Myth of Wolfe the conquering hero


The Maple Leaf Forever added to the myth of Wolfe, “the dauntless hero.” Cover to the sheet music of the song composed (words and music) by Alex Muir. This image is from one of 1,000 copies of the first printing of the sheet music, by Muir in 1868. Toronto Public Library, Wikimedia Commons.

We can blame Prime Minister William Pitt, in his efforts to whip up public support for Britain’s Seven Years’ War against France and its allies, for establishing the myth that James Wolfe conquered New France for Britain in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759.

“Nations adore military heroes, and none more so than the English, particularly when the idol falls in battle,” historian William M. Fowler Jr. writes in Empires at War: The Seven Years’ War and the Struggle for North America.

For Pitt, the battle on the Plains of Abraham and the death of Wolfe “was the best combination a politician could hope for.” In Parliament, Pitt delivered “a eulogy to Wolfe and a paean to his victory.” Then, “Writers, poets, sculptors and painters went to work fashioning monuments to Wolfe in words, stone, and on canvass.”

The lesson seems to be, if you want to be immortalized as a war hero, it’s best to die in battle, like Nelson at Trafalgar, or Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham. Perhaps Edward Hawke would be better remembered had he died at the Battle of Quiberon Bay, where the destiny of Canada actually was determined.

Among the corpus inspired by Pitt, The Maple Leaf Forever was a latecomer, once considered a second national at anthem, at least by English speaking Canada.

“The thistle, shamrock, rose entwine…” That’s it. Just the Scots, Irish and English. No place at the table in very British North America for the French; nor for First Nations, Ukrainians, Chinese, Africans, or any of the vastly varied threads that are the fabric of Canada. Discrimination meant lost job and career opportunities and social ostracism for millions of non-British throughout much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The Maple Leaf Forever was written by Alexander Muir, a veteran of Toronto’s Queen’s Own Rifles and the Battle of Ridgeway in the Fenian raids of 1866. He is said to have been inspired by a maple tree that stood in front of his house at Memory Lane and Laing Street in Toronto. The tree was still there in 2012, but later fell.

Muir revised his song to make it more acceptable, and later version have been written to reflect the Canada of today. In Muir’s first version, it was “Old England’s flag,” rather than Britannia’s that Wolfe was said to have planted. He revised the song further with a version in which the French were represented by the Lilly. It was, however, the version embracing only the British that endured and remained popular, until slowly fading from the scene in recent decades.

New lyrics by Vladimir Radian in the winning entry of a 1997 CBC contest excised any hint of colonial imperialism, and spoke of Our land of peace, where proudly flies / The Maple Leaf forever.

In another set of lyrics by former Canadian army chaplain D.E. Benton, our founding fathers are said to have come In days of yore from splendid shores…

And planted firm those rights of old.

Neither of the new versions made the hit parade, while the old version was wildly popular for decades. Today, its naked bigotry makes it largely shunned.

Unfamiliar Canadian history 004

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