Expulsion of the Acadians: What really happened?

Pictured is the 1900 Feast of the Assumption celebration in Arichat. This is an international day of celebration for Acadians which takes place in mid-August.

Who is to blame for what befell Acadians in “Le Grand Derangement” of 1755: the heartlessness and stubbornness of Charles Lawrence; the pressure applied by the New England colonies to secure the region; the failure of British authorities to adequately supervise the situation in Nova Scotia; or the apathy and miscalculations of the Acadians?

The following attempts to trace the events and personalities who had a role to play in the Acadian tragedy of 1755.

A senior councillor, Paul Mascarene, assumed administration of the province in 1740. A Huguenot, Mascarene spoke the language of the Acadians and established a mutually respectful and fond relationship. However, his tenure in charge of the province was fraught with formidable obstacles. His fortifications were in disrepair, the threat of Louisbourg loomed larger and larger, and seeking aid from home, he received no replies from his dispatches. He believed it imperative that the Acadians remain neutral in the face of warfare with France, and by fair and proper treatment, Mascarene succeeded in securing the neutrality of the Acadians.

In 1744, France declared war on Britain and immediately captured Canso gaining the upper hand in control of the fishery. What occurred then to affect the circumstances of the Acadians who so far had remained far from the fray? One factor was a religious revival throughout the northern colonies that spawned an evangelical and militant Protestantism that was hostile to anything even hinting of popery. Acadians were devout Catholics.

Another factor was the rage of the New Englanders at the loss of Canso and possibly the fishery. And so, in the winter of 1744-45, England captured Louisbourg only to return it in 1748. However, plans were crystallizing under the leadership of Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts and Paul Mascarene in Nova Scotia. The latter had convinced Shirley that the Acadians were best left alone, but Abbé Jean-Louis La Loutre who had much influence over the Mi’kmaq and the Acadians was inexorably leading them into the middle of the conflict.

In 1749 Edward Cornwallis arrived from Britain with 2,576 settlers in tow. The new council at Halifax decided to require the Acadians to take an unqualified oath within three months. By September of that year, Acadians made it clear to Cornwallis that they would prefer to leave the area rather than take an oath of allegiance. Very little happened between August 1752 and October 1753, but then Charles Lawrence appeared on the scene, and he was determined to settle the Acadian question.

In the meantime – lulled by their previous experiences with inept administrators – life for the Acadian population continued much as it had for half a century. However, storm clouds began to gather as the conflict between France and England in North America reached a point of no return.

To fortify their position, the British constructed Fort Lawrence in the fall of 1750 and in 1755 captured Fort Beauséjour, but had suffered a decisive loss at Fort Duquesne and a French fleet of reinforcements for Quebec, Montreal, and Louisbourg had eluded British naval attempts to intercept them. Nothing was resolved.

The Acadians were still no threat militarily, but an atmosphere of imminent armed conflict pervaded the thinking of the British authorities. Given this uncertainty and uneasiness, Lawrence approached 15 Acadian representatives in Halifax in early July. When he demanded an unconditional oath and the deputies refused, they were imprisoned. The die was cast; over the next few months most of the Acadians on the Nova Scotia peninsula were transported to New England colonies from Massachusetts to Louisiana.