18 January 2018

Writing the Elephant.

I have been spending the odd hour, when I have one, at the archives going over microfilm of old newspapers as I do more research for my Brief History.  Specifically, at the moment I am doing more research on the Jubilee Riots of 1875.  In many ways, it has been counterproductive: the more I learn, the less clear the events become.

I think of the old story I have repeated many, many times here on this blog: the story of the blind men and the elephant.  You should know the story by now: a group of blind men go to touch an elephant so they may understand this creature, about which they have heard so much, for themselves.  One touches the trunk and realizes the elephant is a snake, another touches the tusks and believes the elephant to be a spear, another an ear and claims the elephant to be a leaf, one touches the side, and believes the elephant a wall, another a leg and believes the elephant a tree, the last the tail and thinks the elephant to be a rope.  They then all begin to argue amongst themselves as to what the elephant is, and they are all right, and they are also completely wrong.

The research is a bit like that.  My original piece on the jubilee riots drew heavily on the sole piece of academic writing I could find on the matter.  It, in turn relied mostly on one of the newspapers accounts- the Toronto Mail's.  In fact, it would not be unfair to say the article was an elaboration on the Mail's version of the affair.  That in itself makes some sense: the Mail spends more time on the riots than any of the other newspapers I have read so far.  It gives more details than any of the other newspapers that I have encountered so far. The whole series of events had a comprehensible narrative even as the events were occurring. The Mail gives details that none of the other papers do.  And here begin the problems.

The Toronto newspapers of the time were far from unbiased sources: they were nakedly partisan and heavily biased.  The Mail, for example, strongly supported the Orange Lodge, which heavily colours their take on the events.  While they lay the majority of the blame on the rioters, who were by and large members of the Orange Lodge, they miss no opportunity to point out that the Catholics must bear some portion of the blame for being attacked.  That lies at the heart of their narrative: sure, the protestants erred in attacking the procession, but there would have been no riots had there been no processions. The Mail writers are the ones who, for example, link the origins of the riots to an announcement in another paper- this one nakedly Catholic and Irish in bias- of an elaborate procession of the bishops of Ontario that was to happen the next Sunday morning to celebrate the opening of the first provincial council of the new archdiocese.  In their account, the rioters were looking for that procession, missed it, and mistook the Jubilee procession for the one they were looking for, and attacked it instead.  A simple misunderstanding.

Except the first procession was five hours before the second.  They were hanging around, waiting? They'd heard rumours and just gathered in case something else happened?  It doesn't quite make sense.  None of the other papers bother to link the riots to the announcement.  What if they are right, and the events are unrelated?  The Mail furthermore goes to great lengths to explain that, while the rioters may have been members of the Orange Lodge and the Young Britons, the Orange Lodge and the Young Britons as such were not involved, and this was not an officially sanctioned riot.  The Lodge and the Britons as a group are innocent of any wrongdoing.

The other two newspapers that I've read so far (the Globe and the Irish Canadian- the one that ran the announcement) tell different stories.  They do not link the riots to the earlier announcement.  In the Irish Canadian's account- an eyewitness account from the point of view of someone within the procession- the procession was simply marching along peacefully when some Orange thugs showed up and started throwing rocks and firing guns at them.  No mention is made of the announcement, no attempt is made to give a motive. Indeed, The Irish Canadian is pro Catholic and virulently anti-Orange.  The author spares no effort to make them look as bad as possible.  Which admittedly, wasn't too hard in this case.  His account, though an eyewitness account, is perhaps the least informative, as he spends most of the article spewing insults at the Orangemen.  He also speaks, not surprisingly, in superlatives.  Never has such an attack on freedom occurred before, they were the most vicious of ruffians ever seen, etc.  He is writing for effect, not to inform.

The Globe paints a different picture still.  As I said, they made no mention of the announcement of the early procession.  But they are also the only newspaper that covered the Catholic Council.  George Brown's old newspaper softened its stance on Catholics as time went by- Brown himself, once strongly anti Catholic, donated money to help build St Michael's spire in the 1860's.  it was still a largely protestant newspaper, but they did print the homilies preached by the bishops over the week of the council.  They also printed several protestant responses to the homilies.  Needless to say, the Protestants took great issue with several of the homilies, particularly the homily given by the Bishop of London at the opening Mass of the council the same Sunday as the first riot.  It was on the topic of why it is wrong to rely on the Bible alone.

In the days before the riot, the Globe published articles fairly frequently on both Catholic and Protestant matters.  In the days just before the riot, the Globe published a letter written by "A Protestant" which addressed a question to Archbishop Lynch regarding whether or not Catholic priests were bound to obey the law or the Church.  The Globe Published ++Lynch's response, which was, in short, in civil matters yes, but the state has no authority to command the Church and its clergy in sacramental matters.  The question came from the Guibord affair which was a fairly hot topic at the time.  Guibord was a man from Montreal who belonged to the Canadian Institute.  The Archbishop of Montreal, Ignace Bourget (aka "The Pope of Canada") declared the Institute to be uncatholic (its library contained many indexed books)   and refused to bury Guibord in consecrated ground following his death in 1870.  This kicked off years of legal wrangling and fighting b=and a deep questioning of which laws applied- the state's or the Church's.  Ultimately Guibord body was buried in consecrated ground in 1875- his body taken there under armed guard who remained present throughout the burial to make sure the state's ruling on the matter was obeyed. ++Bourget responded by deconsecrating the grave.

The Globe was unhappy with ++Lynch's response to the question, calling it ambiguous and giving no hard definition of where State law ends and where church law begins, and which laws are superior in which circumstances on the same page as ++Lynch's response.  Besides the Archbishop's answer was another article on the benefits and glories of a state church- the main glory being that it avoided problems like this.

This is not to say that the Guibord affair and the archbishop's somewhat evasive answer were direct causes of the riots, but they are interesting indicators of what was on the minds of Catholics and Protestants of Toronto at that time.  It also gives some context to the Orange meeting on the Thursday in between the riots (reported by the Mail, not the Globe) where several Orangemen shouted out that the Catholics needed to be reminded just who ran the city.

In the Globe's account, there were many men and youth of the Orange and Young Briton persuasion hanging around the Cathedral that day, and some were overheard to say that if any procession happened that day, they would put a stop to it.  But why would they think a procession was going to happen, when the one had already happened?  Were they aware of the Jubilee procession that was heading their way, or were they thinking that the council may have a second procession leaving the Cathedral?  For all the eyewitness accounts, no one asked the opinion of any rioters why they were there.

So my research has lead to a muddier picture.  It is hard to say precisely what happened without knowing why it happened.  in this case, the what and the why are too intertwined, they are almost the same thing.  I have several pictures, but it is hard to bring it into a narrative.  As I said, it makes sense that the lone scholarly article on the subject went with the Mail's version- it tells the simplest and most comprehensible narrative.  I am having trouble finding a narrative.  Perhaps there isn't one.  Human motivations are messy, and the actions of mobs and riots are almost by definition irrational. 

There may be no rational explanation.  Trying to come to a rational conclusion, or draw these accounts into a coherent narrative may be a mistake.  It is like trying to draw a snake, a tree and a spear into a coherent picture.  You could draw a picture of a snake in a tree, with a spear leaning against the trunk, and that would be fine, but if you label that drawing "An Elephant" you will have drawn the wrong picture.

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