9 July 1894
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the British Empire was reaching its peak. Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee in 1887, marking fifty years on the throne. That year, the Imperial Federation League, whose aim was to promote closer ties within the Empire, organized the first Colonial Conference in London. It was hosted by Queen Victoria and Britain’s Prime Minister Lord Salisbury. The United Kingdom, Canada, Newfoundland, the six Australian colonies, New Zealand and the Natal and Cape Colonies in southern Africa sent representatives. Sir Alexander Campbell, Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor, and Sandford Fleming (later Sir) represented the Dominion of Canada. Fleming was the Scottish-Canadian engineer who helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway and conceived worldwide standard time. He was also an ardent imperialist who lobbied hard for a trans-Pacific telegraph cable linking the British colonies in Australia with Canada. As a trans-Atlantic cable between Newfoundland and Ireland had been laid many years earlier, a trans-Pacific line would fill in a missing piece in a globe-girding communications network that would help unite the Empire. Although the Conference agreed on a number of resolutions, including the approval of a trans-Pacific telegraph cable, agreements reached were non-binding.
Seven years later, in 1894, a second colonial conference was organized, this time by the Canadian government of Conservative Sir John Thompson. According to a contemporary report, Mackenzie Bowell (later Sir), who as Minister of Trade and Commerce had the previous year travelled to Australia to promote Australian-Canadian trade relations, found it difficult to negotiate with six different Australian colonies during his short stay in the Antipodes. (The Australian Federation wasn’t formed until 1901.) Consequently, Canada proposed a conference in Ottawa. Five of the six Australian colonies (New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, the only exception being Western Australia) sent representatives. New Zealand and the Cape Colony of South Africa also sent delegates. Britain was represented by the Earl of Jersey, a former governor of New South Wales. Lord Jersey was given strict instructions that he was only to listen, provide information, and report back to the British government. He did not have the authority to bind the British government to any agreement or even express any views on behalf of the British government. The Canadian delegation consisted of Mackenzie Bowell, Minister of Trade and Commerce, Sir Adolphe Caron, Postmaster-General, George E. Foster, Minister of Finance, and Sandford Fleming.
The Colonial Conference ran over a twelve-day period ending 9 July 1894. Most of the conference was held in the Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill. The debates were not open to the general public or the press. Commenting on its lack of access, The Globe newspaper tartly remarked that “The conference has taken an excellent course to ensure that it will make the least possible impression on the public mind.” While it was generally known that Imperial trading relations was a major focus of the conference, little news filtered out of the deliberations. Consequently, reporters focused on the many peripheral social events. The night before the opening session, the government held a banquet for 300 guests at the Russell Hotel in honour of the delegates. The Ottawa Evening Journal remarked that the banquet was “the talk of the corridors of Parliament” the next day and that “unrestrained enthusiasm and loud cheers” had greeted the “incidental mention of Cecil Rhodes,” the great South African imperialist. More substantively, the newspaper also reported that the Liberal opposition leader Wilfrid Laurier (later Sir) had advised delegates to follow the trading policy of the mother country [Britain], i.e. free trade. At that time, the Liberal Party was a free-trading party, and supported unrestricted trade with the United States. It would attempt to negotiate a reciprocity treaty with the Americans during the early 1900s.
A few days later, the Government held a garden party on Parliament Hill. Over 1,000 incandescent electric lights illuminated the trees and hedges close to the Cartier statue to the west of the central block. Lights and Chinese lanterns lit up “Lovers’ Walk – a secluded, treed pathway around the bluff of Parliament Hill that was long a popular spot for strolling. (Only traces of the trail now remain.) A large arch was erected with an “immense carpet underfoot.” The Journal waxed eloquently about the event. “Guests felt that some invisible genii had transported them for from the heights of Ottawa to some garden in the Orient.” The newspaper focused considerable attention on the ladies’ dresses. Lady Thompson, the Prime Minister’s wife, wore a black silk lace gown with jet trimmings. A band of black velvet with a diamond star in the centre encircled her throat.
After the conference, which concluded with a ball in the Drill Hall, delegates remained tight-lipped, saying little beyond anodyne comments. Lord Jersey remarked he wasn’t able to go into details, but he was “safe in saying that the results will surely prove beneficial, not only to the mother country, but to the various colonies.” William Foster from South Australia thought it “would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the conference in bringing nearer together the people of the distant parts of the empire.” In the absence of hard news, the Journal asked delegates about their opinions of Canada. Simon Fraser, a delegate from Victoria Colony in Australia who was actually a Canadian born in Picton, Nova Scotia, noted great differences between the Canada of his youth some forty years earlier and the Canada of 1894. Then, “it was still the good old days of stage coaches.” Canada was “a kingdom now; it has a place among the nations of the earth,” with a great future. Jan Hafmeyr from the Cape Colony in South Africa honestly replied that he had been ill for much of his brief stay. Consequently, he did “not feel qualified to express an opinion of the Dominion, its peoples and institutions as requested.”
Details of the conference finally came out in August 1894 with the publishing of the conference proceedings. With Mackenzie Bowell, the Canadian Minister of Trade in Commerce in the chair for most of the time, delegates focused their energy on two main issues — the enhancement of intra-Empire trade, and the laying of a trans-Pacific telegraph cable from Australia to Canada. Procedurally, it was one colony, one vote, with resolutions decided on a majority basis.
The first issue became known as the “imperial preference.” It was a policy keenly supported by Canada’s protectionist-minded and imperialist Conservative Party. In 1879, Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservative government had introduced its “National Policy,” directed at sheltering Canadian manufacturers from foreign, especially American, competition. The Conservatives had won the 1891 General Election under the imperialist banner “The Old Flag [Union Jack], the Old Policy [Protectionism], the Old Leader [Macdonald].” With the opening of western Canada, the Canadian government was eager to increase its share of the large British market for agricultural products and other commodities. With imperial sentiment on the ascendant in Canada, the Conservative Party now under Sir John Thompson supported differential tariffs that favoured British (and British colonial goods) over foreign goods. British goods would still face a tariff, just a smaller one than that imposed on foreign goods. This was seen as a way of broadening and deepening intra-Empire trade while at the same time keeping American producers at a significant disadvantage in Canadian markets. Greater access to Empire markets also became more imperative after the 1890 introduction of the McKinley Tariff in the United States that substantially raised existing barriers to Canadian goods.
However, Britain had pursued a free-trading policy with the world since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. Cheap foreign food fed the growing British urban proletariat. The factories and mills in which they worked depended on the importation of cheap commodities for conversion into textiles and other manufactured goods. Consequently, it sought the lowest world price for imported inputs, and didn’t distinguish between foreign and colonial sources. British trade with non-Empire countries dwarfed its Imperial trade. While some of the Australian colonies supported the Canadian position, they were hampered by constitutional barriers that, while allowing them to favour other Australian colonies, forbade them from discriminating in favour of any country, whether foreign or British. The South African colonies laboured under similar restrictions. On a 5-3 vote, the delegates passed a resolution, moved by Canada, stating the Conference’s “belief in the advisability of a Customs’ arrangement between Great Britain and her Colonies by which trade within the Empire may be placed on a more favourable footing than that which is carried on with foreign countries.” Recognizing that Great Britain might not be inclined to do this at this point in time, a subsidiary resolution noted the desirability of the Colonies to be given the power to discriminate in favour of each other’s products. Canada, Tasmania, Cape of Good Hope, South Australia and Victoria voted in favour of the resolution. New South Wales, Queensland and New Zealand voted against it. Britain did not vote.
The second important issue – the construction of a trans-Pacific telegraph cable from Australia to Canada – was less contentious. A resolution moved by New South Wales passed unanimously. (Again, Britain did not vote.) The South African delegation urged that eventually the cable should be extended to South Africa. Sandford Fleming presented a lengthy paper examining the delays in laying the cable since the first colonial conference in 1887. Delegates thought it appropriate that Canada, Britain and the Australian colonies each assume a one-third share in a government-owned venture, estimated to cost about £1.8 million. Australians denounced the “grasping monopoly” of the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company that owned the only existing telegraph line to Australia through Asia, and indicated their willingness to assume the entire cost of building the trans-Pacific line if the underwater cable could be protected for at least a week “after a declaration of war by or against England.” Sandford Fleming though that once the line was built, it would cost 2 shillings per word to send a telegram from Australia to Canada, and would lower the per word cost of sending a telegram from Australia to Britain from 4 shillings and 9 pence to 3 shillings and 3 pence. At today’s prices that would be a reduction from about £28 (C$48) per word to a mere £19 (C$26). (With email, Skype, and other forms of electronic communications virtually costless today, one forgets how expensive telecommunications used to be.)
Despite the strong imperial sentiments expressed by all at the Conference and the self-congratulations that followed the resolutions, reality quickly set in. The Globe newspaper wrote a scathing report on the Conference’s trade resolution once news about its deliberations became known. It wrote that “Next, perhaps, to levying taxes on the colonies for old world wars…, there could surely be no swifter way of wrecking the Empire than to compel the forty millions in the United Kingdom to stint their bellies and immensely reduce their opportunities… [G]reater [Imperial] unity cannot be brought about by differential tariffs whose effect would be the speedy impoverishment of the mother country… No sane man can believe that we can find such a policy as a customs union with far distant continents whose population is even smaller than our own and a war of tariffs with our American kinsmen, with whom Providence has decreed that we must live as next-door neighbour to the end of time.”
Although Canada unilaterally introduced imperial preferences during the late 1890s, Britain retained its traditional free trade policies. It wasn’t until another Ottawa conference, this one held in 1932 in the depth of the Great Depression, did Britain break with its long-standing beliefs and introduced an imperial preference system as recommended by Canada.
The trans-Pacific, “all-Red,” British cable was finally laid in 1902, with the first message sent in December of that year. Operated by the British Cable Board, it was owned by Britain (5/18), Canada (5/18), New South Wales (1/9), Victoria (1/9), Queensland (1/9) and New Zealand (1/9). The cable ran from Vancouver to Brisbane, with intermediate connections at various tiny Pacific islands that Britain controlled, with a branch to New Zealand from Norfolk Island. The line was later extended across the Indian Ocean to South Africa.
Devlin, Charles, 1892. Liberal Member for Ottawa County, Quebec, Speech, House of Commons Debates, 7th Parliament, 2nd Session, Vol.1, page 501.
Globe (Toronto), 1894. “Cabled From London, The Intercolonial Conference,” 15 June.
——————-, 1894. “At The Capital, Mr Bowell Elected President of the Conference,” 30 June.
——————-, 1894. “Notes and Comments,” 5 July.
——————-, 1894. “Trade Projects,” 4 August.
——————-, 1894. “Schemes of Empire,” 4 August.
Hopkins, J. Castell, 1894. “Imperialism at the Intercolonial Conference, Toronto, https://archive.org/stream/cihm_08049#page/1/mode/2up.
Huurdeman, Anton. 2003. The Worldwide History of Telecommunications, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: Hoboken, New Jersey.
Ottawa Evening Journal, 1894. “Sons of the Empire,” 28 June.
—————————–, 1894. “An Imperial Feast,” 29 June.
——————————, 1894. “The Second Day’s Conference,” 30 June.
——————————, 1894. “The Government and the Delegates,” 4 July.
——————————, 1894. “The ‘At Home’ On The Hill,” 6 July.
——————————, 1894. “Ball,” July 9.
——————————, 1894. “Mr. Bowell and the Conference,” 9 July.
——————————, 1894. “Utterances By Colonial Delegates,” 11 July.
——————————, 1894. “The Intercontinental Visitors,” 11 July.
——————————, 1894. “Fruits of the Conference,” 31 July.
Times (London), 1894. “What Colonial Unification May Mean,” 8 July.
 New South Wales – F.B. Suttor, Minister of Public Institutions; Queensland – A.J. Thynne, Member of the Executive Council, William Forrest; South Australia – Thomas Playford, Agent General in London, Victoria – Sir Henry Wrixon, Nicholas Fitzgerald, Member of Legislative Council (also represented Tasmania) and Simon Fraser, Member of Legislative Council; New Zealand – Alfred Lee-Smith, Cape of Good Hope – Sir Henry De Villiers, Chief Justice; Sir Charles Mills, Agent General in London, and Jan Hendrick Hafmeyer, Member of Legislative Council.