On the morning of September 1st 1864, the steamer SS Queen Victoria emerged from the mist into the sunshine and dropped anchor in Charlottetown Harbour. On board were eight delegates from the Province of Canada, who had boarded the ship four days earlier in Quebec City for the trip to Prince Edward Island.
It was late summer, warm weather as the Queen Victoria steamed along the South Shore of the St. Lawrence River, rounding Cape Gaspe into the Gulf of St Lawrence, and along the coast of New Brunswick reaching Prince Edward Island. The steamer cruised along the South Shore giving the delegates their first glimpse of the Island.
Looking back in history, it is a wonder that the ship even arrived as two of the onboard delegates, John A. Macdonald and George Brown, Leader of the Opposition, had spent much of their careers battling away at one another in the Legislative and the Press. Six governments in six years, and by the summer of 1864 it was political deadlock between Canada West (Ontario) and Canada East (Quebec). No Bills could be passed because of the double majority rule and it became a stalemate. Macdonald called on Governor General Monck and asked for a dissolution of the Legislature so an election could be held once again.
A solution had to be found. Cooler heads prevailed and with backdoor negotiations between Macdonald, Brown and George-Etienne Cartier (representative for Canada East), an agreement was reached on June 22nd 1864 to resolve the political crisis, and to explore a new Federal Union to include the Maritime Colonies. Named the “Great Coalition”, this marked a turning point and allowed the Government of the Province of Canada to function for the next three years.
It was now time to sell the idea to the Maritimes, who under British guidance had agreed to meet and discuss a Maritime Union in Charlottetown on September 1st. Monck had arranged for the Canadians to attend as observers. The Maritime contingents from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had arrived the day before and were greeted by William Pope, the Provincial Secretary of Prince Edward Island. Pope had been appointed to welcome the visiting dignitaries and had arranged suitable accommodation for them in the best hotels in Charlottetown.
There was no welcoming committee for the Canadians as the message from Monck had not been delivered in time. Out in the harbour the Queen Victoria lay at anchor so Pope commandeered a small oyster boat and rowed out to the ship and hailed a welcome to the delegates. Dressed in fine silk hats and frock coats, the colonial politicians were then rowed ashore in “man-of-war” fashion in two boats manned by four oarsmen and boatswains. Pope led them from the wharf to Providence House on Queen Square but as they walked along they were jostled by circus-goers making their way to the Big Top tent pitched on a vacant lot within shouting distance of Providence House for a four-day performance.
It seemed like the whole Island had descended on Charlottetown to see thewonders of the Slaymaker and Nichols Circus performing with trick ponies and horses, beautiful female equestrians, comical monkeys and dogs, all for 25 cents. Special steamboats offered excursion rates to rural folks from port towns such as Summerside, Pictou and Shediac.
As the circus band struck up its opening notes for the afternoon performance, the twenty-six delegates came face to face for the first time. It was a “how-d’ye-do glad to meet you” meeting, and the discussions on the Maritime Union and the Canadians pitch for Confederation were put aside until the next morning. With the circus in town hotel rooms were full so the Canadians were forced to stay on the Queen Victoria. It was well stocked with food and enough champagne for every soul on the Island.
Lt-Governor George Dundas and Lady Dundas hosted a dinner party that evening for all the main delegates in the Georgian-style Government House “Fanningbank”, where Dundas, a strong supporter of Confederation kept the conversation going and the wine flowing. The next day, Friday September 2nd, John Macdonald and George Cartier laid out their plans for a stronger Union and its benefits, and addressed the Maritime delegates concern on provincial self-rule. The meeting concluded with another get together in the evening with a dinner of lobster and oysters, hosted by William Pope, a stout advocate of Confederation, at his fashionable house on Mount Edward Road.
On Saturday, September 8th, Alexander Galt, Minister of Finance for the Canadians, outlined how the new nation’s finances would work, and how each colony’s debts would be settled. At the time, each colony had its own currency. The meeting concluded at 3:00p.m. and the delegates were invited aboard the Queen Victoria for lunch. Champagne corks popped along with stirring impromptu speeches, toasts and back slaps. The Maritime Union was a distant idea and for the first time all the twenty-six delegates were singing from the same national song sheet. The party continued with another dinner, this time hosted by Prince Edward Island Premier Gray. The next day, Sunday, the delegates attended church in the morning and spent the rest of the day relaxing ready for the next four exhausting days of deliberations.
On Monday, September 5th, George Brown took the floor and explained how the nation’s powers would be divided between the federal and the provincial governments. Most of the day was spent on Representation by Population in the Legislature and the Senate would be based on each province having an equal number of appointed senators. After a long day’s session, a welcome luncheon was hosted by George Coles MPP, at his farmhouse.
Before the Order of Business on Tuesday, September 6th, all the delegates assembled on the front veranda of Government House for a group photograph. This photograph has become one of the iconic symbols of Confederation, and has appeared in many of our classroom history books over the past 150 years. After the photograph, they covered details not previously discussed, and everybody seemed in agreement with the Canadian Proposal. Attorney General Edward Palmer hosted lunch at his residence. In the evening Lady Dundas held a ball at Government House and Brown said it was “a nice affair.”
Wednesday, September 7th, the Maritime Representatives held a meeting amongst themselves to discuss the Maritime Union. They agreed they were in favour of Confederation if all the terms of the Union could be satisfactorily met. However, the Prince Edward Island delegates had some reservations. It was agreed the Charlottetown Conference be adjourned and reconvened in Halifax on September 12th. The Canadians invited the wives of the Prince Edward Island delegates to lunch on the Queen Victoria, leaving the Maritime delegates to further discuss their future.
It was a relaxing day with a trip to the North Shore on September 8th, before the Grand Ball at Providence House. Guests arrived at nine and after the band played God Save the Queen, couples danced the quadrilles under the gas lamps in the Assembly Chamber, which was decorated with flowers and Empire flags. A splendid dinner was served at midnight along with speeches from delegates who spoke about the bright and glorious future and that the history of British North America was established in Charlottetown. Next morning the Maritime delegates boarded the Queen Victoria for the trip to Halifax where the Maritime Union was further discussed without the Canadians and finally the idea was abandoned.
Upon the return to Quebec City, it was agreed that the Canadian’s trip had produced a rough working framework for the Quebec Conference in October. Confederation was beginning to become a political reality.
It was another three years before Confederation was achieved, with the Quebec Conference in 1864, the London (UK) Conference in 1866, and finally the British North America Act came into effect on July 1st 1867, Confederation, with the beginning of the Dominion of Canada. The new nation consisted of four provinces, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario. Prince Edward Island originally rejected Confederation, but did join in 1873.
The SS Queen Victoria sailed into Canadian history as she had played an important role in transporting the politicians to Charlottetown and later to the Quebec Conference. She had been built as a tender/tug by Robert Napier shipbuilders at Goven on the Clyde in Scotland for Montreal ship owner Francois Baby. The diminutive iron hull steamship was 173 feet in length and was far from a luxury cruise ship. Her cabins were small and cramped and the vibration of her powerful engine could be felt through the hard beds.
SS Queen Victoria and her sister ship Napoleon III arrived in Quebec in 1856 and was contracted to the Government. She carried out mail delivery, served lighthouses and marker buoys along the St. Lawrence. In 1859 she became Government owned and 1860 she was chosen to carry Edward, Prince of Wales, on his visit to Canada. In 1864 she became known as the Confederation Cruiser and served as headquarters of the Canadians delegation.
Sadly in 1866 the SS Queen Victoria sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina en route from Cuba. A silver tea service and the ship’s bronze bell survived. The bell was eventually presented to Prospect Harbour, Maine, but a replica was donated to Charlottetown in recognition of the role the SS Queen Victoria played in Confederation.
Prince Edward Island makes a great holiday destination, particularily Charlottetown with its historical downtown and Confederation Centre of the Arts.
The term “Canadians” in the article refers to the delegates from Ontario and Quebec.
English: Convention at Charlottetown, P.E.I., of Delegates from the Legislatures of Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island to take into consideration the Union of the British North American Colonies.
Col. Hon. John Hamilton Gray, M.P.P. P.E.I. (Chairman of Convention)
Hon. John A. Macdonald, M.P.P. Attorney General, Canada West
Hon. George E. Cartier, M.P.P. Min. of Agriculture
Hon. Thomas D’Arcy McGee, M.P.P., Min. of Agriculture
Hon. Wm. A. Henry, M.P.P., Attorney General, N.S.
Hon. Wm. H. Steeves, M.E.C., N.B.
Hon. John M. Johnson, M.P.P. Attorney General, N.B.
Hon. Samuel Leonard Tilley, M.P.P., Prov. Secretary, N.B.
Hon. R. Dickey, M.L.C. N.S.
Lt. Col. Hon. J.H. Gray, M.P.P., N.B.
Hon. E. Palmer, M.L.C. Attorney General, P.E.I.
Hon. E. Botsford Chandler, M.L.C., N.B.
Hon. H.L. Langevin, M.P.P., Solicitor General, Canada E.
Hon. Charles Tupper, M.P.P., Provincial Secretary, N.S.
Hon. A.T. Galt, M.P.P., Finance Minister
Hon. Adams G. Archibald, M.P.P., N.S.
Hon. A.A. Macdonald, M.L.C., P.E.I.
Hon. Abt. Campbell, M.L.C. Commissioner of Crown Land
Hon. Wm. McDougall, M.P.P., Provincial Secretary
Hon. Wm. H. Pope, M.P.P. Colonial Secretary, P.E.I.
Hon. J. McCully, M.L.C., N.S.
Hon. G. Coles, M.P.P., P.E.I.
Hon. G. Brown, M.P.P., President Executive Council
Maj. Hewitt Bernard, Secretary to the Attorney General
Mr. Charles Drinkwater, Secretary to the Attorney General, Canada W.