By Adam Crymble
As I’m writing, there are only a few hours left in 2009. Last year marked the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec. This year, again an important Quebec anniversary came and went, but most English speaking Canadians probably didn’t even notice: the 250th anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham during which General Wolfe wrested New France from his adversary, Marquis de Montcalm.
If you grew up in the Canadian education system, you almost certainly studied this battle. And, if your experience was anything like mine, you were told that on September 12, 1759, the brilliant strategist, Wolfe, sailed his ships back and forth in front of the city of Quebec, tiring out the French soldiers who had to march to and fro to keep their eyes on the British. Then, when the French were all tuckered out, Wolfe landed his ships, rushed up the bank to the Plains of Abraham and defeated a French army, claiming New France for Britain. Oh, and while he was at it, he was mortally wounded, but was kind enough to pose for this famous painting by Benjamin West:
I had always assumed the whole thing took about 8 minutes.
Imagine my surprise this past summer when stumbled across Canadian author and historian Christopher Moore “live-blogging” the siege of Quebec, which started almost eighty days before the famous battle. During the siege, the British artillery decimated the city of Quebec and terrorized its citizens, many of whom died as a result of the constant bombardment.
While I’m shocked and appalled by my ignorance of Canadian history, that’s not what I’d like to focus on here. Instead, what I think is important was the novel way Christopher Moore attempted to tell this story.
During this past summer, Moore posted an entry per day to his blog that outlined what had happened in the siege on that day 250 years ago. A typical entry was only a few paragraphs and tied together primary sources with contextual commentary by Moore. When available, Moore used British and translated French sources to give perspectives from both sides. The entry from July 4th read:
July 4, 1759: With the British siege forces moving into place facing the city, Foligné, a diarist within the city of Québec, reports that Montcalm this day issued a declaration that all within the city who could not serve the armed forces or were fearful should leave for Trois-Rivières or Montreal immediately.
Alone it does not tell us much, but together with the 72 other posts in the series, the reader gets a pretty comprehensive survey of the siege. It wasn’t perfect; there were dull days, or days when I wished I could have had a few more details, and in a few cases I found it difficult to visualize exactly where events were occurring because of my limited knowledge of the small towns in that area, but overall the format was successful.
What’s most novel about the approach is that it acknowledges that most events in history took time to unfold. By making us wait for tomorrow to see what happens next, Moore has forced us to experience the unknown just as the people who lived through the siege had to do 250 years ago. Thankfully, we’re spared the terror and uncertainty, but the suspense remains.
Perhaps unintentionally, Moore has also presented a different option to teachers who have to teach their students about events such as the Siege of Quebec. By breaking the lesson down into its individual days rather than broad themes, and by making each unit small, teachers can let students experience an event over several weeks or months, rather than condense it into a day or two. This takes pressure away from students who might other wise feel they must memorize names and dates, while asking them to instead engage with a range of accessible primary sources.
This slow method also gives the reader or student time to let their ideas percolate. Much like in real life, students can build attachments to the various actors through frequent meetings over time, instead of feeling like you’re at a cocktail party where you’ll be tested in one hour on five interesting facts about each new person you’ve met.
The posts are still available on Moore’s blog, categorized under the tag “Quebec Siege.” It will take a bit more discipline to read only one post per day, but even if you read the whole collection, you’re in for a good survey.
If there are other good examples of live-blogging historical events, I’d love to hear about them, and I hope Christopher Moore is busy expanding his Siege of Quebec series and turning it into a book which takes readers through the siege in more detail. His experiment with “live blogging” is a good example of a historian attempting to engage an audience – an idea too often overlooked.
You can find Christopher Moore’s blog at http://christophermoorehistory.blogspot.com/
Adam Crymble is the web editor for the Network in Canadian History & Environment and writes a monthly column for Active History.