Edward Cornwallis … one last time

Published February 2, 2018 by A.J.B. Johnston

It continues to surprise me how much emotion there is on the Edward Cornwallis issue. On both sides: those who want anything named after him to be changed and those who take umbrage at such demands.

But then, I spent a quarter century and more studying different aspects of 18th-century Nova Scotia history and after a while a researcher gets used to reading about scalps being taken and bounties being paid. What rarely gets noted in the Cornwallis debate as it has played out is that the French administration at Louisbourg was paying the Mi’kmaq for British scalps at the same time. That’s right, for those who find that surprising, the Mi’kmaq had warriors who were greatly respected (or feared, depending on the side.) They were not always victims; sometimes those warriors were taking the offensive in defense of their traditional territory.

Also relevant, to me at least, is that when Cornwallis introduced his scalp bounties he was essentially following the approach that had been introduced earlier in three other British colonies in North America.

For any historian who has gone through grad school, historical context is all-important. Trying to be succinct, I paraphrase what all historians take to be a truism: that people in the past often thought differently than we do now, just as those in the future will do so as well. We of 2018 will undoubtedly one day be faulted for something we are doing (or not doing) right now. Our warming of the planet comes to mind, as does our preference to not know what goes on in some of the factories that make our inexpensive clothes or slaughter some of our food.

Reduced to its simplest expression, the context argument is that Cornwallis did what he did because that was the approach widely used at the time. His scalp bounties were likely applauded by most if not all British colonists, some of whom may have been the ancestors of people who are today shocked that there were ever scalp bounties in NS. I am inclined to think that Cornwallis was reflecting the prevailing thinking of his era. That may depress some people to hear that, but let’s recall that the 18th century was a time when criminal justice trials ended in public punishments like whippings, branding, hangings and worse. Bodies were sometimes left hanging or put in cages as deterrents. Even more tragic, millions of Africans were regarded as property with no rights who could be enslaved and trafficked around the world. Racism, violence, prejudices, and religious fear and hatred were everywhere. Women and children and servants had few if any rights.

Based on the context argument, I suggest that if it hadn’t been Cornwallis to introduce scalp bounties, it would likely have been another British officer. As already noted, the French were paying the Mi’kmaq for the British scalps they brought to Louisbourg. Cornwallis followed suit.

All of which leads me to this: now that the Cornwallis statue is down, let’s consider talking about understanding and forgiveness. Some day, it will be us being judged by those who come later on, and our spirits will be hoping for some understanding that we also knew not what we were doing in our time.

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