The truth about Cornwallis


If you know Edward Cornwallis’s background and consider Nova Scotia’s Scottish heritage, it’s surprising that more people aren’t part of the effort to get the statue of Halifax’s founder removed from its pedestal in a downtown Halifax park.

Many of the Scottish immigrants who came to Nova Scotia in the 18th and 19th centuries were Presbyterian, settling in Pictou County, but Catholic Scots settled in Antigonish and Cape Breton. Many were descendants of the Highland Scots brutally repressed by Cornwallis and English troops during the Highland Clearances after the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

Cornwallis led a systematic campaign in which his soldiers executed fathers in front of their families, raped and murdered women, burned people alive in houses, destroyed crops, chased off cattle, and fouled wells in a variation of the scorched-earth strategy designed to uproot the Highlanders from their land and force their total surrender to England.

If the scalping proclamation by Cornwallis issued against the Mi’kmaq doesn’t make you think he is unworthy of an honour in a municipal park, then perhaps the genocidal swathe he cut through the Highlands will convince you.

Many people in Nova Scotia have already joined the Mi’kmaq push to get Cornwallis statue removed from the park. Halifax poet laureate Rebecca Thomas says it’s important to remember the “truth” part of truth and reconciliation. “Some people are skipping over the truth part because it’s uncomfortable,” she says.

To understand how the Mi’kmaq viewed the British settlement of North America, you need to think of it in terms you can relate to. Thomas says if someone were to come into your home and say “This is mine” and claim all your stuff, but then you said “Hey!” and defended yourself, no reasonable person would accuse you of being the aggressor. “It was an invasion,” Thomas says.

Author John Boileau, chairman of the recently-formed Halifax Military Heritage Preservation Society, suggests otherwise. He acknowledges that there was prolonged conflict between the English and the Mi’kmaq, who were allies with the French, but points to the peace treaties of 1725–26.

“[The Mi’kmaq] acknowledged King George as the rightful possessor of the province,” Boileau says and this treaty was reaffirmed in 1749 on a ship in Halifax harbour. Three representatives, two Maliseet and one Mi’kmaq, met with Cornwallis.


Rebecca Thomas

The record shows that Cornwallis asked them if they remembered the treaties of 1725–26 and their response was recorded as “some of us were present when it was made.”

Boileau says Cornwallis thought the Mi’kmaq had welcomed him. But not all tribes were represented and the ones that were welcomed him under the pretext that the British would not expand their settlements.

But expansion is exactly what the British had in mind as they offered free land to entice settlers to North America. Mi’kmaq historian Daniel Paul, author of We Were Not the Savages, says the British had already violated the treaties of 1725–26 by sending surveyors into unceded Mi’kmaq territory so that they could give it to “suitable Protestant settlers.”

Paul challenges the notion that the Mi’kmaq welcomed the British; they had lived here for millennia and were content in a thriving society that lived off the land. Though there were treaties and times of peace, the British were essentially invaders in contrast to the French, who adapted to the Mi’kmaq way of life (hunting, fishing, and living off the land, with frequent intermarriage) and assimilated in their new country, much the same way some 21st century Canadians expect immigrants to assimilate now.

Earlier in the summer that Cornwallis arrived, some New England fishermen attacked a Mi’kmaq village near what is now Canso and killed all the women and children. Though not ordered by Cornwallis, it was perpetrated by white, English-speaking people who were subjects of the British Crown.

The attackers faced no legal consequences for the actions. This attack is not mentioned in modern times nearly as much as the Mi’kmaq assault on a sawmill in Dartmouth in 1749, which many cite as a justification for the scalping proclamation issued by Cornwallis.

The attacks reflect the fragile truce between the Mi’kmaq and the British of which historians traditionally told a one-sided version until Paul wrote the first edition of his book in 1993.


Daniel Paul

Still, there are those, such as former Nova Scotian Janice Lori (Kidston) Schmitz, who see that attack on the sawmill in Dartmouth as the opening of hostilities and justification for the scalping proclamation because she makes no mention of previous attacks by the British in a letter to the editor published in the Chronicle-Herald in September.

“It was Cornwallis’s job to keep those people safe,” she wrote of the early settlers in Halifax and Dartmouth, suggesting that Cornwallis deserves to be honoured for this, among other things such as establishing a system of roads.

One way for Cornwallis to keep them safe was to abide the earlier treaty, as the Board of Trade urged, and not start a war. As Jon Tattrie explains in his book, Cornwallis: The Violent Birth of Halifax, war is expensive and the businessmen wanted to avoid the expense. They frequently criticized Cornwallis for bad financial administration, and going over budget.

The Board of Trade in London also objected to the bounty Cornwallis put on Mi’kmaq scalps. “The Board of Trade thought such cruelty might organize all the tribes and they would get together to expel the British from North America,” Paul says.

Boileau says that after the raid on a sawmill in Dartmouth “the English were totally flabbergasted” because they thought they had a peace treaty. He says that Cornwallis only issued one scalping proclamation and that the historical record shows that only one scalp was ever redeemed for the bounty. Paul’s and Tattrie’s books refute this.

One could spend a lot of time disputing history, but for a history that is not well-known and often not fully told, it is better to learn. The Mi’kmaq are happy to have the whole history told as they don’t think it has been fully told by the victors, says Thomas.

Boileau says he has no problem telling the complete history of who founded and settled in Nova Scotia. “Let’s explain the whole story,” he says, adding that he has “absolutely no difficulty” with renaming Cornwallis Park.


John Boileau

His preference is that the statue stays there and additions are made to expand on the story and provide information about Cornwallis and others. For many Mi’kmaq, though, the statue has to come down, say Thomas and Paul.
Boileau says he doesn’t think the statue honours Cornwallis, but Thomas disagrees. “It is an honour,” she says. “All paths lead to feet of Cornwallis who is on a massive pedestal. It says ‘come stand in reverence at the feet of this man.’”

She and Paul would like to put the statue in a museum and inform people about him in a historical context.

There are some who were disappointed that the statue didn’t get toppled this summer, but some think it is better to have it taken down willingly than by force. “If Mi’kmaq activists and their supporters take down the Cornwallis statue before we are given an opportunity to cooperatively forge a better way forward, we will set back progress that is already being made,” Mayor Mike Savage said in a statement. The statue remains 86 years after it was erected while an expert panel, which includes four Mi’kmaq representatives, will begin deliberations against a backdrop of a sharply divided public. (The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs and HRM have submitted their nominations for their respective halves of the eight-member committee. Halifax Council hasn’t ratified the picks as of press time.)

Halifax’s “history” survived for 179 years between the time Cornwallis left and the statue was put up in 1931. Thomas thinks it will ultimately come down. “I’m eternally optimistic,” she says. “It has to in order for reconciliation to move ahead.”

Thomas says that anyone who truly wants to reconcile, will welcome the truth. “We want our humanity back and it’s so, so terrible that we have to ask the people who took our humanity away from us to give it back again,” she says. “And for anyone who doesn’t want to participate in that, it makes me so very sad that they can’t see that they hold a part of who we are and if we really want to get better, that they need to be willing to let that go.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong year for the Battle of Culloden. The text above has been corrected. Halifax Magazine regrets the error.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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