Frustrating Designs

A Vindication of the British Decision to Expel

the French Acadians from Nova Scotia in 1755

The Expulsion of the Acadians occurred by legal means and was a necessary measure in response to a demographically large-scale, though manifestly subtle act of treason. The refusal of the clear majority of Acadians to renew an oath of allegiance to the British Crown compromised their loyalty as a group to the Crown’s agents governing the province in which they resided in 1755.[1] And in anticipating such an outcome, Governor Charles Lawrence and his Council, including the architect of the solution eventually sought, Charles Morris, were not at fault in preparing a proposal of removing the Acadians even before the revised oath was offered to the Acadian representatives, nor in executing the solution it prescribed once the oath was refused.[2]

That the plan was eventually executed should come as no shock, for it had been a calculated response designed for specifically such an occasion as that which warranted it: merely a need in a time of war to protect the interests that the Crown had vested in Nova Scotia since the Treaty of Utrecht conceded it the same in 1713.[3] Should the Acadians have accepted the renewal of their oath by swearing its war-time revision, then the plan of Charles Morris would not have been used, and the Expulsion would not be an issue still debated today. Had there been no Seven Years’ War, then perhaps there would have been no necessity in revising and putting forward an oath to a people already living under an oath to the British Crown.[4]

Were Lawrence to order their removal without any instance of oath refusal occurring, and without informing his superiors on the Board of Trade in London at all or even in a timely manner of such intentions, then the legitimacy of the operation would come into question. Further, if Lawrence were to have not had a response for the potential of oath refusal prepared, then the Crown’s interest in Nova Scotia would have been greatly undermined.[5] Preparedness and strategy differ greatly from conspiracy, as does legal prescription and imperial precedent from genocide and ethnic cleansing.

The fact that the faulting group happened to be confined also to a single cultural group with a common heritage should not be confused with the far more relevant fact that their fault lie in being a group bonded not by ethnic heritage and language, but by contemporary conscience, especially a conscience which espoused contravention of historically-established loyalties.[6] Theirs, too, was a contravention of the protective measures of the government which had permitted their tenancy. Such rejection of their political and not their ethnic heritage was ultimately an ignorance of the consequences of their past, particularly their oaths made previously to the English Crown in 1690—which they contradicted by swearing a similar oath to France nearly immediately afterward around the same time, purely for economic reasons, particularly to strike a trade deal, which was in bad taste regarding British law—and again in 1730.[7] This is what led to the demise of the Acadians’ homeland, and necessitated their dispersed renewal of identity.[8] It is neither with malice aforethought nor with an insatiable desire for purity that the Lawrence government struck. Had those been the guiding principles of his operation, then perhaps the issue of genocide or ethnic cleansing would actually be relevant.

While Faragher will nearly convincingly argue the opposite, that, “[i]n all cases that was the final objective—[‘]the occupation of territory to the exclusion of the purged group or groups,[’] in the words of the UN Commission of Experts in 1992—the creation of an ethnically homogeneous territory[,]” he should be called on one flaw in applying the definition: his implication that the Expulsion was intended for the “creation of an [ethnically] homogeneous territory”—the Lawrence government sought political unity across the province, not ethnic purity.[9] While members of Lawrence’s governments were very likely to have personal prejudices against those of a Francophone background, and no doubt other sorts of peoples, especially with whom they were not adequately familiar governing in a colonial outpost, such is hard to avoid in any era or context, particularly among the human—a species whose nearly every thought and action is tainted at least indirectly with some sprinkling of bias and territorial defence.[10]

The argument for the legitimacy of the Expulsion begins with the perception of threat. It proceeds into an issue of loyalty, which is rooted in perceived threat and in fact requires it on both sides, then is followed by a remedy, which according to established precedent, as well as in simultaneously setting a precedent for any future instance of the same threat, involves removing the cause of that perception of threat.[11] This is both the chronology of the Expulsion—its process, and the evolution of the taciturn rebellion of an entire people preferring treason to unification which necessitated it—and the methodology behind it. That the events followed so closely the prescribed method shows that there was no deviation from its path on the part of the British for the Crown’s own gain. The Expulsion was an exercise in maintaining power, not forcing it on another or seeking it. Those who challenge legally-established authority must be stopped.

In all technicality, the Crown already had permanent power over Nova Scotia for decades, namely since 1713 and the concessions of the Treaty of Utrecht at the close of the War of the Spanish Succession; a need to reaffirm its claim arose only at a time when the majority of the province’s inhabitants were sympathetic to a prior oath made in the early 1690s to the Crown of the enemy—France—and in that sympathy to an old oath, utterly rejected a nearly equally-as-ancient oath to the British Crown itself in precisely 1690, followed by a renewal in 1730.[12] If France had no formal control over or legal right to Nova Scotia, why should the province’s supposedly peaceful tenants strive to express observance of tenancy to a long-absent landlord which was officially the enemy of the current landlord? Also, why would they nearly immediately after pledging allegiance to the English Crown go behind its back and swear equal loyalty to the enemy? This two-timing can not be legitimized by the oft-cited Acadian claim of neutrality—particularly because of the major fact that neutrality was never an express precept, and when making an oath to France in the 1690s, the Acadians did so without consulting with the British they had already sworn subservience to, thereby nullifying the so-called neutrality they sought in stealth.[13] Such secrecy can only indicate a threat to the interests of His Majesty, and warrant a colonial effort to investigate and negotiate.

Property rights pervade the saga of the Expulsion and it will be shown that the government of Lawrence, acting as an agent of the Crown in the province, had every right to defend and lay claim to property which was long its own.[14] Likewise, in dispersing—essentially, evicting—its tenants, who refused to accept the revised lease, so to speak, the Crown in Nova Scotia through Lawrence was merely seeking more reliable tenants, and in the immediate invitation to the New England Planters following the Expulsion, did just that.[15]

“In November 1754, Lawrence and Shirley received identical dispatches from colonial minister Sir Thomas Robinson, responding to Shirley’s report of the previous spring that rebel Acadians and Míkmaq had invaded the frontier of Maine. That [‘]intelligence[’]—if it ever actually existed—had proven faulty, but Robinson had no way of knowing that. He had laid Shirley’s alarming report before the king, he wrote, who instructed him to urge both governors to pursue such joint measures [‘]as will frustrate the designs of the French.[’]”[16]

Despite this perception of threat, Faragher goes on further to say that “Shirley treated Robinson’s letter as a blank check[,]” which certainly seems an interpretational exaggeration, though he does go on to quote Shirley’s letter to Lawrence, “I construe the contents [of Robinson’s response] to be orders to us to act in concert for taking any advantages to drive the French of Canada out of Nova Scotia.”[17] Importantly, Shirley, who Faragher is so quick to dispel as abusing his trans-Atlantic separation from his superiors, and the authority granted by them to act offensively, is actually quoted as making the distinction necessary to debunk Faragher’s interpretation: that the Acadians are actually akin to the “French of Canada [Quebec,]” which is legally French territory, and therefore, not permitted to extend into Nova Scotia.[18] Thus is established the importance of property rights in the Acadian problem.

There is no conspiracy in observing that the brethren of nearby tenants of the enemy Crown are, at least in the form of conscience, infiltrating Nova Scotia. That the report of intelligence made by Governor Shirley of Massachusetts can not be located in the public record today does not negate its existence, or most importantly, its influence.[19] It was a frustrating design, this expansion of the French and aboriginals into territories, which according to the Treaty of Utrecht, had not been rightfully theirs; consequently, the situation begged for a plan which would “frustrate the designs of the French[,]” and restore order to imperial interests in North America.[20] The Seven Years’ War—which in North America was even termed the French and Indian War—was at its height, and the threat of “rebel Acadians and Míkmaq” was very real, whether or not there had been a frontier raid in Maine. All that was needed to warrant a response was the fear of territorial subjugation.[21] The crucial point in Faragher’s statement for the purpose of justifying the British action is that the king had been given notice, however clear, of the state of affairs in his North American territories, and expressed a desire to maintain his interest in the same even if it meant undermining the French at all costs.[22]

The refusal on the part of the Acadians to take an unconditional oath could be interpreted as an act of rebellion punishable by expulsion, as suggested by [Colonel Samuel Vetch, commander of British troops in the province at the time of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713]. He quickly changed his mind, however, realizing that if the Acadians were driven out of Nova Scotia they would merely go to the French colonies and thus strengthen the position of France on Île Royale or in New France.[23]

The notion of an oath was a very old British concept that dated back to the feudal system of landholding, and remained an influential component of real property laws among the English and their empire:

The chief concern of the British authorities of the time was obviously not to establish a democratic government modelled on the other British colonies, but rather to turn the Acadians into British subjects by making them take the oath of allegiance. This was one of the thorniest questions that faced the government of Nova Scotia. The position of the colonial authorities was based on a tradition established in the early days of English law. Land ownership was granted by the monarch to his subjects providing the subjects showed their allegiance in the form of an oath which resembled the feudal acknowledgement of fealty and homage.[24]

In the midst of the ending of one war in 1713, Vetch managed to have the foresight to detect what would be the only option in solving the ongoing problem of French tenancy in a British province during another. “The refusal on the part of the Acadians to take an unconditional oath” would become the single deciding factor in the whole Expulsion saga, and that the Acadians outright refused to take the oath offered them in negotiations to re-establish and redefine the Acadian land question, Lawrence is apt to have drawn the perception of great threat from this steadfast group of tenants.[25]

If the refusal to swear allegiance to His Most Britannic Majesty was punishable on physical removal from the offending territory, then how could Lawrence be confident “that if the Acadians were driven out of Nova Scotia they would [not] merely go to the French colonies” which were already bordering on the territory in his governance, “and thus strengthen the position of France on Île Royale or in New France[,]” or even nearby Canada?[26] Dispersal of the offending—and threatening—objectors of the oath, who were by all legal definitions, traitors, amongst the Crown’s own territories and under the close gubernatorial watch of each was the only way to enforce the prescribed remedy. Therefore, in his proposal, Charles Morris was not so original, but merely devising the logistics of what a feudal precedent—still in force at the time of the Expulsion—had prescribed.[27]

To meet this end, “[t]he chief concern of the British authorities of the time was. . . to turn the Acadians into British subjects by making them take the oath of allegiance[,]” thereby securing their loyalty, and more importantly, not a democratic unity, but a political unity throughout Nova Scotia.[28] Ever vigilant in the execution of his government duties by legal means, with continual reference to precedent and statute of the day, Lawrence’s repeated offer of an oath was finely superseded by a solution. Unfortunately for the Acadians, “[l]and ownership” in British territory—on which they undeniably resided, according to the decisions made at Utrecht and then presently being defended in the Seven Years’ War—“was granted by the monarch to his subjects providing the subjects showed their allegiance in the form of an oath which resembled the feudal acknowledgement of fealty and homage[;]” and if Acadians actively refused to adhere to this central principle of citizenry Lawrence would be justified in officially interpreting their silence as treason, and informally, as a statement of dissatisfaction with their surroundings.[29]

Fealty and homage—in other words, the unwritten though very real social and precedented legal code of decorum—was susceptible among all the possible ills of a transplanted European society only to fear. Lawrence felt it, and acting on His Majesty’s assurance—however implicit it may have been—sought only to comfort and nurture the infant colony of Nova Scotia, affright with rather literally unspoken rebellion. The ignorance of the Acadian people—tenants in a contested land—to the customs of their landlords was not merely a faux pas, but a coup de grâce which could have potentially brought the British Empire to its knees. To put the Crown out of the misery of dreading an invasion in its own colony, Lawrence turned the tables, and struck a necessary blow back, acting according to the very custom his government sought to uphold among such insurgency. The fealty and homage of Lawrence for his Crown and for his citizens—the Acadians—was likewise an issue to be handled delicately, not just to enforce. Though Faragher will argue the mistreatment of Acadians in their removal, he will also admit that the British troops were apprehensive to harm them, and sought only to follow through on what colonial circumstance dictated in a time of war. Such is the reason for the frustrating, though necessary designs that redefined Nova Scotia and North America forever.

BIBLIOGRAPHY OF WORKS CITED

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. CBC – The Acadians. <http://www.cbc.ca/acadian/timeline.html&gt;, 2007.

Daigle, Jean and trans. Sally Ross.  “Acadian History: 1604-1755,” in Acadia of the Maritimes. Moncton: Chaire d’études acadiennes, Université de Moncton, 1995. <http://www.umoncton.ca/maum/mainframe_an.html&gt;, no date.

Faragher, John Mack. A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from Their American Homeland. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005.


[1] Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “CBC – The Acadians – Timeline: 1754,” <http://www.cbc.ca/acadian/timeline.html&gt;, 2007.

[2] John Mack Faragher, A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from Their American Homeland (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005), 290.

[3] Jean Daigle, translated by Sally Ross, “Acadian History: 1604-1755,” in “Acadia of the Maritimes,” (Moncton: Chaire d’études acadiennes, Université de Moncton, 1995), <http://www.umoncton.ca/maum/mainframe_an.html&gt;, no date.

[4] Faragher, Scheme, 328.

[5] Ibid., 297-299.

[6] Ibid., 316.

[7] Jean Daigle, translated by Sally Ross, “Acadian History: 1604-1755,” in “Acadia of the Maritimes,” (Moncton: Chaire d’études acadiennes, Université de Moncton, 1995), <http://www.umoncton.ca/maum/mainframe_an.html&gt;, no date.

[8] Faragher, Scheme, 316-318.

[9] Ibid., 473.

[10] Ibid., 280-281.

[11] Ibid., 333.

[12] Jean Daigle, translated by Sally Ross, “Acadian History: 1604-1755,” in “Acadia of the Maritimes,” (Moncton: Chaire d’études acadiennes, Université de Moncton, 1995), <http://www.umoncton.ca/maum/mainframe_an.html&gt;, no date.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Faragher, Scheme, 417-422.

[16] Ibid., 296.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Jean Daigle, translated by Sally Ross, “Acadian History: 1604-1755,” in “Acadia of the Maritimes,” (Moncton: Chaire d’études acadiennes, Université de Moncton, 1995), <http://www.umoncton.ca/maum/mainframe_an.html&gt;, no date.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.