2 November 2008

History: Monuments of University Avenue, part two.

Directly across the intersection from Beck's monument stands Toronto's most impressive and beautiful war memorial. It is also Toronto's most ironic, for it is a memorial to a forgotten war. It is the Boer War Memorial, also called the South African War Memorial, raised in 1909-1910.

So badly downplayed is the war that I, after taking Canadian history courses in high school and again in University, can tell you almost nothing about it. What is told of it in history is mainly the crisis it kicked off on the home front between those who thought it Canada's duty to follow anywhere the Empire lead and those who believed Canada should mind its own business.

Still, a group of our men, about a thousand, were sent to South Africa. The battles of the war (the names of which are written along the sides of the column of the monument) were mainly skirmish actions. Canadian soldiers received decorations for their actions during the war, including a few Victoria Crosses, and one rather unique reward given to Private R.R. Thompson. It's called the Victoria Scarf of Honour.
The Scarf has a unique history. Only eight were ever made, crocheted by Victoria herself, and they were earmarked from the beginning to be given to private soldiers fighting in the Boer War. Four were designated for the British troops, and the last for were to be given to "the most distinguished private soldier" originating from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Thompson was awarded for his efforts to save wounded soldiers while under fire at Paardeberg.
The scarf has no bearing as a decoration. It is not, in spite of some rumours, a higher award than the Victoria Cross. It was still a tremendous honour.

Now to consider the monument. The man who designed the memorial was Walter Seymour Allward, who made a career for himself designing monuments and memorials throughout Canada for Canada and Canadians, although his most famous monument isn't in Canada. It's in Fance, on Vimy Ridge.
With all such memorials, one must consider the symbolism. In this case, it is really rather simple. At the base of the column are three bronze figures.

The seated figure is Britannia, enthroned and holding her sceptre, directing the Sons of Canada off to the distant war. The Sons of Canada, ever ready, are taking steps in the direction she points.

Britannia points to the south and east, towards South Africa. However, considering the geographical position of South Africa in relation to Toronto, she could be pointing to the south west, and still be pointing in the general direction of South Africa.
Funny story about the face of Britannia, although not a very Catholic one.
Traditionally Britannia is given the features of Lady Frances Stuart, the most beautiful and silly lady at the court of King Charles II. For years the Merry Monarch did everything in his power to try and convince Miss Stuart to be one of his mistresses. Lady Stuart declined his offer to recline with him. At some point in this non-affair the King had a special medal struck featuring Britannia. He ordered the designer to use Lady Frances as the model for the face. He still didn't have his way with Frances. But can you imagine, for a moment, being a philanderer and having that pick-up line in your arsenal? 'Come on, baby, I'll put your face on the money.'
Atop the column stands Nike, goddess of Victory.

Nike descending from the heavens holding aloft the golden crown of victory. She is standing on top of a sphere, which symbolically has at least two meanings. The first is fortune. Fortune or Fortuna in many images is symbolically standing on a ball, signifying that one who trusts in luck is standing on shaky and shifting ground. The second meaning, the one meant here, is the Globe. Nike is set to crown Britannia ruler of the globe, a meaning reinforced by the lions upon which the globe rests: another symbol of the British Empire. However, considering how the British Empire turned out, the fortune reference may not be completely inappropriate.
There was supposed to be another memorial of a similar scale and size built close by this one, in honour of the First World War. However that memorial was never made, and this one now stands alone. The Boer War Memorial is a beautiful memorial, well conceived and executed. In a sense, that is what disturbs me most about it. A beautiful and lasting monument can be raised to a cause or event, it may even be placed in the middle of the city, and it may still be forgotten.

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