Wellington and Ottawa: How an Irishman and a Pot of Spanish Silver Transformed Canada

It is hard to imagine the development of modern Canada without the decisive intervention of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and one of the most influential Anglo-Irish figures of the 19th century.  Without his vision of Canada as a strategic bulwark protecting Britain’s global hegemony, there would have been no Lachine, Rideau or Welland Canals, no Bytown hence no Ottawa, and no modern Halifax. The names of Wellington’s men, sent to build up Canada and administer British North America are now common place names of streets and universities across the country. Their job was to protect Canada from US invasion and annexation. Wellington himself had the authority, the manpower and, critically, a huge pot of Spanish silver to realize his vision of Canada as Britain’s indispensable ally. Without Wellington, British North America could well have been absorbed into the United States as many American political leaders expected and demanded for most of the century.

Famously, the Duke of Wellington was said to have retorted about his Irish origins that ‘being born in a stable did not make you a horse.’ [1]   Nonetheless, it remained a fact that not only was he born on Merrion Street in Dublin and raised in Ireland, but his family also had deep roots there going back at least six generations.  His Cowley (later Colley[2]) forebears arrived from England around 1500 and successive Irish patriarchs were members of the Irish House of Commons.  Their lands were near Trim and Wellington was raised there and in Dublin, leaving when he was twelve to go to Eton (where he was deeply unhappy).  Whatever about his alleged distain, Wellington led many Irish into battle wherever he fought and as Prime Minister delivered Catholic Emancipation in the face of ferocious opposition from his own Tory party and the king. As as Freemason, Wellington was a life-long member of his Lodge in Trim.

As I have written elsewhere[3], generations of Anglo-Irish imperial soldiers and administrators made their careers in North America and had formative influence on the development of British North America as the French departed in 1763 and the American War of Independence ended in 1783. 

Like many of them, Wellington joined the British Army when an elder brother inherited the family estate.  Yet without ever serving in British North America, it was Wellington who exerted such decisive influence on the colony’s development.[4] 

Wellington’s vision for Canada was triggered by outrage at the events of 1812.  The titanic struggle between Britain and France for global supremacy had been going on for a century, with episodes fought in North America, Ireland, the Atlantic, the West Indies, the East Indies, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East.  Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and Syria in 1798, for example, had been an attempt to access Asia and take control of India, thereby directly threatening British hegemony in Asia and the world.  Nelson’s naval victory at The Battle of the Nile quickly put paid to that ambition.[5] 

“The Napoleonic Wars of 1800-1815 were a global, not just a European struggle,” writes Dominic Lieven in Russia Against Napoleon.  The battles were fought in Europe during the climactic phase of this global contest because successive British naval victories had confined Napoleon there.  The stakes could not have been higher.  “It was in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras that Britain consolidated its hugely powerful global empire, both territorial and commercial…. Napoleon’s attempt to create a European empire was simply a last, heroic effort to balance British imperialism and avoid defeat in France’s century-long conflict with Britain.  The odds were very much against Napoleon, though by 1812 he had come seemingly very close to success.”[6]  In June 1812, Napoleon’s Grande Armée of almost 700,000 men invaded Russia. 

That same month, with the British Empire’s future on a knife edge, the United States declared war on the UK and invaded its territory in British North America. As Sweeny notes, that the American Ambassador in Paris was on the campaign trail with the Grande Armée helped cement the impression that the US was taking advantage of Britain’s peril (the Ambassador froze to death in Poland and the return leg). In reality, the war party in Washington were infuriated by Britain’s seizure of US ships and crews and general interference in its trade. To Wellington, the US attack was a grievous stab in the back.  Britain had to divert some of its best troops to defend Canada, as well as part of the Navy to ward off the US-backed privateers plundering British merchant ships in the North Atlantic.

After the disaster of Napoleon’s Russian invasion and then Waterloo, writes Sweeny, “Wellington’s problem was no longer France, it was the United States.  Everything had to be done, from diplomacy to money power to fortifications, to prevent the Americans from capturing British North America.”[7]

Thanks to the Napoleonic blockade, Canada was already substituting for the loss of Baltic lumber to build and repair Britain’s navy.  Hemp for ropes and sails were vital to the British Navy: a frigate required fifty tons every two years.  Most of that came from Russia, a supply line that had been threatened by Napoleon.[8] Canada’s supply of hemp was limited but could be encouraged longer term. As an imperial strategist, Wellington became convinced that the key to Britain’s global military security was British North America.  He decided to fortify Canada, ensure that it had secure transportation links along the St Lawrence linking Kingston, Montreal and Quebec, was capable of defending the coast and trade routes across the North Atlantic from a base at Halifax, and had a strong settled population of loyalists along the St Lawrence in the vulnerable Ontario region. 

Wellington was uniquely placed to carry out his plan.  As Master General of the Ordnance in 1818, Commander-in-Chief in 1827 and Prime Minister from 1828-1830, he had the authority to order British Army engineers and sappers to help build vital infrastructure. [9]   To finance his endeavours, and by a bizarre twist of history, the Admiralty had a treasure of Spanish silver beyond Parliamentary control.  Thanks to Sweeny’s indomitable sleuthing we now know that in 1808 Napoleon’s banker proposed, and the British accepted, a deal to split a vast consignment of Spanish silver, minted in Mexico, and transported by a fleet of twenty-six ships of the Royal Navy.  The Admiralty’s share of the silver was kept offshore to avoid destabilizing the British financial system; or at least that was their argument.[10]  By 1818, Wellington was free to spend it in Canada. 

Without the need for Parliamentary approval or oversight, spend it he did.  In return for free transportation for the military on the proposed canals, Wellington subsidized the building of the Lachine Canal at Montreal, which opened trade along the upper St Lawrence and the Ottawa Rivers.  The canal was built with mainly Irish labour under the direction of Scottish master stone mason and building contractor Thomas Mackay (from Perth, Scotland).

Wellington also sanctioned the building of the Rideau Canal to link the Ottawa River to the St Lawrence at Kingston and thereby protect supply lines between Montreal and the Great Lakes in the event of an American attack across the St Lawrence. While mainly for military reasons, it made commercial sense too.  The US plan to build the Erie Canal, linking the Hudson to the Great Lakes and the St Lawrence, threatened to snuffle out Montreal’s export trade with Europe by providing easy access to New York. 

Thanks to the superb quality of his work and management of large projects, Mackay won the contract for the Rideau Canal.  Irish labourers again featured strongly in his workforce.  Mackay built the first stone building in Ottawa, the canal site’s commissary, today the Bytown Museum.[11]  Both he and his partner, John Redpath, were handsomely paid, literally with barrels of Spanish silver coin.  Redpath invested his in Montreal, but Mackay decided to put down roots in Bytown and develop it: building fine homes at Rideau Hall and Earnscliffe, an industrial complex and housing in what he called New Edinburgh, and laying out Rockcliffe Park for prized housing development.  Soon he and other figures like Governor Dalhousie were intent on making Bytown the capital of a new and vital partner in Britain’s global imperial system.

The same logic informed the decision to build the Welland Canal, to which Wellington lent his support, his own money, and his name.[12]  The Welland was planned to link Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, across the Niagara peninsula. Without Wellington’s backing and his Spanish silver, not to mention British Army engineers and sappers, the building of the Lachine and Welland canals would almost certainly have taken longer, and the Rideau Canal would never have been proposed. No canal, no Ottawa. While built for military reasons, their value as vital arteries for trade and the development of the economy were clearly understood at the time. They indeed proved vital to Canada’s economic development in the 19th century.  Even today the Welland Canal is a key part of the St Lawrence Seaway, which handles upwards of fifty million tons of cargo each year between the Great Lakes, domestic markets and overseas ones in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

To protect these transportation routes, fortifications were built at key points, including sixteen Martello towers: five at Halifax, four at Quebec, six at Kingston, and one at St John. Militia units were established to protect the canal locks and dams, as well as to be ready to repulse any American incursions across the St Lawrence or up the Richelieu River from Lake Champlain.[13]  Halifax boomed with the decision to make it a strategic harbour for the defence of its North Atlantic waters and the coast of British North America against US intentions.[14] (Had he lived to see it, Wellington’s fellow Dublin man and the founding father of Nova Scotia, Richard Bulkley, would have been well-pleased to see this development!)

As Wellington downsized the British Army after Waterloo in 1815, soldiers were offered land, supplies and tools “to form a loyal and war-like population on the banks of the Rideau and Ottawa.”[15]  Indeed, the British Army and its Royal Staff Corps played a vital role in surveying and building roads to connect the population centres along the St Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers, and establishing fortifications and logistical depots. 

As Sweeny writes in his fascinating book on Mackay and the founding of Ottawa, the names of the men Wellington dispatched to Canada to realise his vision “resonate today in the names of hundreds of Canadian towns, cities, counties, streets, schools, and universities”: Charles Lennox the Duke of Richmond, George Ramsay the Earl of Dalhousie, Sherbrooke, Aylmer, Kempt, Murray, Colborne, Bagot, Maitland, Lennox, Drummond, Cathcart, and Arthur.  “They were all Wellington’s men.  Along with them came hundreds of his staff officers, including Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers.”[16] 

Under Wellington’s stewardship and with the active support of the British Army and Navy, Canada was a hive of activity.  Canals were being built.  New towns were being established, linked by new road networks.  Land was being allotted and settled by demobilized soldiers, subsidized as settlers.  The lumber industry thrived, and with it the provisioning business so vital to the livelihoods of merchants and farmers.  Immigrants flooded to British North America thanks to cheap passage on the ships heading there for cargoes of lumber.

All of this economic activity drew Irish immigrants to Central Canada, about twice as many Protestants as Catholics in the first two decades of the 19th century, mainly to farm.  Catholic immigrants came to build the canals in the 1820s and 1830s, and then settle the land.  They also arrived in numbers to British North America as soldiers, journalists, administrators, priests, businessmen and merchants, lawyers and politicians. The Irish lumber baron John Egan boosted the Irish presence in the Ottawa and Gatineau Valleys.  He not only gave them employment in the lumber industry but offered them land to farm at half price.[17]

One has to remember too that most of Wellington’s army in the Peninsular War in Spain had been Irish, most of Nelson’s navy were Irish sailors, and Irish soldiers had been a sizeable presence on the field at Waterloo, upwards of 40% in some estimates.  Indeed, for most of the 19th century, one third of the British Army were Irish, and Irish Catholic at that.[18]  Many of them found their way to British North America either as part of their units or as settlers.[19]

Wellington’s strategic vision of Canada’s value to Britain’s global security was ultimately correct.  Britain had beaten Spain as its chief global competitor in the 15th century.  It had ultimately beaten France, its chief rival in the 18th and 19th centuries, first in North America on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec and then decisively in Europe at Waterloo.  Once the United States gave up its predatory intentions toward Canada, it was a key diplomatic and trading partner with the UK, part of an Anglophone Atlantic sphere of influence.  The support of North America as a whole proved decisive in the defeat of Britain’s chief 20th century rival, Germany, in two world wars.  What Wellington could not have anticipated was that his own chief rival in America, the United States, would by the mid-twentieth century eclipse the British Empire.

Wellington’s strategic vision of Canada as Britain’s ultimate guarantor was validated by none other than Winston Churchill. By May 1940, Britain’s situation was so dire that the British Government debated whether to seek a negotiated settlement with Nazi Germany. Over three days, Foreign Secretary Halifax argued in favour. Prime Minister Churchill argued against and eventually had his way. Britain would fight on. When Churchill met the US Ambassador, Joseph Kennedy, he argued for more American support. Kennedy believed Britain was doomed to lose the war and that the US should stay out. He told Churchill that the American public was against involvement, his own position in fact. Churchill was convinced that the American public would come on side. Britain would fight on. “I’ll fight them from Canada. I’ll never give up the fleet.” [Fredrik Logevall, JFK, Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956, p. 260]

Before Wellington’s strategic decision to bolster Canada with the Rideau Canal and Bytown, the area was Algonquin territory.  The confluence of the Rideau, Ottawa, and Gatineau Rivers had been a gathering point for Indigenous people where they met seasonally to exchange news, trade, pray and feast.  ‘Ottawa’ comes from the Algonquin adawa meaning to trade and Odawa is the name of an Anishnabe people.  Where the Rideau River cascaded into the Ottawa in two great waterfalls, they made offerings.  Samuel de Champlain too admired the plumes of mist but prosaically called them curtains, hence ‘Rideau’. Pioneer lumber baron Philemon Wright had established a small settlement on the northern bank of the Ottawa at the confluence with the Gatineau River.  The Algonquin came to trade with the strange new settlers led by Wright, lacking the information to understand that they were the tip of a vast imperial machine that would take their land and crush their civilization.[20]

Ottawa exists today because of Wellington’s order to build the Rideau Canal, which in turn created the means to settle the whole area.  In Colonel John By, Thomas Mackay and John Redpath, he had the men capable of doing it.  Occasionally, British Army engineers and sappers were needed to tackle tricky problems, and the mainly Irish workforce provided the muscle and skills to build the 47 locks and 52 dams.[21] A Celtic cross stands today at the head of the Canal to honour all those who died through disease and injury, including Irish, Scottish, French, and Indigenous workers. Everyone risked malaria but it took a devastating toll on the most exposed Irish: “The lock sites on the Cataraqui River were hit hard by the malaria epidemics, which killed almost five hundred men, mostly Irish immigrants.”[22] 

By 1832, the Rideau Canal was completed, at a cost of $800,000: about as much, Sweeny reckons, as the value of the silver cargo of one ship.[23] 

Wellington certainly deserves to have Ottawa’s main thoroughfare named after him in the capital city of a country he did so much to defend against America’s territorial ambitions, bolster its administration, sponsor its settlement, and boost its economic development.  His intervention also created the conditions which encouraged the Irish to immigrate to British North America, establishing Irish settlement patterns up to the last great wave of Irish emigration during the most disastrous year of the Great Irish Famine in 1847.[24]  Thereafter, large scale Irish emigration to Canada ends.  The US was the new destination for waves of mainly Catholic Irish who saw themselves as political exiles, not mere economic emigrants.[25]   By then, Irish settlement patterns in Canada were well established and the Irish themselves had already made a deeply felt, if somewhat occluded, impact on the development of Canada.  Like Canada itself, the chief architect of this legacy was Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and his pot of Spanish silver.

Like Canada, Ireland was shaped by British imperial interests.  Fears that it would be swept up in French Revolutionary fervour convinced London to abolish the Irish Parliament 1800 and to bind Ireland to Britain in the Act of Union 1800. Yet the same drive to bind Canada as an ally led it to succor the relationship, granting it responsible government in the 1840s and Confederation as the first Dominion of the Commonwealth in 1867. Had Britain taken a similar tact with Ireland, our history would have been very different. 

Irish revolutionaries who believed that only force would deliver Ireland’s freedom also so the value of Canada to Britain. The Fenian Brother conspired to provoke an Anglo-America war by invading Canada. Mobilizing Irish and Irish American veterans of the Civil War, the launched several cross border raids between 1866 and 1871. It is a story captured brilliantly in David Wilson’s recently published Canadian Spy Story, Irish Revolutionaries and the Secret Police.

Prime Minister Churchill, when faced with the prospect of a successful invasion by Nazi Germany, opined that he would take the fleet to Halifax, declaring privately ‘I’ll fight them from Canada!’

Canada’s role as imperial bulwark threatened by a perfidious revolutionary America has faded in memory as the sun set on the British Empire and risen on American global hegemony. Yet this story has led me hear in Canada’s national anthem the echoes of its colonial history:  “True patriot love in all of us command, With glowing hearts we see thee rise, The True North strong and free!  From far and wide, O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”

Eamonn McKee


26 October 2022

[1] Born Wesley but later taking his mother’s name Wellesley.

[2] Wellington’s grandfather, Richard, changed his surname from Colley to Wesley after he inherited the estate of his cousin Garret Wesley in 1728 (Wikipedia).

[3] https://eamonncmckee.com/2022/10/09/celebrating-the-rich-and-varied-contribution-of-the-irish-in-canada/

[4] Wellington earned his spurs with long service in India.  He won fame fighting Napoleon’s forces in Spain in the savage war there.  More than 70% of his Peninsular Army were Irish.

[5] For a very lively account, see Juan Cole’s Napoleon’s Egypt, Invading the Middle East.

[6] Lieven, Russia against Napoleon, The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace, (Viking, 2009), pp 16-17.  Lieven’s book is a declared attempt to correct western accounts that underestimate the significance of Russia’s victory and the logistical achievement of chasing Napoleon all the way to Paris. The logic behind Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was shared by Hitler: only by being truly unchallenged in Europe could either hope to defeat Britain.  See Timothy Snyder’s incomparable Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

[7] Sweeny, p 49.

[8] Sweeny slightly overstates cutting off the British Navy’s supply of hemp as being the predominant reason for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

[9] Wikipedia.

[10] Ibid, pp 134-5.

[11] Bytown got its name from Col. John By, the British Army engineer overseeing the canal’s construction.  It was changed to Ottawa in 1855.

[12] Ibid, p. 54.

[13] As had happened in the French and Indian Wars; see Fintan O’Toole’s William Johnson, White Savage.

[14] Thomas Raddall, Halifax, Warden of the North, p 167.  In an ironic twist, the plans of the new fortification there were drawn up by Colonel James Arnold, son of Benedict Arnold, the arch US traitor.

[15] Sweeny, quoted p 49.

[16] Sweeny, p. 48.

[17] Michael McBane, John Egan, Pine and Politics (Ottawa, 2018).  Egan was also instrumental in the land grant for the Algonquin reserve at Kitigan Zibi in the Gatineau Valley at Maniwaki.

[18] Thomas Bartlett, Ireland during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1791-1815, pp 74-75, in the Cambridge History of Ireland, vol. III.

[19] Historian Michael McBane tells me that one of his forebears on this mother’s side perfectly illustrates this pattern: John Kearns (Catholic, b. Enniskillen, Ireland, 1777; d. Plantagenent, Upper Canada, 1863).  As a young soldier, Kearns, saw action during the Irish rebellion of 1798. He served in the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars in the West Indies, Spain and the Netherlands. He joined the Duke of Wellington’s Army in 1811 and was present at many battles during the Peninsula Wars. He immigrated to Upper Canada in 1818.  He held the rank of Colonel in the Prescott Militia and participated in the Battle of Saint-Eustache during the Lower Canada Rebellion in 1837.  He represented Prescott in the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada at York (Toronto) from 1836 to 1841 as a Conservative.

[20] Sweeny, pp 12-14.

[21] Ibid, p 144.

[22] Ibid, p 141.

[23] Ibid, p 136.

[24] Mark McGowan, Death or Canada, The Irish Famine Migration to Toronto, 1847 (Novalis, 2009). Donald H Akenson, The Irish in Ontario (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1984), 28-34.

[25] See Kirby Miller’s classic study Emigrants and Exiles.



Filed under Anglo-Irish, Canada, Ireland, Irish Heritage of Canada

2 responses to “Wellington and Ottawa: How an Irishman and a Pot of Spanish Silver Transformed Canada

  1. Ambassador,

    A chara, Eamonn, I enjoyed reading yout article very much. Every time I read something on the history of Canada, and reference to the Irish contributions here, I learn something new.

    The Spanish silver used by Wellington to help finance strategic and critical infrastructure (including our beautiful Rideau Canal) is new information to me. The numbers of Irish immigrants who died bringing it to fruition is practically unfathomable, deaths from both malaria, accidents and over-exertion.

    I spent 5 years in a corner office of the redbrick building beside the new 40+ storey Claridge building overlooking this magnificent feature in our adopted city that is Dow’s Lake and it is hard to fathom that it once was a malarial swamp.
    I appreciate the many annotated references you included for further exploration.

    I note your penultimate paragraph, asserting that had Britain taken a similar tack with Ireland, our history might have been very different. Perhaps, but they didn’t and thanks to the Fenian inspiration, some from Canada, we had O’Donovan Rossa inspire the men of 1916 in asserting Ireland’s claim of nationhood and sovereignty, leading to the war of independence, and subsequent struggles post civil war, that gave rise to the Ireland of today.

    It is, of course, an unfinished work in progress, especially since the Good Friday Agreement, that will lead, hopefully, to something other and better than what Wellington may have had in mind for the Irish, as a willing colonial outpost.

    I enjoy your articles, and look forward to reading many more.

    • Gab,

      Very much appreciate your positive feedback. Indeed I think the story of the Spanish silver is news to most people. It certainly puts a new context of the Whig Government’s criticism of Colonel By. Since Parliament only ever approved Stg5,000 for the project, it was hardly in a position to complain of overspend. By was, then, a victim of politics as the Whigs wanted to take a crack at Wellington but feared doing so directly at the victor of Waterloo.

      I think that three factors played into Britain’s different approaches to Ireland and Canada. One was simple anti-Catholic bias, something that ran deep and was tied up with notions of barbarism versus progress. It is hard to fathom this today but it was a very powerful well into 1950s. The second was fear that an independent Ireland would ally with its European enemy at an awkward moment. The third factor, conversly, was fear that the US would pounce on any frustrations in Canada with British rule. This anxiety continued well after Confederation and during Lord Dufferin’s tenure as GG 1872-8 he reported that best to accommodate Canadian wishes for more autonomy than risk US overtures for annexation.

      Best wishes,


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