanned the sea and nurtured possibilities for a future British identity and prosperity that they desired.