Document of Learning #2: Hark! It’s James Wolfe!
For this Document of Learning, I made a little historical comic. Why? Why not?! Well, over the spring break someone clearly had too much time on their hands. I spent most of my time reading historical comics rather than doing homework, among other things. In the end, I decided to make a little tribute to the great historical comic, Hark! A Vagrant , by Kate Beaton. The art style, the humour, the history, everything is just so good my friend you have to check it out, but I do have to say there is some *ahem*—stuff— depending on the ones you read.
Anyways, here goes a little intro to famous Major-General Wolfe who gained his fame precisely because he died. (I apologize beforehand for the terrible colour balancing in my pictures).
James Wolfe was an English general famous for his victory at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham that allowed the British to take over New France. Thanks to Wolfe’s daring idea of climbing the cliff to Montcalm’s camp, the British was able to win the battle in less than 30 minutes on September 13, 1759. Unfortunately, Wolfe was shot three times the battle and died on the battlefield soon after the news of his victory was delivered, making him one of the greatest English martyrs in history for the of British colonies in North America. However! after watching Canada: This is Us I really wonder how much does Wolfe actually live up to his famous reputation. So often in history, we deify or demonize a person so much and they no longer seem human to us, but it is precisely the mortality of historical figures that teach us how to lead better lives ourselves. So through this DOL, I hope to reveal some parts of James Wolfe under his glorious martyred skin.
Inquiry Question: How did the British Victory during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham alter the perception of Major-General James Wolfe?
Yes, it’s true. Crayola did in fact have a colour called have a colour called Wolfe Brown in honour of James Wolfe, which was unfortunately discontinued after one year. Ever since his death in 1759, Wolfe has been perceived as a war hero by many both in Canada and England, spreading his legacy in various formats. Oh, poor Montcalm!
Perhaps one of the most famous images of Wolfe, and certainly the most dramatic one, is Benjamin West’s historical painting made “just” eleven years after the battle. Photographs being not yet existent, the artist’s rendition of the scene directly influences the perception of the content through formal qualities and techniques. West, a historical painter, decided to paint a relatively recent event in contrast to the common Biblical scenes or Classical Greek Mythology. Many were in fact against his idea of putting the figures in the contemporary clothing in the fear of disrespecting the event, yet West decided to remain “truthful” in this painting and put his figures in the respective clothing of the era. However, as one observes closely there is little accuracy in this painting.
I had the fortunate chance of seeing this painting when I visited the Royal Ontario Museum during the spring break. As an art history hobbyist, I’ll walk you through some quick analysis:
The first thing that the audience may notice is that the painting is very huge, spanning around two metres in width. James Wolfe is featured in the centre of the composition. He is likely the first thing the audience will look at upon examining this painting. All of the other figures in the painting direct their eyes to the dying figure of Wolfe, who wears a bright red British coat. However, only one of the figures depicted was documented to be actually present during the moment. The indigenous North American sitting to the right of Wolfe accentuates the exoticness of the New World to his British audience, Perhaps most importantly, Wolfe is deliberately depicted with the visual allusion to the Lamentation of Christ, a resemblance that many 18th century audiences would’ve picked up on. The theatrical clouds, combined with the dramatic lighting, continues to add on to the dramatic atmosphere of the painting. Through the manipulation of visual properties, West depicts Wolfe as a remarkably noble hero who died fighting for the English cause.
Who is this man creating these not-so-glorious caricatures of General Wolfe? George Townshend, of course! George Townshend, a talented caricaturist, was brigadier under the command of Major-General Wolfe whom he had a terrible relationship with. Townshend took delight in creating hideous caricatures of James Wolfe, teasing the various terrible qualities of his general and passing them around to other officers at camp. These are actually the oldest North American caricatures ever! Don’t you just love it when creativity is driven by spite?
Continuity and Change:
Similar to modern internet memes, Townshend’s cartoons seek to degrade Wolfe’s reputation through exaggerated imagery. After almost two hundred years, the manipulation of another human being’s perception in the public still contains tremendous power. To this day, politicians and school bullies alike flatten their opponent’s reputation into a single story through a series of name-calling techniques and propaganda. However, with the internet today, thousands of resources are readily available at the click of one button. Unlike the past, a sceptic individual today is able to take advantage of the research privilege and inform themselves to a variety of information before settling to a conclusion.
While the modern perception of James Wolfe is great and noble, it really seems like the historical actors were not so impressed with Wolfe. There exists a gigantic gap between Townshend’s caricatures created while Wolfe was alive compared to Benjamin West’s painting eleven years after Wolfe’s death. Here’s one on Wolfe complaining about how a 25-feet latrine isn’t deep enough (more on this later).
Wolfe, what have you done to make Montcalm hate you so much? How terrible were you as a general?
Wolfe was remembered by his fellow officers to be a rather egotistical and stubborn person, often unwilling to accept his mistakes, such as the time when he left
camp unprotected. Poor Townshend did him the favour of setting up the entrenchments around camp, but Wolfe responded to Townshend’s help with considerable violence. Other officers, such as James Murray and Robert Mockton held similar views with Townshend in their general’s horrible leadership. Wolfe was also said to lack good humour, so even he saw Townshend’s masterpieces he likely wouldn’t have appreciated them very much. Though I have no right to express what Townshend’s values and standards were, I speculate that he valued strong leadership and responsibility in his major-general, rather than Wolfe who was constantly ill. Being three years older than Wolfe, perhaps he was jealous and frustrated that Wolfe was named Major-General instead of him. Indeed, Wolfe’s military tactics were quite unusual, to say the least, and his victory at the Plains of Abraham definitely had a factor of luck to it.
On June 28 of 1759, James Wolfe drafted the Manifesto Addressed to Canadians as a psychological intimidation, lovingly stating things like “to deprive the French of their most valuable settlement in North America” and that any French Canadians resisting to his army will have “their habitations destroyed, their sacred temples exposed to an exasperated soldiery, their harvest utterly ruined, and the only passage for relief stopped up by a most formidable fleet” ( Wright, 1864). Wolfe showed little mercy to the French civilians, burning and robbing their huts in hopes that they would abandon Montcalm and side with him. This was counter-productive, however, since neutral inhabitants became actively resistant against Wolfe’s campaign. Montcalm’s defense militia grew to as many as 10,000 men who joined likely out of hatred.
Dying as a young martyr, James Wolfe definitely benefitted from the statement “You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story”, with both Britain and Canada telling the story of his greatness. These stories often cover Wolfe’s poor health conditions, who harboured rheumatism, tuberculosis, and dysentery during his lifetime (providing Townshend with plenty of laughing material I daresay).
After the British victory at the Battle of Plains of Abraham, Wolfe was perceived more of noble, and immortal British hero rather than the sick and bad-tempered general. The story of James Wolfe is one of the countless lessons of history that makes us recognize the gullibility of our feeble minds. It is much more difficult to understand a person as both a hero and a villain than to simply choose a single side of their life; it is much easier to convince someone about a single side of a person than to provide an entire account of their character. James Wolfe is, after all, just another man, equally prone to becoming the victims of single-stories as we are. But unlike James Wolfe and his era, we have the access to countless resources on the internet that we can use to defend ourselves against these flattening tales. Once again, investigating in history provides us with the humbling opportunity to perceive historical actors as rounded humans just as we are, to recognize the continuity of universal human traits, and to appreciate the positive changes in technology.
Adair, E. (1936). The Military Reputation of Major-General James Wolfe. Retrieved from http://www.cha-shc.ca/download.php?id=1617
Battle for a Continent. Cbc.ca/history/. Retrieved 1 April 2018, from http://www.cbc.ca/history/EPCONTENTSE1EP4CH6LE.html
Colby, C. (1920). Selections from the sources of English history (p. 294). London: Longmans, Green.
Gordon, S. (2018). George Townshend, 1st Marquess Townshend. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 29 March 2018, from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/george-townshend-1st-marquess-townshend/
James Wolfe. En.wikipedia.org. Retrieved 30 March 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Wolfe
James Wolfe facts, information, pictures | Encyclopedia.com articles about James Wolfe. (2004). Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 29 March 2018, from https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/history/canadian-history-biographies/james-wolfe
James Wolfe: The heroic martyr | National Army Museum. Nam.ac.uk. Retrieved 29 March 2018, from https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/James-Wolfe
Parkman, F. (1885). Montcalm and Wolfe (pp. 296-297). MacMillian and Co.
Townshend, G. (1759). General James Wolfe, at Quebec. Montreal: McCord Museum.
Wilson, B. (1909). The life and letters of James Wolfe (p. 396). Toronto: London: William Heineman.
WRIGHT, R. (1864). The Life of Major-General James Wolfe, founded on original documents and illustrated by his correspondence, etc (pp. 517-518). London: Chapman & Hall.