by Douglas Fetherling
LEGAL AUTHORITIES in Upper Canada sat back and did nothing when in 1803 a white man called Cozens murdered a Native called Whistling Duck in the Lake Scugog area. But they quickly erupted with the full force of the law when an Ojibway Ogetonicut, a friend of the victim, followed Native tradition and retaliated, killing a white trader named John Sharp. The resulting case is important for several reasons.
First of all, it shows the ambiguous position of Natives caught between the British legal system and their own. This in turn was only a metaphor for the uneasy predicament they found themselves in during the first few decades following the American Revolution, when they were no longer important allies but impediments to orderly white expansion - a matter well discussed, incidentally, in His Majesty`s Indian Allies: British Indian Policy in the Defence of Canada, 1774-1815 (Dundurn, 280 pages, $34.95 cloth, $19.95 paper), by Robert S. Allen.
But the case of Ogetonicut has another importance too, for it resulted in a famous Canadian shipwreck, the loss of the sloop Speedy. The story is recounted in another new book, Speedy Justice: The Tragic Last Voyage of His Majesty`s Vessel Speedy (University of Toronto Press, 200 pages, $35 cloth), by Brendan O`Brien. Despite the pun in the title, it is an excellent book.
In 1804, the case was to come to trial, and was to be heard, for jurisdictional reasons, at a small settlement on Presqu`ile, the big hooked peninsula that juts out into the eastern part of
Lake Ontario. Accordingly, the Speedy set off from the capital, York (later Toronto), with a passenger list that included the judge, the defendant, an interpreter, a constable, a justice of the peace, a law student, the defence lawyer (who also sat in the tiny House of Assembly), and the solicitorgeneral of Upper Canada (accompanied by his slave). Throw in a wealthy merchant who happened to be aboard, and the group was more than simply a microcosm of the colony`s establishment - it was actually a measurable part of it.
Presqu`ile (today the site of cottages as well as a provincial park) was and is a low, sandy place, where in late autumn violent storms frequently blur landmarks, making charts useless. The Speedy was sighted off Presqu`ile the night after its October 7 departure, Then a storm came up and it was never seen again - not even by marine archaeologists, who have speculated about its location for years.
THE TRAGEDY did nothing to help resolve a thorny point of law, and the deaths of those aboard put a very big hole in the legal system for a generation or two. These are the consequences that most intrigue the author, a Toronto lawyer and the founding president of the Osgoode Society, a legal history group.
Myself, I like books such as this because they remind us of that most interesting of minor literary genres, the shipwreck narrative. In many cultures, the shipwreck narrative - either an attempt at selfjustification by the person responsible or a gaudy tale aimed at
diverting and titillating the masses holds a respectable place. Canada is much poorer in this respect than one might imagine, considering its geography and history, but there are certainly well-known examples, such as S. W Prenties`s Narrative of a Shipwreck on the Island of Cape Breton, in a Voyage from Quebec 1780, a 1782 work (reprinted by Ryerson Press in 1968). Whenever I find such books, or rather whenever I find them cheaply enough, I make a point of picking them up ("collect" would be too grand a word). Why do I like reading them? Let me quote a professed authority:
The reason why a shipwreck always excites a greater interest than adventures of any other description, appears to be [that] the sufferers are thrown at once ... I upon their own exertions [ .... We admire, therefore, that presence of mind, which, in the most appalling situation, can look at the danger calmly, and by this means, often discover a remedy and we feel the greatest pleasure, when patience, courage and subordination have effected a deliverance from destruction, that at first was thought inevitable.
That`s from the publisher`s preface to an 1822 double-header presently on my nighttable: The Shipwreck of The Alceste, an English Frigate in the Straits of Gaspar; also, The Shipwreck of The Medusa, a French Frigate, on the Coast of Africa; with observations and reflections thereon. Such books both cause and cure a type of benign insomnia. *