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The expulsion of the Acadians from the British Colony of Nova Scotia by Governor Charles Lawrence is one of the best-known cases of forced displacement of European colonists in North America.
The Acadians originated from French and they moved and settled at the North American Northeastern region called Acadia. This area was taken over by the British in 1713 and it was renamed Nova Scotia.1 However, the majority of inhabitants in the area remained Acadians.
The British allowed the Acadians to retain their land and continue to practice their culture. In 1955, the British decided to expel the Acadians for a number of reasons. The expulsion of the Acadia is the first major episode of state-sponsored ethnic cleansing in North American history.
The necessity of the expulsion of the Acadians has been debated by historians for a number of centuries. While some argue that the expulsion was unnecessary, some declare that it was necessary for the integrity of the British administration in the region.
This paper will argue that Governor Lawrence who issued the command for the expulsion of the Acadians had sufficient reason and justification to engage in this act.
The Acadians in North America
The Acadians were the French colonists who immigrated to northeastern North America and settled in the region. French immigration into the region started in earnest during the mid 17th century. French settlers moved to the colony and established the Acadian colony.
By the 18th century, the population of the Acadians had exploded and their number was approximated 15,000. However, rivalries among European powers led to conflicts in the region. France and Britain were significant rival powers in North America.
The colony of Acadia was constantly being moved from Britain to French control depending on which country was exerting dominance in the region. In 1713, The British gained control over Acadia following their victory in the Spanish Succession War.
In an attempt to establish lasting peace, the Treaty of Utrecht was signed in 1713.2 This treaty sought to end the war by allocating specific regions to the European powers. The region of Acadia was awarded to the British Empire who began to administer the area.
The British had shown great consideration to the Acadians even after they had gained control over the territory in 1713. Following the victory of the Britons, the French Acadians were allowed to retain their land and property.3
They were also given the freedom to engage in activities just as they had in the past and Britain did not impose her religious preferences on Acadia.
However, the situation for the Acadians changed over the 1740s. During this period, the French and British renewed their war efforts against each other.4
The British began to demand for Acadian support in the conflict. The Britons had asked the Acadians to declare their unequivocal allegiance to Britain. Acadians were to recognize themselves as unconditional subjects of the British Crown.
However, the Acadian delegates asserted that they wished to remain neutral in the event of a war between Britain and their motherland, France.5
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In response to this, a command was issued by Governor Lawrence for the Acadians to be expelled and dispersed to other colonies all over the New World.
Reasons for Expelling the Acadians
The expulsion of the Acadians was justified since Britain needed strong allies in the event of a war. Before the expulsion, the British military had suffered from a major defeat in the North American war in the Ohio country.
At the battlegrounds near Fort Duquesne, the British army had suffered a catastrophic defeat and casualty rates were approaching 40%.6 With such realities, Governor Lawrence needed strong assurance that the Acadians would be on his side in the likely outbreak of war.
The Acadians were not willing to take an oath of loyalty to the British and this brought to question their allegiance. As the Governor of Nova Scotia, Lawrence had the right to take up action to ensure that British territory was protected.
The Acadians were living under British jurisdiction and it was prudent for the governor to ensure that his subjects were loyal to him.
Through their delegates, the Acadians had refused to take the unqualified oath and swear allegiance to the British crown. Governor Lawrence could not be assured that these people would not act as spies in the British governed land.
In spite of their alleged neutrality, some Acadians were involved in military activity against the British. Specifically, British officials had alleged that the Acadians were giving provisions to the French and Indian raiders.
This support from the Acadians made it possible for the raiders to engage in increasingly aggressive attacks against British targets deep in Nova Scotia. British officials confronted Acadian leaders accusing them of colluding with their enemies.
When confronted with these accusations, the Acadians claimed that they had only given up provisions under duress imposed by the French soldiers and the fierce Mikmaq warriors.
While it is conceivable that the Acadians had been forced to offer help against their will, the fact that they facilitated attacks against the British made them a liability to the British.
Governor Lawrence therefore had enough reason to expel them and ensure that the invading enemies would not have any local support.
By the time, Britain was demanding for a “declaration of unequivocal allegiance to British interests” from the Acadians, the war with France had begun. An imperial war was going on between France and Britain with both powers trying to control North America.
In their quest for supremacy in North America, both Britain and France wanted to possess greater territory through military conquest.7 Nova Scotia was one of the regions anticipating war and it could be expected that the French would try taking the province of Britain through military means.
Taylor bleakly observes that various European colonizers butchered and dispossessed one another in violent competition for prime settlements.8 It was therefore prudent for Governor Lawrence to ensure that there were no enemy sympathizers within his territory.
The expulsion of the Acadians was seen as a military necessity by Governor Lawrence. By 1755, Nova Scotia was expecting attacks and it was necessary for the province to fortify itself. The Acadians presented a military risk since they had refused to take a loyalty oath to the Britons.
Governor Lawrence therefore needed to take all the precautionary measures necessary to ensure national self-preservation. Expelling the Acadians was a necessary act since these people presented an internal threat to Nova Scotia.
Douglas and Jones assert that Lawrence acted like the commander of a fort expecting a siege who takes all the necessary precautions to ensure that his Fort is prepared to counter any siege attempts from the enemy.9
The Acadians had a deep relationship with the native Mikmaq Indians who were a constant trouble to the British. Taylor reveals that when the French first established trading posts along the Atlantic Ocean, they engaged in trade with the Mikmaq Indians.
This thriving trade relationship led to the establishment of a small settlement of French peasants beginning in 1636. This French settlement was facilitated by the Indians who assisted the French and transformed the peasants into a new people called the Acadians.10
Frequent intermarriages between the French and the Mikmaq strengthened the bond between these two groups. The harmonious coexistence between the two groups richly benefited the Acadians who were able to prosper and expand their territory.
The relationship between the British and the Mikmaq was not as cordial. The Britain had encroached into Indian Territory and they engaged in violent reprisal of these natives. In retaliation, the Indians carried out raids on the British colonies in America.
The Mikmaq had also acted in collaboration with the French to fight the British. Governor Lawrence cited the Acadian French friendliness with the local Indians as one of the reasons for the expulsion.11
The Acadians were trying to establish independence from any form or outside authority. Governing the Acadians was therefore a hard task for the colonial authorities.
While originally under French control, the Acadians started to demonstrate their independence once they started to prosper in the colony. The Acadians were notoriously independent of any authority that demanded any inconvenience.12
They defied French officials and traded their crops with New England merchants even though the French Authorities had restricted them from doing this. The Acadians rarely paid tax or tithe and they refused to obey their superiors.
The Acadians did not change their attitude towards authority even when the British took control of Nova Scotia from the France and began to rule the region.
The British needed to have a significant fighting force in the event of an attack from the French. In addition to the standing army, the British relied on the colonies to serve in the provincial militia in the event of a war.
The Acadians had made it clear that they would not join either the British or the French in battle.13 However, they were occupying British territory and benefiting from British protection.
The British wanted to replace the French Acadians with English settlers who could be relied upon to protect the crown.14
Governor Lawrence therefore had good reason to expel the Acadians and free up the land for British settlers. These new settlers could be relied upon to serve in the provincial militia against the French and the Indians.
Arguments against the Expulsion
Opponents of the expulsion of the Acadians claim that Governor Lawrence had no real reason for his action. They highlight that the Acadians had remained in the territory for decades without ever allying themselves to the French.
In response to the doubts about Acadian loyalty presented by the British, the Acadians through their delegates claimed, “you will see, that, very far from violating the oath we have taken, we have maintained it in its entirety, in spite of the solicitations and the dreadful threats of another power”.15
This suggests that they were willing to sever ties with the French and live independently. The Acadians wished to be considered neutral people who would not fight against the Britons.
As proof of their loyalty, the Acadians declared that they had never fought for France between 1713 and 1755.16 Instead, they had remained neutral even as their home country had battled out with the Britain in North America.
While this might be the case, the Acadians held some attachment to their French origins. It should be noted that the Acadians refused to swear an oath of allegiance to Britain since they did not wish to take up arms against the French, whom they considered their kin.
Governor Lawrence was therefore justified in expelling the Acadians since their allegiance to the French could not be completely ruled out.
The Acadians had demonstrated a willingness to remain in British territory even when the French attempted to entice them to move to French controlled regions.
Once the region of Acadia had been awarded to the British Empire, the French administration tried to remove the Acadians from the region. French officials wanted the Acadians to settle at the new fortified settlement at Louisbourg.
The French attempted to force the Acadians to relocate into French territory by adopting a policy of destruction and intimidation.17 However, the Acadians preferred the peace and comforts of their well-established farms on British territory.
It is therefore likely that the Acadians would not side with the French in the case of an attack against the British. However, Governor Lawrence would be taking a risk since there was no guarantee of Acadian loyalty.
Governor Lawrence already suspected the Acadians of treachery following the attack on Fort Beausejour where 200 Acadians were captured fighting alongside the French. Expelling the Acadians was the only sure way of ensuring that these people did not turn against the Britons.
Some popular writings on the event have cast Governor Lawrence and the British as villains. In such texts, the British are portrayed as cruel people who engage in the great crime of dispossessing thousands of the peaceful Acadians just because of their French origins and Catholic culture.
Historians record that the expulsion of the Acadians effectively destroyed Acadian society. In a matter of days, the Acadian community, which had established itself in Nova Scotia for over a century, was broken up and families were dispersed.
The Acadians are absolved of any responsibility they might have had for their deportation. It is true that the displacement of the Acadians led to great losses as their way of life was destroyed. However, the British did this in order to protect their national self-interests.
The Acadians were given a chance by Governor Lawrence to save themselves. The refusal by the Acadians to take the oath proved that they could never become loyal subjects to the crown. After that, the Governor had no choice but to displace the Acadians.
This paper set out to demonstrate that Governor Lawrence had sufficient reason to expel the Acadians in 1755. It began by documenting the historical events surrounding this great expulsion.
The paper has articulated that Governor Lawrence’s’ expulsion order was prompted by the failure to make the Acadians into completely trustworthy subjects of the British Crown.
From this paper, it is clear that the Acadians were to blame for refusing to take the loyalty oath that would have proved to the British that they were not hostiles. The paper has taken care to highlight the cruel nature of the expulsion.
It has noted that the expulsion led to great losses by the Acadians who were uprooted from their homes. However, this action was necessary from a military point of view.
Governor Lawrence’s actions served as a final solution of the Acadian problem that had long faced the British in Nova Scotia.
Acadian Delegates. Letter from Acadians in Minas and Pisiquid to Governor Lawrence, read into the Minutes of the Nova Scotia Council, 3 July 1755. Quebec: Public Documents, 1755.
Douglas, Francis and Jones Richard. Journeys: A History of Canada. Quebec: Cengage Learning, 2009.
French, Laurence. Legislating Indian Country: Significant Milestones in Transforming Tribalism. NY: Peter Lang, 2007.
Minutes of the Albany Commissioners of Indian Affairs (MACIA). An Abridgment of the Indian Affairs Contained in Four Folio Volumes, Transacted in the Colony of New York, from the Year 1723–1748. Ottawa: National Archives of Canada, 1820.
Parmenter, Jon and Power Mark. “The Perils and Possibilities of Wartime Neutrality on the Edges of Empire: Iroquois and Acadians between the French and British in North America, 1744–1760.” Diplomatic History 31, no.2 (2007): 167-206
Poliandri, Simone. First Nations, Identity, and Reserve Life: The Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.
Rothbard, Murray. Conceived in Liberty, Auburn: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1975.
Taylor, Alan. “Cleansings”. New Republic 232, no. 20 (2005): 29-33.
Thorner, Thomas. A Few Acres of Snow: Documents in Pre-Confederation Canadian History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.
Wentworth, Benning. Letters from Benning Wentworth to the Duke of Newcastle, 10 June 1744. London: Public Record Office, 1744.
1 Thomas Thorner, A Few Acres of Snow: Documents in Pre-Confederation Canadian History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 41.
2 Simone Poliandri, First Nations, Identity, and Reserve Life: The Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia (Nebraska: U of Nebraska Press, 2011), 200.
3 Thomas, 41.
4 Benning Wentworth, Letters from Benning Wentworth to the Duke of Newcastle, 10 June 1744 (London: Great Britain, Public Record Office, 1744), 35.
5 Minutes of the Albany Commissioners of Indian Affairs (MACIA), An Abridgment of the Indian Affairs Contained in Four Folio Volumes, Transacted in the Colony of New York, from the Year 1723–1748 (Ottawa: National Archives of Canada, 1820) 23.
6 Francis Douglas and Richard Jones, Journeys: A History of Canada (Quebec: Cengage Learning, 2009), 67.
7 Jon Parmenter and Mark Power, “The Perils and Possibilities of Wartime Neutrality on the Edges of Empire: Iroquois and Acadians between the French and British in North America, 1744–1760,” Diplomatic History 31, no.2 (2007): 171,
8 Alan Taylor, “Cleansings,” New Republic 232, no. 20 (2005): 30.
9 Francis and Richard, 67.
10 Alan, 30.
11 Laurence French, Legislating Indian Country: Significant Milestones in Transforming Tribalism (NY: Peter Lang, 2007), 20.
12 Alan, 31.
13 MACIA, 23.
14 Laurence, 19.
15 Acadian Delegates, Letter from Acadians in Minas and Pisiquid to Governor Lawrence, read into the Minutes of the Nova Scotia Council, 3 July 1755 (Quebec: Public Documents, 1755), 247.
16 Francis and Richard, 67.
17 Parmenter, Jon and Power 198