According to the National Geographic, the human history of Cape Breton can be traced back to 10,000 years of migration (National Geographic, p.1). Ancient people groups came here to settle thousands of years ago.
But with regards to European settlers, their arrival started in the 15th century when explorers came to visit the area. Some of the first European settlers who came were the Portuguese and the French.
Scottish, Irish, Dutch and English families who were attracted to the beautiful landscape of Nova Scotia followed them.
From the Medieval period, up until the modern age, significant migrations of Europeans transformed Cape Breton into a melting pot of European culture.
Although there is evidence to show that Portuguese sailors and fishermen were the first to establish a settlement in Cape Breton, it was the French who dominated the area in the 16th and 17th century.
The ascension of French rule in the land coincided with the fact that France was the recognized superpower in Europe during this time (Naylor, p.96). But eventually the power of France to dominate Europe and its colonies began to wane in the 18th century (Naylor, p.96).
The decline of France’s military and economic might also coincided with the rise of the British Empire in both Eastern and Western hemispheres.
One of the most significant developments was the success of the British Empire in dominating North America in territories that will one day become the United States of America (Magocsi, p.308).
It did not take long before the British Empire began to expand its colonies to include not only the American colonies but also territories located in Canada.
It was the French who first made a significant impact on Cape Breton’s culture. But the British were also considered as one of the “founding peoples” of Cape Breton (Magcosi, p.308).
The interaction of the British and the French settlers shaped the culture of Cape Breton and its surrounding areas.
The political turmoil in France and its financial woes made it difficult for the once powerful French government to manage its colonies and to expand its dominion in the realms outside Europe. When the French loosen its grip in Nova Scotia, it was the British who took over.
The second major event that significantly altered the cultural landscape of Cape Breton and Nova Scotia was the American Revolution. Before the United States was established, the American colonies were under the control of the British Crown.
When the Americans successfully defeated the British Empire, English soldiers and loyalists to the British Crown had to find a place where they can avail of political asylum. These were families, soldiers and public officials who used to live in the Thirteen Colonies of America.
These people were called Loyalists and considered by many to be Canada’s first political refugees (Simcoe, p.1). Many of them found a home in Nova Scotia and some of them began to build communities within the vicinity of Cape Breton.
It did not take long before the British settlers began to influence a significant portion of Cape Breton’s culture. British influence was particularly evident when it came to politics, the legal system, and religion (Magcosi, p.309).
The influx of settlers who came from the American colonies did not end the migration that shaped Nova Scotia and Cape Breton’s culture. In the early part of the 19th century, Nova Scotia witnessed the arrival of thousands of European settlers. The immigrants were Scots, Irish and Welsh (Wolak, p.1).
There is a need to clarify the English label used to describe these peoples. Technically these people groups came from England and therefore they are labelled as British.
However, the English, Irish, Scots, and Welsh “must be distinguished from one another in any detailed look at Canadian culture since they have generally regarded themselves as separate peoples, and the nature of the cultural baggage that each brought was sufficiently distinct to warrant such consideration” (Magocsi, p.310).
A deeper appreciation of the distinction between these people groups will result in a deeper understanding of how they shaped the culture of present day Nova Scotia and Cape Breton.
Even with the significant waves of migration that altered Nova Scotia and Cape Breton’s cultural landscape, the number of settlers was not enough to enhance the economic and political aspect of the area.
According to one commentary, “At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Cape Breton Island was a thinly settled, extensively forested, and relatively underdeveloped colony of Great Britain … barely 2,500 people lived on the island” (Hornsby, p.3).
The few people who were there developed settlements around the coast. By this time the amalgamation of culture was evident. There were French-speaking Acadians in the Isle of Madame and Cheticamp (Hornsby, p.4).
The Loyalists can also be found in the said area and they were contented to build their settlements around Sydney and the Baddeck River (Hornsby, p.4). The other settlers are from Southern Ireland. At the same time there were Gaelic-speaking Scots.
Cape Breton’s economy was influenced by cod fishery. Cod fishing provided livelihood for the majority of the inhabitants and at the same time, the said industry attracted British mercantile capital and skilled labour.
Canada in general and Nova Scotia in particular began to receive more immigrants from Europe. It has been ascertained that from the 19th century and well into the 20th century, many people groups from Europe began their journey toward Canada and many found their way to Nova Scotia (Wolak, p.1).
Many of those who came were European Jews who wanted to evade persecution in their respective homelands. As a result many of the European Jews who came to Nova Scotia can trace their ancestry to Jewish families that originated in Poland, Lithuania, Germany and Russia.
Ancient peoples were the original settlers in Nova Scotia and Cape Breton. But beginning in the 15th century, European explorers began to establish settlements in the area. There were two dominant “founding peoples” that shaped the culture of Nova Scotia and these are the French and the British.
But the weak economy and military strength of the French government forced them to yield to the British Empire. The political refugees that sought asylum after the American Revolution augmented the influx of British people into the region.
These were the Loyalists from the American colonies. But in the 19th and 20th century, the region saw mass migrations from Europe. It was the influence of the British Empire that significantly altered the cultural landscape of the region.
Nevertheless, one cannot deny the cultural impact of the French people. For example, even in the 21st century there are some inhabitants of Cape Breton that still speak the French language.
Hornsby, Stephen. Nineteenth-Century Cape Breton: A Historical Geography. Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992. Print.
Magcosi, Paul. Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples. UK: University of Toronto Press, 1999. Print.
National Geographic. 2012. Cape Breton. Web. <https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/parks/cape-breton-highlands-canada-park/>.
Naylor, R.T. Canada in the European Age, 1453-1919. Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006. Print.
Simcoe, Elizabeth. 2012. Loyalists, the First Refugees. Web.<http://www.canadiana.ca/>.
Wolak, Arthur 2012. An East Coast Jewel. Web.