Letter: The Time Has Come to Restore Original Name “Saugeen” To Peninsula

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Well done Tobermory Press for noting on the front page of the recent Daytrip Companion that the Bruce Peninsula has been continuously occupied by the Saugeen Ojibway Nation for more than 7,500 years. It was known as the Saugeen Peninsula until 160 years ago, after the Saugeen River that dominates what we call Bruce County. But who was Bruce?

James Bruce was the 8th Earl of Elgin, the 12th Earl of Kincardine, etc, etc, etc. From 1847 to 1854 he was Governor General of the Province of Canada. During his term, the land occupied by the Saugeen Ojibway for thousands of years was surveyed and Bruce allowed his name to be attached to the area, prominent landmarks and future settlements, although he never bothered to visit the area.

In 1857, Bruce was appointed plenipotentiary to China to “open up” that country to British trade, specifically in opium. He led the British in the 2nd Opium War and when they won, the Chinese Government was forced to reverse their long standing policy of prohibiting the use and trade in opium in China. Subsequently, the import and use of opium soared, contributing to the humiliation, weakness and foreign occupation of China. Not until 1949, when the Communists came to power, was the use and trade in opium stopped. Bruce knew he had promoted an evil cause. In a letter to his wife at the end of the war he wrote, “I never felt so ashamed of myself in my life.”

In spite of being defeated in the Opium War, the Chinese refused to lie down. In 1860, in retaliation for the death of 20 European soldiers, our James Bruce ordered the complete destruction of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, an architectural wonder with a priceless collection of artworks and antiques. Bruce and his troops looted the treasures from the palace and took them to Britain.

James Bruce was a “chip off the old block.” His father, the 7th Earl had been the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. While in that position, he claimed that he had written permission from the Ottoman Government to allow his agents to “take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions of figures thereon” from the Parthenon, the iconic 5th century BC, Athenian temple atop the Acropolis. This “permission” has never been found and it certainly never existed.

Elgin’s agents stole more than half of the marble sculptures from the Parthenon, which became known as the “Elgin Marbles.” In 1803, the ship carrying them back to Britain sank and they lay at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea for three years. When they were eventually recovered Elgin sold them to the British Government for £35,000. They were placed in the British Museum where they remain today. After lying in salt water for three years, the marbles plundered by Elgin, were further damaged by controversial “whitening” attempts by the Museum. Then, in 2016, a group of rowdy British schoolboys knocked a leg off one of the sculptures.

Those sculptures not looted by Elgin are now displayed in the Acropolis Museum and, unlike their British counterparts, they are in excellent condition. As a memorial to the theft, the position of the marbles taken by Elgin are clearly marked and a space left should they be returned to Athens.

Outside of Britain, Elgin’s theft of the marbles is generally condemned as vandalism, most famously in an 1811 poem by Lord Byron called the Curse of Minerva. Specifically, Byron describes Elgin thus:

“…. That blush of shame

Proclaims thee Briton,
once a noble name;

First of the mighty, foremost of the free,

Now honourd less by all,
and least by me;”

Strip away the aristocratic titles, the fancy uniforms and the toadyism and all that is left of James Bruce, father and son, is a squalid history of theft, vandalism and drug trafficking. The time has surely come to expunge the local memorials to this wretched colonial freebooter and restore the original name ‘Saugeen’ to the peninsula, which honours the beauty and ancient history of this land and the first people to occupy it.

John Bainbridge, 

Tobermory