The deportation of the Acadiens from Grand-Pré, Nova Scotia, by George Craig, 1893

After 1755: Archives and Acadian Identity

Stephanie Pettigrew

In 1909, a scholar at Université Laval, M. J. E. Prince, conducted a public lecture in Québec to a captive audience on the subject of a recently published book on Acadia. The book, written by Edouard Richard, was reported as “cloué au pilori”—nailing to the pillory—both Charles Lawrence, the villainous British Governor of Nova Scotia who had commenced the deportation of the Acadians in 1755, and Thomas Akins, the publisher of several collections of documents concerning Nova Scotia in the eighteenth century.[1] Another article from the same year published in the Moniteur Acadien calls Akins’ work “less an attempt to make better understood and illustrate the History and progress of Society in Nova Scotia, than to justify the expulsion of the Acadians in 1755… [Akins’ work] is one abounding in prejudice rather than an impartial historical record.”[2]

With the publication of Longfellow’s Evangeline in 1847 came a sudden surge of interest in the events surrounding the deportation – from Francis Parkman, the American historian, to Abbé Henri Casgrain, one of the first French-Canadian historians to write on the subject of Acadian history. Requests for documents concerning 1755 began to flood into the Nova Scotia legislature from far and wide, in person as well as by letter. The legislature needed a way to respond to these requests – especially considering Longfellow’s tale did not paint them in a particularly flattering light – and Akins’ collection was their solution.

It is the nature of the documents and how they were collected with which the Acadian scholars of the early twentieth century particularly took issue. It seems peculiar to me that Akins, a functionary in the cogs of the Nova Scotia administration of the mid-nineteenth century, would be cast with the same amount of disgust and abhorrence as Lawrence. Whereas Lawrence had caused the separation of families, death, dispersal, and irreparable harm that would take generations to overcome, Akins had merely been gathering documents under the orders of the Nova Scotia Legislature. Curious.

Anyone who has studied the early history of the Maritimes has likely come across, indeed used, Akins’ work at some point. Published in 1869, it was begun after a resolution was passed to collect “documents relative to the progress of this province.”[3] Collected from London, the papers start in 1714 and end abruptly in 1755; this fact alone indicates a bias. The deportation was not one singular event, but continued over many years. For Akins to end his collection of documents in 1755 ignores all the events afterwards, including the hunting down of Acadian families who had hidden in the woods and who fled to what is now northern New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Cape Breton.[4]

It also ignores the events of the 1760s. Several important events came together to make the British forces of Nova Scotia anxious at this time. The first such incident came in 1759, when a large storm took out the aboiteaux[5] protecting the marshlands surrounding Annapolis Royal. Having finally managed to resettle these formerly Acadian lands, the new English inhabitants were entirely unfamiliar with how to repair the damage caused by the surge of water.[6] Second, the British began reporting more and more ships lost in the area of Nova Scotia – first in the Bay of Fundy, second around Cape Sable, and third in the Baie des Chaleurs. Concern over these losses was further compounded by the establishment of Acadians at Restigouche, culminating in the Battle of Restigouche after the fall of Québec, in which the Acadians managed to fight off English incursions.

A fortified Acadian stronghold was Lawrence’s worst nightmare come true; the French Neutrals were arming themselves against the English. Anxiety caused Lawrence, and Belcher after him, to blame the loss of English military ships on Acadian pirates. Compounding this dilemma was the fact that he needed these particular enemies. The English had never learned the skill of building and maintaining the aboiteaux; they needed the Acadians to do this particular work. Furthermore, English fortifications needed labour. There weren’t enough soldiers to both fight the war and maintain the garrison, including basic, but essential, tasks such as chopping firewood for winter. The solution, in the eyes of the British government, was to use Acadian prisoners of war to do this work.

But keeping Acadians within Nova Scotia and recently conquered areas as prisoners of war was seen as an ever-looming threat. After the necessary work was completed, the Acadians were once again deported – this time to Boston, which refused to receive them, suggesting to the captain of the ship that he return to Nova Scotia.

At this point in 1762, an interesting debate occurs in the Nova Scotia legislature. Before taking the action of deporting the Acadians, the legislature agreed that these Acadians were, indeed, prisoners of war, and so the expense of deporting them to Boston should be covered by the War Office. When they submit their expense claim, the War Office responded, saying, “the Acadians may doubtless easily be kept under, and may be obliged to work for their livelihood: with regard to the expense of transporting them, that I cannot take upon me to order to be paid, as it was entirely an act of the province: these people ought not, in my opinion, to be considered as prisoners of war, but as subjects to the King.”[7]

Why would Akins want to leave these documents out? There is certainly plenty of documentation after the initial 1755 deportation which would support the British view of the Acadians as a threat. Perhaps because it leaves a question of interpretation: did the Acadians lose their neutrality because of the actions taken against them in 1755, or did their subsequent actions prove their lack of neutrality? Either way, once Longfellow’s popular epic opened the floodgates of historical curiosity, the academic elites amongst the Acadians became enraged with this suppression of historical records. Popular memory is strong, particularly in societies which have undergone collective traumas and which have been denied the chance of documenting these histories themselves; the fact that the histories being produced in the late nineteenth century ignored the fact that the Acadians had not only been deported multiple times, but had been forced to work for the English on the land of their fathers, was intolerable.

This is an aspect of early Canadian history which is often ignored – the impact of revisionist history on public identities. What happens to communities when their histories are erased or badly distorted? How do we maintain cultural identities without history?

The history of the deportation marks not only an emotional and traumatic point in the national narrative of Acadian history, it is also a benchmark by which French Canadians denote national identity. When teaching a class on Acadian history at Université de Moncton this past year, certain students of mine from the north of the province were careful to point out that they didn’t consider themselves Acadian, as their families had never been deported. Yet few of these students had ever been taught anything past the initial events of 1755 and the deportation of the Acadians at Grand Pré. The popular narrative of Acadia and the Grand Dérangement is largely shaped by a fictional tale, Longfellow’s epic Evangeline. The popular history, much like Longfellow, rarely talks of the multiple displacements which occurred after 1755. The French families who are in the northern part of New Brunswick, along with the Gaspésie peninsula, settled there largely because of the deportation. Even if they had never been deported, many of them were fleeing the English during the deportation era, and fled north. Does that make them more “Acadian”?

I doubt this question was answered for them in a semester. One message that came through loud and clear when discussing the frustration with outsiders who assumed they were Acadian simply because they were from New Brunswick: borders don’t make identities. History does.

Stephanie Pettigrew (@steph_pettigrew) is a PhD Candidate at the University of New Brunswick, where she studies the history of witchcraft and the expression of colonial anxiety in New France. She is also the project coordinator of the British North American Legislative Database Project (bnald.lib.unb.ca) and is currently focusing her research on the digital archives of New France.


 

[1] 1909 articles discussing Thomas Akins’ collections of documents from the Acadian perspective can be found online thanks to Dr Chantal Richard’s Vocabulary of Identity project, which has been digitizing early Acadian newspapers from the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century and which can be found at http://voi.lib.unb.ca. The articles in question can be found in the 1909 edition of the Moniteur Acadien.

[2] “A propos ‘d’Acadia,’” Moniteur Acadien, 14 April 1909 p. 8; “Société l’Assomption Memorandum,” Moniteur Acadien 29 April 1909 p. 4 https://voi.lib.unb.ca/.

[3] Thomas B. Akins, Selections from the Public Documents of the Province of Nova Scotia: Papers relating to the Acadian French, 1714-1755 (Halifax: Charles Annand, 1869), 1.

[4] The Hon. Pascal Poirier published an article concerning the bias of Akins’ collection of documents in the Moniteur Acadien April 29, 1909. Arguments about Akins’ work have a long history; for an overview of the historiographic issues, see B.C. Cuthbertson, “Thomas Beamish Akins: British North America’s Pioneer Archivist,” Acadiensis, VII, 1 (Autumn 1977), pp. 86-102, an excerpt of which is found here.

[5] The aboiteaux are the dyke and canal system developed by the Acadians which allowed them to desalinate and cultivate the fertile marshlands of Acadia. Ronnie-Gilles LeBlanc has an excellent overview of Acadian Aboiteaux at the Encyclopédie du patrimoine de l’Amérique française.

[6] There is some reason to think this storm might have actually been a hurricane; Lawrence refers to it in his letters to the colonial office, stating not only a need to hire Acadians to fix the problem, but a need for funds to support the newly-settled planters. Letter from Lawrence, October 12 1759, National Archives of the United Kingdom, WO 34/11.

[7] Letter to Governor Belcher, November 21 1762. National Archives of the United Kingdom, WO 34/11.

Featured image: The deportation of the Acadiens from Grand-Pré, Nova Scotia, by George Craig, 1893. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Latest Comments

  1. Boisy Pitre says:

    And what of those Acadians who, as a result of the explosion, came to settle in far-flung places like Louisiana (of whom I descend on my paternal and material lines, Pitre & Guidry)? Did the inevitable “Creolization” of these Acadians and their descendants cause them to forfeit their “Acadianess” due to circumstances beyond their control? Fascinating questions….

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