Intellectual curiosity can takes us in unexpected directions. This particular journey started with my learning that the word “Cajun” is a contraction of “Canadian”.
Nine years after Culloden, 300 British troops under Lt Col John Winslow entered the town of Grand Pre in Acadia, Nova Scotia. They constructed a palisade fort which enclosed both the church and cemetery. They then summoned all males aged ten and over to the church to hear a proclamation. Disarmed and surrounded, the Acadians were all registered, then told they were to be deported immediately.
Here is that register. Remember many of these were children as young as ten years old. About a quarter did not survive the brutal deportation.
[788 names listed]
In the next year 40% of the 15,000 population of Acadia were forcefully deported, deliberately dispersed to British colonies around the globe, in such dreadful conditions that over 1,200 died on the journeys. Males over ten, and females and small children, were bundled into separated random groups and those groups sent off to different destinations.
In Grand Pre itself, the British troops burnt down the church and destroyed the homes, and then smashed the system of dykes and sluices that the Acadians had built for their highly productive agricultural system.
Almost all of the remaining Acadians were dispersed over the next few years. Traveling through the wilds, some who left “voluntarily” eventually found their way to Louisiana. Hence “Cajun”. In 1758 it was made illegal in Nova Scotia for Catholics to own land. In 1759 a further Act was passed:
“An Act for the Quieting of Possessions to the Protestant Grantees of the Lands, formerly occupied by the French Inhabitants, and for preventing vexatious Actions relating to the same.” The legislation prohibited “any troublesome or vexatious Suits of Law” by Acadians trying to recover their lands and made it illegal for any courts in the province to hear cases brought “for the Recovery of any Lands” by “the former French Inhabitants.”
The preamble to Act recounted the “Manifest Treasons and Rebellions” of the Acadians against a British crown to which they had never in truth had the slightest duty of allegiance.
The Acadians had arrived in modern Nova Scotia from 1608. There were three unusual things about them.
i) From the start they had been focused on land reclamation in the coastal marshlands, rather than moving inland cutting down forests for agricultural land as was the prevalent pattern across North America. Historians have calculated they reclaimed in total 5,261 hectares of land. Their achievements in land reclamation were quite startling, especially as in the Grand Pre marsh they were dealing with tidal flows in the Bay of Fundy of over 15 metres, said to be the world’s highest.
Acadian reclaimed marshland at the town of Saint Pre
Modern scholarship has emphasised that their land reclamation skills were brought with then from the Western French seaboard, and then developed in a local vernacular. The unique feature of Acadian land reclamation, as opposed to French or Dutch, is that it was a communal effort and not dependent on central finance and hierarchical organisation. That is because of their second special feature:
ii) The Acadians arrived as individuals or families with no hierarchy. They acknowledged no nobility and crucially they did not acknowledge any Crown. Occasionally they were obliged temporarily to pay lip service to the French or British crown when military forces passed through, but until their deportation they were never successfully subjected to any central authority.
iii) They enjoyed consistently friendly relationships with the local Mik’maq nation and intermarried without apparent prejudice on either side, developing a large Creole component. Historians have generally explained this as due to Acadian agriculture being on reclaimed land and thus not competing for resources. However that ignores the fact the salt marshes they were reclaiming were themselves a very valuable source of food for the Mik’maq – birds and eggs, fish shellfish and crustaceans, samphire etc.
I rather tend to the view that it was the lack of hierarchy and crown allegiance that also led to good relationships with the native people. The Acadians made no claim to conquer the land, impose a new king or create a state. They were just settling non-aggressive farming communities.
Historians are at pains to counter the idyllic portrait of the Acadians. We are told they were very poor, lived in squalid conditions, tended to inbreed, left no cultural legacy and were often led by their Catholic priests. There is validity in all those points, but in the historical context such criticisms cannot help but come over badly. The imperfections of a society do not justify genocide.
In reading about the Acadians, I was struck by this passage:
“When the first New England colonists came to Nova Scotia five years after the Acadians were expelled, they encountered a landscape littered with bleached bones of livestock and burned ruins of houses.”
Anyone who has hill walked in the Highlands of Scotland knows just how frequently you come across the low walls of the base of old homes, often grouped together in small settlements, and sometimes in desolate moor many miles from the nearest habitation or cultivated land. These of course date from the Highland Clearances, some contemporary with the genocide of the Acadians.
One obvious fact had leapt out at me since childhood. The depopulation of the Highlands was a political choice, and the vast managed hunting estates were perfectly capable of supporting large populations through livestock and arable in the past. The notion they can only sustain grouse and small numbers of deer is evidently nonsense.
I am currently researching a biography of the Jacobite General George Murray, and was looking at a journey he took from Blair Atholl to Braemar. There is absolutely no public road there any more – not within twenty miles of most of his route – and the places he stayed including manses seem to be wiped from the map. There was a population – indeed he later raised troops there.
Go to google maps, trace a straight line Blair Atholl to Braemar (yes, obviously you can get there the long way round) and see what you can find today in the middle. But this is not wilderness, it is completely habitable and was populated.
I could recount a thousand or more atrocities across the history of the British Empire as bad as the Acadian genocide. Many are completely forgotten, like the massacre of the Murree tribe in Balochistan under a flag of truce, or the Sierra Leone Hut Tax war. Some are startlingly recent, like the Chagos Islands. But I recount the Acadian story because of its resonance to the Scottish Highlands, with that justification of treason and rebellion, and because of the furious denial in recent days after Scottish colonisation was asserted in the House of Commons.
The tone of much of that reaction is essentially that white people were not the victims of Empire. Well, I give you the Acadians. It is also worth pointing out the very basic fact that there was never the kind of expulsion and depopulation anywhere in England that occurred in both Scotland and Ireland. What happened to the Gael was much worse than effects of agricultural enclosure.
It is Armistice Day today and Remembrance Sunday shortly. What was in my childhood an occasion for reflection, grief and thanksgiving for peace has been turned into an orgy of militarism.
We are supposed to think of those who “gloriously” gave their lives for Britain, perhaps while shooting up Afghan civilians in a village or destroying the infrastructure of Iraq. Have a look through that list of names from the town of Grand Pre, and wonder which ones were ten year old boys separated from their mothers. Ponder which died on their hideous deportation journeys. The victims of Empire deserve remembrance too.
Please read this story, and note your reaction. Then read Expulsion of the Acadians - Wikipedia; Does knowing more context affect your judgment of these events?