History is an attic where all sorts of memories are stored. The story of the Caroline has been dragged out of our past to scold Canadians or Americans for their response to George W. Bush's plans for a unilateral regime change for Iraq.

The wreck of the steamboat Caroline near Niagara Falls, 29 December 1837 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/ C-004788).

So what was the Caroline?

Back in December 1837, William Lyon Mackenzie had launched his revolt against British government in Upper Canada. Fortunately for a badly frightened Sir Francis Bond Head, the British lieutenant governor, among the first men to reach Toronto were Colonel Alan MacNab and a few hundred Hamilton militia. They were the first of many. After an abortive little battle on Yonge Street on December 5th, Mackenzie and his followers fled for their lives. The rebel leader crossed the Niagara River but soon returned, with about 200 American and Canadian backers, to set up camp on Navy Island on the Canadian side of the river to prepare a comeback. A little steamer, the Caroline, ferried supplies and reinforcements from the American side.

As a 16-year-old officer during the War of 1812, MacNab had won renown for gallantry. At 40, he was a rich Hamilton lawyer and a pillar of the Family Compact. As beau sabreur of the Tory cause, Bond Head sent him to command the Niagara Frontier. Among his subordinates was Andrew Drew, a half-pay Royal Navy commander and pioneer farmer who had laid out the town of Woodstock and probably tricked the London-based admiral who was his business partner. At the first sign of danger to the Crown, Drew had abandoned backwoods boredom to offer his services. On December 29th, MacNab ordered Drew to deal with the Caroline.

Cutting out an enemy ship was all in a night's work for any spirited veteran of Nelson's navy. That same night, Drew and a picked crew rowed out to Navy Island to find the Caroline gone. Undeterred, they rowed across the fast-flowing river to find the American steamer safely tied up under the guns of Fort Schlosser. In minutes, Drew and his men had boarded the ship, killed a watchman, slashed the hawsers and set the vessel ablaze. As the Caroline floated downstream and over Niagara Falls, flames lit the night sky, guiding Drew and his men back to Canada. Mackenzie soon abandoned Navy Island and his plans for a fresh attack on Upper Canada.

While Canadians reacted to the adventure according to their politics, Americans were almost unanimously outraged. Seizing and burning an American ship was piracy. Killing an American citizen was murder. A New York jury soon indicted Commander Andrew Drew for the crime. Undeterred, he remained on duty as naval adviser to MacNab and then to Bond Head's successor, Sir George Arthur. The following summer, he was court martialled for absence without leave and signing a false muster roll, acquitted but left unemployed.

The Caroline incident profoundly damaged British-American relations. Along the border, under the auspices of Hunters' Lodges, an American grassroots movement, 40 000 Americans drilled, "remembered the Caroline," and plotted how to help Mackenzie and Lower Canada's Louis-Joseph Papineau rescue Canadians from "British thralldom" and grinding tyranny. Between 1838 and 1841, the Hunters launched a series of ill-fated assaults on Upper and Lower Canada. The 1837 rebellions extended into a second, more bitter and bloody round. Only in the fall of 1841, after a stern message about neutrality from US president James Tyler, did the Hunter threat dissolve. As for Commander Andrew Drew, he returned to England in 1842, served again in the Royal Navy and died a retired admiral in 1878.

"The past is another country," wrote English novelist L.P. Hartley. "They do things differently there." One hundred and sixty-five years later, the Caroline affair seems inconceivable even to the loony fringe of Canadian nationalists, and as appalling to colonial-minded Canadians as it was to Americans in 1837-38. Would any modern government have employed the gallant but wild-eyed MacNab in so delicate a job? In any case, modern communications would have kept MacNab from exercising his initiative and aborted Drew's mission before his crew even dipped an oar in the water.

More important, Canada and the United States talk to each other systematically and often. Unilateral provocations still occur, but they almost never come as surprises. As a small country, Canada was an early and continuing supporter of the United Nations. It was the best defence we could build against the unilateral national aggressions that led to two world wars. For all his suspicion of foreign entanglements, William Lyon Mackenzie's grandson took Canada into the United Nations at San Francisco in 1945, and his officials worked effectively to ensure that the US joined too. Did the old rebel's descendent remember the Caroline?