“A peep at the western world; being an account of a visit to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Canada, and the United States”

“Now the “gridiron” is a square box-like structure, situated about midships, in close proximity to the engines, and which being closed in at the top and sides, affords shelter from the wind, and to a great extent, from the heavy seas shipped in bad weather. In the centre is the capstan, which often serves as an impromptu table, and the sides or walls area series of wooden shutters, which fasten tightly into a groove, so that one or more can readily be removed to suit the weather and the convenience of the passengers. From this it can easily be imagined that, at night, the “gridiron” was the snug retreat of those who indulged in “the fragrant weed,” or who were disposed to conviviality. For myself, I shall always remember with pleasurable feelings those agreeable evenings spent on the bosom of the Atlantic in the gridiron aforesaid.”

“It was towards eight o’clock in the evening of the 4th May (and just twelve days from the time of our leaving Liverpool) when we distinguished the lights to guide vessels in their approach to Halifax, and at exactly ten o’clock p.m. we dropped our anchor in Chebuctoo harbour. We bade farewell to those passengers proceeding by the “Niagara” on to Boston, and were not long before we disembarked, and after a hasty inspection of our luggage by the officer appointed to that duty, I proceeded in a dingy and mournful specimen of a hackney coach to the “Acadian Hotel,” my future residence during my stay in Halifax. Halifax, the principal naval station of British North America, is situated in 44° 40″ N. latitude, and 63° 38” W. longitude. It is a quaint old city, unlike any I had ever seen before, and does not certainly present the appearance of having been in English hands for more than a century. It is the capital of the province of Nova Scotia, originally Acadia, and was formerly a French possession. The province was called Acadia after a simple unobtrusive hardy little flower of that name which grows wild in the country—the land which inspired Longfellow, who has shed a romantic interest over it! Nos etiam in Acadia. I knew and felt that I was in Acadia, so I was induced early one fine morning to ramble through the forest in the neighbourhood of Halifax in search of one of these plants, now become so very rare, and was gratified by collecting a very fine specimen in full bloom. The leaf is not unlike that of a small rose plant, whilst the flower itself partakes of the violet species. It is a curious fact associated with this plant that it is not to be found in any other province of the western continent. The wild flowers of Acadia are most abundant, and are indeed a peculiar feature of the province. The roadside is fringed with white, pink, and purple, and wild strawberries blossoming, whiten in their starry settlements every bit of turf. In the swamps too is long green needle grass, surmounted with snowy tufts; clusters of purple laurel blossoms as they are called (though not at all like our laurels) shoot up from beside the grey rocks and boulders which lie thickly and loosely about. The ditches too are bedecked with numbers of pitcher plants which, lifting their veined and mottled vases brimming with water, invite the wood birds to drink and perch upon their thick rims. Here, again, is seen the buckthorn in blossom; there, on the turf, the scarlet partridge berry. Small shrubs of wild cherry trees also abound, and beneath shining tropical-looking leaves the fragrant may-flower modestly hides; and meadow-sweet, not less fragrant because less beautiful, pours its aroma into the fresh air. And above all and around all are the evergreens, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks, the rampikes, the grey-beards of the forest primæval, and the spicy breath of resinous balsams. This is Acadia! “This is Arcadia—this the land, That weary souls have sighed for; This is Arcadia—this the land Heroic souls have died for; Yet, strange to tell, this promised land Has never been applied for!”

“But to resume my narrative. Nova Scotia continued in the hands of the French until the year 1713, when it was ceded to the English by one of the stipulations of the treaty of Utrecht. From this date little or no progress had been made in the settlement of that part of it now known as Nova Scotia; neglect and indifference seem to have been manifested by the home government towards the colony, and gave rise to the natural inference by the French that England was either unaware of the real value of her new possession, or, if alive to its importance, did not exhibit any interest in retaining it. Accordingly they resolved to regain it by clever diplomacy, ofttimes superior to physical force. Their first step was to assert with boldness and pertinacity that “Acadia” comprised the peninsula only, and that the remainder of the territory across the bay of Fundy was still their possession.—* This* dexterous manœuvre, however, did not succeed, for the people settled in Massachussets took alarm at this unexpected claim, and at once urged the attention of the mother country to the matter, pointing out that its admission would supply the French with a formidable frontier, and would be productive of disastrous results to the peace and safety of the British North American possessions. This earnest and well-timed remonstrance roused the English government from its apathy and stimulated it to action, for it appears that plans were immediately devised for “confirming and extending “the dominion of the Crown of England in Acadia, “by constituting communities, diffusing the benefits “of population, and improving the fisheries on the “coast,” and submitted to the president of the “Board of Trade and Plantations.” This functionary was that acute statesman the Earl of Halifax, who ardently approved of the scheme, and obtained the sanction of the legislature for its developement. Public notices were issued stating that encouragement would be given to all officers and private soldiers of the army to settle in Nova Scotia. Now as several thousands of troops had been but recently disembodied from the standing army, the invitation was readily accepted it appears by 3760 persons, who, with their families were entered for embarkation, and the House of Commons voted the munificent sum of forty thousand pounds to defray the expences of their emigration. The Honourable Edward Cornwallis was appointed Governor of the colony, and accompanied the expedition, which took its departure in May 1749, and after a voyage of about six weeks arrived in Chebuctoo Harbour. (The old chronicle says the colony was founded on the 8th day of June, 1749, and is considered the natal day of Halifax).”

“It can readily be imagined that nature in her noblest aspect was here presented to the eye. The shores of the capacious harbour were covered with the dark rich verdure of the spruce and the fir, interspersed with the lighter and more attractive foliage of the larch, the maple, and the beech, thus completely concealing from view the huge masses of granite which were strewed over the soil, and which proved almost insurmountable obstacles to the cultivation of the land. Upon landing, the important question was discussed as to the most elegible site for founding a town, and as the spot first selected turned out unsuitable, that now known as Halifax was ultimately determined upon. It was named Halifax in honor of the noble Earl under whose auspices it may be said the expedition was fitted out. Previously to the landing of the new-comers, the Governor deemed it proper to organize a civil council, and, under his nomination, six members of His Majesty’s Council for the Province of Nova Scotia were appointed. The prospects of the inexperienced emigrant were not of the most cheering nature, though here indeed was “the forest primaeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks” enough to arouse the most sanguine expectations, yet, underneath this umbrageous canopy, as we have already shewn, lay hidden the source of bitter disappointment, heightened because of their sudden transition from a land populous and highly cultivated—alike the abode of wealth and civilization. The reader will have observed that the expedition reached its destination in the height of summer, and although it was supplied with provisions sufficient to sustain them for several months, it behoved the emigrants to use every exertion to protect themselves from the severity of the approaching winter. This was accomplished by the erection of wooden huts and the enclosing of the settlement. At this time there were, inclusive of soldiers, nearly five thousand souls within the palisade. Having so far attempted a brief account of the foundation of the settlement, I will proceed to notice more especially the city of Halifax, its harbour, and surrounding scenery.

The streets are all formed at right angles, the principal one running north and south of the town, whilst the houses are mostly of wood, and the churches are principally built of the same material, the appearance of which at once attracts the attention of the stranger. The streets generally are paved with wood planks with wood kerbs, while some are left entirely in their primitive state. Just fancy a wood pavement! The population is computed at 30,000, or thereabouts, and it is remarkable that little or no increase has taken place for the past half century, which is accounted for by the absence of that tide of emigration which flows into other parts of the world, there being in this locality no attraction for the emigrant, or at present any highway to the inland states. The inhabitants may be divided into three classes; first, those of Irish and Scotch descent; secondly, those of German and Dutch extraction (the offshoots of the original settlers); and, thirdly, the black people], which latter are either runaway slaves or their offspring. These latter occupy a position at the extreme north of the town, which is commonly designated the Black Settlement, and have their own distinct places of worship and sable pastors. The city and its suburbs extend over two miles in length, north and south, whilst it is barely half a mile in width at any point. By the original plan for the formation of the streets there were eight, of which two only reached the southern and three the northern extremities of the town; fifteen others intersected these at right angles. Within the last fifteen or twenty years others have been added from time to time by private individuals, in the division, subdivision, and sale of land lying outside the town.”

“There is also the pleasant little village of Dartmouth, situate opposite to Halifax on the other side of the harbour, with which there is communication by means of two steam floating bridges, which ply regularly across from the north and south ferries. It is a fashionable resort of the Halifax people, there being in the vicinity some very pleasant walks.”

“In a commercial point of view, Halifax has very little to boast of, though from its position as a port it is in my humble opinion destined in a short time to become a great commercial mart, and the highroad to our Canadian possessions. Looking at the map I was much struck with the advantages that of necessity must have accrued to its commerce if years ago the “blue noses” had constructed a line of railway direct to Quebec, for from the proximity of Halifax to England as compared with any port in the United States, it does not require any amount of shrewdness to detect that as a consequence of this, coupled with the facilities of inland communication by rail, the whole trade of Canada would flow through Halifax instead of as at present being very nearly monopolised by our Yankee neighbours. If my prognostication respecting Halifax be not realised, it will be simply owing to the lethargy of the “Halligonians,” as they call themselves; but in Halifax I observed that though its inhabitants are industrious and careful as a people, with plenty of capital, they are utterly wanting in enterprise. The responsibility of laying down lines of railway must not be thrown entirely upon government, because it is certainly the duty and the interest of the inhabitants to bring before the legislature the advantages, commercial or otherwise, that would arise from their scheme being sanctioned. It has been the case with all railroads in the United Kingdom, that they have been planned, brought before the House of Commons, and eventually carried out by private enterprise. Though the NovaScotians have undoubtedly lost a commercial revenue by inattention to their own interests in this respect, let me hope that they will not fail to carry out the line of railroad I have suggested before the opportunity be irretrievably lost.”

“Nova Scotia is divided into 18 counties, named (in worthy imitation) after counties or cities in old England. These counties send each two, three, four, or five members to represent them in the House of Assembly, which consists of 54 members, elected every four years, on the principle of universal suffrage. I may mention, en passant , that this mode of election is but of recent introduction amongst them, and as I happened whilst at Halifax to witness the spectacle of a general election, it will perhaps be as well if I say a few words on the practical working of this measure. Before doing so I will explain that the political affairs of the province are delegated to the legislative council, composed of 22 members, and the house of assembly before referred to. The members of the legislative council are styled “honourable” by courtesy, a title retained by them during life.

Now touching universal or manhood suffrage, a question the advisability of which is so much agitated at home by a certain class of politicians, I do not hesitate to aver that I never viewed it in a favourable light, because it throws into the hands of the majority—the lower classes—a preponderating influence which, whilst it is unfair to the minority, the possessors of every description of property, may be used to overthrow the most useful measures, and to favour intrigue of the most venal nature, this, be it remembered, at the expense of those most interested in the prosperity of the country. Nevertheless, not having before had an opportunity of seeing universal suffrage practically developed, I felt considerable interest in watching narrowly the progress of the election, because it would afford me a chance of testing whether the opinion I had formed was erroneous or not. The only qualifications necessary to entitle one to a vote are twenty-one years of age (no qualification at all), and a residence of five years in the province, either of which are easily evaded, because the fraud is difficult and troublesome to detect. During the day I visited, in company with a friend, every polling place in the city, and I am sure that numbers of youths (whose boyish appearance clearly indicated that they had not attained the age of twenty-one) were allowed to vote with impunity. Again, I was assured by inhabitants of the place who were in a position to know, that many voted not only as they should have done, at one booth, but again recorded their vote in another district. Though doubtless there are other means of successfully practising deception, I think I have clearly shewn the gross abuses of a system which I never wish to see introduced at home. The entire population of Nova Scotia is about 224,000; of this number about 80,000 are Roman Catholics.

“Bidding adieu to mine host of the Acadian, I left Halifax, and proceeded to Windsor, a pretty little town situate at the confluence of the rivers St. Croix and Avon, and distant from Halifax 45 miles. The communication is by railway, though the rate of travelling (15 miles an hour, including stoppages) is by no means satisfactory to one accustomed to the trains at home. The carriages on this line I observed were constructed in the United States. Why could they not be made in Nova Scotia? The plain answer is because the people in that province (as I have before hinted) have not the energy and enterprise to make for themselves what is so readily obtainable from their cousins of the stars and stripes.”

John Russell Smith. A peep at the western world; being an account of a visit to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Canada, and the United States, London, 1863. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/resource/lhbtn.10310/