The Duke William was travelling across the Atlantic Ocean in October 1758, towards France, in a convoy of nine other vessels, loaded with 360 people who had been torn from their home and forced to find a home elsewhere.
Those on the ship had spent a month sitting off the coast of Canso, Nova Scotia, waiting to leave while foul weather raged through the area. Now, three days out to sea, the ship had become separated from the other ships in the convoy, one of which would sink with 213 people on board.
For two weeks, the Duke William sailed before it met another ship in the convoy, the Violet, which was sinking beneath the waves as the Duke William approached. A squall would hit on Dec. 11, as the people on the Violet were loaded onto the Duke William.
In the hull of the Duke William, the crew and passengers were pumping out water after the ship had sprung a leak, a process that would continue for three days.
Captain Nichols would record in his log quote:
“We continue in this dismal situation three days, the ship, notwithstanding our endeavors, full of water and expected to sink any minute.”
Nichols would tell the crew and the Acadians that they must be content to their fate and submit to Providence.
Twice, as the ship slowly sank, two ships were seen in the distance, but neither one came to help.
Three small boats were aboard the Duke William, designed for cargo not for lifesaving measures. The leader of the people on board, Noel Doiron, told the captain that he should save himself and his crew, as the boats could not take all the Acadians.
Two boats were lowered into the water, carrying the captain, his crew and a parish priest. The priest would salute Doiron from the lifeboat.
The Duke William sank off 97 kilometres off the coast of France at 4 p.m. on Dec. 13, 1758. Over 360 people would lose their lives, including Doiron, his wife, their five children and their spouses, and over 30 grandchildren.
Those 360 people were just a small portion of the 5,000 Acadians who would die in their journey for a new home, after their former homes were taken from them.
The Acadian Expulsion was a landmark moment in the history of Canada. It would alter Canadian culture forever, and it would lead to the formation of other cultures elsewhere in the world. If not for the Acadian Expulsion, there would not be a New Orleans as we know it. There would be no French Town in Baltimore, no French heritage in Connecticut, no Mardi Gras. Even the word Cajun, comes from the anglicized word for Acadian.
From Aug. 10, 1755 to July 11, 1764, 11,500 Acadians, representing nearly 81 per cent of the population of Acadians in the Maritimes, would be sent out from their homes.
The story of the Acadians begins at Port Royal in 1604, where a small and vibrant colony was established near the Bay of Fundy.
Captain Isaac de Razilly would be named the Lt. Governor of the King in New France, and he would recruit many people to colonize what would become Acadia. The first official Acadian settlement would appear in 1632 and it is from that settlement all Acadians would be descendant.
The settlers there built dykes to tame the high tides and to irrigate the fields for growing hay. Despite the region being part of New France, France cared little for these settlers and the Acadians developed an independent mindset for themselves. Rather than fight against the local Indigenous, the Mi’kmaq, they would work with them and become their allies. For the Acadians, their early survival was tied to their cooperation with the local Indigenous people. Both groups would also intermarry as early as 1626, with Mi’kmaq living with the Acadians and vice-versa.
The name Acadia comes from the Mi’kmaq word cadie, which means place of abundance. The Mi’kmaq would teach the Acadians how to survive in the area and would trade with them extensively.
From 1632 to 1636, there were a number of sailings from the French Atlantic coast to what would be defined as Acadia.
This was not a utopia though, and two French governors who had been appointed to the area launched what has been called the Acadian Civil War. Both had been granted territory by King Louis XIV, but he had drawn the territories in a geographically uniformed manner, and the two territories over overlapped. Beginning in 1635, Governor Charles de Saint-Etienne de la Tour, who was a Protestant, launched attacks against Charles de Menou d’Aulnay, a Catholic, for control of the territory. The civil war would last for about a decade, when d’Aulnay expelled la Tour from the area. The war left hundreds dead, and in the end it was all for nothing. In 1650, d’Aulnay died and three years later, la Tour married d’Aulnay’s widow.
For nearly the next century, the Acadians would see their territory move back and forth between various European powers. From 1654 to 1667, they were under the control of the English, and then fell back under the control of the French on July 31, 1667 with the signing of the Treaty of Breda. By this point, there were 300 Acadians living in the area, consisting of 60 families.
In 1674, the Dutch conquered Acadia and named the region, New Holland. The Dutch would leave the region in 1678 and it would once again return to the French. Over the next few decades, the Acadians would begin to move out from Port Royal and create new settlements in the region.
In 1713, the land of the Acadians once again transferred to the British. A decade and a half later, in 1730, the British asked the Acadians to promise to remain neutral in any conflict between Britain and France. While the Acadians remained out of European matters in the region for the most part, France and Britain continued to jockey back and forth for control of the region.
For the Acadians caught in the middle of the European powers, they didn’t want to be involved and they celebrated their independence. More often than not, they didn’t want to swear allegiance to the French anymore than they did to the British.
Both sides tended to leave the Acadians in peace because the Acadians had been established in the area for nearly a century by this point. They were skilled at growing in the area, and their food was traded with the British and French. That same skill would worry the British who felt it helped the French.
One British administrator would say quote:
“So their skill in the fishery, as well as the cultivating of the soil, must inevitably make that island . . . at once the most powerful colony, the French have in America, and of the greatest danger and damage to all the British colonies as well as the universal trade of Great Britain.”
France would establish the Louisbourg fortress on Cape Breton Island, leading the English to establish a naval base at Halifax. When Fort Beausejour was established by the French in 1751, the British built Fort Lawrence close by.
In June 1755, Fort Beausejour fell to the English and inside, 270 Acadian militia were among the troops. Governor Charles Lawrence saw this as a violation of the agreement from four decades previous, which would begin the movement towards the Acadian Expulsion.
He would meet with the Acadians the following month, pressing the delegates to accept an oath of allegiance to Britain. The delegates, having been part of a culture that had enjoyed relative independence for over a century, naturally refused. There is some debate over this though. When the Acadians were ordered to surrender their guns, they refused as they needed them for hunting. Lawrence saw this as insolence, so he pushed the allegiance swearing but many Acadians apparently said they would do so but only if they did not have to bear arms against France. Lawrence saw this as refusing to become English subjects, and therefore considered the Acadians rebels.
Lawrence would write quote:
“Those who won’t conform themselves to the laws of any government don’t deserve its protection.”
Lawrence, and those who supported him in his council, who themselves were supported by new English settlers, wanted Acadian lands. The Acadians had spent a century building up the lands they had settled, and those lands were coveted. With the area now a British colony, many questioned how what they considered to be an enemy, were allowed to occupy the land.
On Sept. 5, 1755, all males over the age of nine were told to gather at the Grand-Pre Church for a proclamation from Lawrence. He would read quote:
“That your Land & Tennements, Cattle of all Kinds and Livestocks of all Sorts are forfeited to the Crown with all other your effects Savings your money and Household Goods, and you yourselves to be removed from this Province.”
The Expulsion of the Acadians had begun.
Charles Morris would be the man who would devise the plan to begin the expulsion. On Aug. 10, 1755, a warm day as the Acadians filed into church for Sunday services, Morris had the churches surrounded where as many of the men as possible were captured as they attended church. While the men were rounded up, the dykes around the communities were breached, while crops and houses were burned to the ground.
For the men who refused to leave, their families were threatened at the end of bayonets.
By the end of supper, 1,100 Acadians had been removed from their lands and transported to South Carolina, Georgia and Pennsylvania. The English did not want to send any Acadians to New France out of a worry that it would strength New France against the British.
Under orders to deport the Acadians, not all British officers were happy with what they had to do. Colonel John Winslow would read the deportation order but would state that despite it being his duty, it was disagreeable to his nature, make and temper. He would state quote:
“It is not my business to animadvert but to obey such orders as I receive.”
Effectively, he would use the phrase many others would in the face of atrocities. That he was simply following orders.
It was from stories such as this that the poem, Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie, would be published in 1847 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He had heard the story of young lovers parted during the deportation almost a century earlier, who only reunited at the end of their lives.
Not all Acadians went quietly into the night though. Some such as Joseph Beausoleil Brossard would launch a guerilla warfare campaign against the British, with the help of their allies Mi’kmaq. Many Acadians escaped into the forests, which forced the British to spend the next five years hunting them.
In the spring of 1756, a wood gathering party was ambushed by Acadians and Mi’kmaq and nine of the party were killed. That same year, 100 Acadians ambushed 13 soldiers near Fort Edward. Six men escaped, but the rest were taken prisoner. One year later, that same band of Acadians and Mi’kmaq raided Fort Edward and Fort Cumberland, killing two men and taking two others prisoner.
These raids would continue for years. In 1758, 40 Acadians and Mi’kmaq ambushed five British soldiers on patrol and killed them. The raids were bad enough that most in the Lunenberg Peninsula had abandoned their farms by the end of May 1758 and retreated to the protection of town fortifications.
For those who did not retreat from their farms, they took their lives into their own hands. From July 13, 1758 to April 20, 1759, 14 settlers and soldiers were killed, including one child.
On April 4, 1759, Acadians captured a transport ship and then used it to attack the Moncton, which they chased for five hours in the Bay of Fundy.
Over the course of the next eight years, 11,500 Acadians would be deported out of the region to make way for British settlers. For those who were pushed from their homes, the hardship was only beginning.
The Acadian Expulsion would be conducted in various campaigns. The Bay of Fundy campaign was the first in 1755, followed by the Cape Sable campaign one year later.
Beginning in April 1756, Major Jedidiah Preble and his troops captured 72 men, women and children. Two years later, Major Henry Fletcher and the 35th British Regiment blocked the cape and the troops entered, eventually capturing 100 Acadians, while another 130 Acadians and Mi’kmaq escaped.
From September 758 to July 1759, various raids were held by the British to find Acadians, using two men-of-war ships and 325 soldiers. In one incident on Oct. 28, the women and children were captured and sent to Georges Island, while the men were forced to work destroying their village, before they too were sent to the island for deportation.
During this campaign, nearly 500 Acadians were deported.
After the French lost the Siege of Louisbourg, thousands of Acadians were deported from Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton Island. The campaign to remove Acadians from Prince Edward Island would see the largest percentage of deaths of the Acadians.
The two ships I introduced you to in the beginning, the Duke William and Violet, both came from this campaign.
Of the 3,100 Acadians deported after the fall of Louisbourg in 1758, 53 per cent would die by drowning or disease.
The same year that Louisbourg fell, the Gulf Of St. Lawrence campaign was conducted, involving Brigadier General James Wolfe, the future hero of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. His force spent September of that year clearing out villages, and destroying 200 fishing vessels, while taking 200 people prisoner.
In February 1759, Colonel Robert Monckton led a force of 1,150 British soldiers to destroy Acadian settlements throughout what is now New Brunswick. The British started at the mouth of the Saint John River and moved up the river, destroying communities as they went.
On Feb. 18, 1759, the force burned Ste. Anne’s to the ground, consisting of 147 buildings, two churches and various barns and stables. They also killed all the hogs, five head of cattle and 212 horses.
The Acadians were shipped across the continent and over the Atlantic Ocean. Many were put into English colonies where the hope was they would assimilate into the culture, while others were sent to France and the Caribbean.
The first wave of expulsions mostly sent the Acadians to New England. In Maryland, 1,000 Acadians settled and lived in a section of Baltimore that would become known as French Town. Irish Catholics in the community also helped the Acadians by taking orphaned children into their homes. Connecticut took in 700 Acadians, and like in Maryland, the Acadians were made to feel welcome and aided in their settlement.
For the English colonies that the Acadians were shipped to, they were not informed of their arrival and suddenly found themselves dealing with the influx of hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of new residents. Various communities refused entry and the Acadians were forced to wander until they could find a home for themselves.
In Pennsylvania, 500 Acadians were forced to spend months on their vessel in port, while in Virginia, they were refused entry because no notice of their arrival had been given. They were detained in Williamsburg where hundreds died of malnutrition and disease. Those that survived were sent to Britain and kept as prisoners until the Treaty of Paris in 1763.
Those that had offered the most resistance to the British were sent to the Carolinas and Georgia. Over 1,400 Acadians were shipped there and forced to work on plantations.
Threats of the Acadians fleeing to French controlled regions worried the British. As a result, the second wave of expulsions sent the Acadians to France.
As was mentioned, over 1,000 died on the Duke William, Violet and Ruby, all of which sank in 1758. About 3,000 Acadians were sent to France, while the Acadians sent to Britain were housed in crowded warehouses that were rampant with disease.
Despite popular belief, the Acadians were not shipped into Louisiana directly. Many of the Acadians were familiar with the culture there and they would be drawn to the area to settle, eventually becoming the Cajun culture that is synonymous with Louisiana.
With the Acadians now pushed off their land, settlers from New England moved in, changing the cultural makeup of the Maritimes forever. Those settlers found the dykes built by the Acadians to be destroyed or in disrepair, and they would use the imprisoned Acadians to rebuild the land they had been torn away from.
The Acadians would be allowed back in 1764, but they would choose to settle far from their original homes, in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton.
In the end, the Acadian expulsion proved to be completely unnecessary from a military perspective and later generations would deem it to be an inhumane act and a dark chapter in the early history of what would be Canada.
The man who initiated the expulsion, Lt. Governor Charles Lawrence, would not live to see it end, having passed in 1760.
In December 2003, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, who had succeeded the first Acadian-descendant Governor General Romeo LeBlanc, acknowledged the expulsion in a ceremony but did not apologize for it. She would designate July 28 as A Day Of Commemoration of the Great Upheaval.
Every December 13, the day the Duke William sunk, is now honoured as Acadian Remembrance Day.
Information from Biographi, Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Wikipedia, Ottawa Citizen, CBC, Historica Canada, Government of Nova Scotia, Canada History Project, Upper Canada History, National Post,