Paul W. Bennett is founding director, Schoolhouse Consulting, Halifax, and the author of Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities: The Contested Schoolhouse in Maritime Canada, 1850-2010.
Dusty old memoirs rarely attract much attention, unless they celebrate the lives of famous figures or capture well the social experience of bygone days. Men and women living ordinary lives rarely write autobiographies and fewer still have the resources to get them published.
The rather obscure Cape Breton-born mining pioneer Aeneas (Angus) McCharles (1844-1906) was an exception to the normal pattern. His personal memoir, Bemocked of Destiny, published posthumously in 1908, achieved some notoriety for its homespun philosophy and has been re-published recently as a centenary project.
McCharles’s fascinating life caught the imagination of Martin McAllister, an amateur historian and former columnist for the Inco Triangle, the official newsletter of the International Nickel Company in Sudbury, Ont. While researching the mining pioneers of Sudbury District some years ago, he stumbled upon McCharles and his long out-of-print memoir.
Resurrecting this old book of reminiscences became Marty McAllister’s “pet project.” After retrieving the original text on eBay, he spent most of the past decade campaigning to have the book updated and republished, with new sections assessing McCharles’ wide-ranging prophecies, exploring the mysterious death of his only child, Henry, and pondering the impact of the McCharles Science Prize, bequeathed in his will to the University of Toronto. He eventually succeeded but McAllister sadly died of cancer on July 24, a few short weeks before the book’s reappearance.
Why was McAllister so entranced with Aeneas McCharles, his life and legacy? The object of his fascination was, to be sure, a Cape Bretoner with a restless, adventuresome spirit. He had, in McAllister’s words,” the soul of a Scot, the heart of a Canadian, and the mind of a scholar.”
Coming of age on the Canadian frontier from 1860s until the turn of the century, McCharles was a teacher, commercial traveller, prospector, speculator and mine owner. He lived and worked in many places in southern Ontario, in Winnipeg, and in Sault Ste. Marie, before becoming a prospector in Sudbury District. Shortly before his death, he staked the North Star Mine, eventually acquired by Inco Ltd. and now part of the Brazilian-owned Vale mining interests.
Reading McCharles’ memoir today, the popular attitudes and prejudices of the time can be startling. Having been reared under “the strictest Calvinistic discipline,” Aeneas found his “too narrow and severe” upbringing “far better” than “the loose home training” around the turn of the century.
For the rest of this article, please go to the Halifax Chronicle Herald: http://thechronicleherald.ca/Books/1267469.html