Edward Cornwallis Debate, Part 2

Published June 6, 2016 by A.J.B. Johnston

I was in Bermuda last week and found myself — unexpectedly — thinking about Nova Scotia and the Edward Cornwallis debate.

Over the past few months, many have joined the debate in Nova Scotia (and to a lesser extent a separate one on Prince Edward Island) over what certain British officials did during the colonial era. Edward Cornwallis has been much discussed in NS while in PEI Jeffery Amherst has been singled out by at least one prominent person for criticism. In Cornwallis’s case it was a bounty for scalps of the Mi’kmaq that he authorized. With Amherst it was the approval he gave in a letter (written years after he left the Maritimes) to the idea of distributing smallpox-infested blankets among the Aboriginal people in the Ohio country. 

I think everyone agrees that both of those actions are deplorable. Yet that is far from where the matter ends. A sharp dividing line has emerged between (i) those who affirm that what those British officials approved was awful, yet regrettably that was the way wars were fought at the time; and (ii) those who won’t accept any explanatory context at all. The latter want Cornwallis’s and Amherst’s names (and in the Cornwallis case, a statue as well) removed from public spaces.

It generally seems that there is nothing anyone on either side could say or write to change anyone’s mind on the other. Their views are entrenched. (My personal view is that one of the goals of studying history is to place the people of the past and their actions in the context of their times, but clearly there are some who do not feel that way. For them, on at least some matters, there is no excuse for doing what today we abhor.)

As I said at the start, this debate over the colonial history of the Maritimes came back to me last week in Bermuda. At the time I was going through an exhibit in the Bermuda National Museum (in the Commissioner’s House within the Royal Naval Dockyard). The opening section offers an extensive look at how slavery was such an all-encompassing and frightful fact of life on the island until well into the 19th century.

In Bermuda — and many other southern islands, not to mention colonial North America, including what became the United States and Canada — slavery was a harsh and cruel reality. It touched, harmed, shortened the lives and killed millions of men, women and children over the span of several hundred years.

And yet — and this was my thought that connects to the Cornwallis and Amherst debates — how come there is no outcry in those former slave societies to have the names and faces of the owners of slaves removed from the public spaces they still inhabit?  

True, I am an infrequent visitor to such places and maybe as a tourist I’m not aware of precisely such debates and protests. I admit that. On the other hand, I have had a number of conversations with residents of different southern isles about the slavery era — which lasted until the 1830s and sometimes much later than that — and the impression I always get from the people who live there is essentially this: That was then and this is now. We have moved on; we have turned the page. (That is me paraphrasing.)

One particularly vivid recollection is of a young Antiguan leading a tour to a seaside cliff of jagged rocks where runaway slaves a couple hundred years ago would toss themselves off to their deaths to be free of slavery. “It’s kind of a sad story,” he said. To say the least, I thought. I was astonished that the young man could distance himself from a place and a history that may well have affected some distant relative of his.

I’m thinking that may be the crux of the matter. Some of us see the past as distant, a matter to be understood, whether it was good or bad, and then move on. Others, a smaller number I suspect, see aspects of the past as a troubling legacy for which we need today to atone.

I fall into the former camp, and think it best to have histories that are multi-layered, which recall not just those at the top of the social pyramid but all the way down, histories that include the stories of victims of oppression and barbarous acts, if that’s the way it was. But at the same time, we should aim to understand that it was not just people’s haircuts, heights and fashions that were different in earlier times. but also their minds. The ways of fighting wars, punishing criminals, pursuing economic goals, respecting or devastating the environment, treating children, respecting women and a whole lot more were often drastically different in the past than they are today. And tomorrow will be different again, for better or worse.

Harsh and cruel elements of our shared past should definitely be acknowledged, and remembered. But vilifying individuals who acted along with many others of their era seems to me not to accomplish very much. Our energy is likely better spent improving the lives of people living today.

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