Yo yo—What time is it? Showtime! OK, I’ll stop setting everything that goes through my head to the tune of various Hamilton: An American Musical songs. Sometimes it makes me wonder why I even bring the thunder (why she even brings the thunder!) Sorry–that was the last one, but as it happens, our subject is the thunder of British cannons that laid siege to the city of Québec in 1759 and set the stage for the British occupation (from 1759-ff, according to Québec!)
The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright spans all of the colonial wars that spanned her life, and no wonder: her life from start to end was indelibly shaped by war and various invading armies. Born in 1696 at the end of King William’s War (1688-97), in which many of the Anglo-American towns in what’s now southern Maine were attacked by French-allied Wabanaki, Esther was taken captive in another series of raids conducted in the next war, Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713). Although she found a great deal of security and stability inside the walls of the Ursuline convent in Québec by 1709, war followed her throughout her life from the failed British invasion of that city in 1711 to the successful invasion and occupation in 1759 in the Seven Years’ War to the unsuccessful attempt of Americans to take the city in 1775-76 in an early skirmish in the Revolutionary War. Aside from these conflicts, Québec was (and still is) a city with a massive military installation, so you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a man in uniform throughout the eighteenth century.
But they weren’t inside women’s religious orders, were they? After the invasion and occupation begins in 1759, they are! General James Murray, the occupation governor, surveyed the institutional buildings in the city and saw the advantages of setting up his temporary base of operations inside the Ursuline convent! But here’s the funny part: you’d never know it from the Ursuline records. Thus, the case of the missing men–and their missing trousers! (I know, 1759 is still squarely in the knee breeches era, with modern trousers being at least 50 years in the future for most men. But you’ll see a mention of “trowsers” in the primary source quoted below).
When we resume our story in the autumn of 1759, the Ursulines are returning to their convent from their unprecedented evacuation during the siege and bombardment of Québec from July 12 to the battle on the Plains of Abraham on September 13. The convent, being very conspicuous in the upper city and close by the city walls, was struck by British bombs almost daily as they fled to safety among the Augustinian hospital nuns who ran the city’s hospice. (They were already sheltering the other order of Augustinians who ran the Hôtel-Dieu, or hospital.) As the Ursuline Annalist, their official historian wrote, “The house for the day school was ruined, our Sacristy, our Chapel of the Saints, parts of our Choir, and of our Church were knocked over, several rooms in our dormitory were ravaged, our Laundry was ruined by a passing shell, two chimneys were cut down. . . All this made us think that we could never see our monastery again.”
Little did the Ursulines know that their service among hospital nuns during the siege would continue to be useful during the occupation of Québec as well. When they “hurried to return” to their monastery a week later on September 21, “we entered joyfully,” finding that for the most part, the convent had survived the siege. However, their chapel was damaged, and like the rest of the city, they were low on food and fuel, and winter was fast approaching. In a meeting with the newly appointed governor general of Québec, James Murray, the Ursulines learned that he would install a hospital in part of their monastery and quarter healthy soldiers there as well, considering the large and relatively intact spaces they possessed. The occupation of their convent was fortunate for the Ursulines, as “Monsieur Murai our illustrious Governor had the kindness to rebuild our Church, and all of our monastery. They started with the Church, which [was] the only one that was able to serve the Parish, and which serve[d] in this capacity since 24 September 1759.” Aside from helping out with building repairs, the Ursulines found that their new role as military contractors and their connections with British command meant assistance with supplies for the winter—soldiers procured fuel for them and shoveled their walks and workspaces, and King George paid to feed everyone in the convent—officers, soldiers, patients, and Ursulines alike: “Our conquerers knew of our indigence and assissted us with a kindness that we hadn’t had reason to hope for.” They were fortunate in that General Murray saw the value of the spaces and the social services offered by Québec’s religious women. He understood the esteem in which they were held by the rest of the city, and their potential value in pacifying its conquered citizens.
The Ursulines were undoubtedly glad for the help in rebuilding their convent, but the price they paid for this assistance was an unprecedented proximity day and night to scores of male bodies—mostly young, Protestant male bodies. Although they had returned to their house, we must see the occupation as a continued interruption of their claustration. Moreover, not only were the Ursulines proximate to men living in the convent, but many were working very intimately with the injured or sick men. The convent’s Annales are mostly silent on this break of their enclosure, and they don’t say which women gave themselves over to nursing. It may be that the mistress of the infirmary, a choir nun, was assisted by others in the choir as well as by lay sisters. Nursing was not the only means by which the Ursulines cared for their male inmates, who included a regiment of Highlanders in kilts instead of breeches. Some Ursulines therefore used their expertise in working with textiles and set about knitting long and thick stockings for the men. In his journal of the siege and occupation of Québec, one Highlander, Lieutenant Malcolm Fraser, complains on December 1, 1759, that “the winter is now very severe.” By December 20, he writes that “the winter is become almost insupportably cold,” and “our regiment in particular is in a pitiful situation having no breeches, and the Philibeg [kilt] is not at all calculated to this terrible climate.” He was not stationed among the Ursulines, and had to rely on a commanding officer “doing all in his power to provide trowsers” for his men. The fuel shortage made the Highlanders’ fates especially desperate, considering that “the men are obliged to drag all the wood used in the Garrison on sledges from St. Foy, about four miles
In spite of the efforts of the Ursulines and British military leadership to procure better food and clothing for the soldiers, the winter of 1759–60 was astonishingly hard on them as well as on the people of Québec. The cold was a severe and persistent challenge to the British army camping in a war-ravaged Canadian city at the end of the Little Ice Age. Lt. Fraser complained in December of 1759 that “several” of his men “have already lost the use of their fingers and toes by the incredible severity of the frost,” and “some men on sentry have been deprived of speech and sensation in a few minutes, but hitherto, no person has lost his life.” That would change by the spring of 1760, when Lt. Fraser reported that nearly half of all men at the garrison in Québec were either sick or dead. Of the 5,653 men stationed in Québec, only 3,341 were fit for duty in the spring; 2,312 were sick, and nearly 700 had died since their triumphal march into the city on September 18. In an echo from Esther’s childhood in a war fifty years earlier, Fraser writes in the spring of 1760 that “the Scurvy, occasioned by salt provisions and cold, has begun to make fierce havock in the garrison, and it becomes every day more general. In short, I believe there is scarce a man of the Army entirely free from it.” Thus the Ursuline experience of young military men’s bodies over this winter was at least as much about their vulnerability to cold and disease as of their powers to intimidate and coerce.
The Ursulines left almost no trace of these men in their convent records, as though one means of restoring the cloister and observing the Rule was to refuse to discuss in any detail the ways in which they cared for the occupying army. This omission is startling, even given the tendency of religious orders to deny or paper over conflict and to promote a vision of community peace and harmony. Aside from the picturesque and motherly detail about knitting stockings for the Highlanders, the men who lived and were nursed in the Ursuline convent in the winter of 1759–60 do not exist in the convent’s Annales, or in any other record. Were the Highlanders and their fellow inmates brutes, or angels? Did the Ursulines see the men as fellow sufferers, or helpful workers who fetched wood and helped with building repairs? Or were they only impositions on their sisterly communion, and even a danger to their young students? Any other miseries suffered or kindnesses received either were recorded in British officers’ journals of the occupation or are lost to history.
It’s not very often that women get to make the historical record and write men out of them, if the choose to. It’s hard to interpret this apparently strategic silence. Was there a history of violence and predation inside the convent that the nuns were eager to forget, or to paper over with memories of motherly kindnesses? Or were these men just somewhat more intrusive than those they had been dealing with all along–bishops, governors, confessors, fellow missionaries like the Jesuits, or even their own fathers and brothers–another group of men to avoid and work around as much as they could?
Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but I don’t think a serious assault or rape would have gone utterly unrecorded in this era and (perhaps more importantly) in the politicized context of the British conquest of Quebec. I believe that Murray understood the political value of working with the Ursulines and impressing them with the civility of British rule–hence his haste in repairing the chapel and furnishing a space in which all of Québec might attend mass, and an iron fist in keeping his soldiers and officers in line. (I’m also quite sure that students and novices in residence were kept well away from the military hospital and barracks, under lock and key by the portress.)
Here too, the reputation for convents as spaces run by noblewomen also probably protected them and their students from assault. British officers like Murray–himself a minor noble, but like so many younger sons, left to make his fortune in the military–were doubtlessly more vigilant in looking out for the safety of women of their own class.