Edward Cornwallis, the 18th century & History

Published December 12, 2015 by A.J.B. Johnston

Cornwallis statue


The controversy surrounding Edward Cornwallis — his statue and anything else that carries his name — continues. So much has been said already about Cornwallis’s authorization of scalp bounties on Mi’kmaw men, women and children that I don’t intend to add much to the debate. But I do have a few things to say.

Mi’kmaw historian Dan Paul correctly points out that what Cornwallis authorized would in today’s context be called genocide. I agree. Back in the mid-18th century, however, what Edward Cornwallis approved was far from exceptional. Similar scalp bounties were approved by other British colonial governments in New England, and here in the Maritimes the French administration at Louisbourg paid Mi’kmaw warriors bounties for the scalps of British colonists that were brought to their stronghold. From my point of view, the issue surrounding scalp bounties has less to do with Edward Cornwallis as a demonic figure and more to do with the time period in which such repugnant crimes could be committed and considered normal.

Building on that last point, I suggest that Halifax take the presence of the Cornwallis statue as a teaching opportunity. Rather than remove it, leave the statue where it is and add a commemoration to the Mi’kmaq facing it. That new commemoration to the Mi’kmaq would need to be of equivalent stature, not some mere token panel. On the other hand, a few panels setting the context for why there are dual commemorations would be in order.

As a society, we have come to a new awareness in recent decades of some of the injustices of the past. The Cornwallis statue gives us an educational opportunity we should not lose.

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