Monday, 2 May 2011

Russia and the rebellions

The second Patriote rebellion occurred in November 1838 with the attack in Lower Canada that was defeated at Odelltown and the assault on Prescott in Upper Canada. At the same time, rumours of the Russian government’s involvement began to circulate. The Morning Herald of New York published an article on 12 November suggesting that the Russians were favourably disposed to the revolutionaries who were trying to overthrow the British Empire.[1] It also suggested that Russia wanted to create discord along the Canadian-American frontier sufficient to provoke was between the United States and Britain so upsetting its diplomatic involvement in Eastern Europe.[2] The rumours circulated widely in North American newspapers and President Martin Van Buren told Henry Fox, British minister in Washington that he had heard that Russia wanted to finance the rebellions.[3]

On 24 November 1838, the declaration of a prisoner John Bratish Eliovith[4], known as the Baron Fratellin fed the suspicions of the British government.[5] He claimed that an agent of the Russian consul in New York promised to provide him with 5,000 rifles and a sum of $5,000 increasing to $25,000 should the rebellions prove to be a success. Fratellin added that Mrs Kirchen, the wife of the consul from Boston, was living in Montreal and openly plotting with the Frères Chasseurs.[6] On 26 November, following these allegations, the Montreal police force searched her residence and found that the consul was with her in Montreal.[7] He was immediately placed under arrest and all his papers were seized.[8]

Following this Fox asked the journalist and lawyer Stewart (Stuart) Derbishire to carry out a rigorous examination of the issue. He submitted his report to the British minister on 20 July 1839 that concluded that, on the basis of the available evidence that the Russians were engaged in a criminal conspiracy against the British Crown and was seeking to create disaffection with Britain in Lower Canada. Derbishire reached his conclusions of the basis of the events in Canada and the somewhat tense relations between the British and Russians. According to his report, Von Schoultz and Charles Hindenlang[9], two of the main European rebels involved in events in November 1838 were actually Russian officers who organised the rebel troops in Canada while Russian agents in New York provided the necessary funds. [10] Derbishire also thought that Papineau’s exile in France provided him with the opportunity to approach the Russian government and that the arrest of the Russian consul from Boston was irrefutable proof of the Russian plot.[11]

Stavrianos argued that Von Schoultz, who had fled to the United States after the Polish revolution of 1831 and Hindenlang who sought refuge in New York by 1838 were, in fact, simply revolutionaries not Russia agents and that they simply wanted to help the Canadian people to break free from British domination.[12] He also suggested that if Russia had really controlled certain rebel activities that agents of Canada and the United States would have informed their superiors of this. As there is no known correspondence at this level, it is impossible to confirm the charges against the Russian government. President Van Buren’s hint to Fox, something that had some credence given the tense diplomatic relations between Russia and Britain may have been an attempt to divert the British government’s attention but it was entirely unfounded. If successful, it could have given the Chasseurs far greater freedom of action. [13]

However, Bodisco, the Russian minister in Washington, did meet Papineau, O’Callaghan and Nelson on 10 December 1837. Bodisco reported the meeting in a letter addressed to count Nesselrode. Papineau sought political support but it was clear that Russia did not wish to intervene in the conflict despite the sympathy of the Russian consul for the Canadian cause. [14] Nesselrode’s response to Bodisco made it very clear that under no circumstances should he become embroiled in the rebellions.[15]

The idea of an alliance between the Russian government and the Canadian rebels is difficult to maintain. In fact the Patriotes openly supported the independence of Poland from Russia and often drew parallels between the Russian system of government and the British colonial system when denouncing the abuses of the latter. Despite the arrest of the Russian consul in Montreal, no incriminating evidence was found. His wife’s visit to Montreal was to collect her children who attended school there. [16] It is understandable why the rumours of Russian involvement were taken seriously in Canada and in London especially after the Kirchen affair and Van Buren’s unfounded insinuations but it is clear that the rumours had not foundation in fact.


[1] Stavrianos, L. S., ‘The rumour of Russian intrigue in the rebellion of 1837’, CHR, Vol. 18, (1937), p. 367.  See also, the contemporary comments giving credence to the rumour in Preston, T. R., Three Years’ Residence in Canada from 1837 to 1839, 2 Vols., (Richard Bentley), 1840, Vol. 1, pp. 229-241, that ‘in the minds of many intelligent persons there, that Russian as well as American agency was at work in fomenting the aggravating occurrences which have marred the peace and happiness of that country for so long a period.’

[2] Ibid, Stavrianos, L. S., ‘The rumour of Russian intrigue in the rebellion of 1837’, p. 367.

[3] Ibid, Stavrianos, L. S., ‘The rumour of Russian intrigue in the rebellion of 1837’, p. 368.

[4] Messier, p. 195. Fratellin was an adventurer who passed for a gentleman and a baron of Hungarian origin; arrested in November 1838, he was imprisoned in Montreal from November 1838 to March 1839.

[5] Archives nationales du Québec: E17, Ministère de la Justice, Evénements de 1837-1838. His first deposition (2958) dated 24 November 1838, printed in Aubin, Georges and Martin-Verenka, Nicole, (eds.) Insurrection: Examens volontaires, Vol 2: 1838-1839, (Lux), 2007, pp. 177-179; a second deposition (2961) dated 13 December 1838, printed pp. 179-180.

[6] Ibid, Stavrianos, L. S., ‘The rumour of Russian intrigue in the rebellion of 1837’, p. 371.

[7] Ibid, Stavrianos, L. S., ‘The rumour of Russian intrigue in the rebellion of 1837’, p. 368.

[8] Ibid, Stavrianos, L. S., ‘The rumour of Russian intrigue in the rebellion of 1837’, p. 371.

[9] Hindenlang wrote two letters to Fratellin just before his execution on 15 February 1839.

[10] Ibid, Stavrianos, L. S., ‘The rumour of Russian intrigue in the rebellion of 1837’, pp. 368-369.

[11] Ibid, Stavrianos, L. S., ‘The rumour of Russian intrigue in the rebellion of 1837’, p. 369.

[12] Ibid, Stavrianos, L. S., ‘The rumour of Russian intrigue in the rebellion of 1837’, p. 369.

[13] Ibid, Stavrianos, L. S., ‘The rumour of Russian intrigue in the rebellion of 1837’, p. 370.

[14] Leduc, T. H., ‘That Rumour of Russian Intrigue in 1837’, CHR, Vol. 23, (1942), pp. 399.

[15] Ibid, Leduc, T. H., ‘That Rumour of Russian Intrigue in 1837’, p. 400.

[16] Ibid, Stavrianos, L. S., ‘The rumour of Russian intrigue in the rebellion of 1837’, p. 371.

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