Wednesday 20 September 2017

Traces of Nineteenth-Century North America: The Secret Victorianist in Ontario and Hawaii

An accusation I hear a lot back home as a European transplant, living in the US, is that America has no history.

“How can you bear to live somewhere there’s no culture?” I’ve been asked, more than once. “Aren’t you the one who likes reading about the past?”

Yet, everywhere I’ve travelled since moving to this continent, I’ve found that history, and in particular nineteenth-century history, is very much alive and well in the popular imagination. Canada and the United States’ comparative youth makes this century (my century) loom even larger, and the sites and monuments that comprise their visible history, while fewer in number, seem to have a greater influence on the shaping of the countries’ current national identities.

Today I want to talk about two very different places I’ve visited in the last month — Fort George in Ontario, Canada and Iolani Palace, once home to Hawaiian royalty in Honolulu.

Fort George

Located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Fort George was a British military structure that housed soldiers and saw combat during the War of 1812.

Today’s reconstruction allows visitors not only to explore buildings designed to mirror those of the early 1800s (living quarters, workshops and the original powder magazine), but also to watch and interact with costumed ‘soldiers’. These re-enactors march, play the fife and drum and shoot rounds from their muskets, with such serious commitment to the tasks at hand that it’s easy to imagine adversarial American troops ranged on the other side of the narrow river.

These volunteers bring the place to life (indeed it almost felt at times like we’d accidentally wandered into 1812!) but I couldn’t help but consider their motivations. What was so attractive to these men, women, and, in many cases, children, about reconnecting with the past, and indeed with Canada’s close ties to the British?

In one way it was surreal to hear ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ played so far from England, but then, that’s how it was sung by the Redcoats the world over — no matter how far the march, how deep the ditch or how exhausting the labour, there was always something connecting you to home.

Iolani Palace

At Iolani Palace in Honolulu I certainly wasn’t expecting to see this same reach and influence of empire. But this spectacular royal home (built 1879-1882) out-European-ed many of the stately houses I’ve seen in Britain and beyond.

Portraits at Iolani Palace
It had electric lights before Buckingham Palace, a fact that dazzled visiting dignitaries and notables (I didn’t realise that Robert Louis Stevenson was once received there). Its reception rooms were decked out with portraits of European, as well as Hawaiian, royals. And, while the palace’s exterior seems designed for the temperate climate and in keeping with Hawaiian styles and traditions, once inside the dining room, ballroom, or music room you could have guessed you were anywhere.

The Music Room at Iolani Palace
The palace also served as a gaol for nine months in 1895 for the then independent kingdom’s final queen, Liliʻuokalani, who was forced out of power by the mainland-backed provisional government. In one of the upper bedrooms you can see the quilt she and one of her ladies in waiting stitched during this period, sections of brightly coloured fabric telling the stories of Hawaii’s unification, royalty and republic.

Visiting an American state with a royal past was as strange as hearing stirrings of British spirit in Canada.

The veranda at Iolani Palace
And Iolani Palace also shared something else with Fort George — the site’s reliance on reconstruction and detective work. Many pieces of the royal family’s furniture and other possessions were sold and scattered, but the team here has worked, and is working tirelessly, to recreate a version of the Palace Hawaii’s kings would have recognised.

Where else in North America would you like to see the Secret Victorianist visit? Let me know — here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.