Friday, April 19, 2013

Burned in Effigy: The Vagaries of Symbolic Arson

Nothing voices disapproval like building a mannequin, parading it about town under abuse, and torching the thing in public.  When it comes to over-the-top antagonistic symbolism, it is hard to beat the power of incineration.  And who doesn't like a roaring bonfire?

Over the years Canadians have taken to the streets in protest for scores of reasons.  Most often, politicians are the source of public ire, and so scarecrows in their likeness have faced the flames.  At other times, the more creative members of unruly mobs have worked artful metaphor into the performance.  A handful of protests over a hundred years of Canadian history prove that economics was often a cause that brought the torch to the tinder.

Revolutionary Lego Men protest British Taxation
without Representation.
Cooperman Brick Foundry

While trade and tariffs may not seem like a topic that could kindle the ritualistic arson, the student of Canadian history will know the subject has raised ire since the colonial era.  One need not be an expert to know that taxes have provoked their fair share of revolt over the years.

An early account of symbolic arson arose in the colony of New Brunswick when the British mercantile system was teetering on the breach.  Timber became a profitable export after Napoleon's European blockade halted the supply of Baltic wood to Britain.  After the War of 1812, the lumber barons of New Brunswick were quick to press authorities for a preferential tariff against non-imperial timber so they could still turn a profit.
"View of the Town of St. Andrew's with its magnificent Harbour and Bay", ca. 1840.
 Coloured lithograph by William Day (Day and Son Lithographers) after a sketch by Frederick Wells. Credit: Library and Archives Canada/C-016386.Family Heritage

An 1831 description of pyrotechnics in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, shows the great enthusiasm for news of a British ruling which maintained the tariff.

A boat said to be Baltic built, was filled with a cargo of combustibles and ... towed into the harbour, where she was moored. The Effigy of a distinguished supporter of the Baltic interests was suspended from the mast with a paper in his hand bearing the superscription "Baltic Timber Bill" - several pounds of gunpowder were concealed under his waist coat, and there was a large quantity in the boat. The combustibles were set fire to, and in due seasons, poor ______ was blown to atoms." (Cited in Graeme Wynn, "On the Margins of Empire", Illustrated History of Canada, 2007, p.199)

The protectionism of Sir John A. Macdonald's National Policy proves tarriffs were still a pressing issue after confederation.  In the Conservatives last electoral victory with The Old Chieftain, reciprocity in trade (free trade on many goods) was on the receiving end of a symbolic scorching.  Historian D.J. Hall noted that when John A. Macdonald's Conservatives won the 1891 election, supporters in  Brandon, Manitoba, hit the streets in a victory parade.  The procession included the burning of a bin of "Liberal" rubbish labelled "Unrestricted Reciprocity."   Hall notes that "the Liberals were consoled when, despite the Tories' best efforts, it resolutely refused to ignite." (Hall, The Young Napoleon, p.50)

Glenbow Museum and Archives File number: NA-3561-1
Title: Social Credit rally poster, Fort Macleod, Alberta.
Date: July 2, 1935
During the deprivations of the Great Depression, there is no wonder that ordinary people again vented their frustrations at an economic system that had left them desititute.  When Alberta's Social Credit party under William "Bible Bill" Aberhart won an astounding majority in the provincial election of 1935, the village of Chancellor was witness to a conflagration.  As John Irving notes in his work The Social Credit Movement in Alberta (1959),

To celebrate the victory they piled up packing cases, boards, and poles in the main street and built a huge bonfire.   They made a straw man, to represent the former member and defeated U.F.A. candidate for Bow Valley, Jonathan M. Wheatley.  Around this effigy they wrapped the election posters of all the opposing parties, and heaved it into the flames with a pitchfork.  This act, they explained, was not to be understood as an attack on Mr. Wheatley.  They meant nothing  personal: they were burning the monetary system. (Irving, 332)

Mr. Wheatley's reaction to his stunt double's use in this fiscal allusion is not recorded.  The crowd's sentiments suggest the specious dogma of Social Credit financial ideology had taken a firm grasp of the Albertan psyche.  Wheatley's treatment shows there could be sinister undertones to such pageantry, with the threat of violence directed at the effigy's mold.

Protest of Maine Liquor Laws in Saint John N.B.
featured burning effigies of US authorities.

Economics and symbolic arson is just one theme in the fascinating history of Canadian public ritual.  When the mob takes to the streets one never knows what allegories the more creative participants may procure.  Fire is a powerful symbol in all cultures, and has the added bonus of offering a little light in the days before electrification.  While the burning of figures as economic symbols seems innocent enough, a more malevolent side to these rituals arises with the burning of models of politicians or local people No matter how jovial a crowd of revellers may seem, one MUST feel attacked when observing one's own likeness go up in flames!

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