From the archives: Soldier of the new king were an exotic sight

From the archives: Soldier of the new king were an exotic sight
From the archives: Soldier of the new king were an exotic sight

When soldiers from various British colonies visited Montreal on their way to the Coronation of King Edward VII in London in 1902, it was the "exotic" Indian soldiers who impressed Montrealers the most. Shown are the soldiers of the 2nd Bombay Grenadiers of the Indian Army in Hampton Court Camp on the occasion of the Coronation of King Edward VII, August 1902. Sir Benjamin Stone / CC

This story was first published on June 10, 2001, in the Montreal Gazette.

The Indians are without exception splendid men. Clad in khaki with voluminous turbans they look fit fighting men in every way. … It is no wonder they are surrounded by mobs of small boys when they appear. They take no notice even when the irreverent youngsters pull at their jackets and strangely belie the fierceness of their features.

Gazette, Thursday, June 12, 1902


What an exotic sight it was. Soldiers of the new king from far-distant outposts of empire – from India, from Singapore, from Hong Kong and from China itself, all in their distinctive uniforms – were mustering outside Viger Station on St. Antoine St., and Montrealers rushed to gawk at the show.

Edward VII was to be crowned in Westminster Abbey a few weeks hence. The soldiers, with their British officers, were on their way to London to represent their homelands in the vast march-pasts that would be part of the celebrations.

The Gazette’s account of their stopover at times sounds more like a -show report than anything else. The First Chinese Regiment, for example wore ”khaki uniforms, tucked into their trousers, like shirts, and purple turbans, with the badge of a tower, won at the entry of Tien-Tsin.” Sappers from the Hong Kong Royal Engineers were in ”a strange mixture of the ordinary Chinese garb and the western uniform. They wear the loose blouse and trousers of dark blue, familiar enough on the streets, but their shoulder straps and cuffs of red mark the soldier.”

But the Indians were The Gazette’s favourites. We even reported that ”in undress they are still more picturesque: bare feet thrust into heelless slippers, a kind of petticoat of cotton, wrapped around their loins, or else white trousers narrowing to regular cuffs at the ankles, for all the world like a shirt sleeve. …

”Their faces are hairless, but their black hair is sometimes gathered in a knot or parted smoothly in the middle, and this feminine contrasts grimly with the stern lines about their mouth.”

Today, of course, soldiers in such uniforms would scarcely merit a glance, let alone a lengthy newspaper article. Squeegee kids dress more oddly. But a century ago, when colour photographs were rare, television was undreamt of and people didn’t jet half way round the world at the first sign of a seat sale for a quick vacation, the spectacle of these soldiers in the streets of Montreal allowed the imaginations of ordinary people to soar.

Yet surely Montreal was also exotic. It’s pleasant to speculate that the Indian and Chinese soldiers were more than a little bemused when, that Wednesday evening, they were invited to the Theatre Francais for a performance of The Prodigal Daughter. ”They appeared to enjoy themselves thoroughly,” we reported, ”and the management opined that the Chinese who know no English clapped by military discipline.” And what would the soldiers have made of the Montreal-Buffalo baseball game that they attended the following afternoon?

The highlight of their stay was a formal review on the Champ de Mars Thursday before the game. The four sides of the parade ground were packed with curious Montrealers who enthusiastically applauded as bands played and the soldiers briskly went through their precision manoeuvres. ”The whole scene,” we said, ”was one that strongly forced upon the mind the imperial sentiment that is at present running through the Empire.”

That evening, there was a gala concert at the Victoria Rifles Armory. There were dances; there were songs, in French, English and Chinese; there was even exhibition wrestling between two Pathans from India’s northwest frontier. A soldier named Yi Pin gave a speech (through a translator) in which he said he once thought that the Chinese emperor was the greatest man on Earth and all creation bowed before him but that now his eyes were opened and he knew better; the desire of his life, to see the great king in London, was finally at hand.

The Montrealers in the audience, including The Gazette’s reporter, ate it up: ”Caucasian and Asiatic races mingled and formed a band of brotherhood, cemented by the great power to which all owed allegiance. … Rule Britannia brought to an end a concert such as had not previously taken place in Montreal.”

The soldiers embarked for London that Saturday morning aboard the Allan Line steamer Tunisian.

– – –

Some things never seem to change. Take that baseball game between Montreal and Buffalo.

”For six innings,” we reported, ”the fans found yesterday’s game a very enjoyable entertainment. Montreal was in the lead, the score being five to two. Then things happened and for the remainder of the game the faithful thought the same old thoughts, and the piledrivers never let up for a moment.

”It was sad.”

The details are unimportant. Suffice it to say that the home side gave up eight runs in the top of the seventh and eventually lost 12-7. Expos faithful would understand.

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