A flutter of protest, and some dog-walkers
Yesterday was the 250th anniversary of the battle of Quebec, fought on 13 September 1759, on the Plains of Abraham outside the town of Quebec, the capital of France’s vast North American empire. It was a strange day – a large re-enactment had recently been cancelled due to protests made by French Canadian- Quebecois- Separatists.
Instead the commemorations were low key, a small monument unveiled to "all the combatants" accompanied by a ceremony, a public recital of poetry on the battlefield. The odd white-coated Bourbon re-enactor strolled around, as well as one brave Fraser Highlander, and a gaggle of Quebec separatists staged a march which ended on the battlefield. We interviewed several of them, and only a small minority had any idea about the significance of the anniversary or indeed, the location of the march. They reminded me of the anti-Catholic rioters of the 18th century who roared ‘No Popery’ with little idea who or what it was. It was a far cry from the 960th anniversary of Hastings that I watched at Battle, or the armada of Spitfires that flew over Duxford for the 65th anniversary of the battle of Britain.
The most interesting aspect of these events is always how they are presented and remembered to a contemporary audience. At Trafalgar 200 we steamed out on HMS Chatham in company with the French ship, the Montcalm, (oddly enough both named after two key figures of the Quebec campaign), and laid a wreath to all those who died. At commemorations of D-Day or the battle of Britain the tone is one of thanksgiving, of delivery from a deadly threat to our way of life.
Here in Quebec, various groups have tried to claim the anniversary. Francophone separatists have turned the battle into a symbol of their subjugation, a point at which English speakers came to dominate the cultural, political and commercial life of Canada for two centuries. As I stood on the field, much changed in 250 years, I thought how different it was to a previous anniversary of the battle. In 1909 the great and the good of the British imperial project arrived to bathe in self-confident celebration, steel giants of the Royal Navy anchored in the St Lawrence, a new landscaped park was opened on the battlefield. There was no ambiguity; onlookers believed that the battle had been a defining moment in an empire that was self evidently a great civilising force in the world.
On Sunday 13 September 2009, there was no self-satisfaction, no celebration and the only notable activity was the flutter of protest. But mainly, people walked their dogs, and ate picnics in the Battlefield Park with their families. While some people jostled to lay claim to the battle’s legacy, most people had simply forgotten it.
Read Dan's feature on the battle of Quebec in the September issue of BBC History Magazine