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[edit] John Richardson - Biographical Sketch

John Richardson
John Richardson
The author of Wacousta John Richardson was born on October 4th, 1796, in Queenston at Fort George. He was the son of Robert Richardson, a surgeon with the Queen's Rangers, and Madelaine Askin Richardson. His mother, Madelaine, was a member of the Indigenous Odawa (Ottawas) nation. There is little known of Richardsons' early life when he lived at Fort George with his family. In 1802, he moved to a town named Sandwich, now called Windsor, to live with his Odawa maternal grandparents. His grandparents were John and Marie-Archange Askin. His grandparents taught him a great deal about Indigenous folk and their culture. Moving on to 1812, Richardson joined the British army as a gentleman volunteer in His Majesty's 41st regiment. He fought with the English alongside Tecumseh and General Isaac Brock during the War of 1812 and was present at the capture of Détroit. On October 5th, 1813, he was captured during the battle of Moraviantown by American forces and was held prisoner in Kentucky. In 1814 he was released and joined the Kings 8th regiment. The regiment got deployed to Europe in 1815 to fight against Napoleon but arrived shortly after the battle at Waterloo. Later that year, Richardson was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. In February of 1816, Richardson took time off to go live in London on half-pay. Then, in May of the same year, he joined the 2nd regiment as second-Lieutenant. From 1816 to 1818, Richardson served in the West Indies, specifically in Barbados and Grenada. There, he supposedly married a woman but was widowed soon after. In the fall of 1818, Richardson went back on half-pay in London and Paris as part of the 92nd regiment. While he lived in London in 1826, Richardson's literary career began.

Richardson published his first series of literary works, A Canadian Campaign in the New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal from 1826-1827. His poem Tecumseh; or, the warrior of the west got published in 1828. He pulled from his experience fighting alongside Tecumseh in the War of 1812 to inspire this poem. Richardson's first novel Écarté; or, the Salons of Paris, was printed in 1829. In 1830, he published two poems titled Kensignton Gardens and A Satirical Trifle and later that year, he co-wrote Frascati's: or, Scenes in Paris, the sequel to Écarté, with Justin Brenan. Come 1832, Richardson married his second wife, Maria Caroline Grayson, on April 2nd. Wacousta, or, The Prophecy; A Tale of the Canadas was published in the same year in London, England and was later sent to be edited in North America.

Looking forward to 1835, Richardson joined the British auxiliary legion as a Captain and was stationed in Spain during what was the First Carlist War. He published the Journal of the movements of the British Legion in 1836 and the following edition Movements of the British Legion in 1837. Due to the content of these works, Richardson came under fire for criticizing his commanding officer Lieutenant-General George de Lacy Evans and exposing his ineptitudes. His Personal Memoirs, published in 1838 and his satirical novel Jack Brag in Spain, continued to present the incompetence of the British Legion. Richardson was presented to a military court and charged for "discrediting the conduct of the Legion," which was then changed to "cowardice in battle." Having been wounded while in Spain, he was absolved of all charges and subsequently promoted to major for his efforts. Still residing in Spain, Richardson was knighted in the military order of St Ferdinand.

After his deployment in Spain, Richardson was hired by The Times of London as a columnist to write in Canada. He and his wife made their way to Canada in 1838. While in Canada, Richardson published the sequel to Wacousta, entitled The Canadian brothers; or, the prophecy fulfilled in Montreal. He established a printing press in Brockville, where he published some political chronicles from 1841-1842. In 1843 he relocated to Kingston and continued with his work. His chronicles would challenge laws, policies, and authority in Canada. In 1845, Richardson declared bankruptcy and sold his printing press. In May of the same year, the Governor appointed Richardson superintendent of police for the Welland canal; thus, he and his wife moved to St Catharines. In August, his wife passed away. In 1846, he was dismissed as superintendent of police, and he resumed writing political chronicles for newspapers in Montreal. Moving on to 1847, he published Eight Years in Canada and its sequel The guards in Canada; or, the point of honour one year later in 1848. Due to financial troubles, Richardson moved to New York in 1849, hoping to find a more captive audience for his writing. For the three following years, he published a few books and wrote short stories for magazines and newspapers such as Hardscrabble; or, the fall of Chicago (1850) and Wau-nan-gee; or, the massacre at Chicago (1851). In 1852, John Richardson died on May 12th in New York at the age of 56. His supposed cause of death was erysipelas, also known as St Anthony's fire, which may have been caused by malnourishment.

[edit] Intersections Between Richardson`s Life and Wacousta

[edit] Volume 1

Throughout Volume One of Wacousta, John Richardson sets the foundation upon which the novel explores complex relationships with settler identity and culture. Richardson was born in 1796 as a Canadian with a mix of Scottish and Indigenous heritage (Beasly 1985). With these two backgrounds, Richardson would have faced a form of contact and perhaps conflict within himself. Critics like Margery Fee, however, argue that Richardson was able to connect these two parts of his biography through a common critique of English colonialism. Volume One illustrates Richardson’s love of his home country while also actively making commentary on the disruptive influence England had on his beloved nation and its people.

In the opening of the novel, Richardson not only addresses the audience but clearly showcases the unfamiliarity Europeans collectively possessed towards Canada: “As we are about to introduce our readers to scenes with which the European is little familiarised” (9). This is very striking as it implicitly suggests that his European readers did not have a grasp on the land or people they sought to colonize. This continues as Richardson describes the chain of lakes that extends “in a north-western direction to the remotest part of these wid regions, which have never yet been pressed by other footsteps than those of the native hunters of the soil” (9). This acknowledgement that Europeans are embarking on foreign soil indicates to the reader that the novel follows a narrative of colonial travel along which includes characteristics and ideologies that accompany the genre. Richardson continues by detailing the scenery and landscape of the region of Canada in which the narrative will take place. Richardson was present at the capture of Detroit and his long-standing military experience influences the depictions of the British soldiers and life inside the garrison (Beasly 1985).

The Garrison Mentality is evident even in the introduction of the novel through the descriptions of nature: “From this point, the St. Lawrence increases in expanse, until, at length, after traversing a country where the traces of civilization become gradually less and less visible, she finally emerges in the gulf, from the centre of which the shores on either hand are often invisible to the naked eye; and in this manner is it imperceptibly lost in that misty ocean, so dangerous to mariners from its deceptive and almost perpetual fogs” (11). The pathetic fallacy of the perpetual fog in connection with the fringes of civilization (i.e. the beginnings of Indigenous territories) symbolizes the confusion of the settlers as they navigate a landscape and body of people that are not only foreign but heavily rooted in nature.

The stability of the Europeans in Canada was extremely precarious, and this is evident in Richardson’s examination of the military rank system. When discussing their opinions over the impersonal and mechanic nature of promotions in the military system the narrator states: “A moment or two of silence ensued, in the course of which each individual appeared to be bringing home to his own heart the application of the remark just uttered; and which, however, they might seek to disguise the truth from themselves, was too forcible to find contradiction from the secret monitor within. And yet of those assembled, there was not one, perhaps, who would not, in the hour of glory and of danger, have generously interposed his own frame between that of his companion and the steel or bullet of an enemy. Such are the contradictory elements which compose a soldier’s life” (30). There is a juxtaposition of desire; the desire for security of station and rank that comes with the prestige of being a part of the military while simultaneously rejecting the heartless and unforgiving nature of what being a soldier means. With England, at the time, being radically divided by class, there was an immense attraction to join the military as a form of economic security. Richardson, in his time as a soldier, may have felt these same feelings of conflict as his long military career would have forced him to come to terms with the realities of his position. After Richardson published Wacousta, he was charged for “cowardice in battle” for criticizing the military in 1836. After many years of military service, the pressures of this lifestyle may have weighed on Richardson, which is evident in his literature (Beasly 1985). The quotation above outlines just how precarious the station of a soldier is. You could be issuing commands one second, and in an instant, lose the life of a friend. The fragility of ranks symbolizes the unstable nature of Britain’s occupation in Canada as their systems of power are not only destructive in and of themselves but also implicitly pit comrades against one another.

The relationship between the British settlers and the Canadians is one of tension as they accept gold in “exchange for the necessaries of life” while also experiencing feelings of fear towards them: “As the troops drew nearer, however, they all sank at once into a silence, as much the result of certain unacknowledged and undefined fears, as of the respect the English had ever been accustomed to exact” (119). The diction used in this passage outlines the fear of Canadians towards the British soldiers. Although several lines before this passage, “the colonist settlers had been cruelly massacred” the alarm is not directed towards the Indigenous but to the British. This fear is not questioned but instead is rudimentary in the soldiers' construction of identity as it is not only expected but seen as a form of respect. Richardson’s dual background would have caused him to possibly experience feelings of internal opposition; he states to have an undying love for Canada while simultaneously not denying his devotion to the Crown by joining the British forces. Richardson goes back and forth in his tone surrounding the English and this could be to appease the intended audience of readers while exploring how these ideas can be challenged. By tapping into these feelings of conflict within himself, Richardson is able to construct a picture of the British that fits the mould of colonial literature while also illuminating the unstable and chaotic behaviour of the settlers in response to their shifting understandings of identity.

[edit] Volume 2

This Volume very much brings the theme of colonialism to light, and succeeds in showing readers how stereotypes of the Indigenous Peoples and Settlers with whom they are in battle, are not as rigid as readers may have thought; In fact, it could be argued this volume takes steps well ahead of the time period in which it was written, at challenging such stereotypes. Throughout the battle, the European Settlers expect the Indigenous Peoples to be “savage” in combat, despite them (the Indigenous) wanting to “raise the white flag” (Richardson, Volume Two), and make peace to end the battle, multiple times. In this way, the Indigenous are portrayed as peacemakers, and people of fair values, while the European Settlers' consistently thirst for battle and bloodshed. Indeed, the British can be seen as the most “savage” out of the two parties. Although Richardson does work to show equality in his depictions of both the Indigenous Peoples and European Settlers, to the point where it can arguably be hard to tell which characters belong to each side of the battle. At the end of this volume, Richardson is able to show readers that being "savage" belongs to no group of people in particular, and is very much a result of individual conduct and circumstance. This is something which he encountered during his time in the war of 1812 where he fought alongside Englishmen and Indigenous people alike, while witnessing horrific American atrocities. During that war, there was no group more "savage" than the other.

This shift shows a redefinition in regards to the expected roles of European Settlers and Indigenous Peoples at the time. Despite his use of conventional racist language, Richardson represents events and the Indigenous Peoples in particular, in a way that was very progressive for the time. The open mindfulness and equality toward the Indigenous Peoples that Richardson shows in this volume can most likely be tied to the fact that he himself was part Indigenous. While his father was of Scottish descent, Richardson's mother was part Indigenous, and one of his maternal grandparents was fully Indigenous and a member of the Odawa (Ottawa) Nation. He was, as mentioned above, largely raised by his grandparents in the traditions of the Odawa people. That is not to say that throughout this volume, Richardson only paints the Indigenous Peoples as the peace-makers and the European Settlers as the "savages", as there are still times throughout this volume in which characters of both populations can, and do play both roles. It can be argued that Richardson's ability to neutralize the two groups and not play so heavily on stereotypes of the time, is a direct result of his background and level of assimilation into both ways of life Richardson had in fact lived with his maternal grandparents for some time, with whom he would practise traditions and ways of life of the Odawa Nation, before he left Sandwich where the three of them had been living at the time, to join the British and their battle against the United States. In truth, Richardson draws many parallels to his time serving in the War of 1812 to influence Wacousta's second volume. The war tactics and the customs of the Indigenous people were undoubtedly pulled from his memory. Being both Indigenous and of Settler descent, Richardson clearly paints a picture that showcases both cultures and their ways relatively accurately.

[edit] Volume 3

Wacousta's third volume is significant to examine regarding its connection to the author because of many factors including character development, plot development, the use of language, themes, and the tone of volume 3. The focus of this section will be on the genres depicted within the novel and both character and plot development surrounding Wacousta’s true identity as Reginald Morton. The discovery of Wacousta as a white man in the final volume of the text rather than the first or second is important to note because of what it reveals about John Richardson’s motives in the representations of race within the novel.

There are many conflicting genres that are present in the novel. Richardson manages to pack multiple intertwining genres within the text. There are elements of a tragedy novel which can be seen by the death of both major and minor characters and elements of a comedy novel because of the marriage that occurs between Fredrick and Madeline. Although there are many overlapping genres within the novel, Richardson uses many gothic tropes such as the gloomy setting, Ellen Halloway’s curse, brutal violence, and the monstrous character, Wacousta. The intermingling of genres reflects the complex position that Richardson possesses because of his cultural background. John Richardson was from both Odawa and Scottish descent making him simultaneously loyal to the crown yet aware of the valuable contributions that the Indigenous community made in the development of Canada. In compiling the book with multiple texts, Richardson gives the novel an unusual tone because of the text’s inability to be categorized into one genre which may be a reflection of his views on Canadian history and how it cannot be told through a singular lens.

Similarly, the discovery of Wacousta’s true identity as a white man named Reginald Morton on page 437 introduces an entirely new area of discussion surrounding race and identity. Wacousta’s identity plays on the themes of deception that can be seen within the novel and forces readers to challenge the stereotypes they may have previously possessed. In a conversation between Clara de Haldimar and Wacousta, both readers and Clara discover that she “has been the wife of two Reginald Mortons” (439). A connection is also drawn to Frank Halloway who shares the same name as Wacousta. It is as though Wacousta is avenging Halloway’s death while simultaneously indulging in his own revenge plot. Wacousta’s hidden identity and his actions prove that binaries are purely imaginary (Lee, 53). Readers must consider the notion of Indigeneity as a performed identity and what Richardson’s goals were in developing a character such as Wacousta.

Wacousta is arguably the most savage character within the novel and Richardson holds off on revealing to readers that he is a white man to add shock value to the plot and to forces readers to question the preconceived identity of the “white colonizers” as civilized. Through the reveal of Wacousta’s true identity in the third volume, Richardson critiques the way Canadian history has been written. Most of Canadian history has been written through imperial eyes with eurocentric views and has caused the tainting of Indigenous identities and the uplifting of colonial identities. Richardson critiques the notion that Indigenous individuals were the “savages” who needed to be tamed by the “civilized” colonists by making the most monstrous character a white man who is driven by his thirst for revenge. Richardson utilizes Wacousta’s character to prove that the men that a majority of history has painted as “civil” can cause just as much harm and be “savages” themselves. The cultural divide that Richardson experiences with his Indigenous and European background communities are reflected in his work. Richardson proves that corruption does not discriminate between cultures and tries to challenge the stereotypes surrounding Indigenous peoples.

Volume 3 of Wacousta is packed with parallels that can be drawn to John Richardson’s life but the most notable one is the revealing of Wacousta as a white man simply disguised as an Indigenous person. The blurring of identities is reflective of Richardson’s own personal struggle to grasp both sides of his identity equally. The volume sheds light on the reality that being of a certain race does not automatically place you in a “good” or “bad” group.

[edit] Notes and References

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “John Richardson.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 8 May 2020,

Beasly , David R. “Biography – RICHARDSON, JOHN (1796-1852) – Volume VIII (1851-1860) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography.” Home – Dictionary of Canadian Biography, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 1985,

Richardson, John. Wacousta or, The Prophecy; A Tale of the Canadas. Edited by Douglas Cronk, Carleton University Press Inc., 1987.

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