Nothing "Improper" Happened: Sex, Marriage, and Colonial Identity in Upper Canada, 1783-1850
Grazley, Robin Christine
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This study explores the importance of heterosexual relationships, in theory and practice, to the making of Upper Canada as a British colonial society. Between 1783, when settlers began to enter the territory in the wake of the American Revolutionary War, and 1850, when the transition toward a more powerful colonial state was underway, contests surrounding marriage, gender, and sexuality were of great significance. The colony was intended by its first and many of its subsequent Lieutenant-Governors to serve as a model of loyalty to the British Empire and a bulwark against American democratic “disorder.” Fundamental to this colonial project was the presence of an orderly body of white settlers; however, this aim was often complicated and undermined by a diverse settler population which refused to conform to middle-class mores and social norms. Marriage and sexual “morality,” significant aspects of assessing “race” and “civilization” in this period, were primary sites for these tensions. This study reenvisions appropriate and inappropriate heterosexual behaviour in the colony and explores the importance of debates over marriage and sexuality to articulations of settler identity. Using private writings, travel literature, and judicial records, including the benchbooks of the colony’s judges, I examine the ways the formation and dissolution of intimate relationships were contested between individual colonists, in local politics, and in international discourse about the British empire and the value of its colonies of settlement. Although Upper Canadians generally tolerated a broader spectrum of heterosexual behaviours and practices, including “irregular” marriage forms, disputes over appropriate expressions of sexuality and marriage were implicated in the rhetoric of inclusion and exclusion from the colony’s inception. The role of the “neighbourhood” and community knowledge was multivalent and critical in determining acceptable behaviour in consensual relationships and defining sexual coercion. By the end of the 1840s, shifts in cultural and legal values increasingly placed the regulation of intimate matters in the hands of the state.