Church Is Out

Ed Guthero September/October 2017
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Redcoats—their mere presence a statement. Cochineal-colored Redcoats, with their snappy military trim, are walking village streets and gathering at the parish church, the brilliance of their uniforms both attractive and intimidating. To many residents the British military give the impression of routine maneuvers.

Yet something sinister was drifting in, like the maritime fogs that venture inland from the Atlantic Ocean.

The accelerated presence of red-clad New England soldiers in the peaceful, hardworking town of Grand-Pré was cause for concern to the Acadian people who had long inhabited the region. The Acadians were a neutral people; descendants of the original French settlers, who had established a productive independent community farming the fertile soil in what is now the Canadian provinceof Nova Scotia.

Despite the maritime lands being caught between the clashes of British and French governments for dominance in the New World, the industrious Acadians had survived more than 150 years with their French Catholic cultural heritage intact—even after the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht transferred the sovereignty of Acadian land from France to Britain.

Leading up to September of 1755, the constant tension between France and England had escalated into a rapid building of forts in the maritime area. France upped the ante by constructing the formidable fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. In 1749 the British made a bold statement by establishing a rival naval base at Halifax. By 1751 French Fort Beauséjour on the Isthmus of Chignecto (the connection between the peninsula and the rest of Nova Scotia) was built. Britain executed a counter move, erecting Fort Lawrence extremely close by.

In June of 1755, 2,000 New England soldiers laid siege to Fort Beauséjour; hoping to seize control of the isthmus. Though vastly outnumbered, the determined French held them off for nearly two weeks before surrendering. Among the inhabitants of the fallen fort were a number of Acadian militia. It was a perceived neutrality breach that played into the hands of the opportunistic British governor, Charles Lawrence.

Coveting the productive Acadian lands had long been dancing through scheming British and New England minds. Merchant traders from Boston were amazed that an “alien people” were permitted to possess such prime land within a British colony. The Acadians stood in the way of a desire to appropriate their land, and their French Catholic heritage had constantly been looked upon with suspicion.

Governor Lawrence aggressively pressured Acadian delegates to take an unqualified oath of allegiance to the King, who was head of the protestant Church of England, and to be willing to take up arms against the French as well as the native Mi’kmaq tribe (who had traditionally been friendly with Acadian settlements and had often intermarried). When proud Acadian people refused, Lawrence was quick to act.

A New Englander, Charles Morris, had devised a devious plan to surround Acadian churches on a Sunday morning and seize as many men as possible. Soldiers would threaten families at bayonet point if the men refused to comply. The Acadian farming dykes would be breached, the Acadian houses and crops would be torched.

Redcoats, Redcoats . . . yes, there was indeed reason for the inhabitants of Grand-Pré to feel uneasy at the increased presence of red-clad soldiers walking their land.

On September 4, 1755, British New England Colonel John Winslow summoned all males 10 years of age and up living in the Grand-Pré region to gather at St. Charles church the next day to hear an important message from His Excellency Charles Lawrence, the lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia.

The assembled men, numbering 418, were dumbstruck as Winslow read the fateful decree. His words hung in the air like poison.

It read in part: “Your land and tenements, cattle of all kinds and livestock of all sorts, are forfeited to the Crown with all your other effects, savings, your money, and household goods, and you yourselves will be removed from this. . . Province.”

The cultural impact of those callous words reverberates to this day. Carried out with much cruelty, the deportation of the Acadians stands as a black spot of ethnic cleansing and misguided nationalism in the New World. The faces of the captive audience expressed “shame and confusion, . . . together with anger,” states the diary of junior officer Jeremiah Bancroft. He added that the announcement so altered their countenances that it couldn’t be expressed.

Governor Lawrence encouraged his officers “not to pay the least attention to any remonstrance or memorial from any of the inhabitants.”

Colonel Winslow wrote in his memoirs that this work was “disagreeable to my nature,” but in words that would be in step with many more recent atrocities, he justified: “it is not my business to animadvert, but to obey such orders as I receive.” Regarding the Grand-Pré expulsion, Winslow wrote that he burned 276 barns, 255 houses, 11 mills, and one church, while shipping 1,150 residents from Grand-Pré on “certain vessels to strange parts.”. . . “Winter will be coming,” he penned, “. . . and the sea beats desolately against the shore.”

Many Acadians resisted, others fled to the forests, yet the British continued to pursue; some escaped to areas of Quebec and Cape Breton Island.

The Grand Pré men remained confined at the church until the ships arrived to take them away. Colonel Winslow described the first contingent of young men marching off to the fateful vessels . . . “they went off singing and crying and praying, being met by the women and children all the way . . . with great lamentations and upon their knees. I began at once to embark these inhabitants who went so sorrowfully and unwillingly, the women in great distress carrying their children in their arms and others carrying their decrepit parents . . . and moving in dire confusion. It appeared indeed a matter of woe and distress.”

Acadians lived in large extended family units, their relationships and faith vital to their culture. Though Winslow ordered that families be kept together, this frequently was impossible in the turmoil of the expulsion. The dreaded cargo ships were small. Relatives, friends, and neighbors were torn apart, forever separated.

The heartless deportation of the Acadians was initiated in the autumn of 1755 and continued steadily through 1758. Persecutions lingered longer into the 1760s, past the end of the Seven Years’ War. The initial mass removal, including Grand-Pré, involved 7,000 people concentrated around the Bay of Fundy, forced from their homes and shipped out to parts unknown.

Elsewhere, others of Lawrence’s dutiful officers implemented the treacherous church assembly strategy, isolating Acadian men, rounding up terrified women and children, tearing apart communities and families as they purged Acadian villages throughout Nova Scotia.

The cramped, modified cargo ships were brutal windowless hell-holes, devoid of sanitary conditions or ventilation. There was no heat except “for that of the huddled bodies.” Such diseases as smallpox broke out in the wretched atmosphere where Acadians by the hundreds were jammed into the cargo hold—children were particularly susceptible. These floating prisons of despair were bound for diverse destinations throughout the Atlantic regions: South Carolina, Georgia, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, the Caribbean, other English colonies, France. In Georgia some Acadians were even sold as slaves and indentured servants. Thousands never survived; many others spent years as disillusioned refugees wandering land and sea. Some migrated to Louisiana, establishing an ethnic group now known as Cajun (a derivation of the word “Acadian”).

It is said at the onset of the deportation the Acadian population stood at approximately 15,000, but the expulsion killed almost half of them. By 1758 the French fortress of Louisbourg fell again to the British, and in its wake some 3,100 Acadians were deported. Of those, it is estimated that 1,649 perished by disease or drowned—a sobering 53 percent fatality rate. In December alone of that year, three transport ships with their cargos of rounded-up Acadians sank at sea: 840 deportees perished.

This cruel expulsion is too often forgotten in New World history, yet has been immortalized in Longfellow’s epic poem Evangeline,—in which two lovers, torn apart in the deportation, spend their lives in search of each other. The poet’s symbolic tome gives the story a classic ironic grandeur. Yet the deportation of the Acadians is not a “pretty” picture, confirms Yale history professor John Mark Faragher, who draws comparisons to land grabbing and the 1990s ethnic cleansing disaster in the Balkans.

Thousands of Acadians died, lifetime dreams were shattered; property was plundered and seized; family ties, culture, and communities were shredded. The pain and inhumanity of the Acadian deportation echoes down through the years—injustice stands naked in the retrospective eye of history.

In December 2003 Canadian governor general Adrienne Clarkson, the Queen’s representative in Canada, signed a royal proclamation accepting responsibility for the decision to deport the Acadian people and regretting the “tragic consequences.” The maritime provinces of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island have established Acadian Remembrance Day, in homage to the more than 3,000 Acadian deportees shipped out from the Isle-Saint Jean (now Prince Edward Island) in December of 1758, more than half of whom lost their lives at sea. A small solitary black star thinly outlined in gold, reminiscent of the traditional Acadian gold star in the corner of a French Tricolour, is worn every December 13 in honor of their memory.

Recently my sister and her husband journeyed to Nova Scotia to research family heritage. They walked the paths of the Acadians and the steps of the great fortress of Louisbourg, hoping to find records regarding the deportation of my brother-in-law’s ancestors—the Landrys, a well-known Acadian surname.

Standing before a commemorative church wall in Grand-Pré they viewed exact copies of the original paper sheets on which Colonel Winslow’s soldiers had hand-written the names of the 418 males held prisoner in St. Charles church awaiting deportation generations ago.

The name Landry appeared 42 times. Jean, Antoine, Paul, Renez, Battiste, Francois, Pierre . . . their existence made all the more real in the blotched and time-worn strokes of a soldier’s pen. Real people, flesh and blood . . . a chilling thought. Scant miles away from Grand-Pré, the sea still beats desolately against the shore.

Article Author: Ed Guthero

Ed Guthero has had a critically applauded career as a book and periodical designer, artist, and photographer, and a legacy ensured by years as a university lecturer. Here he shows another skill as an author. He writes from Boise, Idaho.