Montreal Gazette review

August 23, 2008

Colonial dreams and disintegration

Stephen Kimber’s resourceful account of the attempt to establish a settlement at Shelburne is brimming with fascinating and spirited characters


By Stephen Kimber
Doubleday Canada, 335 pages, $34.95

The Boston merchants and Virginian slaveholders who rebelled against England in 1776, and the many English colonists who remained loyal to George III, had their imaginations profoundly influenced by two great epics, the Greek Odyssey and the Biblical Exodus.

The American colonists were also well aware that these daring sea voyages and land migrations did not always end successfully. Two decades before the Jamestown settlement, there had not only been earlier attempted Virginia settlements that had ended in glum return to England, but even one whose inhabitants entirely disappeared. Even so, the temptation to escape from misfortune through making a new beginning remained strong.

Stephen Kimber’s Loyalists and Layabouts is the remarkable story of another such attempted escape and new founding. Beginning with New Yorkers who met to discuss the consequences of the British defeat, it became a decade-long project by several thousand Northern and Southern Loyalists to carve out Shelburne, a new major city on the southern end of Nova Scotia.

Kimber provides a vivid portrait of men and women – from once-wealthy gentry to former slaves – and their struggles to make their lives over are both comic and tragic.

The author, a King’s College journalism professor who has previously written a successful novel and several non-fiction books, modestly describes himself in this new one as primarily a storyteller rather than a historian. However, he has drawn not only on secondary sources, but on the diaries and correspondence of a wonderfully mixed cast of characters, from British army administrators to literate former black slaves, freed by the British for fighting on their side in the Revolution.

Loyalists and Layabouts briefly considers the explanations advanced by academic historians for Shelburne’s unhappy fate, like the preponderance of male settlers, discouraging permanent family life. But the book is mainly about interesting individuals and their various combinations and clashes, not about impersonal historical forces.

Kimber doesn’t get his dramatis personae to Roseway Bay, as the area chosen for settlement was originally named, for the first hundred pages, using these for a lively retelling of the major events of the American Revolution, as they looked to the Revolution’s opponents, who had remained confident that the king’s redcoats would prevail until very late in the day.

Burgoyne, Clinton, Cornwallis and Carleton all make cameo appearances, but what really makes Kimber’s storytelling especially effective is his use of the papers of the central figures, like the versatile businessman Benjamin Marston, the passionately Christian ex-slave Boston King and John Parr, the gout-ridden, hot-tempered governor of Nova Scotia. Their stories are skilfully combined to make an integrated account of a colourful pilgrimage, taking his heroes and heroines from their uneasy days in the triumphant and hostile new revolutionary America, to their hopeful and energetic strivings in Shelburne, to what became of them when the once ambitious colony began to disintegrate.

It was Governor Parr who named the colony Shelburne, in honour of William Petty, Lord Shelburne, the British prime minister of the time. The choice was ironic. The settlers detested Shelburne, believing that he had shown precipitate haste in withdrawing the protective cover of British redcoats once the war was lost. But unhappily named or not, the new town briefly achieved astonishing numbers:

In less than eight months, Shelburne had become the largest city in what remained of the British colonies, and the fourth largest in all of North America. Only New York, Philadelphia and Boston could boast more than "upwards of 12,000 inhabitants," Parr reported.

It was larger than the Montreal and Trois Rivières of the time put together. The more affluent arrivals built handsome four-storey mansions and held grand balls, and the city briefly boasted rival and lively newspapers. But it never created an agricultural hinterland that could feed it. No road connected it to the smaller but far more economically viable Halifax. The long, freezing winters iced up the bay too much to allow easy entry for ships, but the ice was too thin to march across soldiers stationed on one side to maintain order in the town on the other. Courageous good sense jostled with frivolity and folly.

By the end of the decade, Shelburne was dying, its inhabitants scattering to Britain and other parts of British North America, some of its freed blacks making still another attempt at a new start, led to Sierra Leone by a British abolitionist.

Kimber concludes that just about everything that could go wrong, did. He offers a fascinating might-have-been in the history of Canada.

Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian.

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2008