Readings–Halifax reflections

Reading in a different place requires a careful selection of books. For my trip to Halifax I took a short history book, The Last Days, by Nicholas Shrady, and, The Golden Mean, by Annabel Lyon.

last day The Last Day : Wrath, Ruin & Reason in The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, by Nicholas Shrady

golden The Golden Mean, by Annabel Lyon

The Last Day is about the devastation brought to Lisbon, Portugal in 1755 from an earthquake and tsunami. Reminding me of the recent disasters in Japan, I picked up this book to read in Halifax. The theme of the book also paralleled the story of the Halifax explosion in 1917, where a munitions ship exploded in Halifax Harbour causing the largest man-made explosion before the atomic bomb.

The Lisbon earthquake came on the heels of the Enlightenment, when scientific explanations began to be sought for disasters. The field of seismology was born out of the Lisbon earthquake. One of Voltaire’s greatest works, Candide, explored philosophical issues arising from the Lisbon earthquake.

Reminders of the Halifax explosion can be found throughout Halifax.

A piece of a house blown apart by the explosion flew several miles south and smashed through this church’s window to embed itself in the wall. It has remained ever since, and there it is accompanied by a plaque which states: “Relic of the explosion, Dec. 6, 1917″.

That church is St. Paul’s Anglican Church, founded in 1749 and the oldest Protestant place of worship in Canada. I visited the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia before returning, and it’s quite easy to spot this building in many of the oldest paintings of Halifax.

As for The Golden Mean by Canadian Annabel Lyon, my thinking was that reading in cities by the sea require books with an Aegean theme—a return to the classics. In this case the story of the young Alexander the Great and his tutor, the philosopher Aristotle, is about the balance between extremes—between excess and deficiency.

The rough and tumble aspects of Halifax’s history sometimes shows through. I thought this restaurant’s sign captured the extremes in which people’s lives would suddenly swing.


“Press gangs” were groups of Royal Navy sailors who “recruited” men to serve on the ships by grabbing them while they were drunk coming out of bars. This practice sparked resistance and riots, including a riot in Halifax in 1805. The tensions between the military and the community even had a later echo in the VE-Day riots, where a spontaneous celebration got out of hand and stores were looted in downtown Halifax.

This Canadian Historical Review article recounts the resistance to naval impressment in British North American from 1775 to 1815:

These film clips from the Nova Scotia Archives captures the gradual escalation of the VE Day riot:

I found Halifax to be a kaleidoscope and jumble of buildings, some old, some derelict, some haunted (so they say—such as the restaurant in a building that was once the morgue for the Titanic victims and the 1917 Explosion victims). New buildings are arising among the old, but the eclectic mix of industry and military establishments still remains. Pubs abound as do cigarette butts on the street. I noticed the steep hills of downtown Halifax did not deter stalwart cyclists, but I’ll always have that image in my mind of the cyclist I nearly bumped into who was happily smoking a cigarette. I think he handled the streets by zig-zagging. As I learned from the tour guide at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia you can tell a tourist from a native because the natives have learned to never walk straight up a street, but zig-zag along blocks to avoid the constant steep climbs.

Up next on my reading list is The Crimean War, by Orlando Figes.

crimean The Crimean War, by Orlando Figes

It was with some delight (with perhaps some dread) that I came across this cemetery with this monument for two men killed in the Siege of Sebastopol (1854-1855—sometimes called “Sevastopol”). That siege was part of the Crimean War, which is the subject of the book I’m planning to read. Old St. Paul’s Burying Ground dates to the very beginning of Halifax—the oldest stone is dated to 1752.

The Sebastopol Monument – St. Paul’s Old Burying Ground

The cemetery also has the remains of Sir Robert Ross, who led the destruction of Washington in the War of 1812. He died in an attack on Baltimore—an attack during which an American, Francis Scott Key, put what he saw into verse and wrote the Star Spangled Banner. Sir Robert Ross’ rockets caused the red glare that lit up the flag of stars and stripes.

The largest tomb in this photo belongs to Sir Robert Ross.

Not one to miss a ghost walk (I went on the ghost walk in St. John’s in CLA 2007), I heard many interesting stories about Halifax’s past on the ghost walk tour in Halifax. The above photo is another shot of St. Paul’s Old Burying Ground I took while on the walk.

Wright’s Building is named after millionaire George Wright who went down with the Titanic. The building is on the busy downtown Barrington Street. George Wright was rich with a social conscience who developed housing projects to integrate rich and poor. He booked on the Titanic at the last minute (his name is not the register). He kept to himself on the ship (no one remembers him). He was a heavy sleeper and the speculation is he was asleep when the Titanic sank.

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