Acadia: Peaceful, Prosperous, Stateless

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by Chantal K. Saucier by Chantal K. Saucier

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the Acadian deportation, a cruel episode that left the year 1755 stamped on the collective memory of Acadians throughout the world. By today's standards, most agree that the deportation, at the onset of the French and Indian War, was nothing less than an attempt at ethnic cleansing (the first by Americans against a north American people). At the time, however, the officials who planned the atrocities believed that ridding Acadia of its inhabitants, in order to settle their lands with good English subjects, was "noble." In the Pennsylvania Gazette of September 4, 1755, we find: "We are now upon a great and noble Scheme of sending the neutral French out of this Province, who have always been secret Enemies, and have encouraged our Savages to cut our throats." (Quoted from A Great and Noble Scheme by John Mack Faragher.)

The deportation had several goals. One was the confiscation of what were considered the best cultivable lands in North America, while another was the dispersal of the inhabitants in English colonies in order to assimilate them into the Anglo-Saxon culture. A third, I would argue, was to destroy what was becoming a thriving libertarian community. In fact, the Acadians appear to have been the ones with a great and noble scheme, that of establishing a stateless, free society. But throughout history, few things seem to have upset rulers more than the unwillingness of a people to submit. Some things just never change.

Drawn mostly from peasant stock, the Frenchmen who settled Acadia in the early 17th century left behind a feudal system in which land ownership was denied to them, to move to a continent with vast open spaces where, for the first time, they were able to cultivate a piece of land for themselves. Geographic isolation, the fact that they lived outside the main communication and commercial channels, and the failure of Britain and France to establish a permanent government in Acadia, allowed the Acadian people the free enjoyment of their liberty for more than a century. In The Founding of New Acadia, historian Carl Brasseaux wrote:

The power vacuum existing within the colony during the early seventeenth century and the resulting civil war taught the colonists to think and act in their own best interests. For example, from 1655 to 1755, the century before the Grand Dérangement (as the Acadian dispersal is popularly known), the Acadians did not hesitate to protest the actions of local administrators and clergymen to higher authorities in Quebec and France. When appeals proved ineffective, the colonists resorted to procrastination, subterfuge, and other forms of passive resistance to foil unpopular administrative policies.

[. . . ]. Though paradoxical on the surface, Acadian contentiousness clearly reflects the eagerness of the frontiersmen to protect their newly acquired and highly prized personal liberties from encroachment on any level.

In the literature, officials of the time are cited referring to the Acadians as: half republicans (or republicans before there were republicans), bad subjects, worst soldiers, unruly, stubborn, obstinate, untamable, and ungovernable (more could be found, I'm sure). In 1720, Paul Mascarene said about the inhabitants of Les Mines: "All the orders sent to them if not suiting to their humors, are scoffed and laughed at, and they put themselves upon the footing of obeying no Government." In 1749, the governor of Nova Scotia, Edward Cornwallis, told the Acadians: "It appears to me that you think yourselves independent of any government; and you wish to treat with the king as if you were so."

For one hundred years, the Acadians managed to live peacefully and to remain neutral in a disputed territory while Acadia remained stateless and became one of the most prosperous places in North America. Over the years, Acadians did make pledges of allegiance to England, but they always refused to take any oath that did not include the following (libertarian) provisions:

  • A recognition of their property rights;
  • freedom to keep and practice their Catholic faith;
  • and an exemption from having to bear arms against the French and their allies (allies here meaning the Mi'kmaq people, neighbors and friends to the Acadians).

Acadians also were free traders and they traded with all regardless of the regulations the empires tried to impose on them (at some point, British officials even outlawed commerce between the Acadians and the Mi'kmaq in an effort to brake the alliance that had developed between the two communities). There are reports that Acadians traveled as far as the Caribbean islands, trading their products (which included what was considered some of the best whiskey in North America) for rum and other southern merchandise.

In addition, historians have written that Acadians found all sorts of means to evade taxes and some refused to answer censuses. In the 1671 census, for example, we find that Pierre Lanoue, cooper, "sent word that he was feeling fine and he did not want to give his age."

Because of all this, Acadians were often portrayed as a bunch of outlaws and criminals, while on a political level, they have often been described as being underdeveloped, or as "not quite there yet," because of their lack of state institutions. Few seem to have pondered about whether or not the Acadians viewed a state as desirable. I don't think they did; I believe that they were beyond, not behind.

During this commemoration year, my hope is that Acadians around the world will take some time to reflect, not only on the deportation and the injustices that were committed against the Acadian people, but also on whom the Acadians were before the Grand Drangement and what was really lost. Surely, Acadians are not to blame for the evil acts of the British and American armed forces at the time, but today's Acadians only have themselves to blame for having lost the eagerness to be free.

Chantal K. Saucier, Ph.D., [send her mail] writes from South Louisiana.

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