His­tor­i­cal past re­quires re­spect for all narratives

When it comes to Gov­er­nor Ed­ward Corn­wal­lis, it seems ev­ery­body has an opin­ion

Cape Breton Post - - Op-ed - Leo Deveau Guest Shot

Nova Sco­tians need to have an in­formed and civil con­ver­sa­tion about the found­ing his­tory of the Bri­tish Euro­pean set­tle­ment on the Che­bucto (Bri­tish) /Che­buc­tou (French)/ K’jipuk­tuk (Mi’kmaq) shores in 1749 – the set­tle­ment which ul­ti­mately be­came the City of Hal­i­fax.

Such a con­ver­sa­tion starts with re­spect­ing the many his­tor­i­cal narratives that make up our province’s his­tory and hon­or­ing the many re­al­i­ties that in­di­vid­u­als, fam­i­lies and all lead­ers faced. This is es­pe­cially the case dur­ing the time of the found­ing of the Hal­i­fax set­tle­ment.

Re­cently, state­ments and writ­ings have den­i­grated the role of Gov­er­nor Ed­ward Corn­wal­lis in the found­ing of the set­tle­ment. This is not con­struc­tive, es­pe­cially when it comes loaded with over­stated dis­tor­tions and as­sump­tions, us­ing par­tial his­tor­i­cal ac­counts and ne­glect­ing im­por­tant rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion.

To de­fame Corn­wal­lis, in ef­fect, com­pletely dis­re­spects and dis­hon­ors all those vol­un­teer set­tlers and sol­diers (2,547 in to­tal, con­sist­ing of 1,174 fam­i­lies) who ar­rived and par­tic­i­pated in the found­ing of the set­tle­ment. As agreed to in their terms of trans­port to Nova Sco­tia, those set­tlers re­lied on Corn­wal­lis’s ef­forts to pro­tect them with food, shel­ter and se­cu­rity. To ig­nore this re­al­ity is the first mis­take that many seem to be mak­ing in their den­i­gra­tion of Corn­wal­lis.

Re­cently, Hal­i­fax Re­gional Mu­nic­i­pal­ity (HRM) Poet Lau­re­ate Re­becca Thomas shared her poem “Not Per­fect” with HRM city coun­cilors. And though she makes a pas­sion­ate plea in rec­og­niz­ing the larger im­por­tant Mi’kmaw re­al­ity dur­ing the time when the set­tlers ar­rived at K’jipuk­tuk, she failed to ac­knowl­edge that in fact the whole con­text of set­tle­ment was ‘not per­fect.’ Namely it be­came a highly con­tested area and un­know­ingly those early set­tlers would soon be un­der at­tack by Mi’kmaw war­riors.

So it is not just about what the Mi’kmaw ex­pe­ri­enced, it is also about those in­no­cent and well in­ten­tioned set­tlers, and it is also about what Corn­wal­lis’s re­spon­si­bil­ity was to them. And lastly, it is 1749, not 2017. Thus, I’d like to use a line from her poem: “I hate to be the bearer of bad news.”

When it comes to Corn­wal­lis, it seems ev­ery­body has an opin­ion. But a per­ti­nent ques­tion needs to be asked: Where are peo­ple get­ting their in­for­ma­tion from as they form an opin­ion – In­for­ma­tion that all of a sud­den has them feel­ing the need to change the names of places, their church, their street and re­mov­ing stat­ues?

Is it based on a thor­ough knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing of what had al­ready hap­pened be­tween the Bri­tish, the French, the Aca­di­ans and the Mi’kmaq when those set­tlers first ar­rived? Or is it sim­ply based on the se­lec­tive opin­ions of those who seem to be ped­dling a view based on down­play­ing the com­plex­ity of liv­ing in eigh­teenth cen­tury Nova Sco­tia through the lenses of our 21st cen­tury val­ues?

For ex­am­ple, his­to­rian Stephen Pat­ter­son has ob­served that; “… there is a pop­u­lar view [even] to­day that na­tive peo­ple were sim­ply the victims of his­tory, im­ply­ing that they pas­sively fell be­fore a Euro­pean jug­ger­naut.”

How­ever, what is over­looked is also the coura­geous ac­tions of Mi’kmaw self-de­ter­mi­na­tion and their own mil­i­tary prow­ess, and namely, as another in­formed com­men­ta­tor, Tod Scott, has pointed out; “… the de­gree to which the Mi’kmaq cre­ated a pow­er­ful armed re­sis­tance to the Bri­tish mi­gra­tion to­ward and oc­cu­pa­tion of Mi’kma’ki.”

Un­der­stand­ing this re­al­ity can also pro­vide some clar­ity to what faced when he was as­signed the re­spon­si­bil­ity to es­tab­lish a new set­tle­ment on Nova Sco­tian shores, and with it, the safety and se­cu­rity of the set­tlers.

The his­tor­i­cal records of the time record that no sooner had the set­tlers ar­rived in June of 1749, the set­tle­ment, specif­i­cally in the Dart­mouth area, was un­der a num­ber of at­tacks by Mi’kmaq war­riors with as­sis­tance from some Aca­di­ans by the end of September.

It was by early Oc­to­ber that Corn­wal­lis is­sued a bounty for scalps. How­ever, if any­one took the time to read the ac­tual scalp­ing bounty that was is­sued (and knows why) they will quickly see it is upon male Mi’kmaq war­riors and, in fact, there are no Bri­tish records later of pay­ment for any scalps be­cause there were none taken

by Corn­wal­lis or his of­fi­cials in Hal­i­fax – this from a gov­ern­ment that kept, like the French, metic­u­lous ac­count­ing records.

It is of in­ter­ested to note that records at Louis­bourg in­di­cate there were pay­ments to Mi’kmaq war­riors for Bri­tish scalps. Later Corn­wal­lis re­scinded the bounty be­fore he re­turned to Eng­land in the fall of 1752 be­cause he felt peace might be achiev­able with the Mi’kmaw – and it was, briefly.

When it comes to Corn­wal­lis, it’s clear to me that over­state­ment leads to dis­tor­tions about what ac­tu­ally un­folded and ul­ti­mately leads to a dis­re­spect upon all par­tic­i­pants in those com­plex times. By 1749, the Mi’kmaw pop­u­la­tion had been dec­i­mated by disease, and larger im­pe­rial pow­ers were en­croach­ing on the an­cient lands they had in­hab­ited. Their at­tacks on the Corn­wal­lis set­tle­ment demon­strated their pow­er­ful armed re­sis­tance and re­silience. This is some­thing to be ac­knowl­edged and re­spected. It cer­tainly is not a rea­son to de­fame Corn­wal­lis.

The Hal­i­fax Mil­i­tary Her­itage Preser­va­tion Society (HMHPS) has a his­tor­i­cal re­search pa­per that lays out the se­quence of many ac­tions that were taken by the Bri­tish, the Mi’kmaq and the French when Corn­wal­lis and the set­tlers in his charge ar­rived on Nova Sco­tian shores. I in­vite you to read it on their site at: hmhps.ca be­fore any fur­ther mis­in­for­ma­tion is passed around about Corn­wal­lis – just look for the Corn­wal­lis statue on the site, click on it and you’ll have ac­cess to the pa­per.

My chal­lenge to all Nova Sco­tians is to get in­formed and make up your own mind. And con­sider, too, that maybe it’s time to es­tab­lish a new Found­ing Day for HRM, one that rec­og­nizes and re­spects all the his­tor­i­cal narratives that make up this won­der­ful province we call Nova Sco­tia.

“To de­fame Corn­wal­lis com­pletely dis­re­spects and dis­hon­ors all those vol­un­teer set­tlers and sol­diers who ar­rived and par­tic­i­pated in the found­ing of the set­tle­ment.”

Leo J. Deveau is an in­de­pen­dent li­brar­ian, com­men­ta­tor and writer. His new boo,k “400 Years in 365 Days” A Cal­en­dar of Events from Nova Sco­tia’s His­tory,” will be pub­lished by For­mac this fall. He lives in Hal­i­fax and his pa­ter­nal-great-grand­par­ents were from Cheti­camp.

Gov­er­nor Ed­ward Corn­wal­lis is the topic of much mis­in­for­ma­tion, says Leo Deveau.

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