The Victoria Rifles of Halifax was a Black volunteer militia unit of about 70 men in Nova Scotia in the 1860s. The unit participated in anniversary celebrations of the founding of Halifax and in a parade honouring the Prince of Wales, who visited Nova Scotia in 1860. Despite their dedication and skill — and the support of some white Haligonians — the “Victorias” were subjected to anti-Black racism both within and outside the militia. The unit disbanded after approximately four years.
Black Soldiers in 19th Century Nova Scotia
Black men had served in the Nova Scotia militia since the late 18th century. They were required to do so by the Militia Acts of the province, as were almost all other men. (See also Black Loyalists in British North America; The Arrival of Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia; Black History in Canada to 1900.)
Starting with the Militia Act of 1813, Black men had to serve in segregated units attached to the local militia unit. They were allowed to be non-commissioned officers but could not serve as officers. This policy continued until Confederation. Black men faced further discrimination at parades, where they were forced to march last instead of with the militia unit to which they were attached. They also faced jeers from the white spectators.
Volunteer Units in Nova Scotia
In 1859, the British government authorized the creation of volunteer military units for defence. Relations between Britain and France were strained because of the Orsini Affair of 1858, and many feared a French invasion (see below). Thousands of men volunteered for these units in Great Britain and across the British Empire, including what would become Canada. The creation of volunteer units in North America was further encouraged by the upcoming visit of the Prince of Wales, which was announced in 1859.
Did you know?
On 14 January 1858, Italian nationalist Felice Orsini and his accomplices tried to assassinate Napoleon III in Paris, France. The would-be assassins had links to England: Orsini had lived in England and was associated with English radicals; he also used bombs made in Birmingham. France accused Britain of harbouring Orsini and his accomplices and relations between the two countries deteriorated.
In Nova Scotia, sedentary militia units were authorized to form a company of volunteers attached to each unit. The first of these volunteer corps was formed in September 1859 in Sydney Mines; another six volunteer units were created in Halifax in December and other volunteer units elsewhere. In Halifax, the units received drill instructors from British regular regiments stationed in the city. The volunteer companies were allowed to use the South Barracks for drills on alternate evenings; some units also conducted morning drill at 6:30 a.m.
Members of the Black community in Halifax also embraced the idea of volunteer service and formed the Victoria Rifles on 4 February 1860. The “Victorias” had a strength of about 70; although the soldiers were Black, the unit’s officers were white. Captain George Ritchie Anderson of the Scottish Rifles was the commanding officer. Like other Halifax units, the Victoria Rifles probably used the South Barracks for drills and parades.
The Victoria Rifles’ first event was the June 1860 anniversary of the founding of Halifax. Here they participated with other volunteer and regular regiments in a “grand review” on the Halifax Commons. When the Prince of Wales visited Halifax on 30 July 1860, the Victoria Rifles was one of the volunteer units on parade. The commander of the volunteers put his units, including the Victorias, through a series of drills. The unit then took the train to Truro, Nova Scotia, where they were part of a guard of honor for the prince.
The Victorias also competed against white regiments in several sporting events, including shooting. At the first provincial rifle match held in Windsor, Nova Scotia, in October 1861, George Liston of the Victoria Rifles was ranked 13th of 31 competitors.
The Victoria Rifles were subject to racism, however, both within and outside the militia. In May 1860, five Halifax volunteer units were organized into the Halifax Volunteer Battalion (later the Halifax Rifles). The Victoria Rifles were not invited to join. At parades they were frequently subject to jeers and derogatory comments from both spectators and other parade participants. One newspaper suggested that they were "like a laughable farce to the excellent performance of a drama.”
Another incident led to the resignation of the unit’s commanding officer. During the provincial rifle match of 1861, a sergeant of another Halifax unit used a racist slur about the Victorias. Captain Anderson lodged a complaint that went up the chain of command, but nothing was done. In response, he resigned his appointment as officer-in-charge of the Victoria Rifles.
The Victoria Rifles disbanded after about four years. Most of their members passed into obscurity except for George Liston, who became a self-employed boatman in Halifax harbour and was recognized by the press, and later the City of Halifax, for his lifesaving activities.
Although the men of the Victoria Rifles had demonstrated their loyalty to the Crown and to Nova Scotia, they faced anti-Black racism from other volunteer soldiers and community members. Although they had support from some white Haligonians, such as their commanding officer (and prominent businessman) George R. Anderson, they were restricted from full participation in the local militia and in Halifax society more broadly.