Wellington and the Birth of Modern Canada
Publication30 March 2023
Born Dublin 1769. Died Kent, England 1852.
Author: Eamonn McKee
The Duke of Wellington wielded the most formative influence Canada of all the Anglo-Irish in Canada, yet never set foot here. Does he qualify for Fifty Irish Lives in Canada? Here is the case in favour.
Wellington’s forebears, originally Cowleys, arrived from England around 1500. His grandfather Richard Colley changed his name to Wesley following an inheritance. Wellington adopted Wellesley from his mother’s side. He was raised on their lands near Trim following his birth in Dublin.
Too much is made of Wellington’s distain for his Irish background. Most of his soldiers were Irish, he was a life-long member of his Masonic Lodge in Trim, and as Prime Minister he delivered Catholic Emancipation in the face of ferocious opposition from his own Tory party and the king.
The century’s long titanic struggle between Britain and France for global supremacy had been fought in North America, Ireland, the Atlantic, the West Indies, the East Indies, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. Denied the freedom of the seas by the Royal Navy, Napoleon sought a decisive advantage invading Russia. At this moment of peril, the US invaded Canada. In his outrage, Wellington had a vision for Canada. The lesson of the Napoleonic blockade was that supplies for the Royal Navy had to come from British North America. To prevent the Americans seizing Canada, Wellington embarked on strategy of fortification from the St Lawrence River to Halifax: canals to secure the movement of troops and supplies from Niagara to Montreal; settler soldiers for speedy mobilization in vulnerable southern Ontario; Halifax as a fortified harbour to defend the North Atlantic trade routes.
Wellington was uniquely placed to carry out his plan. As Master General of the Ordnance in 1818, Commander-in-Chief in 1827 and Prime Minister from 1828-1830, he had the authority to order British Army engineers and sappers to help build vital infrastructure. To finance his endeavours, and by a bizarre twist of history, the Admiralty had a treasure of Spanish silver beyond Parliamentary control. Without the need for Parliamentary approval or oversight, by 1818 Wellington was free to spend it in Canada building the Lachine, Rideau Canals.
The canals, along with some sixteen Martello towers and other fortifications, were primarily military in origin but had a catalytic effect on the economy’s transport infrastructure. The Lachine Canal saved Montreal from the competition of the Eerie Canal. The Welland Canal remains a vital part of Canada’s trade today. The Rideau Canal created Bytown, today Canada’s capital city Ottawa.
All this work drew in thousands of Irish immigrants who joined their fellow countrymen in the booming lumber industry and Irish farmers settling on cheap available land. Many of Wellington’s Irish soldiers, brought in to defend Canada in 1812, also settled in Ontario, helped by subsidies. Here lies the origin of Irish settlement patterns in Canada.
As Sweeny writes in his fascinating book on Mackay and the founding of Ottawa, the names of the men Wellington dispatched to Canada to realise his vision “resonate today in the names of hundreds of Canadian towns, cities, counties, streets, schools, and universities”: Charles Lennox the Duke of Richmond, George Ramsay the Earl of Dalhousie, Sherbrooke, Aylmer, Kempt, Murray, Colborne, Bagot, Maitland, Lennox, Drummond, Cathcart, and Arthur. “They were all Wellington’s men.”
Like Canada, Ireland was shaped by British imperial interests. Fears that Ireland would be swept up in French Revolutionary fervour convinced London to abolish the Irish Parliament 1800 and to bind Ireland to Britain in the Act of Union 1800. Yet the same drive to bind Canada as an ally led it to succour that relationship, granting it responsible government in the 1840s and Confederation as the first Dominion of the Commonwealth in 1867. As Thomas D’Arcy McGee argued trenchantly, had Britain taken a similar tact with Ireland, our history would have been very different.
Canada's role as imperial bulwark threatened by a perfidious revolutionary America has faded in memory as the sun set on the British Empire and risen on American global hegemony. Yet this story has led me hear in Canada’s national anthem the echoes of its colonial history: “True patriot love in all of us command, With glowing hearts we see thee rise, The True North strong and free! From far and wide, O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”
Wellington’s strategic vision of Canada’s value to Britain’s global security was ultimately correct. Britain had beaten Spain as its chief global competitor in the 15th century. It had ultimately beaten France, its chief rival in the 18th and 19th centuries, first in North America on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec and then decisively in Europe at Waterloo. Once the United States gave up its predatory intentions toward Canada, it was a key diplomatic and trading partner with the UK, part of an Anglophone Atlantic sphere of influence. The support of North America as a whole proved decisive in the defeat of Britain’s chief 20th century rival, Germany, in two world wars. What Wellington could not have anticipated was that his own chief rival in America, the United States, would by the mid-twentieth century eclipse the British Empire. To this day, Canada is a vital partner in NATO and the transatlantic partnership with the US and UK.