From Migrant to Acadian: A North American Border People, 1604-1755

by N. E. S. Griffiths
633 pages,
ISBN: 0773526994

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Le grand dTrangement Recounted
by James Allan Evans

For most people with an interest in Nova Scotia history-professional historians excluded-the deportation of the Acadians from the Bay of Fundy region is the story of Evangeline. Longfellow's Evangeline, with its fictional heroine, who spent a lifetime searching for her lost bridegroom and found him at last dying among the plague victims in a Philadelphia almshouse (there was a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793), has created an image of Acadia as indelible as Homer's myth of Troy. Longfellow never visited Grand PrT, where a statue of his literary creation, Evangeline, now stands in Grand PrT National Park, and his portrayal of Acadia owes more to eighteenth-century peasant life in Sweden, which he had studied, than it does to the real Acadia of history, which he had not. Still, his poem is justly famous. Its magnificent opening chord, "This is the forest primeval", is comparable with the resonance of the opening words of Vergil's epic, the Aeneid: "Arma virumque cano...." And though the forest he describes, with its pines and hemlocks robed with moss, is unlike any Nova Scotia forest, it is a splendid setting for the tragedy of Acadia-"le grand dTrangement" of 1755-and the story of a woman's fidelity that surmounted it all. It was, moreover, a tale of British tyranny contrasted with American liberty and freedom, all of which appealed to American readers only a generation after the War of 1812, for Longfellow attributed the atrocity directly to "King George", the Saddam Hussein of American colonial history. To be sure, it was King George II, not George III, who was on the throne in 1755, but any "King George" would do.
In fact, no orders came from London to deport the Acadians, and certainly not from the king, who seems to have considered the Acadians valuable subjects. The initiative came from Longfellow's own state, Massachusetts, and the ships that carried the Acadians into exile came from New England. But the destruction of the Acadian community was real enough, and when the Acadians returned after Britain revoked the deportation decree in 1764, they found their old lands occupied by New England settlers.
Naomi Griffiths's book takes us to 1755, to the eve of the deportation and there she stops. The name "Evangeline" does not appear in the book's index. But there is a vast amount of well-researched information between the covers of this book, and though I cannot call it easy reading, it is essential for anyone who wants to understand how the deportation came about. I've attempted here to summarise and disentangle the numerous colonial phases leading up to it.
England and France disputed possession of the region from the start of the seventeenth century. In 1604, the French under Sieur de Monts established a tiny settlement, and nine years later, an English adventurer from Virginia destroyed it, but the French were back within a year. In 1620, the Pilgrim Fathers arrived in North America with royal authority from King James I to settle the lands between latitudes 40o and 48o, part of which was claimed by France, and the next year, a Scotsman, Sir William Alexander, was granted a charter by James I for a colony called Nova Scotia which would take in the present-day Maritime provinces and the GaspT region. In 1629, Alexander attempted a settlement at Port Royal, now Annapolis Royal, but hardly had building begun on his fort when a French ship arrived, captured it and deported the settlers to France. Then QuTbec itself fell to the English freebooter, Sir David Kirke, but the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye three years later returned all the French possessions in North America, and France followed up the peace with a more determined effort to establish a permanent settlement in Acadia. There were some fifty families settled there by 1650.
Then, in 1654, an expedition from New England captured Acadia even though England and France were at peace at the time, and about fifteen years later, Acadia was returned to France, to the bitter resentment of Massachusetts. When France finally surrendered Acadia to Britain with the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, the Acadians, whom Griffiths estimates at about 3,000 souls, could hardly be blamed for thinking that British rule was a temporary phase that might end at any time through a war fought faraway in Europe. France was the super-power of Europe in the eighteenth century, and to contemporaries it must have seemed that the rivalry between France and the relatively small offshore island of Britain must end with a French victory.
It was, Griffiths believes, during this period of being shifted from Britain to France and back again, that the Acadians began to develop the idea, unheard of in the eighteenth century, that they were a people with a right to determine their own future. Self-determination, we call it, a political concept associated with President Woodrow Wilson after World War I, and still not universally accepted. Ask an Argentinian whether he thinks the Falkland Islanders have the right of self-determination! The Treaty of Utrecht left much undecided, particularly the boundaries of the territory that France had surrendered, but it followed the norms of international law of the day. It gave the Acadians a year to swear allegiance to the British Queen Anne, or leave. France, in turn, was strengthening her hold on North America with a new state-of-the art fortress on +le Royale (Cape Breton Island) called Louisbourg, and was eager to settle the Acadians there. In 1714, the year after the Treaty came into force, deputies from Louisbourg arrived in Annapolis Royal, as Port Royal was renamed, and the Minas Basin, and secured an oath of allegiance to France from most of the Acadians, who declared their wish "to live and die as faithful subjects of His Most Christian Majesty," Louis XIV. The British also made overtures: Queen Anne was prepared to grant the Acadians freedom of religion if they stayed, which was not a universal right (in 1685, Louis XIV of France had hounded the Protestant Huguenots from his kingdom). Clearly, Great Britain was not anxious to see the Acadians leave.
The same year that the Acadians declared their wish to live as subjects of Louis XIV, Queen Anne died. This meant that the English colonists were obligated to give an oath of allegiance to her successor, George of Hanover. The Acadians, too, were asked to swear the oath, and some at Annapolis Royal did sign a conditional oath, but those at Minas replied that they had sworn allegiance to the king of France only the previous summer. Nevertheless, they pledged that for as long as they remained in Acadia, they would to do nothing against King George. Still, the British did not want the Acadians, who were familiar with local agricultural conditions, to provide France with a ready-made cadre of settlers for Louisbourg. The Acadians, once they inspected the land which France intended for them on +le Royale, did not want to leave their farms either. France had the means to press the Acadians hard to move to +le Royale, for she continued to provide the Acadians with French Catholic priests. The priests were subsidised by France, and in return, they were expected to act as agents of France. By this time, however, the Acadians had a strong sense of what was in their own best interests, and the same can be said of the native Mi'kmaq for whom France also provided missionaries who combined spiritual instruction with an anti-British, anti-Protestant party line.
Meanwhile, the British were trying to entice the Acadians to swear an oath of allegiance, and by Christmas, 1729, Gov. Richard Philipps had persuaded 194 men over 16 years of age in the Annapolis region to take a simple oath of fidelity to King George II, who had just come to the throne and acknowledge his sovereignty of Acadia. The Acadians always contended that they had taken the oath on condition that they had the right of neutrality, and though there is no documentation to prove their claim, this was probably the case. At any rate the Acadians believed that they had become British subjects on their own terms, and that they had all the rights of British subjects, which included expanding on to British crown lands as their population grew. Acadia became the northern buffer zone of New England, inhabited by the neutral French.
What was the problem then? The British did not want to recruit Acadians into their army. As Catholics, the Acadians were not eligible. This was the period in British history when the royal House of Stuart hoped to regain the throne with French help, and oust the Protestant Hanoverians. Consequently, the British did not recruit Catholics into any part of their army. Meanwhile, the French authorities took the view that as long as the Acadians refused King George their unconditional allegiance, they were French subjects "who wished to live and die as faithful subjects of His Most Christian Majesty", as per the oath they had taken just after the surrender of Acadia. In other words, the Acadians' stubborn refusal to swear an oath meant that there was no clean break with France. One reason for their reluctance was that their priests, who were appointed by France, could deny parishioners the sacraments if they took the oath. Griffiths downplays their influence, however, for there were never more than five of them at one time, and the Acadians were independent thinkers. She points to another threat instead: if the Acadians sided too obviously with the British, the French were in position to punish them by inciting their allies, the Mi'kmaq, to attack. The British garrison at Annapolis Royal was tiny, and neither Britain nor Massachusetts had the resources to defend the settlers.
The Acadians were left more or less to look after themselves. If the British pressed them to take the oath, they had only to threaten to leave for +le Royale and the British backed down. Acadia prospered meantime. Since it was now part of New England, the Acadians traded freely with Boston as well as with the French at Louisbourg. Women married young; families were large and the Acadian population grew quickly. The British authorities did not stop them from expanding from their original settlements on to crown land, though they remained squatters unless they swore allegiance. But the question of the oath did not go away. When Colonel Charles Lawrence, the acting governor, and the Council at Halifax announced the deportation to the Acadian delegates in 1755, they gave as their reason that the Acadians could no longer be considered subjects of King George but rather subjects of the King of France.
The turning point came with what history books call "The War of the Austrian Succession", 1744-1748. Louisbourg learned of the declaration of war first, and launched an attack with a force of about 200 troops. Its leader, Duvivier, was part Acadian himself, and saw himself as a liberator of loyal Acadian subjects of the French king from a foreign yoke. Yet relatively few Acadians were willing to join his force, though they did give him supplies. Duvivier attempted to take Annapolis Royal, but when two ships arrived from Boston, he retreated. On the whole, it could be said that the Acadians had remained faithful to King George II. Had they not been reluctant to lend Duvivier their support, he could have driven out the English, and regained Acadia for France.
Despite Duvivier's failure, New England was alarmed. In 1745, a little army set out from Boston to capture Louisbourg without waiting for permission from London, though as soon as Britain learned that the expedition was underway, she dispatched three ships-of-the-line to help. The siege was tough but brief: the reputedly impregnable fortress of Louisbourg fell to a rag-tag army of colonists. New England rejoiced, and so did old England, especially since the war in Europe was not going well for her. When the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ended the war, Louisbourg was given back to France (the English colonists were furious, though Britain tried to make amends by reimbursing them for the cost of their expedition); the French settlers returned to the region and along with them, AbbT Jean-Louis LeLoutre, missionary to the Mi'kmaq. LeLoutre, an agent of France who mixed his religion with nationalism, had come to see himself as a man chosen to recover Acadia. It is LeLoutre who must bear a large share of the blame for le grand dTrangement of 1755.
The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was no permanent peace, and calls from New England to deport the Acadians became more insistent, especially because the colonists now felt that Britain could not be trusted to look after their interests. In 1749, the British had founded Halifax, thus introducing a substantial English- and German-speaking Protestant population as neighbours of the Acadians, who watched their arrival without joy. Halifax's foundation also meant that the governor and his council no longer lived in Annapolis Royal among the Acadians, and there was less personal contact. At the same time, the French, with AbbT LeLoutre's passionate assistance, increased their pressure on the Acadians to move to French-controlled territory. The Chignecto Isthmus became a no-man's land, with Acadians loyal to Louis XV of France on the right bank of the Missaguash River, protected by Fort BeausTjour, and with Fort Lawrence on the left side, the British answer to Fort BeausTjour. Elsewhere, in the Ohio Valley, war had already broken out by 1755, and the Council of Halifax had learned of the defeat of General Braddock at what is present-day Pittsburg just before they made their decision to deport the Acadians. There was a prevailing sense of fear and urgency.
In 1755 a force of Massachusetts militia strengthened by 300 British troops took Fort BeausTjour and found Acadians among its defenders. They were granted amnesty, for LeLoutre had conscripted them, but the suspicions of the council at Halifax were aroused. The Acadian delegates were summoned and asked to take an unconditional oath. They refused, as they had in the past. But this time, the governor and his council informed them of the decision to deport. Alarmed, the delegates then offered to swear unconditional allegiance, but the reply they received was that oaths taken under duress were worthless. They weren't going to get a second chance. The delegates were detained and the deportation went ahead.
It was a botched job: the transport ships were overloaded, families separated, and the English colonies, which were supposed to receive the Acadians, did not welcome them. Most of the troops who carried out the deportation were New England militia, but they've been overlooked in the historical tradition and it is the three hundred British regulars, present at the time, who've been blamed. Only after the deed was done was London informed, but the deportation was carried out in the name of King George, and the saga of le grand dTrangement persists in making him personally responsible.
The following year, the war that had already begun in North America would spread to Europe, and the "Seven Years War" would end in 1763 with French possessions reduced to the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon in the St. Lawrence River. But all that lies beyond the scope of Naomi Griffiths' book.
The rights and wrongs of the Acadian deportation can be endlessly debated, and Griffiths avoids discussion of this sort for good reason. The nearest twentieth-century equivalent is the deportation of the Japanese-Canadians from the west coast of Canada in 1943. There are certain similarities: About three-quarters of the Japanese-Canadians were British subjects (the Canadian Citizenship act did not come into force until four years later), though all were considered subjects of the Japanese emperor by the Empire of Japan. On the other hand, the Japanese-Canadians had given far less cause for deportation than the Acadians, for they were willing to fight for Canada but were not given a chance to declare their allegiance. Yet history considers the human element as well as the fine points of the law when it passes judgement on the past. The statue of Evangeline at Grand PrT in Nova Scotia, showing a young woman searching the horizon with anxious eyes evokes splendidly what cannot be forgotten: the human cargo of refugees transported on overloaded ships to communities that did not want them, the many lives destroyed. Among the Acadian descendants, the bitterness this episode evokes has barely abated.

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