Fort Amherst, or Should We Judge the Past by Today’s Standards?
Here below is a memo I wrote in 2008, back when I was a historian with Parks Canada. I wrote it in response to a request from Mi’kmaw Elder John Joe Sark (a keptin on the Grand Council) that the name “Amherst” be removed from the national historic site in PEI known as Port-La-Joye / Fort Amherst. I am posting it again in 2016 because the issue is being raised once again. I have added only one sentence to the original note: that is the one where I reference the many different rights that we now celebrate but which 250 years ago did not exist.
Every so often someone points out how some of the individuals who were prominent in the 18th century — and after whom various settlements and forts were named — were responsible for actions that are no longer acceptable. Typically, it’s British military figures who get identified because they ended up being the ones whose place-names are still with us. But it is worth recalling that in the context of the era in which those British military figures lived, there were certainly French and Mi’kmaq who also carried out similar acts of warfare or brutality. It was after all, a period of ongoing warfare and there were tragedies and losses on all sides, committed by all sides.
Whether or not it is fair to judge people in retrospect for committing acts we disapprove of today but which were common at the time is a question each person must answer, and there are many perspectives on that subject. Most of the Founding Fathers of the United States, for instance, owned slaves. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, to name only two, were prominent slave-owners. Does that mean that today’s Americans should remove Washington’s and Jefferson’s names from places across their country, and take their faces off their paper money? Or, is it better to acknowledge the complexity of the past and how our society has changed over the years? Personally, I think the latter approach makes more sense.
In recent years there have been complaints about Charles Lawrence (the individual most closely associated with the Acadian Deportation) and Edward Cornwallis (founder of Halifax and associated with scalp bounties on the Mi’kmaq and a get-tough policy toward Acadians). Should their names be eliminated from Lawrencetown, Lawrencetown Beach and Cornwallis Street? Some people feel that strongly, yet most Canadians prefer, I think, to learn about the complexities of the past and the lesser-known negative sides of those former leaders.
In the particular case of Jeffery Amherst, he — like 99.9% of his fellow British officers and administrators — held very strong negative opinions about the Aboriginal peoples of North America who were allied against his troops on the French side. I offer some clear examples of his deeply prejudiced perspective in my recent book, Endgame 1758 (pp. 196-198) from his speech to the troops off Louisbourg. It is important to emphasize that at that point Amherst had not even set foot on North America. His entire life had been in England and on the European continent in a few campaigns. Thus, what we get from Amherst in his Louisbourg speech are widely-held prejudices not his personal opinions based on his experiences and encounters. It is also worth noting that there were Aboriginal warriors on the British side, whom Amherst and other leaders valued for what they brought to the military campaign.
As for the association of Amherst with “germ warfare”, this is a connection that is not quite as clear-cut as Mr. Sark seems to suggest. The allegation comes from the 1760s, when Amherst was commander-in-chief of all British troops in North America and was based in the Thirteen Colonies. A senior officer under his command proposed spreading blankets with smallpox germs among some of their Aboriginal enemies in the military campaign at the time. Amherst’s reply reads as if he appears to sanction the idea, though it is not at all clear that the project was ever actually attempted. Thinking about doing something is not the same thing as actually doing it. Moreover, it was not an idea that Amherst originated.
Rather than delete Fort Amherst from the name of the National Historic Site, a name that dates back 250 years at this point, I think it is a better approach to talk about all aspects of the past. Yes, Amherst was a victorious military leader who demonstrated great skills during the crucial campaigns of the Seven Years’ War, yet he also was a product of his era, when European peoples held deeply entrenched prejudices about all non-European peoples. Those prejudices allowed the slave trade to flourish, in which many millions of Africans were transported out of Africa and those prejudices contributed to the many conflicts that Europeans had with Aboriginal peoples across the Americas across a span of centuries.
To take away Amherst’s name, or Lawrence’s or Cornwallis’ or any other figure from this period of upheaval, would be to lose the opportunities to talk about the complexity of those people and the eras in which they lived. It was an era in which today’s concepts of women’s or children’s or workers’ or many other rights did not exist, and religious and ethnic prejudices dominated most people’s minds.
One final thought: a discussion of the various bad things done by one side in a given era of warfare and conflict will inevitably lead to a discussion of the bad things that the other side(s) did as well. No side was completely innocent or blameless. I don’t think anyone wants to see a game of one-upmanship in which we roll out all the atrocities committed by one side or the other. Rather, we should aim for balance.