Febuary 7, 1997 Halifax Herald

Acadians: how politically neutral were they?

At the February 1996 annual meeting of the South Central Society for Eighteenth Century Studies held in New Orleans, Professor Geoffrey Plank, University of Cincinnati History Department, delivered an intriguing paper entitled: "The Impossibility of Neutrality for Jacques Maurice: The Politics of an Acadian Merchant, 1732-1759." The paper gives an overview of the politics of the Acadian; however, its prime purpose is to examine how the Acadian merchant functioned under British rule.

After they were deported to alien and widely scattered British colonies by Governor Charles Lawrence in 1755, many Acadians sought permission from the authorities of those colonies to return to Nova Scotia. One such individual was Jean Baptiste Galerm. In his petition to the Pennsylvania legislature, Galerm protested the injustice of the deportation of his people.

He supported his plea to be permitted to return home by citing Acadian neutrality during the wars between Great Britain and France, and the Acadian's peace-loving nature. Permission to return to Nova Scotia wasn't granted.

Many historians have agreed with Galerm's assessment of the Acadians as a peace-loving people. Others have disagreed. Plank offers his view:

"My aim in this paper is to reconsider the issue of the Acadians' political stance in the 1740s and 1750s. Most of the historians who have addressed this topic have sought to understand things deep in the Acadians' hearts, their sense of group identity, their desires, political loyalty and their concept of justice. For most of us alive today, these are very personal issues, but most of the historians studying the Acadians have chosen to study the people as a group, as if they shared a common set of political and ethical beliefs."

"Historians will achieve a better understanding of the Acadians by paying attention to the variety of Acadian responses to the imperial struggle between Great Britain and France. Some Acadians may indeed have maintained neutrality as a matter of principle and refused to aid any of the combatants in the wars of the 1740s and 1750s. But others were unable, or unwilling, to stay aloof.

Others hired themselves out as civilian workers for the British army. Still others fled to the protection of the French. None of these reactions to the imperial struggle were "typical" in the sense that they exemplified a universal Acadian mindset. The Acadians did not share a common reaction to the wars between Great Britain and France. What they did share was a set of problems which placed constraints on their ability to express themselves politically.

"The circumstances of most of the Acadians prior to deportation precluded the possibility of maintaining the appearance of neutrality. Regardless of their personal predispositions they could not avoid involvement in politics. Nearly every aspect of their lives became politicized. Cultivating grain, repairing dikes, building houses, engaging in trade, sometimes even standing still became a political act.

“This is most dramatically illustrated by the troubled history of Beaubassin. In 1750 the village was visited by Micmac warriors who ordered the townspeople to vacate their homes and move to New France. For the Acadians of Beaubassin, remaining stationery became a gesture of support for the British, and following the directions of the Micmac was almost universally understood to be a declaration of support for the French. Except in the narrow sense that a few of the villagers may have become emotionally oblivious to their circumstances, neutrality was not an available choice. The residents of Beaubassin were forced to make a political statement.

"Most other Acadians did not face such a dramatic crisis, at least not until the provincial government issued its deportation order in 1755. But all of them faced similar, if less dramatic, dilemmas, and they could not avoid politically charged decisions. In order to examine the difficulties the Acadians faced I have chosen to focus on one extreme case involving an extraordinary man, a merchant named Jacques Maurice...."

In my February 21 column the story of "Maurice" will be related. In preparation for it, here is a digest of the political problems faced by the Acadians in the mid-18th century.

During most of the 17th century, neither the French or English had the ability to regulate the Acadians. Therefore, they had freedom to trade, almost unmolested, with whomsoever they pleased. Plank states: "If there ever was a period when ‘neutrality’ was an option for the Acadian merchants, it was the 17th century."

After England took over Nova Scotia in 1710, political circumstances began to change dramatically. Over the next three decades, the situation went from virtual Acadian self-rule to the point where they were regulated to the extent that English permission had to be had to select a parish priest.

By the mid-1700s, demands by English governors were being made upon the Acadians to forsake their neutrality. However, because the French and Mi'kmaq would have been incensed by seeing them submitting to English rule, the Acadians concluded that compliance to these English demands would threaten their very existence. Refusal to comply set the stage for Governor Lawrence's expulsion order of 1755.

Daniel N. Paul


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