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  • Rounding off the Confederation:Geopolitics, tropicality and Canada's "destiny" in the West Indies in the early twentieth century
  • Paula Hastings

[T]he annexation of [Jamaica] to the Dominion, while offering immediate relief and the possibility of future expansion to them, would bring to the great northern country just precisely what she most needs. That is, a tropical annex.

—George E. Burke, Canadian trade agent in Jamaica, New York Times, 14 Sept. 1898

When British poet and writer Rudyard Kipling wrote "The White Man's Burden" in 1898, urging the United States to fulfill its destiny and annex the Philippine Islands,1 the idea that former (and current) British colonies with large White settler populations should share "responsibility" for the administration of the world's non-White peoples beyond their borders was not novel. It was a subject of ongoing debate in the British Empire. From the late nineteenth century, Crown colonies and dependencies in which British administrators governed majority non-White populations were increasingly distinguished from colonies of European settlement—like Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. This explicitly racial distinction ordered interactions between British dominions and dependencies, giving rise to a wide range of unequal if not exploitative relationships. The imperial geography that constructed "tropical" and "temperate" regions along racial lines—increasingly popular from the mid-nineteenth century—reinforced this divide and operated conveniently to justify dominion encroachments in tropical regions. "It appears almost certain," British Colonial Secretary Lewis Harcourt predicted in 1911, "that in a future not very remote the Dominions in temperate zones will desire to acquire for themselves 'hothouses' for consumable luxuries and other purposes. It is not unreasonable to contemplate the ultimate absorption of the West Indies by Canada; of the Pacific Islands by Australia and New Zealand; of Rhodesia and the native Protectorates (even of Nyassaland [sic]) by South Africa."2 Harcourt was not simply ruminating about the future of the Empire; he was responding to the protracted efforts of self-governing settler societies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to strengthen their regional presence outside their borders through exploitative resource extraction, control of indigenous labor or territorial annexation.3

In this imperial configuration, the colonies making up "Greater Britain,"4 as they were commonly known, were not simply destined for home rule. The destiny awaiting these colonies' coming of age, so to speak, was imperial as much as it was national. This article explores the debates surrounding Canadian campaigns to annex Britain's West Indian colonies in the early twentieth century. These campaigns were broadly based. Proponents (and opponents) included merchants and investors, politicians and planters, and intellectuals and journalists from Canada, Britain and the West Indies. They included prominent personalities from Canadian universities, steamship and railway companies, and commercial organizations on both sides of the Atlantic. They formed the Canada-West Indies League in 1911 to foster closer relations between the two regions, launched The Canada-West Indies Magazine to promote their agendas, and published articles in literally dozens of Canadian, West Indian and British newspapers.

These "sub-imperial" initiatives challenge us to rethink traditional accounts of Canada's evolution within (and arguably those of other self-governing settler societies as well), and ultimate independence from, the British Empire in the twentieth century. This independence, defined in large part by Canada's sovereignty within discrete continental borders,5 was—to many Canadians with expansionist dreams outside these borders—the endpoint of neither Canada's sovereignty, nor its national development. Yet placed in a wider global context, Canadian designs on the West Indies were not peculiar. Nation-state formation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was a thoroughly imperial enterprise. As world historians—and particularly scholars of world-systems theory—have long argued, capitalism was a product of competition between nation-states for global resources.6 The competitive system of the old European states—dominated from the seventeenth century by the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, French and the British—was challenged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by newer territorial states that included, most notably, the United States, Germany and Japan, but also Belgium, Italy, Canada and Australia. As a "settlement colony" within Britain's empire, Canada might...

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