Altering Historical Circumstances

  • Michael Barnholden (Author)
    Circumstances Alter Photographs: Captain James Peters' Reports from the War of 1885. Talonbooks
Reviewed by June Scudeler

As a Métis person, the prospect of reviewing Circumstances Alter Photographs: Captain James Peters’ Reports from the War of 1885 (or as Métis call it, the 1885 Resistance) did cause a bit of apprehension. Peters, born in Saint John, New Brunswick in 1853, was a captain in the Royal Canadian Artillery’s “A” Battery. Peters took the world’s first battlefield photos at the Métis victory at Tourond’s Coulee (Fish Creek), where one of my ancestors was killed and another wounded, as well as photographs at Batoche.

However, Michael Barnholden, who translated Gabriel Dumont Speaks, a series of interviews with the Métis buffalo hunter and leader of the Métis forces, tellingly entitled this book, Circumstances Alter Photographs, a reference to Peters’ admission that the photographer may not possess the ability to choose his subject or the “narrative framing of the subject.” Peters was fortunate to have the 1883 “detective” camera, which could be carried over the shoulder, along with a dozen prepared glass plates, enabling Peters to take photos during battle. While there are photographs of the American Civil War and the Crimean War, these were taken after the battle, making Peters’ photos the first photos ever taken during battle. Not all of Peters’ photographs are of battlefields; “Métis Women” shows four women carrying some of their possessions to a refugee camp piled with Métis belongings. Peters also took photographs of Poundmaker, Beardy and Miserable Man. In keeping with Western tradition, Miserable Man’s wife is nameless as she is referred to as “Mrs Miserable Man.”
Barnholden provides extensive historical and critical commentary on Peters as well as Peters’ dispatches from the front printed in newspapers. The surprise in Captain James Peters’ Reports from the War of 1885 is Peters himself. Barnholden describes him as critical of the Canadian military; Peters referred to General Middleton, leader of the Canadian forces, as “the d____d old fool of a General” and expressed some sympathy for the Métis and First Nations fighting in 1885. He sardonically referred to a photo of Canadian officers at Batoche as “Big Guns.” Peters also notes with some sympathy, “One old brave said that it would be cheaper for the Queen to give him pork than pay for all these soldiers. This was not a bad hit.” This sympathy only comes after battle; previously Peters describes the Métis as “murderous brutes” who have ruthlessly slaughtered priests and settlers.
While Barnholden does a good job with the critical apparatus in the book (although a map of Peters’ journey with the “A” Battery would have been a welcome addition), I am wary of the lack of Métis voices. While those interested could read Gabriel Dumont Speaks separately, excerpts from the book would provide a counterpoint to the Canadian version of events.

This review “Altering Historical Circumstances” originally appeared in Prison Writing. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 208 (Spring 2011): 128-129.

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