On 5 September, 1755, over 6,000 men, women and children, many simple farmers and fisher-folk, were imprisoned by the British Crown and ordered to be transported by ship to foreign lands as a solution to the 'problem with the Acadians'. Because of their fierce resilience, and despite their diaspora (enforced expulsion from their original homeland), the Acadians today maintain a distinct culture.
'Acadie' was the name given to North America by Giovanni Verrazano in 1524. Later it was adopted by the French settlers of what would later become the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Their principal settlement was at Port Royal on the Nova Scotia side of the Bay of Fundy. The French Acadians desired to live a peaceful life, but their location to the south of the Gulf of St Lawrence, the gateway to Canada, and to the north of the New England colonies, doomed them to be the occupants of a battlefield contested by the armies of Great Powers.
Acadian lands passed back and forth between French and British control a number of times until 1713, when the Treaty of Utrecht ceded 'ancient Acadia' to Britain. As often happens with treaties, there was disagreement over the meaning of the settlement. France was grudgingly willing to give up Nova Scotia except for Ile Royale (Cape Breton Island) whereas the British claimed all of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, the Gaspe peninsula and Maine. Clearly, there would be difficulties.
France built the magnificent fortress of Louisbourg on Ile Royale in 1713. Britain ignored both their own subjects and the French in Acadia for quite some time, apart from demanding an oath of absolute loyalty. The Acadians, idealistically independent as always, offered a compromise of an oath of neutrality. In 1729, British governor Richard Phillips gave verbal agreement to this compromise. In hindsight, perhaps the Acadians should have asked for it in writing...
Louisbourg fell to the British (who had found an interest in North America) in 1745. Actually, Louisbourg fell to an expedition made up principally of militiamen from the New England colonies, but the victory was claimed by Britain. Much to the disappointment of New England, Britain gave Louisbourg back to France under the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. In 1749 Britain moved its Nova Scotia capital to Halifax with a citadel to match Louisbourg. British colonists began to land in Acadia, backed by British troops. In 1750, the French built the fortress of Beausejour to guard the isthmus. The British built Fort Lawrence three kilometres away.
In 1755, the British decided to end once-and-for-all the problem of having French residents in Acadia.
In 1755, the British demanded again that the Acadians swear an unconditional oath of allegiance. When the Acadians again offered an oath of neutrality, the British, ignoring the agreement reached by Phillips in 1729, ordered the arrest and deportation of all residents of Acadia who would not swear the demanded oath. First the British captured Beausejour and then declared all French Acadians from Beausejour to Annapolis Royal (formerly Port Royal) - the entire Nova Scotia coast of the Bay of Fundy - to be prisoners. Some escaped to Quebec, but most were put on ships and deported to New England or Britain.
During the Seven Years War which began in 1756, Ile Royal and Ile Ste-Jean (Prince Edward Island) fell to the British and most of the French population was repatriated to France. By 1762, three quarters of Acadia's French population of 13,000 had been forcibly removed. The rest fled.
With the French Acadians expelled, the emptied land was left to the British settlers. Perhaps inevitably, British histories of Acadia portrayed the British settlers as peaceful and the French Acadians as warlike and harassing. This reassuring story was turned upside down in 1847 with the publication of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem Evangeline.
Evangeline tells the story of the expulsion through the eyes of a French Acadian woman, Evangeline, an orphan of seventeen, who is separated from her love by the deportation. Longfellow was told the story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and with Hawthorne's permission, he wrote and published the poem. Evangeline is based on the life of Emmeline Labiche, who was, in fact deported to Maryland and who later made her way to Louisiana. Although Longfellow embellished Emmeline's story, Evangeline has come to represent for many people the truth of the Acadian Expulsion. Evangeline is a symbol for Acadians everywhere of their ordeal and a reminder to all of the cruelties that lie in every nation's history.
After the Treaty of Paris ended the war in 1763, some Acadians made their way home and took the required oath, but most never returned to their homeland. Scattered to Britain and various British overseas colonies - particularly New England - some Acadians settled down and tried to make a life for themselves in a foreign land. A great many of those who landed in New England made their way south to Louisiana, to another land that had been settled by the French, to a land which had also been torn by the struggle of great powers. In Louisiana, soon to become a part of the United States, and particularly in New Orleans, they hoped to be able to reconstruct something of the life they had lost. Although so many had been forcibly transported to English speaking lands, they did not become British; the Acadians became Cajuns.