Our Acadian Heritage

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British Demand New Oath, Acadians Begin To Flee

The walls of Louisbourg protected the Acadians even though they were miles away. The fortress provided a strong French military presence, a place of haven if things began to get too rough in old Acadia.

But with the fall of Louisbourg, officials such as Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts began to think again about whether the Acadians should be allowed to stay in Nova Scotia. And the Acadians themselves began to wonder whether they wanted to stay.

In 1746, Shirley wrote to officials in England that "the enemy will soon find a way to wrest Acadia from us if we do not remove the most dangerous French inhabitants and replace them with English families." In his view, "The Province of Nova Scotia will never be out of danger so long as the French inhabitants are tolerated under the present mode of submission."

On a visit to England, he proposed to British authorities that they send 6,000 families to Nova Scotia over a 10-year period. Two thousand of them would come from the British Isles, 2,000 from New England, and 2,000 of them would be soldiers sent to North America who would be given land if they would retire there. He thought that the Acadians could be forced out if they were refused the right to acquire new lands and if English-speaking people loyal to the Crown were placed next to them.

Some of the Acadians, reading the handwriting on the wall, began to leave their ancestral lands. Thousands went to Prince Edward Island, others to southeastern New Brunswick, places that were still French in name, though protected hardly any better than the Acadian peninsula.

The War of Austrian Succession ended in 1748 and, much to the disgust of New England, the Treaty of Aix- la-Chapelle returned Louisbourg to the French. But it never became the feared fortress that it once had been. The British knew that it could be taken, and so did the Acadians.

In 1749, Edward Cornwallis replaced Richard Phillips as governor of Nova Scotia and, unlike Phillips, decided to actually move to the place. He arrived in Halifax that year with 2,500 English settlers, including 1,100 women and children.

He was perhaps more politically astute than his predecessors had been, or perhaps the political situation in North America was simply becoming clearer. Until this time, most of the French - English clashes (in North America) had come as a result of, or in connection with, political objectives in Europe. But now the stakes in North America were getting bigger, and the inevitable fighting would be over who would control the colonies in North America.

When the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was signed, France claimed all of North America from the Alleghenies to the Rockies, and from Florida and Mexico to the North Pole. She held the St. Lawrence and Mississippi rivers and controlled these waterways from Montreal to New Orleans.

The British, meanwhile, were penned behind the Alleghenies, and France wanted to keep them there. If they spread west, they would cut New France in two, dividing Louisiana from Canada. To prevent this, the French and their Indian allies began to seal off the passes to the west. At the same time, the British began to push harder to get through them. The result was constant skirmishing that led eventually to the French and Indian War.

To protect his British subjects against Indians and any possible French uprising, Cornwallis ordered armories built at Grand Pré, Baie Verte, Whiteland, and La Have, and stationed soldiers at each of them. At the same time, he told the Acadians that they needed special permission to ship grain, livestock, or any other product to any foreign colony - such as New England - and that they would have to take a new oath of allegiance that had none of their hard-won conditions attached to it.

These proclamations upset the Acadians and they sent three delegates from Grand Pré to talk with the new governor. They were Jean and Philipe Melanson and Claude LeBlanc. They told the governor that they thought the question of allegiance had been settled with the oath that they had taken in 1730.

Cornwallis would not change his mind.

The Acadians sent another delegation. This time they carried a petition bearing more than 1.000 signatures of people from Annapolis Royal, Grand Pré, Beaubassin, Pisiquid, Cobequid, and Chopoudy. The petition declared that the Acadians had signed oaths on the condition that they could not be forced to bear arms against France and that, "The inhabitants in general...have resolved not to take the oath which your Excellency requires of us."

They offered a compromise, "If your Excellency will grant us our old oath, which was given by Governor Phillips, with an exemption from taking arms, we will accept it. If your Excellency is not disposed to grant us what we take the liberty of asking, we are resolved every one of us to leave the country."

Cornwallis said Phillips had exceeded his authority in granting conditions to the oath. He would not budge on the issue. To emphasize his point, he continued to build strategic military posts that isolated the Acadians and blocked their communications with French-speaking neighbors in Quebec and Louisbourg.

He wrote to the Board of Trade in London that "the Acadians behave strangely, insisting upon the reserve of not carrying Arms or not taking Oaths, and leaving the Country; leaving the Country is bad, as it strengthens the enemy. But my Lords in my poor opinion, better it should happen than yield to them....I fear an inveterate enemy preying upon your Bowels masked, but rotten at bottom, whom no leniency can please, nor anything but severity or greater power awe and bring them to their duty and allegiance."

The Board of Trade thought that the Acadians were still needed on the land. Instructions sent back to Cornwallis told him "that any forcible measures which might induce (the Acadians) to leave their settlements ought for the present at least be waved (sic)."

Cornwallis never got the Acadians to sign a new oath but he did clear many of them off the land. He returned to England in August 1752 and was replaced by Captain Peregrine Hopson, a much more moderate man. By then, one third of the Acadian population, about 6,000 people, had left Nova Scotia for New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and other French territories.

Those who stayed now hoped that Hopson would let them do what they had begged to do ever since the British took charge: They just wanted to be left alone.

But Hopson stayed only 15 months before he got sick and had to go back to England. He was replaced by Charles Lawrence, a man both hated and feared by the Acadians.