The history of the Americas, from their discovery by Columbus till the founding of modern nation states, has been the struggle among European powers for the largest and richest sections of the continents. In particular, England and France have struggled for control of most of North America. Many tragedies and disasters have marked this conflict, but few have been as heart-rendering as the expulsion of the Acadians in 1755.
“Acadia” refers to what are now the Maritime Provinces of Canada – New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. In 1605, a French expedition under De Monts and Champlain established an agricultural settlement at Port-Royal in present day Nova Scotia. Although Port-Royal and other colonies had very mixed success, there was a gradual increase of French settlement through the seventeenth century. By 1710, the French, or Acadian, population had reached 2,100.
In 1710, Port-Royal fell to the English, and the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 confirmed British ownership of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. By this treaty, the Acadians, that is the French-speaking inhabitants, were allowed to stay or leave the country as they pleased.
The majority of inhabitants of Acadia were French and were still being influenced by agents from France and Quebec. This made their loyalty to Britain very doubtful in time of war. Governor Philipps attempted to get the Acadians to swear an oath of allegiance to King George of England. And Philipps was able in 1729 to get the French settlers to agree to a modified oath, with the understanding that they would not have to fight against the French and their Indian allies.
The Acadians remained neutral during the fighting between Britain and France in 1744-45 in Nova Scotia. In 1749, the British established a new capital for Nova Scotia at Halifax, and began to bring in English-speaking settlers. Because of threats from the French and Indians, most of these settlers remained close to Halifax.
British skirmishes with the French and Indians continued, and a new war between France and England was approaching. Governor Lawrence decided that it was time to settle the Acadian question. He ordered the Acadians either to take an unqualified oath of allegiance to England, or to face expulsion from the colony. At that time, in 1755, there were troops and ships from New England in the area, and it seemed like an opportune time to round up the Acadians and ship them out.
When the Acadians refused to take the oath which might oblige them to fight against France, the British rounded up about 6,000 of the 8,000 Acadians, burned their homes, and shipped them away to the British colonies of Virginia, the Carolinas, and as far as the mouth of the Mississippi River. Several of the transport ships sank, drowning all on board, and the Acadians died from disease and hardship.
Since the expulsion order did not come from London, it has been suggested that Governor Lawrence had personal reasons for the expulsion. He may have been greedy for the land and possessions confiscated from the Acadians. Others say that there was the genuine fear for the English position in North America, and that Lawrence was only protecting the interests of the colony.
Acadians still live in Maritime Canada today. Almost 2,000 fled into the woods and eluded the round-up. Another 2,000 Acadians later returned from exile to take the oath of allegiance.
Many stories were told of their sufferings. One tale relates how on the very day of his wedding, a bridegroom was seized by the British and transported from the colony. His bride wandered for many years through the American colonies trying to find him. At last, when she was old, she found him on his deathbed. The shock of finding him, and his death, soon caused her death. This is the story of Henry W. Longfellow’s poem “Evangeline.”