Historical past requires respect for all narratives
When it comes to Governor Edward Cornwallis, it seems everybody has an opinion
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.