This book offers a fresh perspective on North American history, and the key role played by Halifax and Victoria in ensuring that Canada emerged as an independent country in the 20th century.
Brian Elson focuses on the significance of the bases for the all-powerful British navy at Halifax and Victoria through the 19th century and the First World War. As he explains, Halifax gave the Royal Navy the land base they needed to project British power along the whole east Atlantic coast of North America. Victoria's Esquimault did the same thing for the Pacific coast.
During the 1800s the United States grew dramatically, adding huge swaths of lands west, south and north that had belonged to France, Spain, Mexico, and Russia — while pushing aside native peoples. More than once the American government came into conflict with Britain over British territory in North America. There were threats of war and annexation, and American popular support for absorbing Canada was strong.
In this book Bryan Elson shows how the British presence in Halifax, and later in Victoria, stood in the way of US designs on Canada. American leaders knew that the British Navy, with its bases on both coasts, had the power to cut them off from the rest of the world with a naval blockade. The American threat to Canada was effectively countered by the British presence in these two cities.
The two bastions played their most important role in the early years of the First World War. As Bryan Elson explains, in 1914 the United States stood aside while the British Empire, including Canada, took on Germany. In this situation, the British navy — including the Canadian navy's first east coast warship — mounted a show of force by stopping all incoming and outgoing traffic from the port of New York. This lasted until the US finally opted into the war, on the side of Britain, in 1917.
Meanwhile, on the west coast the Equimault naval base was buttressed by the extraordinary action of the B.C. provincial government — which at the start of the war bought two new submarines from a shipyard in Seattle for the fledgling Canadian navy.
BRYAN ELSON is the author of Nelson's Yankee Captain and First To Die. He is a former officer of the Royal Canadian Navy and the vice-chair of the Canadian Naval Memorial Trust in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He lives in Halifax.
"Bastions of Empire is an excellent source for anyone interested in Canada's maritime history. Throughout Elson maintains an easy readable style that reveals much about a littleknown corner of Canada's past. Nor is this history without contemporary relevance. In an era when naval procurement decisions can elicit strong passions, as well as considerable controversy, it is useful to be able to lace these decisions in the longue dur—e of Canada's maritime past. Doing so helps us realize that the debates of today are hardly without precedent. And this history also shows us that in the realm of naval preparations, a good working rule is that it is probably best always to expect the unexpected."
"Rich in detail, Bastions of Empire is an engaging and straightforward examination of the evolution of fortified naval bases on Canada's east and west coasts and what happened when war came in 1914. What makes it particularly worthwhile is how comprehensively Bryan Elson sets this story in a wider geopolitical context and explains how changing perceptions of possible threats, along with advances in weapons technology, influenced developments in Halifax and Victoria — all told in an interesting manner. This book is a gem."
"The book is an excellent example of its genre. Elson tells a good story and fills in gaps that have not otherwise been revealed."