It was not a pretty sight and the correspondent for the New York Tribune made it the centrepiece of his reporting of the event. And what an event it was. The biggest thing to hit Charlottetown in its history. The first visit ever of a member of the Royal Family. Today it has become commonplace as every decade one or more Royals cycle through the province. It was not always so.
When H.R.H. Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of Queen Victoria, came to North America it was a major event wherever he visited. Not only did he visit the British Colonies, still four years away from becoming a nation, but he also travelled to the United States which had been, less than a century earlier, colonies of an earlier empire. The rarity of the event made the Royal visit a huge public event. The media circus, led by the American press ensured that every speech, every move, every detail was covered in full. As the royal entourage made its way from landfall in Newfoundland, west to Ontario and south into the United States the crowds and the interest increased.
When H.M.S. Hero entered Charlottetown Harbour on August 9 1860 it was accompanied by the largest group of warships ever seen on the Island, before or since. Besides the Hero the squadron consisted of warships Nile, Ariadne, Valorous, Cossack and Flying Fish. The French navy steamer Pomone was already in Charlottetown as was the locally based survey vessel Margaretha Stevenson. The wharves were occupied by overcrowded steamers which had brought royal watchers from all over North America to Charlottetown. There was a slight alteration to the plans as the H.M.S. Nile went aground at the harbour mouth and snuck away in disgrace to await the Prince at Quebec rather than joining in on the Island celebrations. In the afternoon of the arrival the waters of the harbour echoed with salutes from the cannon afloat and ashore and the welcomes and the visits of the dignitaries occupied much of the day.
But behind the well-ordered facade of triumphal arches and speeches by provincial and municipal worthies there was an undercurrent of chaos. The visit had completely overwhelmed the resources of the city. There had been complaints for more than twenty years about the insufficiency of accommodation for visitors and when the steamer Arabian (packed, according to one journalist, like the Black-Hole of Calcutta) arrived with between four and five hundred, and by another account, six hundred), all anxious to see the Prince, there was a mad scramble for what little accommodation existed. Even direct intervention from the mayor could not help the New York Herald’s correspondent, who, after walking the streets far into the night and being turned away from dozens of houses, eventually found a bed – but not a room.
It was about an hour after this that I was introduced to a mattress, on the top of sundry chairs, in a room in which I found four other sleepers extended on as many stretchers. I lay down but the street noises consequent on the landing of the steamer;’s passengers were so great that had it not been for excessive fatigue I should hardly have slept; but I did sleep, and when I awoke early in the morning and looked out of the windows I saw hundreds of my own fellow passengers, as well as those who had come by a subsequent steamer, crowding the streets and walking about searching for a place of rest.
The restless crowd also impressed the correspondent for the New York Tribune not only for its size but also for its demeanour. He reported that strangers had been pouring into the little city for a week before the Prince’s arrival. Estimating that between 15 and 20 thousand visitors were present, he was able to contrast the behaviour of the crowd with that of the New York populace with which he was more familiar – and not to the credit of Charlottetown.
But here in Charlotte Town, nothing has been known in street or square, but incessant brutal bursts of drunkenness, so violent, and wild, and reckless that the most vicious quarters of New York could not yield their parallel. I never saw so small a place given over so utterly to bestiality. Fancy a town in every street of which great riotous mobs continually gather in quarrelsome force, breaking through tavern doors, intrenching themselves in narrow lanes and inviting gladiatorial combats with all who passed, or scattering about, to spread disorder more effectually; in which every corner was made a fighting-ground; in which deserting soldiers, of whom there were numbers, perpetually plunged into conflicts with the townspeople, and made free with their weapons, until dragged away to temporary confinement; in which children and plenty of them, of tender years, ranged the thoroughfares, not less besotted than the mature multitudes; the whole passing, from hour to hour, an uninterrupted scene of disgrace and degradation. There must have been something weak in the administration of affairs. Of course the better part of Charlotte Town looked aghast upon these excesses; but that no provision should have been made for their suppression, was surely the gravest oversight.
His comments caught the eye of Vanity Fair magazine who later quipped that the Prince’s visit had given an added dimension to the phrase “tight little Island.”
Strangely the deficiencies in civil order were not reported in the local press which instead focussed on the turn-out of the militia and beauty of the street decorations. To read in the Islander or the Examiner of the events is not unlike encountering a parallel universe. The grand success of the visit as reported locally is at odds with the scene sketched by the New York Herald’s reporter
The cheering was not very energetic, and the weather was gloomy and wet. It cleared up during the time between his leaving the ship and reaching Government House, but after that it rained heavily all day. … The illuminations which were attempted in the evening did, considering the extremely wet and cloudy weather, much credit to the natives. The attempt was spirited, but the failure desperate.
The Prince’s party stayed two nights in Charlottetown, the second night being given over to a public ball at the Colonial Building and the following day the fleet departed for Quebec.
The Royal Tour was the subject of countless newspaper accounts and several volumes by both journalists and the travellers themselves. Two days in Charlottetown merited little more than a footnote in either the official accounts or the foreign press. While rejoicing that the city was mentioned at all, it is likely that Charlottetown’s inhabitants preferred to pass over the views of the New York press.