Acadia: The Golden Years In British-controlled Acadia, life went on. In fact, the Golden Age of Acadia (1713-1743) took place under British rule. During the benign neglect of French rule, the Acadians had been forced to trade illegally with their New England neighbours (whom Acadians had dubbed nos amis l’ennemi, “our friends the enemy”). Now that Acadia was held by the British, the attacks ceased, the smuggling more or less ended, and trade with the English colonies was not only legal, it was actively encouraged. Life was good, the birth rate was high, and Acadia was at peace. For more than 30 years, the colony prospered. The Acadians had an integrated, mixed economy, and they enjoyed a religious freedom not allowed to Catholics in Britain, nor Protestants in France. There was just one problem… Although they didn’t act like it, the Acadians were still a conquered people. And, according to the conventions of the day, conquered people were either (a) deported or (b) defanged. The first possibility seemed more likely, and in the early years the Acadians expected to be expelled at any time. (In 1714 they sowed two years’ worth of crops and didn’t bother planting more, so sure were they that they wouldn’t be around the following fall to harvest it.) The French King wanted them to move to Louisbourg, and a few Acadians were sent to scout the location, but the report they sent back was discouraging. The Acadians were farmers not fishermen, and the thin, infertile soil and poor grazing lands of Cape Breton weren’t suited to their lifestyle. There were other French-held territories to which the Acadians could have relocated, but the British blocked all attempts at a mass migration. They forbade the Acadians from building or importing boats (if they were going to leave, they would have to leave walking) and from selling their property or livestock (if they were going to leave, they would leave empty- handed). Why did the British want the Acadians to stay put? Simple. If the Acadians – who now numbered in the thousands – were to move to Louisbourg, it would have created the largest and most powerful French colony on the continent. So, since the Acadians weren’t going to be deported, at least not anytime soon, they would have to be “defanged” instead. No problem. The Acadians were neither militant nor heavily armed. All that the British needed was to get them to swear an oath of loyalty. Easier said than done. The Neutral French As early as 1714, British governors were complaining about the Acadians’ “argumentative” nature. (The French governors had made similar complaints, noting with a disapproving sniff hat the Acadians were, in effect, “semi-republicans.”) The issue of the oath was a case in point. As a matter of both pride and principle, the Acadians refused to swear an unconditional oath, and they held out for almost 40 years. True, the Acadians had been forced to swear oaths to England on at least two occasions before (once in 1690 after Phips conquered Port Royal and again in 1710 following the final siege as one of the terms of surrender), but after the Treaty of Utrecht, the British wanted to take it even further. They wanted the Acadians to make a solemn vow, “before God,” that they would take up arms alongside the British in times of war. This, the Acadians could not do. “Taking up arms against Britain’s enemies” would, of course, mean taking up arms against France. Even worse, and much more dangerous, it would mean taking up arms against their old allies the Mi’kmaq. The Mi’kmaq were, ironically, far more loyal to France than they were the Acadians, and when word got out that the Acadians were considering “switching sides” the Mi’kmaq made it clear – in not so subtle terms – that they would consider such an act to be a personal betrayal. That is, if the Acadians had taken the full oath, they would have risked making mortal enemies of the Mi’kmaq. It was a very real threat, and it hung over the Acadians’ heads like an axe about to fall. Fortunately, the Acadians were master negotiators and they knew they held the trump card: They could simply leave. When an early British governor threatened to deport them if they refused to sign an unconditional oath, the Acadian delegates said, “Fine, see you later,” and the governor, fearful that they would move to Cape Breton and strengthen the Louisbourg colony with their numbers and expertise, quickly relented. Eventually, the Acadians agreed to a conditional oath, which included the following provisions: • The Acadians would never be required to take up arms against France or the Mi’kmaq • They would be free to leave British territory at any time • The authority of the Catholic priests would be respected The British governor pulled a fast one, however. The above concessions were offered only verbally. The official English-language version of the oath made no mention of them, and stated, simply: “I do sincerely promise and swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King George the Second, so help me God.” Even this was considered too lenient. The British Lords declared it null and void but they were never able to get better terms, and a second oath more or less repeated these terms. From 1730 on, the Acadians were known as “the neutral French” and they lived in peace under British rule. The stubborn neutrality of the Acadians annoyed both the British (who considered them unreliable subjects) and the French (who considered them near-traitors), but the Acadians kept their word. When the English finally did attack Louisbourg in 1745, the Acadians didn’t take sides or get involved. They never led the uprising that France urged or Britain feared, but in the end they couldn’t avoid being pulled into the conflict. Their refusal to take an unconditional oath would come back to haunt them. A Landscape Transformed: The Acadian Dikes Talk about determined. The Acadians turned back the very tides themselves. No small feat when you consider that the Bay of Fundy has the highest tides in the world, rising and falling as much as 15 meters in some areas. During its retreat, the tides of Fundy expose vast swaths of sediment-rich land, and the Acadians developed an ingenious system of drainage and dikes to transform these saltwater marshes into lush meadows. The construction and constant maintenance of the Acadian dikes (unique in the history of North America) required an ongoing collaborative effort on the part of the settlers, something that fostered a sense of both community and solidarity. Having transformed the landscape, the landscape transformed them. Dikes were built along the outer marsh areas. The construction of the dikes demanded enormous amount of work. Sometimes these dikes were built by driving five or six rows of logs into the ground, laying other logs one on top of the other between these rows, filling all the spaces between the logs with well packed clay and then covering everything over with sods cut from the marsh itself. Sometimes dikes were built by simply laying marsh sods over mounds of earth. The Acadians devised a system of drainage ditches combined with an ingenious one-way water gate called an aboiteau. The aboiteau was a hinged valve in the dike which allowed fresh water to run off the marshes at low tide but which prevented salt water from flowing onto the farmland as the tide rose. These efforts were not in vain since the lands, surrounded by the dikes and drained by wooden clapper valves, were completely free of salt and extremely fertile. The immediate result was that the Acadian standard of living, while very rigorous, was greatly enhanced and this very rapidly. After letting snow and rain wash away the salt from the marshes for between two and four years the Acadians were left with fertile soil which yielded abundant crops. This is also one of the reasons that the Acadians hadn’t come into conflict with their Mi’kmaq neighbours. They didn’t encroach on Native hunting grounds. Rather than clear the forests, the Acadians farmed instead on reclaimed lowlands. (Remnants of these original dikes can still be seen in the Hopewell region and in the rich Tantramar meadows.) Cold War in Acadia The peace couldn’t last forever. In 1744, France and Britain were once again at war and Acadia was once again on the front lines. France launched a raid against Annapolis Royal (formerly Port Royal) in an attempt to recapture Acadia, but it failed when support ships did not show up. That winter, the ill-kept soldiers back at Louisbourg boiled over in mutiny. The uprising was quickly put down, and more than a dozen soldiers were charged and eight were hanged, but it didn’t bode well for the future. The Louisbourg fortress was finally completed in 1745 – just in time for its first attack. Aided by British warships, a ragtag band of New England volunteers captured the low hills behind Louisbourg and all but surrounded the fortress. After 46 days, Louisbourg fell. It was a humiliating defeat for France and a valuable lesson for Britain. New France was a colossus with feet of clay, ready to be toppled. The war ended it 1748 and Louisbourg was returned to France, but the peace treaty was little more than a temporary ceasefire, and both sides immediately began making preparations for war. It was less a “peace” than it was an armed truce, a cold war, a sabre-rattling staring match along the Acadian frontier. There is a famous Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Well, things were about to get very interesting for both the Acadians and the Canadiens.
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