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 Images of Acadia
In Nova Scotia there stands a statue to a woman who never existed. Nevertheless many pilgrims pause in front of her. Some even shed a tear. Evangeline Bellafontaine was the creation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. When his epic poem about her love for Gabriel Lajeunesse was published 150 years ago it became an immediate best seller.

The statue of Evangeline is to be found today in Grand Pre near Wolfville in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. Here it was on September 5th, 1755, that the British military called together a group of French-speaking settlers. In the eyes of Lieutenant-Governor Lawrence these people were French but they themselves preferred to be called `Acadians'. By 1755 they had been living in Nova Scotia for well over a century and they wished to remain neutral in the ongoing colonial struggle between Britain and France.

Acadie was the name that had been given by France to the American maritime territories that it settled in the years after 1604, the date that the first Huguenots arrived in Passamaquoddy Bay. Although the name has clear resonances of rustic bliss (Sir Philip Sydney's Arcadia had been published only fifteen years previously) there is today a strong argument for the role of coincidence in the naming of this French Arcadia. In 1548 the first maps of the area show a place named `Larcadie' which is only one of a number of place names given to the land by local Mi'Kmaq Indians. Acadie may well have been a rerendering in French of the native nomenclature.

Coincidence or not, the Acadians who settled this area found themselves in an exceptionally fertile part of North America and they set about farming it with gusto. These were a people drawn mainly from the west of France, Berry Poitou, Santonage and Touraine, and between 1632 and 1635 the French government shipped out a further 300 colonists to join them. The land prospered and all was looking well in peaceful Acadie.

Unfortunately, however, Britain was also laying claim to this land. In 1621 James I arbitrarily made a grant of lands that included Acadie to Sir William Alexander and grandly named the territory Nova Scotia. A century of uncertainty followed with both the British and French claiming the Acadians' homeland. During one period of rapprochment James' son Charles I peacefully ceded the colony back to France, but for the rest of the seventeenth century the Acadians found themselves caught up in a tug of war between two of Europe's great imperial powers.

With the end of the War of Spanish Succession in 1713 the French colony of Acadie found itself formally handed over to Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht. The victors also gained Newfoundland, the Hudson Bay territory and the rest of Nova Scotia by this peace and they required all new subjects to take an oath of loyalty to the crown. Stubbornly independent, the Acadians put themselves under immediate suspicion by making that oath conditional upon being excused military service against the French, who were then garrisoned at Louisbourg. For the next forty years this continued to be their stance and an uneasy acceptance of these bone-headed French peasants grew up in Nova Scotia, something that came to an end with the events of June 1755. With another war in the offing, the British pre-emptively seized the French fort of Beausejour, near the New Brunswick border. They then claimed to have found 300 Acadians pressed into service there.

This discovery convinced the British authorities that they could no longer rely on Acadian neutrality. They therefore demanded that the Acadians' oath of loyalty now be taken unconditionally. When this demand was refused Governor Lawrence, Admiral Boscawen and Chief Justice Belcher called the Acadian menfolk together in Grand Pre and, on September 5th, 1755, informed the settlers that they were to be expelled from their homeland. This `Grand Derangement', as the Acadians still call it, was not a bloody event, but it was a cruel blow for a French-speaking population who had tried so hard -- and for so long -- to keep out of the conflict.

Nevertheless it is difficult not to sympathise with the British. On the eve of the Seven Years' War the last thing they needed was a major French-speaking settlement so close to Nova Scotia s new capital, Halifax, particularly if the Acadians had proved themselves to be so unreliable. But for these settlers the deportation was a cruel blow indeed. They had been farming the Port Royal Valley for over a hundred years and had succeeded in reclaiming the land around Grand Pre by a system of dikes that can still be seen in operation today. These simple peasants had made the wilderness flower and had even intermarried with the local Mi'Kmaq Indians. This was very much their land.

It was inside the Church of Saint Charles des Mines that the Acadian patriachs were told that their farms, houses and livestock were forfeit and that they should now make arrangements to travel. British troops then torched the Acadians' buildings and, once the land was cleared, the authorities brought in loyal Protestants to farm what had once been Acadie.

The brutality of this act, at a time when war was still conducted according to codes of honour, shocked London society. Nevertheless the petitions written by Acadian settlers to George II were not heeded and a total of 14,000 men, women and children were shipped down the New England coast and put ashore as far south as Georgia.

Longfellow's poem -- which caused a sensation when it came out in 1847 -- dealt with the events of this expulsion. His Evangeline endures many hardships as she searches among the jumble of dispossessed Acadians for her lover. Wherever Evangeline arrives she finds that Lajeunesse has had to move on. They finally meet only in time for her to nurse him through the final hours before he dies.

     Many a weary year had passed since the burning of Grand Pre,
     When on the falling tide the vessels departed,
     Bearing a nation, with all its household gods, into exile,
     Exile without an end, and without an example in story.
     Far asunder, on separate coasts, the Acadians landed; ...
     Friendless, homeless, hopeless, they wandered from city to city, 
     From the cold lakes of the North to the sultry Southern Savannas. ..

In reality Longfellow's noble Acadians did not take their expulsion lying down. Some escaped into Nova Scotia's forests, but the harsh winter of 1755-56 killed many. Of those who arrived in the American south, some stayed in Louisiana -- giving rise to `Cajun' culture -- but many others made their way back to Nova Scotia after the peace of 1763. Those who could not face the long trek home settled in the Ohio Valley and Quebec, some even shipped back to France although they did not settle well into French society, frequently finding themselves in trouble for following the Acadian practice of taking on as many jobs as possible and falling foul of the Corvee.

In 1764, after the Treaty of Paris was signed, the British felt they could afford to be maganimous towards those Acadians who still wanted to return to Nova Scotia. But although they were allowed back into the province the Acadians found their farms had now been taken over by settlers from New England -- and even Protestants from southern Germany. The dispossessed Acadians had to settle themselves in remoter parts of the province and start all over again. Today there are descendants of these refugees in Cheticamp and Isle Madame on the northern island of Cape Breton and in Point d'Eglise on the coastal area of Nova Scotia, that is now known as the French Shore.

Longfellow's poem came out some eighty years later and in the wake of it there was something of an Acadian Renaissance in Nova Scotia, supported by the Catholic Church. An Acadian flag was created (using the tricolour as its base) and efforts were made to preserve the language (although to the ears of today's French visitors Acadian French can sound outrageously rustic). In 1880 La Societe Nationale l'Assomption was founded to raise funds to build a new church at Grand Pre and in 1922 the cornerstone was laid by Bishop Edouard Leblanc who had been appointed the first Acadian Bishop in the Maritime provinces. The church is a replica of the one destroyed in 1755 and it has since been decorated with a series of paintings that depict the events of the Grand Derangement' like the stations of the cross. Outside it -- as a tribute to the power of Longfellow's poem -- stands a statue of Evangeline Bellafontaine. Visitors of Acadian descent from North America often come and lay flowers at this memorial to a woman who never existed, some in tears for the memory of what happened to their people over two centuries ago. A myth has grown up that if you look at Evangeline's face it is sometimes sad and sometimes happy.

Today the Acadians of Nova Scotia are learning to promote their culture as a tourist attraction. They have two major festivals every year: the Festival Acadien de Clare which happens every duly on Nova Scotia's southerly French Shore and the Festival de l'Esconouette in Cheticamp on the northerly isle of Cape Breton. They have also campaigned successfully for education in French (guaranteed under the 1981 Nova Scotia Bill 65).

There is still disagreement among historians about the events surrounding the `Grand Derangement'. Some Acadian historians argue that their people were never in Fort Beausojour and that the British set up this `discovery' to justify a barbaric act against harmless noncombatants.

This century many Acadians on Cape Breton became active in Nova Scotia's phenomenally successful fishing industry, but in recent years the North Atlantic around Nova Scotia has been overfished with devastating effects. Many former fishermen have now turned to running tourist expeditions out into the Atlantic to go whale-watching. This is a people well-adapted to survival. In 1847 Longfellow saw them as essentially tragic. He concluded `Evangeline' with the words:

     Only along the shore of the mournful and misty Atlantic
     Linger a few Acadian peasants whose fathers from exile
     Wandered back to their native land to die in its bosom.

The truth fortunately, is far less depressing for the Acadians seem always to bounce back.

COPYRIGHT 1997 History Today Ltd. (UK)