Talkin’ Edward Cornwallis Blues

Published May 5, 2016 by A.J.B. Johnston

Here’s hoping this piece will be the last thing I say about Edward Cornwallis and all the controversy that has been swirling around him in recent days, weeks and years.  I was on National Post Radio on May 12 speaking with host Matt Gurney for about 10 minutes, but that wasn’t long enough to say all of this. So I’m repeating some of what I said and adding a bit more.

I think it’s great that Mi’kmaw Elder Daniel Paul has been fighting to have this discussion for years, as part of his life-long struggle for mainstream society in eastern Canada to understand better and show respect for the Mi’kmaq and their culture and history. Through Daniel Paul’s tireless efforts, many have seen the world through his eyes and given him their support on the Cornwallis and other issues.

On the other hand, I am a professional historian, and on that front I understand and sympathize with some of what other historians are saying when they object to some of what is being said to denounce Cornwallis on the radio and in letters to the editor.

It’s tricky seeing merit in both sides, but that’s how it is for me. If you are curious how this plays out in my head, please read on.

  • The 18th century in North America was a violent world, much more violent than many people living in 21st-century North America seem to realize today. It was a time when people from Europe thought it right (and God-ordained) that they could colonize the rest of the world, enslaving millions of Africans (with a monstrous death toll) and pushing back or eliminating the indigenous peoples of the Americas who tried to get in their way. There was not constant warfare, but warfare was never too far from anyone’s mind. All the reconstructed and restored forts we visit today as tourists to learn about the past were originally built to defend a territory from someone else, someone who wished them gone or dead. No one today can justify all the blood that was shed in the colonial era by Africans and the indigenous peoples of the Americas, but we can at least acknowledge a few centuries later that there were many wrongs committed. Edward Cornwallis was a product of that era — and thought and acted the way a great many did.
  •  Violence was also an everyday part of social and (sometimes) domestic life in Europe and in its colonies. Wives had few rights; servants and slaves almost none. Women and those in service could be disciplined with violence up to a certain point without the police or the courts stepping in. And when it came to criminals, the punishment that was typically exacted was upon their bodies, in a spectacle of suffering that took place in a public setting, often with large crowds looking on and sometimes cheering. Brandings, floggings, hangings and worse (being burned or broken on a wheel) were some of the punishments used, including at Louisbourg and Halifax. It makes one shudder to recall that that’s how it was, but that is the truth. And yes, Edward Cornwallis lived in that era.
  • On that same theme of punishing criminals 18th-century style, pirates were sometimes executed and their heads stuck on stakes or their entire cadaver placed in a cage at a harbour entrance to warn other mariners from choosing such a life. Going back into history — across Europe — heads had long been cut off traitors and other enemies and posted in prominent places. It is sickening to think of all this, but it was the way the world was (and still is in some parts of the world.) Scalping is a variation on bringing back a head — but only the hairline is removed and brought back as proof.
  • Despite what is sometimes implied, Edward Cornwallis did not show innovation by introducing a bounty for the scalps of the Mi’kmaq. The British colony of Massachusetts first introduced such a measure against their indigenous population more than a half-century before, in 1689. Massachusetts would reintroduce similar bounties with variations several times again before 1750. New York and Pennsylvania paid bounties for scalps as well. Sometimes the payments listed showed that the scalp of a man was to be paid at about the double the rate for women and boys under 12. These facts make one cringe, but the point is that Edward Cornwallis was following the lead of the most prominent British colonies in North America by introducing a bounty on scalps.
  • Meanwhile, on nearby Cape Breton Island (them known as Ile Royale), the French administration at Louisbourg was encouraging their allies the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet to attack the English settlements and settlers in any way they could, and it was paying for any scalps brought to Louisbourg. There are numerous instances in the financial accounting of government expenditures (bordereaux) that list payments to Mi’kmaw warriors for scalps.
  • I could be wrong, but I believe that Edward Cornwallis’s prejudices about the indigenous peoples, the inevitability of war and the utility of a bounty for scalps were shared by most if not all of his fellow British officers and officials and by most of the settlers. It was the way the world was at that time. This comes home — to me at least — when I read the speech to the troops that Major-General Jeffery Amherst prepared on the eve of the 1758 landing at Louisbourg. (I reproduce some extracts in my book Endgame 1758, p. 197.) Amherst included in his speech a lengthy section on the Aboriginal allies of the French that his British soldiers were likely to meet when they went ashore. He describes them in what today we would describe as “demonizing” terms. Yet Amherst at that point had never set foot anywhere on North American soil. The venomous descriptions came to him, I maintain, because that was how the British officer corps and maybe most contemporary British civilians viewed the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet and other Aboriginal nations of the Americas who were allied to the French.
  • None of the above historical context is offered as a way to diminish the objections that Elder Daniel Paul and others voice about the awful reality that once was bounties for scalps. But for me, that historical context is of crucial importance. It suggests that Edward Cornwallis was a product of his era, not some kind of diabolical figure. I think we can and should learn from the horrors of the colonial era, but when we seek to condemn and denounce it is really a period we should have in our sights rather than any individual actor living then. Americans seem able to do this well when it comes to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers. Most if not all of those revolutionaries owned slaves. So while everyone denounces slavery, today’s African Americans  understand that was the era in which Washington and Jefferson lived and as far as I know are not asking for those Founding Fathers to be taken off the currency or their names and statues to be removed.
  • As for the requests in Nova Scotia to rename places and features that currently bear the Cornwallis name, if the communities that are most affected (and who live there or nearby) want to do that, they should go ahead.
  • I see the prominent statue to the founder of Halifax and the first governor of Nova Scotia in a different light. My suggestion is that the surrounding park be renamed Reconciliation Park and that it be redesigned to feature not just the Cornwallis statue (which will likely have to be shifted from where it is commanding the centre) but also something of equal stature and scale to represent the Mi’kmaq. Maybe that new art will be one or more human figures, or maybe something more abstract. Whatever it is, it should come from and rise proudly out of the culture of the Mi’kmaq.


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