- Royal Spectacle: The 1860 Visit of the Prince of Wales to Canada and the United States
Canadian historians of a certain generation used to point out with some disdain that in 1864 the local press in Charlottetown took a far greater interest in the arrival of the circus than in the deliberations of the colonial politicians who were constructing the Dominion of Canada. After reading Royal Spectacle and the growing number of studies that demonstrate the importance of celebrations, memorials, and other public spectacles in the formation of social, cultural, and national identities, one is now tempted to conclude that the local press made the right choice.
In this fine book Ian Radforth examines the visit of the Prince of Wales to Canada and the United States in 1860. Albert Edward came at the invitation of the colonial government to open the Victoria Bridge in Montreal, one of the true engineering marvels of the age. The politics of the visit, of course, ran far deeper. The colony had supported Britain in the Crimean War, and the visit was seen as suitable thanks from a grateful nation. Sending a prince to a colony (Prince Alfred was off to Cape Town at the same time) was also part of an imperial strategy - what Radforth calls 'royal populism' - in which the public display of a royal person was used to celebrate the direct link between the monarchy and the people. For their part the colonists responded to the visit with enthusiasm. Every village and town along the route - from St John's to Windsor - expressed its undying loyalty to Queen and Empire. The prince was processed through the streets and under elaborate arches; he was fêted at receptions, and enchanted with ornate and magical balls. Forced to maintain an exhausting, indeed often numbing, pace, the prince took some relief on the occasional free days when he could play the role of tourist, although when he gazed at the appropriate sites he usually found the locals gazing back. Even the American states seemed determined to welcome the prince (who became Baron Renfrew south of the line) with such fawning gestures that everyone seemed to forget that unfortunate war which had divided Anglosaxondom less than a century before. The popular press on both [End Page 339] sides of the Atlantic wrote up each episode of the trip in fulsome and at times ironic tones; the visit had indeed become a Royal Spectacle.
Drawing upon rich archival sources and the insights of scholars who have studied such public moments, Ian Radforth skilfully deconstructs the royal visit at several levels. Always mindful of the political narrative (both local and imperial) which defined and organized the tour, he presents several fascinating portraits of the leading characters, and embellishes the study with many incidents (fashions, menus, and a collapsing dance floor) which can intrigue and delight the reader. Although the book is very long, it is well organized, always accessible, and clearly written. At the centre of the study, however, is a single dominant concern. The book essentially is an elaborate identity story, intent on drawing out what the royal visit reveals about how these colonial communities were constructing their own identities. When the prince and his suite arrived, the British North Americans put themselves on public display, performing through all these elaborate ceremonies important rituals of citizenship. They set out to impress others with their unity of spirit and purpose; but as Radforth reveals time and again such harmony was often more apparent than real. Unity meant something very different in Catholic Quebec from what it meant in the British Protestant towns of Canada West. Women were almost entirely excluded from public roles in these celebrations, although they were able to display themselves at the many balls, which the young prince especially enjoyed. For his part, the colonial secretary, the Duke of Newcastle, excluded people of colour and members of the Orange Order from appearing in their corporate identities before the prince; and the...