Thursday, May 24, 2012

O Cruel Sorceress!

From the imaginary dream journal of Nicholas Flood Davin, circa 1885:

Why dost thou haunt me, cruel phantom? Thou savage woman, so foreign to the civilized man!

Art thou a wild woman of the Cree or Assiniboine nations, or an Oriental beauty, boldly seeking entrance to this great land to populate it with thy cursed offspring? Why do my loins burn so at the mere sight of thee? Begone!

O would wishing make it so! Thou art the Medusa of my nightmares, with thy ropes of serpentine black hair and thy unfathomable dark eyes, which methinks speak reproachfully to me, the Man of Laws.

It would take a Shakespeare to describe thy power, drawn from the mysteries of nature. I have not that power of expression.

Asian seductress, I will do what I can to keep thy fecundity from this land.

Indigenous harlot, I will rescue thy children and teach them the ways of enlightenment. Curse me as thou wilt, I offer them this blessing.

And yet mine own forebears were not Christian, nor did they speak English. How fiercely did the Celts of old fight the Romans, and then the English, even to this day. And women – savage, half-naked women or blazing-eyed modern Amazons – have led the charge.

There is something in them which I cannot answer. Their allure torments me, and I must fight it until the spearlike pen falls from my vanquished hand.

Backstory: Nicholas Flood Davin (1843-1901) was born in Kilfinane, Ireland on January 13, 1843. An orphan, he apprenticed to an ironmonger, then attended the University of London, became a lawyer and then a journalist. He became editor of The Belfast Times, then left in a flurry of lawsuits. In 1872, he emigrated to Canada.

In Toronto, he tried to launch careers in law and journalism. He joined the Conservative Party, and ran unsuccessfully for office.

Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald (noted for his heavy drinking, as was Davin) commissioned Davin to write a report on the education of indigenous people. Davin submitted A Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds in March 1879, in which he recommends “civilizing the savages” by taking children away from their families and training them in residential schools. The Canadian government implemented this recommendation by setting up a residential school system, which lasted for almost 100 years. It caused massive personal trauma and cultural disruption.

In 1882, Davin moved west to Regina, a dusty prairie town where in 1883, he launched the town’s first newspaper, The Regina Leader (which still exists as The Leader-Post). In its pages, Davin aired his conservative opinions on issues of the day, including Canadian government policy on Chinese immigration.

Davin was opposed to letting the Chinese wives of male Chinese labourers (paid half the salaries of white men doing the same work) come to Canada to join their husbands because then they would populate Canada (particularly the sparsely-populated West) with Chinese babies. Davin’s recommendations on immigration policy worked much better than most forms of birth control available at that time.

Note: Sir John A. Macdonald’s great dream was to build a railroad to unite eastern and western Canada, and the importation of cheap Chinese labourers was crucial to this project. 700 of them died as a direct result.

Davin was a great admirer of Shakespeare as a literary exemplar of “civilization,” and once wrote a political satire of Romeo and Juliet. He was in favour of extending the vote to white women.

Davin moved to the town of Winnipeg and shot himself to death there in 1901.

His name appears on several local landmarks in Regina, now the capital of the province of Saskatchewan (formed in 1905). So far, there has been no public commemoration of the indigenous or Chinese families that were devastated by the policies he recommended. Feh. (Googling his name will turn up much more information.)


  1. Jean - I'm reading Deadwood right now, and the repulsion/attraction between white men and Chinese women is a strong theme. (I have yet to see a native character, probably because there was a $250 bounty on all natives, so none would have lived long if they wandered into town)

  2. Hi Jean!

    Personally I have always felt a strong attraction to Chinese women, a kind of racism in reverse I suppose. Reading about Davin reminds me of how much things have improved, however imperfectly since then.


  3. Hello, Jean,

    It's infuriating how white men bandy about the term "civilization"! China can claim five millenia or more of civilization.

    I'd love to think that Davin actually did lust after the Other that he feared, imprisoned and robbed of her culture. It would only be poetic justice.

    A surprising but totally appropriate take on the week's theme.


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