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In recent years, it has become fashionable to judge people and events from the past on the basis of the values of the present. Accordingly, in reviewing the history of Nova Scotia, no person as been maligned to the extent to which the Founder of Halifax, Governor Edward Cornwallis, has been villainized. There is no question, Cornwallis was a tough guy, perhaps even brutal – ask any Scot who survived the Battle of the Culloden and the ensuing ‘Highland Clearances’.
But, was Cornwallis, in fact, so much, the villain that he has been portrayed – especially by historical writers, contemporary reporters or others involved in the current debate regarding the legacy of his statue?
Through Treaties signed in Utrecht during 1713-1714, France and England agreed that the territory now known as the Maritime Provinces of Canada, with the exception of the islands in the great Gulf of St. Lawrence, were yielded by France to England. At that time, to the extent that there was European settlement in what is now the mainland of Nova Scotia, it was both French and Roman Catholic. This, of course, as was the European standard of the times, gave little or no consideration to the people who had populated these areas for several millennia, the people of the Mi’kmaq Nation. Consideration was given, by the English to the Roman Catholicism of the predominantly French-speaking settlers who were there, and, indeed, in most cases, had been there for several generations going back into the early17th Century. So, the English agreed that French Roman Catholic priests would be licensed to reside within the territory, which they had renamed, Nova Scotia, on behalf of their Scottish king – provided that they administered solely to the spiritual needs of the European residents of their newly achieved territory. The French, however, were always interested in ‘converts’ to Roman Catholicism, so also ministered to the Mi’Kmaq on both Ile Royale and Acadie (mainland Nova Scotia).
The capital, and virtually the only substantive settlement, Port-Royale, was re-named Annapolis Royal. But, for several decades, the British did little to take control of this new territory by introducing their own settlers, who, if not English, were at least Protestant.
After a time, the French rather decided that perhaps they had made a mistake in giving up Nova Scotia/Acadie, the gateway, as it were, to the St. Lawrence River, and the lucrative fur trade. So, they encouraged their ‘missionaries’, not only to befriend the Mi’kmaq people, but to seek to convince them that the English were their enemies, who simply wanted to get rid of them, and take their land. Given the British attitudes towards indigenous peoples everywhere, this made this prospect easier.
It so happened that in 1737, the French sent out a young priest/missionary, a man with no love for the English. He soon developed a close relationship with Les Acadiens and Mi’kmaq leaders, and ultimately became the guerilla strategist who gave essential advice and direction to the Mi’kmaq leadership and a small band of Acadian rebels in making life difficult for the English – to say the least.
In 1745, a force from New England captured Louisbourg, which was meant to be the indomitable French fortress that would protect the route up the St. Lawrence and the fur trade. However, it was returned to the French in 1748. By that time, Le Loutre had is spurs, and quietly, from behind the scenes, gave advice and direction to the Mi’kmaq and the limited Acadian resistance in the person of Joseph Brossard (Beausoleil) in making devastating raids, including brutal deaths and scalping, to scare the British from really taking control of Nova Scotia. Indeed, the French government even funded Le Loutre to buy scalps.
In consequence, in 1749, the English determined that they had to build a fortress of their own, from which they could take control of the Nova Scotia that they felt was theirs. And to make this happen, they sent out a hardened /experienced military leader of their own, Col. Edward Cornwallis, with a mandate to take control and to settle Nova Scotia. He soon realized that to do so meant taking on the covert guerilla leader of, not so much the rather weak Acadian resistance, but of the Mi’kmaq warriors – Le Loutre – the man Cornwallis once called ‘a good for nothing scoundrel as ever lived’.