Dr Clement Ligoure: Hidden hero of the Halifax Explosion

Ground Zero: Richmond Street in the North End of Halifax.

1. The decontextualization of history

The Sixth of December is the 103rd anniversary of the horrific Halifax Explosion of 1917 – the largest explosion in history before the barbaric devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by U.S. atomic bombs in 1945. Some 1,963 innocent men, women and children or more were massacred, another 9,000 injured and 199 blinded, according to understated official figures. Despite scores of books, exhibits, radio and TV programs, and memorial meetings much is unknown, covered up or falsified while those responsible – the Royal Navy, the United States and the Borden government in the first place – were given impunity for a war crime.

We are reposting a recent article by journalist Susanne Rent from the Halifax Examiner to bring to the attention of a wider audience the poignant story of Dr Clement Ligoure and his selfless humanitarianism. Reporting on the research of well-known playwright David Woods, Ms Rent asks, “I’m sure many of us know about the heroics of Vince Coleman, the train dispatcher who sent a message stopping a train that was heading to the city, and then died in the explosion. But how many of us have heard the name Dr. Clement Ligoure and stories of his heroics?”

The information of Mr Woods and Ms Rent contrasts to the decontextualization of official bourgeois historiography. According to its main themes, the first world war, an imperialist war for redivision of the world, marked “the birth of the nation” as Canada got a seat at the table of the British Empire. The explosion of foreign two merchant ships in the harbour, the Imo and the Mont Blanc grossly overladen with munitions (5.8 million pounds of TNT), which had entered the harbour with the foreknowledge of official authorities, was explained away as “an act of God,” or some peculiar, local “accident.” The people of the war port are depicted as comatose in the face of the disaster and largely responsible for their own fate, drawn close as they were to the harbour front to watch the burning spectacle in the fatal moments before the final blast. The victims, helpless and hapless, are blamed while those responsible for this war crime are exonerated. More recently, American aid has been promoted as being decisive in alleviating the disaster. That the Mont Blanc was diverted from a New York convoy to Europe to Halifax by American authorities is left in the shade.

The experience, consequences and response of the working class, the people of Africville and the Mi’kmaq community of Turtle Cove which was wiped out is marginalized, in the same vein as the resistance of Canadians and Quebecois to Canada” participation in World War I is never discussed. Human agency is denied and reduced to stories of individual survivors. In most provinces the explosion has been left out of the school curriculum. Throughout the land, the Sixth of December has become associated with the terrible massacre of fourteen women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique on December 6, 1989.

In 2003 the $10.4-million CBC film “Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion” – together with the companion film, “City of Ruins” and an extensive website aimed at teachers – turned “this important Canadian story into an American one.”[1]  Replicating false World War I propaganda about German agents, it made foreign spies and saboteurs a major plot line, criminalizing the “enemy within” as the culprit.[2] The CBC advertised that American aid was quick and decisive. In a scathing commentary, Marine historian Dan Conlin writes that “It told us there were no surgeons and only two makeshift hospitals until the Americans arrived on trains.” Dr Liqoure’s Amanda Hospital was actually one of some “half dozen hospitals operating the day of the explosion. Five Canadian relief trains did arrive the day of the explosion from towns in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick bringing many surgeons, nurses and supplies. They were summoned by heroic railway employees and provided vital medical staff, supplies and fire equipment when it was needed most. American relief trains did not arrive for two days.” In fact, 225 American troops from U.S. cruisers – the Tacoma and Von Steuben, which had been sailing offshore – were deployed for eight days on direct authority of British Rear Admiral Bertram Chambers to maintain “law and order” in the downtown business area in violation of Canadian sovereignty. What were they afraid of? Medical aid from the people of Massachusetts, many of whom émigrés from the Maritimes, was greatly appreciated but it was not part of the initial emergency response.

The CBC productions were aired two years after 9/11 and the launch of the “War on Terror” by the Anglo-American powers. Historical falsehoods and disinformation have a political aim: they are in the service of the organization of Halifax all over again as a war port of the US-NATO bloc. The disinformation aims to disempower and pacify residents with incoherent tales of past tragedies before the danger facing them today. Those who oppose Canada’s war government are criminalized as agents or dupes of this or that foreign power excluding the USA. The credibility crisis facing this campaign can be seen in the fact that more and more Canadians are asking who bears the responsibility for this and other war crimes and why Canada was participating in the First World War, and more and more information is being circulated by independent sources which reveal the actual agenda of the British, American and Canadian powers at that time and today and the response of the people. Over one century later the issue remains to settle accounts and render the verdict on history.

On this date, we once again pay our deepest respects to the families of all those who died as a result of this disaster.

* * *

2.Dr Clement Ligoure: Hidden hero of the Halifax Explosion

Dr. Clement Ligoure was born in Trinidad and spent about five years in Halifax. He opened a hospital on North Street where he treated people who were injured in the Halifax Explosion | Queens University Archives

By Suzanne Rent

David Woods was set to stage a reading of his play, Extraordinary Acts, at the Halifax Central Library with Voices Black Theatre, later this week as part of the remembrance ceremonies for the 103rd anniversary of the Halifax Explosion. But new COVID-19 restrictions around public gatherings put an end to that. Woods’ play tells the stories of the experiences of the Black community during the explosion. It’s inspired by the acts of people we rarely, if ever, hear about in the telling of the explosion. I’m sure many of us know about the heroics of Vince Coleman, the train dispatcher who sent a message stopping a train that was heading to the city, and then died in the explosion. But how many of us have heard the name Dr. Clement Ligoure and stories of his heroics?

A performance of Black Explosion with David Woods, Wanda Robson, Wanda Lewis, and Geraldine Browning at the Black Cultural Centre, December 2018.

Woods started researching the stories of the Black community and the Explosion back in 2015, with the goal of creating a play to be staged on the 100th anniversary of the explosion. The play centres on the stories of five lives, including Dr. Ligoure; Rev. Capt. William White, a preacher and co-founder with the No. 2 Construction Battalion; James Johnston, the first Nova Scotia-born Black lawyer and an advocate for the establishment of the Halifax Colored Institute; H.D. Nicholas, semi-fictionalized character, a porter and pioneer jazz entertainer; and Edith Macdonald-Brown, a painter from Africville (there’s more of her story in this blog over at Her Art Story, which mentions how Woods uncovered Macdonald-Brown’s unknown story).

That play never happened, although Woods did stage Black Explosion, a one-hour reading that included Wanda Robson, whose sister, Viola Desmond, was three years old when the explosion happened; in the reading were also Wanda Lewis, who did a dramatic impersonation of Macdonald-Brown, and Geraldine Browning, a descendent of Andrew Upshaw, one of the Black victims of the explosion.  

Last week, Woods shared details of his play and the lives of its characters on his Facebook page, and he included a list of members of the Black community who were killed in the explosion. Click here to read that.

Woods and I spoke on Saturday about his research, and in particular the story of Dr. Ligoure — his heroics, and his life in Halifax before, during, and after the explosion. Woods says he knew about Dr. Ligoure, but learned so much more during his research.  

I always wanted to do something with his story. I knew he had a hospital and they said he was a hero. I didn’t know the extent of his heroism. 

Ligoure’s life is a story not only of his heroics, but of the barriers he faced here and elsewhere.  

Born in Trinidad, Ligoure came to Halifax after studying medicine at Queen’s University, which would later go on to expel Black students from its medical programs. Ligoure was Nova Scotia’s first Black physician. (The Queens University Journal wrote this article on the expulsion and highlighted the careers of some of its students, including Ligoure).

Ligoure and William White co-founded the No. 2 Construction Battalion and recruited Black soldiers. Ligoure was set to be the battalion’s chief medical officer, but he couldn’t take on that role — he was told by the defence department that he failed the medical exam by one point and was unable to join the battalion. During his research, Woods connected with the great-granddaughter of Lieutenant Colonel D.H. Sutherland, who shared with Woods her great grandfather’s letters. The letters contained details of Ligoure’s betrayal by the department of defence.

Ligoure also took over as the publisher of the Atlantic Advocate, the first newspaper for African Canadians, whose founding publisher W. A. DeCosta left Halifax to join the war effort as a member of the No. 2 Construction Battalion. It was through the four surviving issues of the newspaper that Woods collected his research and stories that inspired Extraordinary Acts. (Click here to read those four issues online at The Nova Scotia Archives).

In Halifax, Ligoure was denied hospital privileges, so he established the Amanda Hospital on North Street. His hospital served as a dressing station for the injured from the Halifax Explosion. Ligoure treated almost 200 patients there, at no charge. Says Woods: 

This man saved hundreds of lives. In the two weeks after the explosion, I don’t think the man even slept. At nighttime, he would go to their homes. For two weeks, night and day, that’s literally all he did.

The house on North Street that once served as Dr. Ligoure’s Amanda Hospital. Here Ligoure treated hundreds of patients injured in the Halifax Explosion.

Here’s text from Ligoure’s testimonial about the aftermath of the explosion (Click here to listen to a audio reenactment of the testimonial).

Immediately after the Explosion, my office was filled with the injured. I was the only doctor in the Cotton Factory and Willow Park district. Very severe cases, jaws cut, noses off. One hand hanging off (this has since been saved). My only assistance was my housekeeper and H.D. Nicholas, a Pullman porter who boarded with me. In spite of the warning of a second explosion I worked steadily till 8 pm. Some people who had been turned away from the hospital came to my office. Seven people spent the night in my office, laid upon blankets. On December 7th, 8th and 9th, I worked steadily both night and day, doing outside work at night. Monday, I went to City Hall and told Lieut. Ryecroft of RSA Medical Relief of the urgent need of a dressing station in his district. There was an immediate response, and I was given two nurses Mrs. Monpetit and Miss Walsh of Montreal to work in my office. Work was still very heavy. Eight more nurses were sent and six to do district work. Also Private Sutherland A.M.C, T. Henso, HMS, and Captain Dr. Parker, assistant M.O.  It was called No. 4 Dressing Station. Upwards of 10 people were dressed per day. It carried on until December 28th.  

I have not charged a cent to anyone since the Explosion and still do relief work, for which I use a motor. At present I have upwards of 51 cases due to the explosion and the conditions it created. They are scattered over Hungry Hill, the Lady Hammond Road, Willow Park etc. On Sunday December 9th in the blizzard which turned to rain, about 1 am I went to Willow Park. The horse was up to his knees in the drifts. Returned to his office. A woman on Hungry Hill sent for him, saying she was dying of convulsions. I reached her home to find her calmly eating an apple. I returned to my office at 3 am. A man and a woman were waiting for me and arguing as to whom I should accompany home first.  One lived on Gottingen the other on Windsor Street. I took the woman home first, thus enraging the man. I attended to both cases arriving home exhausted at 6:15 am, when I snatched half an hour’s sleep.”

Afua Cooper, historian and Halifax’s former poet laureate, wrote this poem about the explosion that includes Ligoure.

Ligoure lived in Halifax for several years. He eventually closed his hospital and bought a house in Schmidtville, but he died shortly thereafter after a life of service. Says Woods: 

He was very altruistic and I wonder if he wasn’t overwhelmed. He died at age 32 and there’s absolutely no records. And I don’t understand why there’s no funeral, no mention in the local newspaper. The vital records are not there. All we have is him purchasing a house and a couple months later, he’s dead. 

Woods says he would like to get Ligoure on a stamp during African Heritage Month, and he’d like the city to officially honour Ligoure and his contributions. And Woods says he’d like to get a partner to help him stage Extraordinary Acts in 2021 — he’s already reached out to theatre companies. Woods wants more people to know his story. 

Everything reveals more and more and more. This is a story that’s a whole bunch of Canadiana. He was connected to everything. I didn’t start off knowing about all these things. Every thread I followed in the research led to another bigger thing.

One thing I hope to achieve is that Ligoure become a known entity. If that, at least, is achieved because no matter what people do, no matter what doubts they have, everything is provable.

Woods’ research goes well beyond the story of Ligoure. He also created a list of members of the Black community who were killed in the explosion. Back in 2017, Troy Adams, an African-Nova Scotia actor who was in the play Lullaby: Inside the Halifax Explosion, about racism during the explosion, talked about the inaccuracies in an exhibit at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic that said only one person from Africville died in the explosion. Sherri Borden Colley with CBC wrote this story after talking with Adams, who did his own research on the Black community and the explosion.

The museum has a photo of Ligoure online here and a photo of a badge from the No. 2 Construction Battalion, mentioning Ligoure’s connection. There are also mentions of Africville here. I contacted the museum to see if they included more details in the exhibit since 2017, but haven’t heard back. I’ll update this when I do.

Update, November 30:We received a statement from the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage about the Halifax Explosion exhibit at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic:“Following the centenary of the Explosion in 2017, in response to and with the guidance of members of the African Nova Scotian community, the museum refreshed its exhibit to reflect the breadth of its effects on the region and its peoples in all their diversity. We are fortunate and thankful to have benefitted from the research of scholars like David Woods in this effort; his work on Trinidadian-born physician Dr. Clement Ligoure, for example, has greatly strengthened our interpretation of this key event in the province’s past.”

Noticed

Speaking of the Halifax Explosion, the Nova Scotia Archives has an online transcription tool that allows anyone to go online and transcribe the thousands of records online. The archives recently added records from Archibald MacMechan, who worked at the Halifax Disaster Record Office from 1917 to 1918. The records include newspaper clippings, copies of reports, memoranda, and MacMechan’s own personal memories of the events.

Archibald MacMechan. Photo: Biographical Dictionary of Canada

The transcribing tool is pretty easy to use. You just type in your name and start searching records you want to transcribe. The archives is continually adding new records. Final transcribed records will be shared online for anyone searching.

Source: Halifax Examiner, December 3, 2020

Note

1.Dan Conlin, Historical Distortions and Errors in the Film Shattered City, 2003.

The two-part miniseries aired fall, 2003 and was rebroadcast twice on 6 December 2003. The production by Salter Street Films of Halifax, started by the Donovan brothers but purchased in 2001 by Toronto-based Alliance and closed down in September 2003 following completion of Shattered City. The production cost some $10.4 million, and was heavily-promoted. It featured a cast of 135, plus 1,500 extras, and well-produced “shock and awe” scenes visually portraying the power of the blast, the destruction of the city and the suffering of the people. An extensive website aimed at teachers was constructed by CBC-TV. The film was also peddled on the international broadcast market, disaster and tragedy as commercial commodity. 

2. The WWI propaganda was the theme of the tawdry novel, The Sixth of December (1981), by Jim Lotz. The “novel” advocated that the Explosion was the crime of Quebecois, French-speaking, socialistic dockyard workers collaborating with equally foreign German naval officers imprisoned by the British in Amherst, Nova Scotia. At the time, Lotz was president of the NS Writers Federation and a professor of community development at St Francis Xavier University. This work cannot be seen or dismissed as the work of an individual. The author credits the collaboration of David R. Jones, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, then head of the Russian Micro-Project and the Russian Research Centre of Nova Scotia, located in the basement of the Killam Library at Dalhousie University. Dalhousie was already host of the Center for Foreign Policy Studies, 50 per cent financed by the US Donner Foundation and the Department of National Defence. This centre specialized in Soviet naval studies and elaborating a bluewater naval doctrine for the Canadian navy and Maritime Command as part of NATO.  Director Michael McGwire was a former military attaché at the British Embassy in Moscow. For his part, Jones did his graduate thesis at the U.S. Naval College on Trotsky and the Russian Navy. As a “Sovietologist”, he specialized in compiling data on and studies of the Tsarist Russian and Soviet Navy. Jones, who relocated to Pensacola, Florida, headquarters of the US. Rapid Deployment Force, edited two serial publications, “Military-Naval Encyclopaedia of Russia and the Soviet Union” and “Soviet Armed Forces Review Annual.” He was an editor of Conflict Quarterly from the DND-funded Center for Conflict Studies in Fredericton. 

For more information

On the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, a war crime: The organization of the city as a war port is the ‘business’ best adapted for profit

102nd Anniversary of the Halifax Explosion

Infamy of the massacre of the Canadian people in Halifax

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