A Beard That Would Have Graced Any Bull Bison

Sir John A. Macdonald was such a powerful figure in Canadian affairs that it is difficult to imagine him

This is a map of the proposed boundaries betwe...
This is a map of the proposed boundaries between the United States and Canada around the San Juan Islands, for use in describing the Pig War. [ I, Pfly, made it with ArcGIS, Adobe Illustrator, and Adobe Photoshop.]  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
taking a back seat.  Yet it happened on February 27, 1871, when he went to Washington as a member of a British delegation to try to settle problems that had arisen among Britain, Canada and the United States.

The United States was demanding reparation for the damage done by the British-built Confederate steamer Alabama during the Civil War.  The States also wanted a discussion on coastal fishing rights.  Canada wanted reparation for damage caused by the Fenians.  The question of ownership of San Juan Island just south of Vancouver Island was also causing bad feelings.

Britain was fearful of what was happening in Europe and the Middle East, and had no time for trouble with the United States.  The British delegates were not too concerned about Canada’s problems; they wanted to make the best deal they could to repay the damage done by the Alabama.  The delegation was led by the Earl de Grey and George Frederick Samuel Robinson (1st Marquess of Ripon) whom W. D. Hardy describes in From Sea to Sea as being “a handsome man with a scorn for Colonials and a beard that would have graced any bull bison.”

Since the agenda made no mention of the Fenian raids, the Americans refused to discuss them.  Macdonald had hoped to make a deal giving the United States better fishing rights off Canadian coasts in exchange for an easier entry of Canadian products into the American market.  He was shunted into the background by his four British colleagues and the upshot was that Britain paid the United States $15,500,000 for the damage done by the Alabama.  The United States acquired San Juan Island, fishing rights and free navigation of the St. Lawrence River “in  perpetuity” for which Canada was eventually paid $5,500,000.  Britain lent Canada £2,500,000 (UK pounds) for forgetting to put the Fenian raids on the agenda.

Sir John A. Macdonald had to sign the agreement knowing that his political opponents would describe him as being “Judas Iscariot and Benedict Arnold rolled into one.”


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