In the articles leading up to this one, I’ve been dancing around what the attitudes towards homosexuality might have been like in British North America. The reason is because it’s very difficult to figure out for certain what those attitudes were.
It goes without saying that opinions of homosexuality ran toward the disapproving. But if these discussions about homosexuality in France, Britain, New England, and New France tell us anything, it’s that disapproval took many forms, from brute violence to grudging tolerance. The question is, what kind of disapproval took root in early English Canada?
Going over the criminal records and newspapers of that era, the nearest I can figure is that the first English Canadians opted to only notice homosexuality when it became too obvious to ignore. Sometimes, they managed to ignore it even then.
While Britain itself had long since gone over to witch hunts and mass hangings of “mollies,” Canada apparently adopted Britain’s original strategy – the one it had used before the Glorious Revolution, and which I called “English Silences.” This was the attitude that “if we don’t talk about it, just maybe it’ll go away.” The idea was that mentioning homosexuality risked giving people ideas, and anyway it was rude to mention something most people found disgusting.
The Silence at Home
In spite of having done full-text searches of a couple of dozen Canadian newspapers in pre-Confederation Canada, I can’t find any reference to homosexuality but one until the early 1840s. That should give an idea of the depth of the silence.
Even then, only twice is “sodomy” mentioned by name when referring to Canadian criminal cases, and both times only in passing. Additionally, there were three other articles that mentioned “unnatural crimes” – the Hamilton Evening Times for January 27, 1864, for instance, mentions that a school inspector was accused of “an unnatural crime.” These may or may not refer to homosexuality.
In all, I only found a maximum of five references to homosexuality in Canada, searching papers for the Canadas, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland over a period of about 115 years and under a variety of names and euphemisms. It was as if there was no homosexuality in Canada at all.
Reading court records gives a different impression – there were a smattering of court cases for “buggery” throughout the British colonies in the early days, and at least some of the ones I’ve been able to trace in greater detail were cases that involved homosexuality, usually in the form of same-sex rape. These almost never made the papers as other crimes did, although the papers generally had reporters working the court beat. It seems the papers were deliberately avoiding mentioning these cases prior to 1840.
Homosexuality as a Foreign “Vice”
On the other hand, descriptions in books and newspapers of homosexuality abroad were relatively common. This is most true of a genre of books called the “travel narrative” — true stories of European explorers making contact with other lands, and which described non-European cultures and customs as seen by these explorers.
One example among many is an English translation of a Spanish travel narrative which was available in Canada. This discussed “sodomy” in China:
”Sodomy is frequent in China, yet not so much as in Japan, as I have been inform’d. There have been other nations in the world that did not look upon this hellish vice as any sin.
In the time of the Chinese [Han] emperors, there were public stews [brothels] of boys in the imperial city of Pequin [Beijing]. The Tartar [Mongol Emperors] suprest it, yet it continues still at Jang Cheu [Quanzhou]; they go gay, but they drest like other men. They don’t marry, as those do at Caile, sixty leagues from Macassar [in modern Indonesia], in the same island, where they told me, there were men would rather chuse to marry those monsters than women. Good God, in what darkness they live who know thee not!”
(“An Account of the Empire of China” by Dominic Fernandez Navarette, in A Collection of Voyages and Travels, 1732)
Interestingly, this passage seems to contain the first reference I’ve found of the “gay” meaning homosexual in English — most dictionaries claim that that meaning started in the 20th centuries.
Robert Kerr’s A General History and Collection of Voyages and Travels also found its way to early Canada. In it is a translated history of Francisco de Almeida’s voyages and military adventures in India. which includes this detail about the “Peguers,” the people of the area around the city of Bago, in what’s now Burma/Myanmar: “The Peguers being much addicted to sodomy, a queen of that country named Canane ordered the women to wear bells and open garments, by way of inviting the men to abandon that abominable vice.”
In each of the travel narratives, the author reaches the conclusion is that these things don’t happen in Christian countries. Each takes great pains to distance modern Europe from this “hellish vice.” The open-mindedness of other cultures was used to denigrate them, and the fed the racist ideas of European superiority that were beginning to become popular in Europe. European society in Canada would eventually use charges of homosexuality to justify racism against the First Nations and the Chinese, a topic I’ll turn to at another date.
In the early days, however, these accounts of homosexuality rarely reached close to Canada. When they did hit close to home — as when they hint at homosexuality among the First Nations — they speak very vaguely. One newspaper, Le Journal de Québec, reprints the letter of a Catholic missionary in its October 17, 1843 edition, blaming the Apsàalooke (“Crow”) People’s “great crimes” for the spread of a disease through their community, comparing the epidemic to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
As with travel narratives, mentions of homosexuality in newspapers almost always refer to it as a foreign “vice.” The earliest newspaper reference to homosexuality in the future English Canada I can find is in The Halifax Gazette for the year 1752. It reads:
We hear from Dublin, that a Personage of Great Distinction in the British Nation has lately suffered Amputation of both his Ears, by a Gentleman on whom he had the Impudence, as well as the Baseness, to attempt the commission of Sodomy.”
The paper then launches into a vague, though moralizing lecture on the subject, which quotes a Biblical commentator. The tone of the article seems to suggest that the audience will probably not know what that “sodomy” is.
Missionary journals as well sometimes mention homosexuality abroad, and always in the worst possible light. The Monthly Record of the Church of Scotland for the maritime provinces in November 1886 mentions how King Mwanga of Uganda began massacring Ugandan Christians “directly due to the refusal of a Christian lad, acting as the King’s page, to commit an abominable crime.” As a result, “Many Christians were tortured, mutilated, and speared.”
In 1844, the Toronto British Colonist also devoted a number of paragraphs to the Irish Protestant Bishop of Clogher, Percy Jocelyn, who had been drummed out of the church and changed his name when he was caught in a “sodomy” scandal.
With reports of foreign homosexuality balanced against silence on the homosexuality at home, early Canadians could delude themselves into believing – as England once believed – that homosexuality was a foreign “infection” of which their colony was free.
This assumption likely protected homosexuals and bisexuals – it meant that attention was focused away from them. Often only cases that could not be ignored – such as same-sex rape – found their way to the courts.
Of course, it also helped to have friends in high places. Early English Canada’s two best-known homosexuals – Alexander Wood and George Herchmer Markland – were never brought to court for the scandals they caused, and their powerful positions kept these scandals reach the press. It is to Alexander Wood that we turn next.
Sources: This time, I’ve mostly referenced my sources in the body of the text itself. Most of my old book sources are Early Canadiana Online, while my newspaper sources are generally from PaperofRecord.com. I’ve also gone over a substantial number of primary-source criminal records and criminal statistics, but I’ll detail these more in later articles.