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Longfellow's Evangeline and the Cult of Acadia.

IT was October and the tourist season in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia was almost past, but it was still a glorious sunny day when I reached Grand Pre. The trees were clothed in a last display of brilliant colour before they yielded to the onset of winter. The little shop at the Grand Pre site was having an end-of-summer sale. Nowadays visitors enter it from the parking lot, but once upon a time, when Canadians still had good rail service, a train dropped tourists off at a front gateway which is still impressive in a decayed way. The platform for the rail passengers is still there, and so is the railway track, but the Dominion Atlantic Railway and its trains have long since disappeared. Within the front gateway, the train passenger encountered a bronze statue of Evangeline commissioned by the railway company, and behind it, a church building, which is a museum rather than a place of worship. It stands on the site of the Saint-Charles Church that was burnt in 1755. Flanking the park, separating it from the flat dykelands which stretch out to the Bay of Fundy, is a row of ancient willow trees. They are all that remain of the Acadian settlement that was eradicated by le grand derangement in 1755.

Inside the building is a plaque which explains: 'In 1755, British and New England troops under orders of the acting governor and council of Nova Scotia, launched the expulsion of the Acadian people. Nearly 10,000 people were removed from Nova Scotia and dispersed mainly along the Atlantic seaboard of the American colonies. Although the Deportation ended officially in 1764, the Acadians' search for a new homeland lasted another 50 years'.

Yet it is the woman whose statue stands inside the front gate that brought nineteenth century tourists here from the United States, in search of Grand Pre. They found only a little hamlet with nothing Acadian about it. But in 1907, a Nova Scotia jeweller, John Frederic Herbin, an Acadian descendant on his mother's side and a local poet and historian, bought the land where local tradition placed the Church of Saint-Charles, and erected a cross there. The Dominion Atlantic Railway company scented a tourist attraction, and bought the land from Herbin. The company erected the statue, which shows a young woman in obvious distress, looking anxiously into the distance, searching for someone. She is Evangeline, the constant heroine of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie, his first and most popular attempt at a long narrative poem. The park, which now belongs to the Government of Canada, was designated a national historic site in 1961.

There never was an Evangeline. Yet the Evangeline romance has indelibly coloured the historical record. In October, 2001, the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, where some 40 per cent of the students claim Acadian ancestry, put on view a letter it had just acquired, written by Major-General John Winslow, who directed the Acadian deportation at Grand Pre. He writes to an unidentified 'doctor' to report that he has removed 1510 inhabitants of Grand Pre. 'Have had no uncommon disturbance. The young fellows took in on their head, to desert our party. Kil'd one and I believe one other as he has not been heard of and the rest return. I yesterday began to burn the out posts and march this afternoon to proceed on this business'. Winslow was a Massachusetts colonial officer and his troops were volunteer militia from the New England colonies. But the Evangeline story suggests they were British regulars. Admittedly Longfellow never identifies the soldiers as 'redcoats', but the implication is clear and it has proved stronger than any historical documentation. The news release from the University of Louisiana library proclaimed that the Winslow letter proved the 'redcoats' had shot Acadians in the course of the expulsion.

The Evangeline legend began with the rector of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in South Boston, who picked up a story of an Acadian bride and bridegroom from Grand Pre who were to be married on the day the deportation began. They were separated and the bride searched for her partner all over New England. She found him when she was an old woman and he was on his death bed. The shock overcame her. She followed her partner to the grave.

The rector did not make up the tale. He got it from a woman who was connected by marriage to the family of Thomas Chandler Haliburton, a Nova Scotian who was an early graduate of King's College at Windsor, the earliest English-language university in Canada which was founded after the American Revolution by Loyalists from New York. Haliburton's claim to fame as an author is his creation of Sam Slick, the Yankee Clockmaker, but his History of Nova Scotia (Halifax, N.S., 1829) has one of the earliest accounts of the Acadian deportation. The rector's tale is not found there, but Haliburton's research may have uncovered it. The rector told the story to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a year or two later, Longfellow also heard the story from the same rector whom Hawthorne introduced to him.

Only a few years before, Longfellow had become professor of modern languages and belles-lettres at Harvard University. He was eventually to become the first American author to have a memorial in Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey, where his bust is close to the grave of Geoffrey Chaucer, but at this point he was at the start of his career, with a reputation for his translations from French, Spanish, Swedish and German. He never visited Nova Scotia, but he had travelled in Sweden and his picture of life in pre-1755 Acadia replicates to some degree peasant life in the Swedish countryside. But what attracted him to the tale the rector of St. Matthew's told him was that here was the archetype of the faithful woman, loyal to the memory of the one man who was her true love. She needed a name, and Longfellow gave her one: Evangeline, and her bridegroom was Gabriel.

Evangeline was the first important long poem in American literature and generations of American schoolchildren have toiled through it. It was enormously successful in its own day. Longfellow finished it in 1847, and by 1851, there were translations into German and Polish. There have been at least two French translations. Longfellow wrote in hexameters, in the tradition of the classical masters of he epic, Homer and Vergil, and his opening lines, 'This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks/Bearded with moss and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight/Stand like Druids of eld', are fine enough to be compared with Vergil's 'Arma virumque cano', with which the Aeneid begins. This was a tale of innocence lost, a utopia disrupted by an atrocity committed by a tyrant king. Longfellow summoned those who 'believe in affection that hopes, and endures, and is patient', who 'believe in the beauty and strength of woman's devotion'. That was an appealing story line in itself. But Longfellow sea soned it with a peppering of anglophobia, which heightened its appeal in the United States in the decades before the great Civil War.

The Declaration of Independence was only seventy-one years past when Longfellow completed Evangeline. The historian George Bancroft, who wrote an essay on the Acadians himself, was starting his ten-volume History of the United States (1834-74). It is little read nowadays, but it was immensely influential in shaping American historical archteypes. Both its strongly anti-British tone and its theme of United States history as the story of liberty have left footprints in the American mindset. For a New Englander like Longfellow, it was galling that slaves from the southern states were heading north via the so-called 'Underground Railroad' to seek freedom under a monarchy in Canada. Longfellow used the same intellectual matrix as Bancroft. He omitted the considerable role of New England in the Acadian deportation, and made it into a British atrocity.

It was not done out of ignorance. Among the sources Longfellow very likely consulted was the manuscript of The Journal of John Winslow of the Provincial Troops while engaged in removing the Acadian French Inhabitants from Grand Pre, and the Neighbouring Settlements in the Autumn of the Year 1755. This was the same Winslow whose letter is in the University of Louisiana Library at Lafayette. His journal was in the library of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and readily available. In Evangeline, Winslow is the British commander who stands surrounded by soldiers, in the church at Grand Pre, and addresses the Acadians gathered there, holding up his royal commission with its seals as he spoke. Winslow found his task distasteful and said so in his journal, and the unnamed commander in Evangeline echoes his words: 'To my natural make and my temper/Painful the task is I do, which to you I know must be grievous! Yet I must bow and obey and deliver the will of our monarch...'

It seems that Winslow actually did tell the Acadians that day in the Church of Saint-Charles, that he had orders from King George II. But he was stretching the truth. The king knew nothing of the deportation and would not have approved. He had just rebuffed a proposal from the French ambassador to relocate the Acadians to French territory, saying he did not want to lose useful subjects. The British authorities in London were told of the deportation of 1755 only after it had taken place. What had happened? The story begins two centuries earlier.

The name 'Acadia' comes from Giovanni da Verrazzano, the Florentine ship captain who explored the eastern seaboard of North America for France. He visited the area on his first voyage in 1523-4; his second voyage four years later ended unhappily on a Caribbean island where the natives killed and ate him. 'Arcadia' was the designation Verrazzano chose, after the never-never land of the Greek poets, but it lost an 'r' and became 'Acadia'. Almost from the time of European contact it was disputed by the British and the French. English ships were already in the Bay of Fundy trading with the Mi'kmaq Indians when the first French colonists arrived, but it was the French who made the first settlement at Port Royal, now Annapolis Royal. The colonists were both French Catholics and Huguenots, and included both a Catholic priest and a Protestant clergyman, bound together by mutual dislike. The Edict of Nantes had not yet been revoked nor the Huguenots expelled from Louis XIV's France; after that there was no place for P rotestants in France's colonies.

The first settlement was short-lived. An adventurer from Virginia sailed north with a single gunship and destroyed it in 1613, and in 1621, King James VI of Scotland (and James I of England) granted a Scots entrepreneur, Sir William Alexander, a trade monopoly for the region. He renamed it 'Nova Scotia'. But England relinquished Acadia by the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye (1632). Out went the Scots settlers and in came more than 300 colonists from France who are the founding fathers of the Acadian people. Oliver Cromwell's Government reconquered Acadia, but with the Restoration, Charles II gave it back, and got the unpaid dowry of his mother Queen Henrietta Maria in return. A troop of colonial volunteers from New England took it in 1690, but seven years later, it became French again.

The American colonists were growing impatient with this French outpost. On the borders of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, little settlements were under constant threat of raids by the French from Quebec and their Indian allies. One winter night at the end of February, 1704. a French and Indian corps of raiders fell upon the little village of Deerfield on the northwest fringe of Massachusetts and massacred the villagers. New England retaliated: Major Benjamin Church attacked Grand Pre, took prisoners and threatened much worse, if an atrocity like Deerfield was repeated. France responded by dispatching a more aggressive governor to Port Royal who built a frigate, preyed on New England shipping, and in 1707 beat off an attempt by 1600 Massachusetts militia to take Port Royal. Discomfited, the colonists turned to their mother country for help, and in 1710, a little army mainly of colonial troops but including 500 Royal Marines and six British warships, took Port Royal. In 1713, when the long War of the Spanish S uccession came to an end with the Treaty of Utrecht, Britain kept Acadia. There were at the time, about 2,300 Acadians.

What to do with them? As early as 1710. some New Englanders thought removal was the answer. The Treaty of Utrecht gave the Acadians a year in which to take the oath of allegiance to Britain or to 'retire elsewhere, taking with them their movable goods'. But there was no clear definition of Acadia. The British thought it was Nova Scotia and argued that the treaty gave her at the very least the whole southern half of the present-day provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and the American state of Maine. France argued that Acadia was only the region on the eastern shore of the Bay of Fundy, and immediately recouped her loss by settling Ile Royale and Ile St-Jean, present-day Cape Breton and Prince Edward Islands. On Cape Breton, a great fortress arose at Louisbourg, a reminder that France was still the superpower of Europe, and the St. Lawrence River mouth and its fisheries were still French. In the interior were the Mi'kmaq Indians, French allies. France wanted the Acadians she had surrendered to Britain t o 'retire elsewhere', with 'elsewhere' being her new settlement on Ile Royale where they would add to Louisbourg's strength. Over the next half-century, some Acadians did join the French settlers there, so that by 1755, there were two Acadians, one the British possession on the Bay of Fundy which was ended by le grand derangement, and the other ruled by France with its centre Louisbourg. The Acadian tradition of exile and victimhood confuses the two. But Longfellow did not. His 'Acadie' included only the region ruled by the British, inhabited by an innocent, peaceful folk.

The Acadians were initially willing to leave. But the new fort of Louisbourg changed the strategic situation. When the Acadians asked for ships to transport them there, the British commander on the ground pointed out that a year had already passed, and the question of their departure had to be referred to Queen Anne. The old queen was dying and no decision was made. Meanwhile the Acadians who had gone to inspect the land on Ile Royale which France offered them were unimpressed. The land they had was far more fertile. Their freedom of religion was secured by a warrant from Queen Anne, who guaranteed it in return for a promise from His Most Christian Majesty, Louis XIV to release Protestant galley slaves. That meant in practice that the Roman Catholic priests who ministered to the Acadians were paid by the King of France, and appointed by the Bishop of Quebec, and France expected them to play both a political and an ecclesiastical role. Acadia became part of New England. Now the Acadians could trade legally wit h the British colonies, and at the same time with the French at Louisbourg.

The next half century were golden years for Acadia. Families were large; women married young and might have fifteen children or more. Port Royal's name was changed to Annapolis Royal in honour of Queen Anne and now a British governor lived there, but otherwise the Acadians were left on their own to govern themselves. The population grew from 2,300 in 1713 to some 13,000 in 1755. The governor in mid-century was Paul Mascarene, a Huguenot whose sympathies were with the Acadians though his religion was Protestant. The problem was the oath of allegiance. The Acadians refused to take it.

The first effort was in 1715, on the accession of George I. The Acadians objected that if they took an oath of allegiance to King George, France would incite their Mi'kmaq allies to attack them. Five years later the governor threatened the Acadians with expulsion if they would not take the oath, but when the Acadians got ready to leave, the governor changed his tune. Finally on King George II's accession, a popular governor, the elderly Richard Phillips persuaded the Acadians to take an oath which they seem to have devised themselves. It read 'I promise and swear on the faith of a Christian that I will be truly faithful and will submit myself to His Majesty King George II whom I acknowledge as the lord and sovereign of Nova Scotia or Acadia'. They pointedly did not promise to defend King George. There is an Acadian tradition that Phillips gave the Acadians an oral promise that they would never be conscripted to fight against the French, and probably he did give them some assurances, though he reported no such promise to London. France did not recognize the oath and continued to regard the Acadians as French subjects, and Acadian relations with the Mi'kmaqs remained friendly.

The Acadians had shown real diplomatic skill. They had achieved a kind of dual citizenship. Or at least they thought they had. The Acadian descendants who nowadays claim an apology from Queen Elizabeth II for le grand derangement assert that the Acadians were British subjects, and their rights as British subjects were violated. But as the British saw it, the Acadians were the 'Neutral French' living in the northern corner of New England, and so long as they were no threat to her colonies, Britain left these 'Neutral French' in peace. But outside the little world of Acadia, hostilities broke out in Europe over the accession of a woman, Maria Theresa to the throne of Austria in 1740 and by 1744 it swept Britain and France into war.

The governor of Louisbourg struck first. A mixed force of French and Mi'kmaq Indians laid siege to Annapolis Royal, and called on the Acadians to revolt. The Indians were commanded by a priest who would play an important part in the Acadian tragedy, Abbe Jean-Louis le Loutre, missionary to the Mi'kmaq and after 1753, vicar-general of Acadia. Passionately pro-French, he threw himself heart and soul into the task of recovering Acadia. But with a few exceptions, the Acadians were deaf to his urgings. They provided supplies and even guides, but they would not take up arms against the British. Fifty Indian rangers from Boston were enough to lift the siege of Annapolis Royal.

But New England had had a fright, and next year, a motley force of armed merchantmen and fishing vessels set out from Boston to capture Louisbourg. The promoter of the expedition was the governor of Massachusetts, William Shirley, who was already convinced that the Acadians should be deported to the English colonies, and the leader was a Boston politician named William Pepperell. The colonies did not wait for permission; instead they informed London of what they were doing and asked for help, and Britain hastily sent three ships-of-the-line to lend support. But it was a colonial triumph. The siege was difficult but Louisbourg fell. Next year, the colonies got proof their fears were well grounded; France sent a great armada of 71 ships under the Duc D'Anville against them. It evaded the British fleet, and would have wreacked havoc in the English colonies except that storms delayed the passage, scurvy attacked the French troops and when the remnant of the great armada reached Chedbucto Bay in Nova Scotia, where Halifax would later be founded, D'Anville committed suicide. Next year France tried again with a slightly smaller fleet, but this time, the British intercepted it and destroyed it. Yet when the war ended in 1748, Britain returned Louisbourg to France and in return got Madras in India.

Some historians claim that the American Revolution started here, and whether or not they are right, this is the point when the colonists realized that Britain would weigh her interests in America against her interests elsewhere, and they might be sacrificed. Shirley wrote from Boston to London urging the deportation of the Acadians, but Britain was unconvinced. King George II, for one, thought any deportation would encounter armed resistance. But Britain tried to make amends. She reimbursed her colonies for the expenses of their Louisbourg expedition, and in 1749, she founded Halifax to replace Annapolis Royal as capital of Acadia. The new governor of Halifax, Lt.-Col. Edward Cornwallis, had orders to get an oath of allegiance from the Acadians in three months' time.

The Acadians refused. They pointed out as they had done before, that if they took the oath, Abbe LeLoutre would incite the Mi'kmaq to attack them, and the British could not protect them. Once again, a British governor backed down.

Cornwallis' immediate successor did not consider the Acadians a threat, but he returned to England for medical treatment after only a year, never to return and in his place was appointed a professional soldier, Charles Lawrence, who knew the Acadians only from his experience in the no-man's land on the Chignecto Isthmus where France had built Fort Beausejour as a riposte to the founding of Halifax, and LeLoutre was forcing the Acadians in the region to relocate to French-controlled territory. One of his officers had been killed while under a flag of truce. It is by no means certain that LeLoutre gave the order for the murder, but Lawrence thought so. In June of 1755, a force of some 2,000 colonial militia arrived from New England and together with 250 British regulars laid siege to Fort Beausejour which fell in only three days. Among its defenders were 200 Acadians.

They had been conscripted but they had fought well for the French nonetheless. Better, in fact, than the French soldiers. However, the British commander Robert Monkton gave them amnesty. But in Halifax the governor and the Halifax council, which was dominated by New Englanders saw the situation differently. News had arrived that an army led by General Edward Braddock with young George Washington second-in-command had been almost annihilated by the French at Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh) in the Ohio Valley. This was the largest force which Britain had thus far committed to the defence of her colonies. War in Europe had not yet been declared, but in America it had already been underway for a year and it was going badly for the British. Before winter, the colonial militia that had captured Fort Beausejour would return home and Lawrence would be left with 250 redcoats to control 13,000 Acadians.

The Acadian delegates were summoned to Halifax. They were asked to take the oath of allegiance. They refused, and the die was cast.

On the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the deportation, there will be a rally of Acadian descendants at Grand Pre, and no doubt much anglophobia will be generated. So it would be good to know how this decision was reached. Lawrence's immediate superior, the governor of Massachusetts William Shirley had already urged deportation. The New England colonials on the Halifax Council supported his view. Admiral Edward Boscawen, nicknamed 'Old Dreadnought', sat in on the council meeting but what he said is not known. His warships did not take part in the deportation. There was no time to consult the British Government, and Lawrence did not try. Did he warn the Acadian delegates that they would be deported if they failed to take the oath? Lawrence would report to London that he did, but the Acadian delegates seem to have thought that if they refused, the British would back down as they had in the past, and when they realized that this time it was different, they became alarmed and agreed to take the oath. But Lawrence would not accept their change of heart; an oath taken out of fear, he said, was useless.

Forty-six transport ships were summoned from New England and the Acadians were put on board. Some Acadians escaped into the woods; about 2,000 got to Quebec and at one place, the Acadians forced a corps of New England militia to turn tail. But some seven or eight thousand were crowded into the transport ships and taken to the English colonies, where they received a chilly welcome. Virginia sent the Acadians who arrived there off to England. Some were imprisoned; it was a group of prisoners discharged from Halifax who were the first Acadian colonists to reach Louisiana. In Europe, the Seven Years' War broke out the year after le grand derangement, and though London was startled to learn of it, the Board of Trade defended the initiative of the colonies. In 1759 Louisbourg fell to the British and after it, Quebec. The French settlers on Ile Royale and Ile Saint-Jean were repatriated to France. When Quebec capitulated in 1760, Britain pledged not to deport any quebecois against their will, but the Acadians were explicitly excepted. However in 1764, after the Seven Years' War was over, Britain now in control of Canada rescinded the deportation decree. The Acadians began to return to the Maritime provinces, but they were not alone. After the American Revolution another influx of refugees arrived, Loyalists who like the Acadians had been driven from their homes.

For students of ethnicity, the Acadians are an interesting phenomenon. In 1713, when Britain acquired Acadia, they were some 2,300 French habitants living on seigneuries, under the manorial system which France established in her colonies. Fifty years later there were about 13 thousand who had developed their own self-government, and along with it, a sense of themselves as a separate ethnic group, neither French nor quebecois. They took that sense with them into exile.

Napoleon was to sell Louisiana to the United States in 1803, and the Acadian exiles there were sold along with it. They were given a year to take the oath of allegiance to the United States or leave. Louisiana became English-speaking, and Acadian culture was reduced to a distinctive and now fashionable cuisine known as 'Cajun cooking'. In the Atlantic provinces of Canada, Acadian descendants number about 350 thousand now, and New Brunswick is Canada's only bilingual province. Acadian culture, centred around the Universite de Moncton, is blossoming. An Acadian descendant, Romeo LeBlanc has served as Governor-General of Canada. But in Louisiana where the Cajuns are beginning to assert themselves, le grand derangement is being fitted into the new cult of victimology.

Who was to blame for the deportation? The French for whom the Acadians were a pawn in the French and Indian Wars? Abbe LeLoutre who manipulated his Mi'kmaq ruthlessly for the French cause and whose intrigues convinced the English colonists that the Acadians were dangerous? The governor of Massachusetts who had been pressing for the Acadian expulsion for a decade before it took place? None of these will do as perpetrators. The archetypal tyrant in American myth, fashioned by thousands of Fourth of July speeches, is Britain. Two world wars and the war against terrorism notwithstanding, the 'evil empire' in the American psyche is still the British Empire. A British tyrant king put a tax on American tea. Americans will admit that the Holocaust was a greater atrocity, but they don't hold it against the Germans. But Britain will never be forgiven. One need only check the Internet and read the Web pages from Louisiana on the Acadians to feel the heat of the anti-British feeling. One ardent Louisiana Acadian wants t o sue Queen Elizabeth II because the deportation was done in the name of her ancestor George II. Longfellow's Evangeline tapped an archetypal story pattern of American history. Colonial history before the Revolution belongs to the evil empire. What comes afterwards is the story of liberty.

There is another tradition, found in the histories of Francis Parkman which are still read, for unlike Bancroft's monumental history they have some literary grace. Parkman had no liking for the French and when he commits inaccuracies, they tend to be anti-French inaccuracies. Parkman's story of the Acadians is unromantic. But history, however sound, cannot compete with the myth of Evangeline whose statue stands at Grand Pre. Basil the blacksmith who has made a new life for himself in Louisiana speaks in Evangeline with words that would please Thomas Jefferson:

'After your houses are built, and your fields are yellow with harvests,

'No King George of England shall drive you away from your homesteads,

'Burning your dwellings and barns...'.
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Author:Evans, James Allan
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:1CNOV
Date:Feb 1, 2002
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