L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia
Cornwallis and the Acadians
[This text was written by Arthur G. DOUGHTY and was published in 2005. For the precise citation, see the end of the document.]
In Nova Scotia England was weak from the fact that no settlements of her own people had been established there. After thirty years of British rule Mascarene had written, 'There is no number of English inhabitants settled in this province worth mentioning, except the five companies here [at Annapolis] and four at Canso.' Now the restoration to France of Cape Breton with the fortress of Louisbourg exposed Nova Scotia to attack; and in time of war with France the Acadians would be a source of weakness rather than of strength. Great Britain, therefore, resolved to try the experiment of forming in Nova Scotia a colony of her own sons.
Thus it came to pass that a fleet of transports carrying over twenty-five hundred colonists, counting women and children, escorted by a sloop-of-war, cast anchor in Chebucto Bay in July 1749. This expedition was commanded by Edward Cornwallis, the newly appointed governor and captain-general of Nova Scotia. He was a young officer of thirty-six, twin-brother of the Rev. Frederick Cornwallis, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, and uncle of the more famous Lord Cornwallis who surrendered at Yorktown thirty-two years later. With the colonists came many officers and disbanded soldiers; came, also, the soldiers of the garrison which had occupied Louisbourg before the peace; for the new settlement, named Halifax in honour of the president of the Lords of Trade, was to be a military stronghold, as well as a naval base, and the seat of government for the province.
While Cornwallis and his colonists laid the foundations of Halifax, cleared the land, formed the streets, put up their dwellings and defences, and organized their government, the home authorities took up the problem of securing more settlers for Nova Scotia. Cornwallis had been instructed to prepare for settlements at Minas, La Heve, Whitehead, and Baie Verte, the intention being that the newcomers should eventually absorb the Acadians living at these places. It had been suggested to the Lords of Trade, probably by John Dick, a merchant of Rotterdam, that the most effective means to this end would be to introduce a large French Protestant element into Nova Scotia. The government thereupon gave instructions that the land should be surveyed and plans prepared dividing the territory into alternate Protestant and Catholic sections. Through intercourse and intermarriage with neighbours speaking their own tongue, it was fondly hoped that the Acadians, in course of time, would become loyal British subjects. The next step was to secure French Protestant emigrants. In December 1749 the Lords of Trade entered into a contract with John Dick to transport 'not more than fifteen hundred foreign Protestants to Nova Scotia.' (1) Dick was a man of energy and resource and, in business methods, somewhat in advance of his age. He appears to have understood the value of advertising, judging from the handbills which he circulated in France and from his advertisements in the newspapers. But as time passed emigrants in anything like the numbers expected were not forthcoming. Evil reports concerning Nova Scotia had been circulated in France, and other difficulties arose. After many delays, however, two hundred and eighty persons recruited by Dick arrived at Halifax. The character of some gave rise to complaint, and Dick was cautioned by the government. His troubles in France crept on apace. It began to be rumoured that the emigrants were being enrolled in the Halifax militia; and, France being no longer a profitable field, Dick transferred his activities to Germany. Alluring handbills in the German tongue were circulated, and in the end a considerable number of Teutons arrived at Halifax. Most of these were afterwards settled at Lunenburg. The enterprise, of course, failed of its object to neutralize and eventually assimilate the Acadian Catholic population; nevertheless several thousand excellent 'foreign Protestant' settlers reached Nova Scotia through various channels. They were given land in different parts of the province and in time became good citizens.
Cornwallis's instructions from the British ministry contained many clauses relating to the Acadians. Though they had given assistance to the enemy, they should be permitted to remain in the possession of their property. They must, however, take the oath of allegiance 'within three months from the date of the declaration' which the governor was to make. Liberty of conscience should be permitted to all. In the event of any of the inhabitants wishing to leave the province, the governor should remind them that the time allowed under the Treaty of Utrecht for the removal of their property had long since expired. The governor should take particular care that 'they do no damage, before such their removal, to their respective homes and plantations.' Determined efforts should be made, not only to Anglicize, but to Protestantize the people. Marriages between the Acadians and the English were to be encouraged. Trade with the French settlements was prohibited. No episcopal jurisdiction might be exercised in the province, a mandate intended to shut out the bishop of Quebec. Every facility was to be given for the education of Acadian children in Protestant schools. Those who embraced Protestantism were to be confirmed in their lands, free from quit-rent for a period of ten years. (2)
Armed with these instructions, Cornwallis adopted at first a strong policy. On July 14, 1749, he issued a proclamation containing 'the declaration of His Majesty regarding the French inhabitants of Nova Scotia,' and calling on the Acadians to take the oath of allegiance within three months. At a meeting of the Council held the same day, at which representatives of the Acadians were present, the document was discussed. The deputies listened with some concern to the declaration, and inquired whether permission would be given them to sell their lands if they decided to leave the country. The governor replied that under the Treaty of Utrecht they had enjoyed this privilege for one year only, and that they could not now 'be allowed to sell or carry off anything.' The deputies asked for time to consult the inhabitants. This was granted, with a warning that those who 'should not take the oath of allegiance before the 15th of October should forfeit all their possessions and rights in the Province.' Deputies from nine districts appeared before the Council on July 31 and spoke for the Acadians. The Council deliberated and decided that no priest should officiate without a licence from the governor; that no exemption from bearing arms in time of war could be made; that the oath must be taken as offered; and that all who wished to continue in the possession of their lands must appear and take the oath before October 15, which would be the last day allowed them. (3)
A month later they presented to Cornwallis a petition signed by one thousand inhabitants to the effect that they had faithfully served King George, and were prepared to renew the oath which was tendered to them by Governor Philipps; that two years before His Majesty had promised to maintain them in the peaceable enjoyment of their possessions: 'And we believe, Your Excellency, that if His Majesty had been informed of our conduct towards His Majesty's Government, he would not propose to us an oath which, if taken, would at any moment expose our lives to great peril from the savage nations, who have reproached us in a strange manner as to the oath we have taken to His Majesty... But if Your Excellency is not disposed to grant us what we take the liberty of asking, we are resolved, every one of us, to leave the country.' In reply Cornwallis reminded them that, as British subjects, they were in the enjoyment of their religion and in possession of their property. 'You tell me that General Philipps granted you the reservation which you demand; and I tell you gentlemen, that the general who granted you such reservation did not do his duty... You have been for more than thirty-four years past the subjects of the King of Great Britain... Show now that you are grateful’. (4)
The Acadians, however, showed still a decided aversion to an unqualified oath; and Cornwallis apparently thought it best to recede somewhat from the high stand he had taken. He wrote to the home government explaining that he hesitated to carry out the terms of his proclamation of July 14 by confiscating the property of those who did not take the oath, on the ground that the Acadians would not emigrate at that season of the year, and that in the meantime he could employ them to advantage. If they continued to prove obstinate, he would seek new instructions to force things to a conclusion. (5) The Acadians, used by this time to the lenity of the British government, were probably not surprised to find, at the meeting of the Council held on October 11, no mention of the oath which had to be taken before the 15th of the month.
The winter passed, and still Cornwallis took no steps to enforce his proclamation. He had his troubles; for the French, from Quebec on the one side and from Louisbourg on the other, were fomenting strife; and the Indians were on the war-path. And, in February 1750, the Lords of Trade wrote that as the French were forming new settlements with a view to enticing the Acadians into them, any forcible means of ejecting them should be waived for the present. Cornwallis replied that he was anxious to leave matters in abeyance until he ascertained what could be done in the way of fortifying Chignecto. 'If a fort is once built there,' he explained, 'they [the Indians] will be driven out of the peninsula or submit. He also wished to know what reinforcements he might expect in the spring. Until then he would 'defer making the inhabitants take the oath of allegiance.'
Meanwhile the Acadians were not idle on their own behalf. In October 1749 they addressed a memorial to Des Herbiers, the governor of Ile Royale, to be transmitted to the French king. They complained that the new governor intended to suppress their missionaries, and to force them to bear arms against the Indians, with whom they had always been on friendly terms. They therefore prayed the king to obtain concessions from Great Britain -- the maintenance of the Quebec missionaries, the exemption from bearing arms, or an extension of a year in which they might withdraw with their effects. (7) Two months later they sent a petition to the Marquis de la Jonquière, the governor of Canada, actuated, they said, by the love of their country and their religion. They had refused to take the oath requiring them to bear arms against their fellow-countrymen. They had, it is true, appeared attached to the interests of the English, in consequence of the oath which they had consented to take only when exempted from bearing arms. Now that this exemption was removed, they wished to leave Nova Scotia, and hoped that the king would help them with vessels, as they had been refused permission to build them. Great offers had been made to them, but they preferred to leave. (8)
In the spring of 1750, unable to obtain permission from Cornwallis to take a restricted oath, the Acadians almost unanimously decided to emigrate. On April 19 deputies from several settlements in the district of Minas – the river Canard, Grand Pré, and Pisiquid – appeared before the Council at Halifax and asked to be allowed to leave the province with their effects. (9) According to Cornwallis, they professed that this decision was taken against their inclination, and that the French had threatened them with destruction at the hands of the Indians if they remained. (10) On May 25 the inhabitants of Annapolis Royal came with a like petition.
In reply to these petitions Cornwallis reminded the inhabitants that the province was the country of their fathers, and that they should enjoy the product of their labours. As soon as there should be tranquillity he would give them permission to depart, if they wished to do so; but in the present circumstances passports could not be granted to any one. They could not be permitted to strengthen the hand of Great Britain's enemy.
But in spite of the prohibition, of the forts that were built to enforce it, and of British cruisers patrolling the coasts to prevent intercourse with the French, there was a considerable emigration. A number of families crossed to Ile St Jean in the summer of 1750. They were aided by the missionaries, and supplied with vessels and arms by the French authorities at Louisbourg. By August 1750 we know that eight hundred Acadians were settled in Ile St Jean.
(1) Public Archives, Canada. Nova Scotia A, vol. xxxv, p. 189.
(2) Canadian Archives Report, 1905, Appendix C, vol. ii, p. 50.
(3) Public Archives, Canada. Nova Scotia B, vol. iv, p. 14.
(4) Public Archives, Canada. Nova Scotia B, vol. iv, p. 49.
(5) Public Archives, Canada. Nova Scotia A, vol. xxxv, p. 48.
(6) Cornwallis had denied the jurisdiction of the bishop of Quebec, but had intimated that he would grant a licence to any good priest, his objection being to missionaries such as Le Loutre, who stirred up the Indians to commit hostilities.
(7) Canadian Archives Report, 1905, Appendix N, vol. ii, p. 298.
(8) Ibid., p. 301.
(9) Public Archives, Canada. Nova Scotia B, vol. iv, p. 130.
(10) Public Archives, Canada. Nova Scotia A, vol. xxxvii, p. 7.
Source: Arthur G. DOUGHTY, The Acadian Exiles. A Chronicle of the Land of Evangeline, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1916, 178p., pp. 59-70.
© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College