Friday, June 12, 2020

History of Dundas Street. Yeah, sure, change it


Does some underappreciated history grad student deserve credit for outing Henry Dundas, first Lord Melville, for whom Toronto's Dundas Street (and various other landmarks around the country) is named, as a defender of slavery? 
I mean, who the hell was Dundas anyway? 

Dundas has his Ontario landmarks only because he was a friend of the province's first lieutenant-governor, John Graves Simcoe, who bestowed the names. His west coast honours came from George Vancouver, another admirer. Dundas never came to North America, never had any great involvement with colonial policy, probably barely knew or cared that his name had been lent to a minor backwoods village and the road that led to it from Toronto (aka York, in Simcoe's naming).

Dundas was a senior figure in the war cabinets that directed Britain's long war with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France from the 1790s to 1815. He was also the senior political minister for Scotland, closely associated with several notable developments there, including the creation of Edinburgh's New Town, where he has a mighty statue.  So, a consequential figure in British government in his day. (He died in 1811.)

But it must have been some historian researching Britain's late 18th and early 19th century debates over slavery and abolition who discovered that Dundas resisted the banning of the slave trade and helped slow its coming -- which has underpinned the call for renaming the Dundas memorials.  (Indeed, Scottish moves to reconsider Dundas honours do seem to have preceded the Toronto proposals. His own descendants are part of it -- so maybe the grad student theory doesn't hold so well.) 

If Dundas were a consequential figure in Canadian history, associated with significant achievements here, I might lean to the preservation of his name -- on the general theory that memorials erected to recall someone's valuable works may survive even if those individuals also have negative associations. Broadly, that's my inclination on John A. Macdonald statues, and why Thomas Jefferson, horrible as he was, probably has a better claim than Confederate generals. 

Dundas might be defended on these grounds in Britain, but what's his redeeming merit for Canada?

Given Dundas's non-role in Canadian history, I'm sympathetic to proposals that his memorials be replaced with names that have both positive associations and Canadian significance. I'm not sure what the town of Dundas would want to rename itself, but there are lots of underappreciated builders, founders, and anti-racists around. 

Update, June 15:  Just to balance my fairly casual acceptance of this idea with an affirmation that it really doesn't amount to significant change.  More consequential changes remain to be made.      
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