Spur Halifax: Thoughts on Edward Cornwallis

Published October 10, 2016 by A.J.B. Johnston

I am to speak later today at the Spur Festival in Halifax, on a panel entitled “Our Shared History”. When I was first asked to be on the panel the focus was to be on Nova Scotia’s first governor, Edward Cornwallis, and the scalp bounties he introduced. The panel’s focus has broadened, which is good. A month or so ago, I began to write what I might offer as my opening remarks on the panel. That written text is below. As for my opening remarks, I figure the people in the room want to hear me speak, not read. So I’m just going to highlight some of what is in the text below, not read it.

Reflections on history, Edward Cornwallis and the legacy we have inherited from times past

I would first like to acknowledge that the main reason this panel is being held is because of the years of consciousness-raising the Mi’kmaw Elder Daniel Paul has put in to have people reconsider the colonial period from the perspective of the Mi’kmaq. He was far from alone in that campaign, for Mi’kmaw leaders and Elders have been speaking of such a need for at least 200 years. But in recent years, certainly on the Edward Cornwallis file, it has been Daniel Paul who has been in the forefront of opening many eyes and touching many hearts.

I begin, oddly enough I suppose, by recalling a history conference I attended in Cleveland, Ohio in 1994. A guided bus tour of the city was part of the conference. The guide — a smiling middle-aged woman holding a mic at the front of the bus— began by welcoming our group. And then she said: “When people first settled here there was nothing but wolves and Indians.”

I was shocked. No, more than shocked, I was appalled. Out of the mouth of a smiling  lady came a tie-in between wolves and Indians! It could have been 1694 or 1794, yet it was 1994.

I open with that recollection because I think it underlines how deeply ingrained — generation after generation — have been the fears and hostilities toward the indigenous peoples of the Americas. We have come a long way in recent years, yet let us not forget just how many indignities and how much suffering was visited upon Aboriginal people for a very long time. Looking exclusively at Canada, the past 400 or so years witnessed not only a take-over of most of the original inhabitants’ land, but also an undermining of their languages and customs, treaties that were often ignored, and thousands of Aboriginal children taken from their parents and sent to residential schools “to kill the Indian in the child.” Until 1956, Aboriginal people were not even considered citizens in Canada. It is a shameful record, and it began in the colonial era that is our, or at least my focus today.

As a professional historian trained to think that the context of a time period is important, I feel we should consider an era as a whole before we concentrate overly  on any individual and what he or she did. We are all products of the time periods in which we live. Ideas and sentiments are always “in the air,” creating a climate of opinion or a prevailing mindset. Or multiple, simultaneous mindsets. Thinking back to that woman at the microphone on the Cleveland bus tour, maybe she had absorbed  too many Hollywood westerns and too many TV cowboy and Indians shows of the 1950s and 1960s. That vast racist output could easily have given her an idea that “wolves and Indians” went together.

When Edward Cornwallis arrived in Halifax in 1749 scalp bounties were already commonplace in some other British colonies. Massachusetts first introduced them in 1689, and renewed them several times. New York and Pennsylvania also used that approach. Moreover and perhaps more relevantly,  on Cape Breton Island, then the French colony of Ile Royale, the governor at Louisbourg was paying Mi’kmaw warriors to bring in scalps off British colonists. It was the way war was often waged in this region — and sometimes peacetime too, because no one expected any peace to last long. Let us recall as well the view of the Mi’kmaq, as recorded in the 19th century. That was that in the warfare of the 18th century they had “destroyed far more than they lost.”

The picture I am trying to establish is this: Two and a half centuries ago Nova Scotia was a battle zone,  in its own way like places we see on the nightly news, only with different weapon technologies. Scalping was relatively common, an evolution from an earlier time’s practice of bringing in the entire heads of enemies.

I want to elaborate for a moment on the 18th century in general. Though we might wish to imagine it as primarily an era that produced Mozart and Vivaldi, and elegant furnishings and dress, the period was often shockingly violent. On the European side of things, women, children and workers possessed few or no rights; they could be (and often were) disciplined with violence without charges being laid. Convicted criminals were typically punished not with prison sentences but on their bodies — with floggings, brandings, hangings, and the like. Importantly, those punishments were carried out in public settings before large crowds. And, most telling of all, let us not forget that the 18th century was still a time when Europeans were continuing to capture, enslave, shorten the lives and kill millions of Africans for huge profits, as they had been doing for a few centuries already.

That context, I believe, is crucial to our understanding of Edward Cornwallis and the scalp bounties he introduced. Horrific as we find them today, they were part of a violent era. To zero in and select Edward Cornwallis as the stand alone villain of the piece is, in my opinion, to misrepresent the period. It is an exercise in wishful thinking, that by singling out one actor for retribution today we have somehow corrected the flaws of the past.

My view is different. I look upon the violence of the colonial era — scalp bounties and a whole lot more — as the product of a many centuries-long reliance on horrific means to solve problems people faced, in civilian society as well as in forest warfare. Rather than exceptional, Edward Cornwallis and the bounties were typical. If another British officer had been selected to govern Nova Scotia in the mid-18th century, I think it likely that he would have followed a similar path. (Read, if you’re interested, what Maj-Gen Jeffery Amherst said to the troops before Louisbourg in 1758. The important point is that at that point Amherst had never set foot anywhere in the Americas. The prejudices he voiced were, I contend, in the air in England at the time. See A.J.B. Johnston, Endgame 1758, p. 197)

If we stop and consider the matter, or so I believe, I think it likely that the colonial ancestors of many of us in this room thought and felt in a manner similar to Cornwallis and the other advocates and practitioners of violence in the 18th century and earlier? I think we flatter ourselves if we think our 21st-century viewpoints are so strong and good that our ancestors would shared them 100 per cent. It would have been incredibly exceptional for those alive in the turbulent 18th century to have felt the way we do now.

I am not being an apologist for Edward Cornwallis, or for the French governors at Louisbourg or for the Mi’kmaw warriors who took British settlers’ scalps. What I am trying to do is understand the era in which they lived. I don’t think it was any individual who brought on the kind of warfare we now deplore. I think we should speak less about who was responsible for scalp bounties and more about what was responsible. (The same emphasis, I contend, should also be used with the Acadian Deportation. It was less who decided on that course than what conditions and mindset led to it.)

I do, however, completely agree that is time for us today to address the colonial legacy. I just do not see the point in denouncing Edward Cornwallis as some kind of symbolic scapegoat. Rather, I suggest we face our shared legacy full on, and admit that oppressive prejudices and violence were (and sometimes still are) systemic. Cornwallis was, in my view,  a mere bit player in a tragedy that began well before he was born and lasted long after, through to today.

As for Cornwallis Square, I suggest we re-imagine the space as a part of the city and province where we symbolically address the legacy of the colonial era. As I envision it, the Cornwallis statue would remain, but a Mi’kmaw element and another element, a reminder of slavery, would be added. The park would of course need to be re-designed, with a winning concept coming from a competition for artists and landscape specialists. In the end, the square might be called Reconciliation Square. I see it as a setting where people of all backgrounds come to reflect on how best the present and future can learn from the past.

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