A Blupete Biography Page

William Cottnam Tonge

The subject of this biographical sketch, William Cottnam Tonge, was the eldest son of Winckworth Tonge. Winckworth Tonge, an Irishman (born in County Wexford) came to Nova Scotia with the British army in 1746. Thereafter Tonge was to have an illustrious military career having fought with Monckton at Beausejour in 1755; with Amherst at Louisbourg in 1758; and, with Wolfe at Quebec in 1759. With the fall of New France, Winckworth Tonge returned to Nova Scotia to take up a civilian life. He acquired land in Nova Scotia including land at Newport located north of Halifax in present day Hants County. There, at Newport, Tonge, in time, was to build an impressive estate which was called "Winckworth." In the succeeding years, Winckworth Tonge was to hold a number of important positions, including: being a Justice of the Peace; the provincial surveyor or superintendent of roads, bridges, and public works; and, for various periods, a member of the Assembly.

Winckworth Tonge married Martha Grace Cottnam. Four sons were born to them. Their first born was William Cottnam Tonge. William was born on April 29th, 1764, likely at "Winckworth." As a young boy, William undoubtedly was very proud of his father. He and his brothers, it would certainly appear, were raised at the family estate at Newport. There the family led a 18th century rural life in what was then, wild country. His father likely was missing for periods of time seeing to his many provincial duties that mostly would have been carried out at Halifax, 60 miles away to be gotten at from Newport only over the very rough roads of the day. The Winckworth family unfortunately ran into financial difficulties, such that in 1789 Mr. Tonge was forced to sell "Winckworth." The family then moved to Halifax.

When William Tonge was but a boy of nine years old, his father, in 1773, was appointed the Naval Officer for the province, which, might be described as the chief tax collector. It was the duty of the naval officer to receive copies of all manifests and entries in the Custom-House at Halifax. While in this position, Tonge appointed a number of deputies who did their work throughout Nova Scotia, one of these deputies was to be his son, William.

In 1792, William Tonge was elected to the Assembly; he was to immediately take a very active part in its business. So, too, in that year, his father died and with that, Mr. Bulkeley, who was just then the temporary head in the province, appointed the son William to replace the father as the Naval Officer. It was also in that year, we need but mention, that John Wentworth was sworn in as Governor of Nova Scotia. Wentworth, on coming to Halifax to assume his position, was, it seems, to take an immediate dislike to Tonge.

New forces were just then working their blind will upon an aristocratic society, of which Wentworth was certainly a leading member in colonial Nova Scotia. The populist movement of which Tonge was a part, had by then translated into a successful revolution in the thirteen colonies and was then making itself felt in a very bloody way in France. The ideas of liberty, as expressed by the likes of Thomas Pain, were present in Britain; but the problems of complete liberty were to be brought into focus with the French revolution, which was just then showing itself in gory detail. These ideas of liberty were being openly expressed by the people in Nova Scotia as the last of the old guard, Sir John Wentworth, came into power.

Margaret Ells was to observe that for "nearly six years there is no official indication of any quarrel between the governor and the naval officer."1 Tonge was an elected member of the Nova Scotia legislature and it was opposed to any move of the governor that smacked of being autocratic. There were to be great battles between the Governor and the legislature, and all the time -- it certainly appeared to be the case to Wentworth -- William Cottnam Tonge led the way in opposition. Wentworth continually complained to the home authority: "This man," Wentworth was to write, "has some specious talents, vain -- ambitious to lead a party, pursuing turbulence, and subversive of whatever is in use, in private or in public life --does not deserve the good will of the King's Government nor to be rewarded with a comfortable office."2 It becomes plain in a reading of the accounts of the political battles between these two men that Wentworth had an "obsessive hatred" for Tonge and a "ruthless determination to destroy him."3

The struggle between the Governor and the House, between Tonge and Wentworth, is a story I shall take up in my full history of the era. Enough to say here, that the matter ended, when in February, 1807, Wentworth summarily suspended Tonge as naval officer. Just as summarily, in the following year, the 72 year old Wentworth was replaced by the home government: Sir George Prevost, the new appointed governor, came to Nova Scotia and handed Sir John his walking papers. It was not because of any action Wentworth took towards Tonge, but rather because War was looming and what was required at Halifax was a "military governor."

Prevost had arrived at Halifax during April of 1808 with three regiments consisting of 3,000 soldiers. That July he was to receive orders from Lord Castlereagh "to hold the troops he had accompanied to North America in readiness for distance service."4 During the balance of the year Prevost, at Halifax, made preparations to go down to the West Indies and capture Martinique. Now, it might be that the old governor, Wentworth, did not like Tonge; but the new governor, Prevost, liked him well enough. He appointed Tonge a commissary official for his military expedition to the West Indies. On December 6th, Prevost sailed with his troops, arriving at Barbados 23 days later; Tonge was, we suppose, with him. By April 15th, 1809, Prevost with his troops arrived back at Halifax after having captured Martinique. Tonge was not among those who returned to Nova Scotia; he stayed behind and was to serve the Crown in various official capacities, in the British West Indies, for the next twenty years.

William Tonge had married Elizabeth Bonnell at Digby in 1793. They were to have five children, two of whom were sons. In the spring of 1805 his thirty-three year old wife died, it said in childbirth, leaving William with young children to bring up; it would appear, though, that he farmed them out. Though there is no account readily available of the adventures of the Tonge family in the West Indies, a number, it seems, were to eventually go down to join William Tonge. One of William Tonge's brothers set up a law practice and Bonnell, William Tonge's oldest son, was to practice law out of his uncle's office. As for our hero, William Cottnam Tonge: we see from the DCB that he died in 1832 at Georgeton, Guyana. The entry in the DCB was to conclude:

"Tonge's personality remains an enigma. His consistent electorial success indicate an effective and popular campaigner: only twice during his career did he face an opponent. Although by all accounts a charming, congenial man, he abandoned his children, and for years they heard of him only through chance reports from the West Indies. Later generations remembered his brilliant oratory, his improvidence, and his indiscretions. Joseph Howe's conclusion to his account of Tonge's career serves as a final summation: 'I have often wished I could have seen Tonge and all those whoever attempted to describe him to me concurred in the opinion that he was well worth seeing.'"

1 "Governor Wentworth's Patronage;" NSHS, Vol #25.

2 Ibid.

3 Cuthbertson, The Loyalist Governor p.125.

4 See Murdoch, vol. 3, p. 284.


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Peter Landry
2012 (2020)