150 Years of Forgetting About the Tenant League – Part 3
Updated: Dec 3, 2019
“Winter Mail Service on Prince Edward Island”, 1867 – Click Images to Enlarge
In Part 1 we saw how legal efforts to settle the Land Question on PEI were squashed resulting in a movement intent on resisting rent until the matter was settled. In Part 2 we saw the fomentation of the Tenant League boil over into activism and violence which brought it into the streets of Charlottetown. By August of 1865, British soldiers had to be called in to quell the uprising and force the payment of rents from rural farmers by any means necessary.
Duty & Desertion
There were a number of legal reasons and precedents for why Administrator Robert Hodgson was able to request troops from the Lieutenant Governor in Halifax. From 1854 to 1865 there was a complete absence of British soldiers on the Island which put it at odds with the rest of British North American, so he did not see anything strange in request. The primary motive, and the one most relied upon by Hodgson in his letter to the Colonial Office, was that local support had all but dropped out from under them. Island militias, or “Volunteers”, could not be relied upon because the statute governing them did not cover civil commotion and the sympathies of those same Volunteers were most firmly with the Tenant League. The government had spent much of the summer worrying about the many Volunteers across the Island who held arms and spent much of that time attempting to disarm the countryside. However, the adjutant general for the militia of the colony had reported to Hodgson that he had ‘considerable difficulty in some cases collecting these arms.’
Hodgson, and to an extent William H. Pope, believed that troops would not actually be deployed to the countryside, and only the threat of their use would be enough to bring people in line. In his letter to Halifax he stated,
“the presence of a regular military force in this Island will, in itself, have the effect of preventing further resistance to the Laws, and … I have no reason to apprehend that there will be any necessity for bringing troops into conflict with the people.”
There was a general fear among government officials on the Island around extracting rents from people ‘at the point of a bayonet’. Such a policy could be seen as heavy-handed and create ill will among their constituents. The idea, then, was to keep the troops in Charlottetown and only have them sent out if absolutely needed.
Administrator Robert Hodgson, the last man to request military assistance to enforce civil law on PEI
Hodgson kept coy about when the troops would be deployed and withdrawn which frustrated officials in Halifax and the Colonial Office abroad. People like Major General Charles Hastings Doyle and British Colonial Secretary Edward Cardwell understood that if soldiers were needed to force the payment of rents and maintain order, they would need to remain over an indefinite period of time. It was already late in the year and they wanted nothing more than to have the soldiers extracted before winter set in, when the Island became isolated from the mainland. Desertion among the ranks was the fear; a large and costly problem within the British army in the 19th century. Men recruited from the United Kingdom, too poor to raise money for passage themselves, would routinely settle in for the trip over the Atlantic only to abandon their regiment once overseas, disappearing into the colonies to start a new life. This had been an issue in the past with troops stationed on the Island and the expense of hunting down deserters and hauling them before the court was beyond practical. A tug-of-war between the Charlottetown and Halifax officials was slowly building and is neatly summarized by concerns over soldier housing in Charlottetown. At the time the Island had no proper place to keep the soldiers it received, which made controlling their movements difficult. Hodgson almost immediately sent out tenders for the construction of a new barracks but Major Tydd informed him that Halifax did not want to see the plan go through. The barracks was critical in Charlottetown’s plan to temper the fears of the military officers and prove they could be maintained over the winter. Doyle and Cardwell saw the lack of a barracks as good reason to threaten Hodgson with withdrawal of the soldiers before the winter and pressure him into a tight timeline.
The two governments took other proactive measures to curb desertion before it began. It was common for British soldiers to not be given civilian clothes so they stuck out when moving about, and Hodgson was quick to employ night watchmen to patrol the outlets and highways leading out of the city. As much as they tried, there were few better places to desert than Prince Edward Island in the summer. Once a deserter was off the island it was incredibly difficult to find and pursue them. It’s proximity to the United States made it an ideal jumping off point, and the Island at the time was riff with American fisherman, who made port in Georgetown and Souris and could be found in all the fishing waters around the Island. The rebellious sentiment in the countryside stemming from the Tenant League also made it easy for deserters to find safe houses and people who would help them along.
130 men arrived with Major Tydd at the beginning of August. Within two weeks, Doyle and Cardwell’s concerns were almost confirmed. Five men deserted before ever setting foot outside Charlottetown. By September 19th, 1865, seventeen had faded into the countryside.
‘In a public house … in Charlottetown, … the defendant Green came in, and, after treating all the soldiers to drink, threw his purse on the table and said, … ‘that any man who wanted to desert he was the man to exchange the clothing. He was the very boy who would do it for him. …there is plenty of money, and as long as the money lasted he would see any of them off the Island.’
-Report from the trial of Henry Green
The Tenant League’s role in helping deserters is not recorded anywhere that still exists and it would not have been a wise policy to write down in the first place. The League was aware that they could not win a fight with the soldiers and avoided organizing demonstrations or direct confrontation. Grinding away at officer and soldier morale would be their main weapon. There were a number of cases of League supporters using similar techniques to induce desertion among soldiers.
Donald McLeod, a resident of Lot 22, was convicted of trying to persuade a drunk soldier to desert. The soldier testified that McLeod had picked him up in his wagon and promised he could take him ’17 miles into the country if he wished’ and said it was ‘likely deserters would not be found.’ McLeod mentioned four others had deserted by that time and the interaction was only discovered after a passing citizen saw the soldier and recognized what was occurring.
Henry Green, a Charlottetown shopkeeper, was convicted multiple times for attempting to induce desertion among soldiers, including the personal servant of Major Tydd. In one instance Green approached five soldiers, including some non-commissioned officers, and offered to them a round of drinks. After chatting he tried to offer money and an exchange of clothes. In another instance, Green met a Private Macgowen on the street and offered to help him out of town. A common tactic was to reference a past deserter, in this instance a Private Moffit, which Green did, stating.
‘for it was I [who] put him away, and I buried his clothes [uniform] by tying a stone to them to sink them.’
Both Green and McLeod received the same sentence; six months’ hard labour.
Jane O’Halloran, a resident of Souris, was also charged with housing deserters, potentially before they left the Island through the port there, though her conviction failed in court.
The 16th Regiment of Foot were nicknamed the “Peacemakers” because they “missed nearly every military skirmish, battle, and war. The 16th was often stationed in far-off colonies and usually less volatile regions.”
The desertions soon stymied for a few reasons. Two deserters were captured in Souris attempting to leave and the penalties were severe. One received fifty lashes while the other was branded with a D for his crime. There were also increased rewards for reporting deserters, from five pounds originally to thirty pounds. The reward was enough to pay for years of back rent on many properties and the increased incentive made it dangerous for both soldiers and League supporters to deal in the countryside, for fear of double-crossings. In searching for deserters the Island government also purchased civilian clothes for soldiers so they could go about unnoticed, an irony not lost on the soldiers or author Ian Ross Robertson,
”Ordinarily forbidden to possess civilian clothing in the interests of preventing desertion, now, for the purpose of pursuing deserters, they were provided with it free of charge and ordered to wear it! Researchers who have published on the subject of desertion in British North America seem unaware of these exceptional measures the Island government took, and provide no comparable examples.”
The Final Straws
Resistance against rents continued even after the soldiers’ arrival. On September 18th, Deputy Sheriff James Curtis and his bailiff, Jonathan Collings, set out in a horse-drawn wagon for Lot 65. The area was owned by the Cumberland family, known for their aggressive behavior and apathy for concessions to the tenants.
They succeeded in catching one tenant, James Gorveatt, by surprise at his home and were able to serve him a writ. However Gorveatt took to his horse and rode out ahead of the authorities, blowing his tin trumpet and calling local League supporters to rally. Curtis and Collings were soon crowded by up to thirty people on horseback and became surrounded on all sides. The pair made slow progress up the road but were blocked and harassed by the growing crowd the entire way. After two hours they reached Rocky Point at the northern tip of Lot 65, just two miles south-west of Charlottetown. Curtis and his partner were surrounded on the shore and slowly getting pressed into the waves. They boarded a ferry, leaving behind the horse, wagon, and apparently Curtis’ pet dog, and shoved off, making for Charlottetown.
When they returned the next day they found the wagon had been shoved into the water, the horse’s tail clipped, and Curtis’ dog dead after being ‘brutally ill-treated’. To say by this time Curtis was not a well-liked figure in the countryside would be an understatement. He directly represented the government in serving writs and this escalation in violence against his property was likely meant as a form of psychological intimidation. Curtis and Collings would later swear they feared for their lives and continued to insist they had little ability to serve writs unsupported.
On the same day of the expedition to Lot 65, Bernard McKenna, constable for Lot 48, echoed their sentiments in a letter to Executive Council,
‘a constable or Bailiff cannot travel on the public road without being abused by a Lawless Mob of these Tenant Union men, boath [sic] with their tongues and those tin horns. … I have been three days at different intervals serving summonses for the Small Debt Court and there has been each day 100 or 150 men and boys, belonging to the Union. They were not like men. They were more like Devils.’
Horse and sleigh in front of W.S. Smith’s store, Charlottetown, ca. 1860s
Other incidents continued to occur well into October.
On September 20th a resident of Lot 65 passed through a group of thirty men who were apparently waiting on the sheriff coming to serve writs. However the sheriff never appeared due to an illness that day. It was apparent by now that League members were being tipped off about the comings and goings of the Sheriffs as they served writs, possibly by a sympathetic law clerk.
On September 23rd, a threatening letter was nailed to the door of the Island’s largest resident proprietor, Robert Bruce Stewart, in Lot 30, an “outspoken defender” of the land system. The letter in question had a header reading “Take Warning” followed by an “indecipherable five-line text” and was signed ‘Enonymous [sic] Cestpirce R.’ It’s still uncertain whether the text is poorly written thanks to a lack of education or was in fact written in hastily scribbled Gaelic, of which there were a number of speakers on the Island.
On September 27th, land agent Henry Jones Cundall reported in his diary that some eighty to one hundred men had assembled themselves ‘across the Princeton Road’ in the district of Hazel Grove, Lot 22. The men were blowing trumpets and there was a stand-off as Sheriff Curtis and Bailiff Collings approached. After some time the two officials had to turn away. Cundall’s diary is the only report of this incident and it reveals the potential for many more acts of resistance that went unreported by Curtis and Collings.
One of the last major reports of resistance came on October 2nd, 1865, when Curtis and three bailiffs set out to serve writs in Western Queens County, Lot 22, to four tenants of Laurence Sulivan. The Sulivan estate was the largest on the Island but also had an unusually low rate of freeholders. The Sulivans were, like many proprietors, reluctant to relinquish freehold and this policy continued over three generations. As well, the Sulivans were a model of absenteeism, their lack of land agents on the Island a common frustration for tenants, who would fall into arrears thanks to an inability to actually pay their rent. Laurence Sulivan was also a close friend and brother-in-law to Viscount Palmerston, the British prime minister at the time, and they had known each other since their school days. Palmerston was particularly interested in the Land Question on PEI because of the precedent it could potentially set throughout the British empire. As E.D Steele, an historian examining the Irish land reform movement, stated,
‘While Palmerston lived, neither Prince Edward Island nor Irish tenants could obtain the concessions of the principle they sought.’
In this way Laurence Sulivan held a disproportionate amount of power on the Island. Although he never set foot on the province, he held direct influence over the its affairs and the issues coming to a head.
When Curtis and Collings arrived in Lot 22 on October 2nd, they met the typical response. They were accosted by about twenty men, all blowing trumpets, armed with sticks and other weapons, and surrounding them on all sides to impede progress. They received verbal threats and had rocks and mud thrown at them. The officials made their way to Bagnall’s Hotel in Hazel Grove as the crowd around them swelled to about sixty people or more. They hid inside the hotel for some fifteen minutes before trying to strike out again, only to be turned back by an ever-growing crowd throwing more stones and dirt.
One of the key differences to this incident was the presence of firearms. All the officials reported multiple gunshots going off, likely fired into the air, and a number of guns were spotted in among the crowd. This made the death threats against Curtis and his gang even more serious. There was a brief struggle over a gun after a shot was fired but the League member was able to keep possession. The officers retreated to the hotel after forty-five minutes of harassment and sat down to have a meal. During that time the inn was surrounded by the crowd and more gunshots went off, adding to the blaring commotion of the tin trumpets. After dinner they attempted to go on their way towards Mill Vale to the north and west. The road was soon blocked and when the crowd asked what Curtis’ business was he told them he was not there to serve writs. The crowd didn’t believe him and Collings reported Curtis was struck on the head and back. In the face of increasing hostility and worsening death threats, with the specter of more gunfire breaking out, Curtis and his bailiffs were forced to break off and return to town.
Whatever the reasoning, be it the presence of firearms or the last straw in a long line of failures to serve writs, Sheriff Dodd wrote to Hodgson on October 6th stating military assistance was required in the countryside.
The following Saturday, a band rode out from Charlottetown for Hazel Grove, Lot 22. They were compromised of a liberal justice, William Swabey, Sheriff Thomas Dodd, eight bailiffs, two officers, and twenty-five men of the 16th Regiment.
The following edition of Pope’s the Islander let the occurrence be known
‘The time for trifling has gone.’
The choice of sending Swabey was an interesting one. The decision was made by Pope, possibly to act as a reassuring presence in the company. Swabey was neither a land agent, proprietor, nor politically aligned with the Conservative government. In that narrow way he would have receive more sympathy from the tenants and dissuade any poor actions. As well, being a Liberal, if anything went wrong, it was likely in Pope’s calculation that the blame could be laid at his political opponents’ feet.
The officials and soldiers set out on October 7th and returned to Charlottetown on the 13th. They were successful in arresting a number of accused rioters and serving writs to tenants. At least three people turned themselves in in Charlottetown before the company arrived to their property, both to avoid the shame of being captured at bayonet point and to dodge the number of legal fees that would result. The legal process after one was arrested or served a writ was at times enough to throw tenants back into arrears, and it was easier to simply turn one’s self in when the writing was on the wall then spend that kind of money.
On October 18th the band set out again for Lots 65, 29, and 30 and though they met outright displays of poor feelings throughout, no shots were fired. Soldiers had to intervene on at least ten occasions but it never went beyond that. As one report said,
‘The news of impending [military] intervention was usually enough of itself to lead to a collapse of resistance.
On October 27th the guard was changed in Charlottetown, with the soldiers of the 16th Regiment returning to Halifax and being replaced by two companies of the 15th Regiment out of Fredericton. They were housed in the newly completed Victoria Barracks. On November 2nd they were put to use, with Swabey, Dodd and a military party of forty-three striking out on a ten day excursion through the heart of Tenant League territory. They went from the Tracadie estate in Lot 35 and 36 into deeper eastern Queens areas of Lots 48, 49, 50. They met only passive resistance, with some wooden bridges demolished in their path to slow movement. They went so far as to not just serve writs but seize “crops, horses, and cattle” to make up for payments. Robert Haythorne later reported to papers that in Tracadie several families of old men and women, and young mothers with their children, fled into the woods during harsh weather to avoid the sheriff and military. In his letter to the Islander he said,
‘ Do any of your readers believe that the recollections of the camp at Tracadie will ever be obliterated from the minds of those who shared its hardships? Will not elderly people always date the commencement of their rheumatism from those bitter days? …I cannot regard the fact of families thus abandoning their homes, as otherwise than disgraceful to a civilized community.
Those people appeared to have something to fear in the face of military presence. At least some vandalism occurred from the hands of soldiers, with one resident of Ten Mile House on Lot 35 later receiving compensation for the burning of 300 unfinished wooden poles and damage to his grass. Nonetheless, the expedition was successful in serving a number of writs throughout Queens County without a shot fired.
Province House from Richmond Street, ca. 1865
The campaign sent the Tenant League into disarray. Rent resistance had been the primary edict of the Tenant League pledge and with that broken the movement was forced to re-prioritize their efforts. A notice published in Ross’ Weekly on September 7th noted that their constitution was being revised. The new focus was on the League’s other goal, the purchase of estates at a fair price. But trust between the tenants and its local leadership quickly began to break down. There were a number of accusations of tenants individually seeking arrangements with landlords to purchase property, such as with the Campbellton Tenant Union treasurer James Sullivan. Sullivan did not deny the accusation and he was cast out by the branch ‘as a rotten member’, later called ‘a self-convicted traitor’ and an effigy of him was burned. This bitterness spilled over into resentment between the tenants and the Central Committee. With the leadership gone into hiding outside of a few select meetings between September 7th and September 4th of 1866 (the last meeting of the Central Committee), many tenants believed they had been hung out to dry by the people who drove them to resistance in the first place. There was a general sentiment that the leadership were well off enough to pay their arrears and rent, while poorer tenants were left to the mercy of their landlords. One anonymous writer to the Examiner wrote,
‘Adams prated about the divine right to resistance. Stewart publicly threatened to make a martyr of a bailiff, and John Ross got some rascal to say that the Sheriff and his officers were no better than raiders.’
It did not help that none of the leadership ever came forward with their own account of those final days. George Adams disappeared to United States after 1866 and died in Philadelphia in 1879. Alexander McNeil renounced his position before September 1865 and continued as district school master. Samuel Lane only reappeared as a witness in a court case against John Roach Burke in 1866. Only John Ross was left to write piece-meal accounts of the movement, filtered as they were by memory and the few clippings he had. A fire in the Ross’ Weekly office in 1866 destroyed much of the copies of the paper from 1865 to 1866, and with them a fuller account of the League in its heyday, only bits and pieces surviving.
With their influence waning, opponents of the League came out in force. Edward Whelan denounced the leadership for ‘fraud and deception’ and called the League ‘the swindling organization.’ His paper, the Examiner, reported on October 16th, after the incident on Lot 22, that ‘their spirit is broken.’ On November 20th, after the military’s third tour through the countryside, it declared the Tenant League was ‘now happily defunct.’ On December 29th, William H. Pope’s paper the Islander reported that the league, ‘as an illegal association, is dead.’
Ross’ Weekly, as the sole redoubt of the League in its throes, published a Central Committee resolution on December 14th requesting money to assist the legal defense of League member cases appearing before the Supreme Court in January. Charles Dickieson, along with others arrested for their actions at the Curtisdale Bridge and on Lot 22 in September, had their day in court and were found guilty for assault. Dickieson was given eighteen months in jail while two other men, Doucette and Gallant, received a year. On August 1st, 1866, a 5,275-name petition was presented for their release, and they were subsequently freed with fines remitted.
Queen Street, Charlottetown, ca. 1860
After December of 1865 there was no attempts at resistance against rent recorded and by late 1866 the question of returning the soldiers to Halifax came up. With an election near the Island government pleaded for them to remain in case a ‘petty civil war’, as the Colonial Office called it, broke out. The soldiers were allowed to stay for another winter and eventually withdrew on June 27th, 1867.
For the short time the League existed however, the change they affected was great. The 1861 census listed only 32.6% of Island land as freehold. Between 1864 to 1866, 17.2% was transferred to freehold status, and with more estates in transition than in any previous time. The feeling of change was imminent and though the League never again reared its head, its members remained active throughout the Island and committed to the cause of establishing freehold tenure on the Island.
The Elections of 1866 and 1867
The election for the Legislative Council occurred in 1866 and the general election for the House of Assembly occurred in 1867, but both saw significant swings in voting patterns and support compared to previous elections. Most notable was the complete rout of Conservative councilors and assemblymen from office, to be replaced by Liberals and pro-Tenant League activists.
In 1866 the Conservatives lost both seats in Queens, the center of Tenant League activity and previously Tory strongholds, thanks in large part to Conservative voters staying at home. In Nine Mile Creek, for example, the voter turnout among Conservatives dropped from 91% in the 1863 election to just 51% in the 1866 election.
John Balderston, previously a commissioner of small debts who had been dismissed for his connection with the League, took 62.7% of the votes cast in the 1st district of Queens, and was unequivocal about his past support for the movement,
‘The people desired to support men of independent principles – not the willing tools of the High Tory School, nor the old Liberal party, but men who would never consent to have unfortunate Tenants driven by bayonet, to a compliance with the wishes of grasping land-owners.’
In the 2nd district of Queens, Robert P. Haythorne, one of the first proprietors to deal with the Tenant League, defeated an incumbent with 58.9% of the vote and acknowledged in the Legislative Council that, ‘I was returned … in a great measure through the influence of that body [the Tenant League].’ He had been nominated by Robert Stewart, a founding member of the Central Committee, and James Laird, a former justice of the peace and League organizer.
Province House, Charlottetown, ca. 1866
In the 1867 general election, six new assemblymen were elected, five of them from rural Queens. All expressed support for the Tenant League throughout their careers and all six replaced Conservatives, which was enough to swing the House of Assembly in favor of the Liberals, 19 to 11. Edward Palmer, in a letter to Joseph Howe in Nova Scotia, both staunch anti-Confederates, identified the Tory’s loss in PEI,
‘proceeded more from the effects of the Tenant League, than from the confederation differences within our Conservative party.’
Queens county, once the most prosperous and Tory-centric of the three Island counties, was now hostile territory by wide margins. For example, in Lot 22 in the 1st District of Queens, the elected assemblymen, Peter Sinclair and Donald Cameron, took in 94% of the vote.
The divide between pro- and anti-Tenant League members continued in the government for years. In one recorded instance in 1872, after William H. Pope was returned to the legislature, William S. McNeill, a former activist and organizer with the League, denounced his ‘attempt to rule the Island by the bayonet, the handcuffs and the jail.’ Pope retorted that McNeill was the ‘Communist General’ and described him as, ‘a man whom he believed might be guilty of committing crimes similar to those perpetrated by the communists of France.’ in reference to the Paris Commune.
After George Coles formed government on March 13th, 1867, five of the nine members of the Executive Council were once supporters of the Tenant League. This pro-League sentiment continued down the ranks into appointments. Charles Dickieson, who had only recently been charged with assault, received a minor office as commissioner of highways for Queens County road district #3. Robert Gordon, another former justice of the peace dismissed for his activities with the League, was appointed as assistant reporter to the house. Benjamin Balderston Jr, a secretary of his local branch of the League, was appointed to the office of registrar of deeds and keeper of plans. Several more appointments were made such to a point that Whelan in the Examiner had to ask, ‘is that organization still alive?’
This hold on government by Tenant League supporters translated into policy as well. As Ian Ross Robertson states, after 1866,
“There was at least one significant estate purchase by the Island government each year afterwards through 1871.”
In 1856, proprietors made up one-third of the assembly. By 1871, James Pope, once again premier, declared in the assembly ‘there is not a proprietor present in the house.’
As Robertson states, “When unpopular landlords were criticized, no one rose to explain away their actions.”
The Tenant League’s role in dismantling the leasehold system has never received much attention. Many scholars prefer to look to the Charlottetown Conference and Confederation as the events which moved the Island towards freehold status, but the truth is that the process had begun long before then. From the Eschaet movement of the 1830s to the Fifteen Years Purchase Bill, the question of freehold tenure was being pushed by Islanders further and further, with the Tenant League forming a capstone on the issue. The Land Purchase Act of 1875 and even Confederation were solutions offered after the fact. In practice, the Land Question was well on the way to being answered. The Tenant League accelerated the issue, through active resistance and political reform in the 1866 and 1867 elections, and brought a decisive end to it without outside concessions. In fact, ending the leasehold system when they did likely allowed the Island to negotiate for payment of the cross-Island rail system when entering Confederation, instead of settling with symbolic treatises on land reform that were already in practice. For all the roughhousing that occurred during its time, the Tenant League never translated into a separate political party as Liberals like Whelan and Tories like Pope feared. It’s important to identify how resistance was not the ultimate goal, but a means to an end. When the election rolled around, Tenant League members and sympathizers worked within the system to achieve the political and land reforms they had fought for just a few years earlier.
Sales of Land, 1864 – 1866. Click for whole map.
In the short time it was active the Tenant League did far more than its members or leadership could have expected. The purchases of the Cunard family estates alone freed some 1,350 tenants. Within another year and a half they had freed 17.2% of the land mass of the Island. The sale of the Haythorne, Montegomery, and a portion of the Sulivan estates, all orchestrated by the Tenant League within a climate they created, served to widen the cracks and strike at the resolve of absentee landowners. With the election of pro-Tenant League members into government by 1867, the idea of the leasehold system maintaining itself or surviving was history. All progress from then forward was towards its elimination. The same could not be said if the Tenant League had not existed and had not shifted the balance of power away from the classical, capitulating mindset of the Liberals and Conservatives of the time. In 1874, when Robert Haythorne rose in the Legislative Council, he recalled that,
‘In 1868 the [Liberal] Government [of which he was a member] was in communication with the Proprietors and some of them were a little more reasonable than they are now. They had the fear of the tenant league before their eyes at that time.’
It can be easy to overlook the accomplishments of the Tenant League or belittle its place in history. There was no signing of an historic document, no great battles or fields of dead, nor any great martyrs for the cause. They did not storm their places of government, hold their assemblymen hostage, or overthrow the imperialist rule of Britain. Yet they did what many great rebellions struggle and fail to do. They led a bloodless campaign of civil disobedience, organizing the support of thousands across a province, to ultimately win the day after three short years. This is a feat that typically takes decades of struggle or sometimes bloody civil wars to sort out and it is totally unique within Canadian history.
Yeah, But So What?
For all this, if you take a stroll downtown and glance over the annals of history that paint the Island’s capital, you’ll never once catch a glimpse of this hidden history. No plaques, no markers, no statues. Wikipedia has but three short paragraphs on the matter, and the Canadian government’s archival website is much the same. The only in-depth records which talk at all about George Adams, Sheriff James Curtis, the Posse Comitatus, the Charlottetown Parade, or the bouts at Curtisdale or Lot 22, are all stored away, passively being drowned out by more preferable history.
When we put all our history and remembrance into a single basket, so to speak, we are robbing ourselves of important perspectives. If all we know about our history is Confederation and the Fathers, we focus only on how the wealthy and influential can create history, and rob rural Islanders and everyday people of their role in changing it. Because the Tenant League did not take its demands at gunpoint or was massacred before bayonets, their accomplishment is lessened, and we skew their memory until we don’t remember it at all. If we fail to adapt and retell our history, then we’re doomed to peer back at it through a narrow kaleidoscope of dazzling colour, its blinded vision nudged to a place a select few prefer it to gaze.
There’s still time to correct our mistakes. 1864 was a formative year for the Tenant League, but it was in 1865 where many of their biggest strides were made, and which we could choose to celebrate again. There’s a chance to recognize all aspects of Island history, not just the ones that weld us to the mainland.
Because in the grand scheme of things, 150 years is not that long ago. It’s a short enough time for the stories, artifacts, experiences, and lessons to be passed down through just a few branches of the family tree to us today. If you look closely at the history of the tenants and their movement, you find that the hopes and dreams of people then are not all that different from what we hope and dream for today. They sought fairness in their business, security in their livelihood, and the freedom to live and work as they please. Are these things so distant from what we want? The leasehold system seemed unassailable at the time, rebuffed by every legal measure there was until a frustrated people took matters into their own hands. They didn’t need to overthrow the British parliament, but only aggravate elements of its power to affect local change. Look around yourself and ask: What Land Questions do we have today? What systems seem unassailable? What policies do we assume are entrenched beyond reprieve? And what could be different 150 years from now?
Robertson, Ian Ross. The Tenant League of Prince Edward Island, 1864-1867: Leasehold Tenure in the New World. Toronto: U of Toronto, 1996. Print.