The Harper government has made remembering the War of 1812 a national imperative and is plowing $30-million into commemorating the conflict, which it has dubbed “the fight for Canada.”
The war, of course, was fought between the United States, Britain and inhabitants of what is now Canada. During the 1812 to 1814 conflict, U.S. attempts to invade Canada were repelled.
Andrew Pocock, Britain High Commissioner to Canada, spoke to The Globe and Mail about his perspective on the War of 1812 and bicentennial commemorations.
The diplomat has a doctorate in English literature from Cambridge and a great personal interest in military history.
The Globe: Tell us how you see the war and your thoughts on the conflict.
Pocock: It’s an interesting question because it’s 200 years ago now and it’s the second war that we fought against the United States. Well, it wasn’t the U.S. in the Revolutionary War. That was more of a kind of civil war in British North America.
[In]the 1812 war [there was]an independent state involved. Slightly different dimension. It's very interesting to go over what happened in terms of the military conflict both by land and sea. And some very curious things came out of it.
In a light-hearted vein: the United Kingdom, Britain, is responsible for giving the United States two important things from the War of 1812: One is the White House, because we burnt the presidential mansion and the brickwork was so badly scorched they couldn’t get the burn out so they painted it white.
And secondly, we gave the United States their national anthem. I mean the bombs bursting in air were either over Boston or Baltimore. I forget which. But those were ours. And the rockets’ red glare was ours too. One of life’s little ironies.
But I think what really mattered historically, for the War of 1812, was two things: One, the definition it helped to give to the young Canada. I mean it was still British North America at that stage. But I think, as we see from the way the battle is being memorialized here, that it did give people a sense of identity, a sense that they were different citizens of North America from their American neighbours.
It took a while for that to crystallize, and it took awhile obviously for Canada to evolve into the con-federal state it became and then the independent state it became – and an actor on the world stage. But some of the seeds were certainly sown in 1812 and that is an important and good thing.
And the second thing I think that really matters is the peace that followed [the war] It wasn’t always an easy peace. I mean there’s very interesting history in the 19th century of pressures and differences between not only the United States and what then became Canada but the United States and Great Britain in British North America.
I mean questions even over the border. The 49th parallel wasn’t settled until, I think, the middle of the 19th century. And there were other forms of pressure. But effectively 1814 [the end of the war]saw the last military difference between two countries that then grew into a lasting peace.
Not only a peace in a passive sense but a peace that became an alliance in two major world wars: a very important alliance. And of course that became a cultural economic family, a human series of networks and transactions over certainly the last 100 years that are enormous.
The Globe: I imagine the war doesn’t figure largely in British recollection, does it?
Pocock: Well it’s not a forgotten conflict by any means. But I heard the American Ambassador say the other day that it wasn’t hugely remembered in the United States because the United States had fought more important wars.
Well in a sense so has the United Kingdom. At the time, in 1812, the war that profoundly mattered was the war with Napoleonic France. And the assets of the British army and the Royal Navy were deployed in blockade and in combat in the peninsula in Spain. And winning that was what would change the balance of history – and it did.