"A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from Their American Homeland" by John Mack Faragher...

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“A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from Their American Homeland”

by John Mack Faragher

Norton, 562 pp., $28.95

In 1606, 14 years before the Mayflower reached Plymouth, the sailing ship Jonas made port in Nova Scotia, delivering its first French colonists. Though French fishermen had plied these North Atlantic waters for decades, the new arrivals formed France’s first North American agricultural colony, l’Acadie.

Yale scholar and historian John Mack Faragher tells us in “A Great and Noble Scheme,” the Acadians were not only French. Some had spouses of English, Scottish, Irish or German descent. Others married Native American Mikmaq, producing “mestis,” or children of mixed race.

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While most Acadians were French Catholic, the Church did not prove a uniting entity. Rather, racial and religious tolerance, strong family ties and absolute neutrality in political disputes united Acadians, even as French and British officials fought for control of the maritime region. All the while, states author Faragher, “Neutrality was the Acadians’ defining characteristic and their greatest asset.”

Over 100 years, l’Acadie prospered. Acadians developed amicable trade with native tribes and New Englanders alike, even as they learned to dike and till the marshlands in this rich and bountiful region. Catholic Acadian traders jokingly referred to their Protestant neighbors as “nos amis les enemies” (“our friends, the enemies”). Then, in 1710, when the British gained control of l’Acadie, colonial officers demanded the Acadians pledge absolute allegiance to the British Empire.

As expected, the Acadians demurred, citing imperial treaties and England’s principle of common law as a defense of their right to political neutrality. In 1749, irate British Col. Edward Cornwallis told Acadian deputies, “You deceive yourselves if you think that you are at liberty to choose whether you will be subject to the King or not. … It is only out of pity to your situation, and to your inexperience in the affairs of government that we condescend to reason with you. Otherwise, Gentlemen, the question would not be reasoning, but commanding and being obeyed.”

In August 1755, an anonymous correspondent in Halifax wrote a letter that was picked up and published by numerous colonial gazettes: “We are now upon a great and noble Scheme of sending the neutral French out of the Province, who have always been secret Enemies, and have encouraged our Savages to cut our throats. If we effect their Expulsion, it will be one of the greatest Things that ever the English did in America; for by all Accounts, that part of the Country they possess, is as good Land as any in the World: In case therefore we could get some good English Farmers in their Room, this Province would abound with all kinds of Provisions.”

This published letter was the first public admission of trouble in l’Acadie. In fact, expulsion of Acadians already had begun. A plan many years in the making was methodically executed by government officials: Acadian records and registers were seized and destroyed; Acadian leaders were arrested and isolated from their people; and husbands, wives and children were taken from their families.

British troops rounded up and deported 18,000 Acadians from their homeland to far-flung areas of the British Empire. While some Acadians hid in uncharted forests and waged a futile guerrilla resistance against British troops, others exiled in America’s interior eventually made their way to southern Louisiana; their descendants today are called Cajuns. Even as “le grand derangement” (“the great upheaval”) was being waged, Yankee settlers moved in to claim Acadian lands.

Thousands of Acadians died; innumerable families were permanently separated. Their culture, so centered on strong family ties, suffered a crippling and traumatic psychological blow. More than loss of personal property, this destruction of their cultural linchpin broke the Acadian spirit. Later, in the 19th century, U.S. troops would carry out similar mass “relocations” of Native American populations, but in 1755, this diaspora, so methodical and calculated, represented a unique stain on the face of North American colonization.

Once every decade or so, a scholarly historical work fills a critical gap too long ignored. John Mack Faragher’s “A Great and Noble Scheme” is one of these important volumes. Painstakingly researched, at once poignant and hard-hitting, this tragic history of mass expulsion and dispersion of a people from their homeland demands the attention of every American citizen.