banner photo:

"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope


Banner photo
Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Friday, May 30, 2014

The legacy of Edward Cornwallis

There's a debate currently raging in Halifax about the city's founder, British Governor Edward Cornwallis, who founded the city in 1749. The agitation is centred on a statue of the Governor in Halifax's downtown Cornwallis Square:
Last May, an unknown vandal spray-painted “Self righteous ass” on a statue of Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis, the 18th century British military governor who once placed 10 guinea bounties on Mi’kmaq scalps. In 2001, someone else doused the statue in red paint and scrawled “killed natives” on its base.
At the city’s 250th birthday party, an actor dressed as Cornwallis was forbidden from speaking and in 2011, a Nova Scotia school was renamed to scrub out Cornwallis’ violent legacy. And now, some Haligonians are wondering whether they even need a statue of Cornwallis at all. 
The debate is largely about a contentious proclamation Cornwallis issued in an attempt to deal with a violent uprising by Mi'kmaq natives who were targeting the British settlements in Acadia. It reads:
His Majesty’s Council do hereby authorize and command all Officers Civil and Military, and all his Majesty’s Subjects of others to annoy, distress, take or destroy the Savage commonly called the Micmac, wherever they are found,” it read. “[And] promise a reward of ten Guineas for ever Indian Micmac taken or killed, to be paid upon producing such Savage taken or his scalp.
We have a tendency to look at historical issues like the Cornwallis administration through the lens of modern grievances. The "Scalping Proclamation" is indeed horrific by modern standards, but it must be taken in context. The Mi'kmaq weren't exactly Boy Scouts - there had been a series of brutal Mi'kmaq attacks on British settlers in Acadia leading up to the proclamation, and indeed the Mi'kmaq themselves were being paid by the French to collect British scalps. In a 1749 raid on Dartmouth, across the harbour from Halifax, a month before Cornwallis' proclamation, Mi'kmaq warriors attacked a British party cutting firewood:
On September 30, 1749, about forty Mi'kmaq attacked six men who were in Dartmouth cutting trees. The Mi'kmaq killed four of them on the spot, took one prisoner and one escaped. Two of the men were scalped and the heads of the others were cut off. The attack was on the saw mill at Dartmouth Cove, which was under the command of Major Ezekiel Gilman. A detachment of rangers was sent after the raiding party and cut off the heads of two Mi'kmaq and scalped one.
To prevent the French and Wabanaki Confederacy massacres of British families, on October 2, 1749, Governor Edward Cornwallis offered a bounty on the head of every Mi'kmaq. Prior to Cornwallis, there was a long history of Massachusetts Governors issuing bounties for the scalps of Indian men, women, and children. Cornwallis followed New England's example. He set the amount at the same rate that the Mi'kmaq received from the French for British scalps. The British military paid the Rangers the same rate per scalp as the French military paid the Mi'kmaq for British scalps.
...
Despite Cornwallis' efforts to defend the community, in July 1750, the Mi'kmaq killed and scalped 7 men who were at work in Dartmouth. In August 1750, 353 people arrived on the ship Alderney and began the town of Dartmouth. The town was laid out in the autumn of that year. The following month, on September 30, 1750, Dartmouth was attacked again by the Mi'kmaq and five more residents were killed. In October 1750 a group of about eight men went out "to take their diversion; and as they were fowling, they were attacked by the Indians, who took the whole prisoners; scalped ... [one] with a large knife, which they wear for that purpose, and threw him into the sea ..."
In March 1751, the Mi’kmaq attacked on two more occasions, bringing the total number of raids to six in the previous two years. Three months later, on May 13, 1751, Broussard led sixty Mi'kmaq and Acadians to attack Dartmouth again, in what would be known as the "Dartmouth Massacre".
Certainly, Edward Cornwallis' legacy in Canada is not without controversy, but that doesn't mean his significance as the founder of one of Canada's oldest cities should be expunged from our collective memory. Halifax as it is today would not exist were it not for Governor Cornwallis. Canada in the 18th century was a brutal, violent place, and for those who make a fetish of our "proud peacekeeping tradition", the colonial wars are an embarrassment. That doesn't mean we should pretend they didn't occur and flush all references to them down the memory hole.

Edward Cornwallis is an important figure in Canadian history, and he deserves a statue in the city he founded. Here's a suggestion - put up a statue of a Mi'kmaq warrior in the same park (or better yet in Dartmouth) and look on it as a teaching experience.

1 comment:

onefineguy said...

You learn something every day.

As always, context is everything.