News / Halifax

Reviving 'marginalized stories:' Halifax Incident of 1916 subject of public talk

Hyacinth Simpson spent three years researching story of 1,040 Jamaican soldiers stranded in Halifax during a severe snowstorm.

Men of the Third Jamaica Contingent relax in the sun on the deck of the SS Verdala.

Courtesy of the Jamaica Military Museum and Library

Men of the Third Jamaica Contingent relax in the sun on the deck of the SS Verdala.

If you’ve never heard of the Halifax Incident of 1916, you’re not alone.

Ryerson University professor Hyacinth Simpson is in Halifax to deliver her first full account of the dramatic story involving 1,040 men of the Third Jamaica Contingent left stranded in Halifax during a severe snowstorm in March of 1916.

She’ll present the details during a public talk on Wednesday night at the Nova Scotia Archives.

“My talk is about the First World War and I think that I wouldn’t even say a little known story, but instead a hardly ever mentioned story,” Simpson said.

“It’s about Jamaicans who were frostbitten in the city and how Canadians helped them and how that help in turn benefitted Canada because it jumpstarted the veterans rehabilitation program.”

The story unfolded after a cargo ship carrying the men was sent to Halifax by London’s War Office.

The problem was, the old ship was open on all sides, had no heating, and the men were not equipped with clothing necessary to keep warm in Nova Scotia’s March temperatures.

In addition, no one in Halifax was told to expect them.

Simpson said of the 1,040 aboard, 600 had serious medical issues due to the cold and 106 were so severely frostbitten they required full or partial limb amputations upon arriving in Halifax.

“It sounds like a story of typical Canadians welcoming and helping people in the time of need, but we have to think about that in the context of race and ideas around race at the time,” Simpson said in an interview.

“At the same time these Jamaicans were in (military) hospital at Cogswell Street, we had our own men who had volunteered for the No. 2 Construction Battalion being told they cannot sit upstairs or wherever in the movie theatres. It is a very complex issue.”

Simpson has spent the last three years researching the Halifax Incident of 1916 and unraveling many of the details of the relatively unknown story.

She hopes sharing some of the details helps open up dialogue about the importance of sharing marginalized stories.

“When Remembrance Day rolls around or whenever we think about the sacrifices made by combatants and ordinary people at that time, it’s important that we do not fail to recognize those people who contributed as well but whose stories we don’t usually hear,” Simpson said.

“There are academics here in Halifax who are doing more work on the No. 2 Construction Battalion…I think our work is cut out for us to break the silence around these marginalized stories, but this is a good start.”

How to go: Dr. Simpson's public talk takes place on Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. at the Nova Scotia Archives.

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