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Major-General Isaac Brock commanded British forces in the War of 1812. (PBS)
Major-General Isaac Brock commanded British forces in the War of 1812. (PBS)


What the War of 1812 means to Britain's man in Canada Add to ...

But [the War of 1812]is not a forgotten conflict. It’s not forgotten for a number of reasons. There were various naval engagements, three of which we lost; three of which we won. [They]did remind people that there was an emerging naval power, the United States, on the other side of the Atlantic -- which was an interesting factor.

There was the defence of British North America, with very few regular troops and a lot of Canadian militia. And there was the contribution, interestingly and importantly, of Quebec: French Canadians, in the defence of their territory, not all that long after a war in which – the Seven Years’ War – la Nouvelle-France had become rather reluctantly part of British North America.

But nonetheless they defended Canada, as it was then becoming, in a way that was both positive and encouraging.

The Globe: The Americans advertise their antique warship, the USS Constitution or “Old Ironsides,” as “undefeated.” It was involved in the War of 1812. What was the naval score in that war?

Pocock: There were frigate actions in different ways. I think Old Ironsides took on and beat a smaller British frigate, HMS Java. I don’t think she was defeated. But there were other actions where British frigates beat American sister ships of Old Ironsides.

There was a very famous encounter off Boston where a British frigate captain taunted his American counterpart to come out and fight and the battle only lasted 20 minutes. It was a sort of blood-stained draw, I suspect, in terms of [the war’s]naval encounters.

But with Old Ironsides, what impressed the Royal Navy about her was that she was a kind of super frigate. She had 44 guns, was built of very hard American oak and rather lighter caliber cannonballs seemed to bounce off her sides; hence, the nickname: Old Ironsides.

There wasn’t any iron in her. Just pretty hard North American wood. She’s, I think, for the United States Navy rather what HMS Victory is for the Royal Navy.

The Globe: What’s the British contribution in the 1812 bicentennial or is it pretty much Canada’s commemorations?

Pocock. We will play a role. We’ve got a couple of big events of our own next year. We’ve got the Olympic Games in London and we have the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee that will be celebrated in realms such as Canada as well.

What I thought we would do is mark some of the celebrations that will take place, as I understand it, across a number of towns in Upper and Lower Canada, as it used to be. And we have a couple of military bands that are very likely to be coming across to join in celebrations and commemorations and play at important occasions. They will be bands of British regiments. ... To some extent it depends on what’s available but we’re pretty sure there will be a couple around.

The Globe: Do you think there’s a risk of overstating the war? There’s been a debate in Canada over whether the tone of commemoration is a bit of a cardboard cutout version of history and whether Canadians are making too much of it.

Pocock: At the political level it’s very much a matter for the Canadian government to decide. But I think at a historical level there is something to remember. Going back to the point I made earlier, it’s one of the defining times in the history of British North America that became the country of Canada. I think what’s worth remembering is not so much the... of course we should remember the military engagements, I mean that’s what ultimately wars are about.

But we should remember what came out of it: the lasting peace which grew into an alliance and a political and economic cooperation between two countries that’s fairly unprecedented. A vast unguarded border and enormous two-way trade, as well as all the historical-linguistic family ties across two international frontiers. That’s pretty important.

The Globe: The slogan of the Canadian celebrations is “The Fight for Canada” so [the remembrance]a bit more chauvinistic than that, in the way it’s being rolled out at the moment.

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