Wednesday, January 21, 2009
While the U.S. is making history, here it's being brought back to life
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 21, 2009
History is on a lot of minds these days, what with all the big events happening south of the border.
What many of us do not realize is how close this land came to being annexed by our neighbours.
Simon Sobolewski knows. He haunts archives in search of the letters and diary entries that capture life back when this city was a fort on what was still known as Vancouver's Island and the mainland was called New Caledonia.
He belongs to the Royal Engineers Living History Group. Born in the 20th century, he re-enacts 19th-century events for 21st-century audiences.
“We try to do the personal history,” he said. “The regular Joe, the private, the officer, the Hudson Bay official, the civilian.”
On the weekend, he ceased being a 46-year-old restaurateur, instead adopting the dress, mannerisms and knowledge of Sapper Kennedy, a carpenter from Galway, so far disgruntled by his stint with the Royal Engineers in a far-off land.
He wore thick wool socks, a wool scarlet tunic and a greatcoat so heavy it was “like wearing two great grey blankets.” He carried a mess kit, a bayonet and an ammunition pack. On his back was a wood-and-canvas knapsack.
Detail is important to the re-enactors. The sapper proudly acknowledged the wearing of what he described as “period underwear” – not that the public was to know. The authenticity of itchy undergarments can only help keep a middle-aged man in character as a sapper.
On the 150th anniversary of what is remembered as McGowan's War, Mr. Sobolewski marched up the Fraser Canyon to Yale. In the winter of 1859, Colonel Richard Moody led a small troupe of Royal Engineers along the same route to keep peace in the goldfields.
The chief trouble maker was an American prospector named Edward (Ned) McGowan, a shady character who had been implicated in bank robbery (while police superintendent in Philadelphia) and acquitted of a murder charge (while a judge in California). A petty dispute in the Fraser goldfields had tragicomic overtones, as a McGowan challenge to legal authority threatened to lead to an insurrection and possible annexation. About 30,000 Americans had spread along these British lands. A handful of Royal Engineers were dispatched by Governor James Douglas to enforce the law and calm the situation.
At a pivotal point, the engineers were challenged by an American sentry. Shots rang out.
“The Royal Engineers heard the shots, but didn't see the bullets,” Mr. Sobolewski said. “They chose not to fire back.”
Had they done so, argues the author Donald Hauka, the British Crown was likely to lose a colony it could only barely police, let alone defend.
Mr. Hauka wrote a well-received account of the incident in McGowan's War (New Star, 2003). He took part in the weekend re-enactment by portraying Matthew Baillie Begbie, remembered today as the Hanging Judge, though he had no need of the noose in this event.
“Now, as we all know, Begbie was about 6 foot 4, straight as a flagpole and a proper, polished barrister,” noted Mr. Hauka, who can claim none of those attributes, “so I am an obvious physical choice for the role.”
In the end, McGowan's War was a skirmish from which the only casualties were to reputations. It is a war that inspired more books than it caused harm.
Members of the public are encouraged to speak with the re-enactors, who remain in character as they engage in conversations, allowing their possessions to be held.
This summer, the Royal Engineers Living History Group will take part in a re-enactment of the Pig War on San Juan Island to mark the sesquicentennial of an incident in which the lone casualty is forever remembered in the naming of the war.
The Royal Engineers have been portrayed as red-coated paragons of Victorian virtue, impeccably dressed, reserved and heroic, Mr. Sobolewski said.
“We're constantly being confronted by the myth,” he said. “The reality is way more interesting.”
Research presents a far different image. The men in the field refused to wear dress uniforms and were instead issued rubber boots and floppy hats. They looked like slobs. Their officers backstabbed each other to curry favour from superiors. Some of the men even deserted.
Mr. Sobolewski knows the sapper he portrays will flee the colony in 1860, though he does not yet let on to the public his future behaviour. As it is now, he grumbles plenty about his lot.
History comes alive in story. Here are two.
Mr. Hauka is a former newspaperman for the tabloid Province. His colleague, the resourceful crime reporter Salim Jiwa, became the model for Hakeem Jinnah, a resourceful crime reporter featured in a detective novel and two CBC movies.
Mr. Sobolewski was a history major in university who changed disciplines because he found his studies to be too mind-numbingly boring. He wound up with two filmmaking degrees. His acting credits include a role in Hawkeye.
Mr. Sobolewski was born in Havana in 1962. He is a revolutionary love child. His father, Sigmund, born a Polish Catholic, became a Canadian citizen after surviving nearly five years at Auschwitz, where the Nazis marked him as prisoner No. 88. A socialist but not a Stalinist, he could not return to his Communist-occupied homeland after the war. Living in Toronto at the time of Cuban revolution, he heeded a call for international supporters to come to the Caribbean island. Just 10 days after arriving, he married a local woman named Ramona. The October missile crisis shortly after Simon's birth persuaded the couple to return to Canada.
The elder Sobolewski's story has been told in a book written by a rabbi (Prisoner 88: The Man in Stripes by Roy Tanenbaum) and in a documentary film by David Paperny.
The younger Sobolewski's story, as the Canadian-reared son of a Polish-Cuban marriage, is still being written. He launched a combined art gallery and restaurant (Havana) and a Vancouver video store (Celluloid Drugstore), in which clerks wore white laboratory coats. He is now business manager of Red Fish Blue Fish seafood restaurant in a converted shipping crate on the Victoria waterfront, where he sometimes wears period costume while dispensing fish and chips.
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