September 16, 2012
THE ACADIAN DIASPORA
By Christopher Hodson
Oxford University Press
I feel immeasurably smarter after having read The Acadian Diaspora. The author, a history professor at Brigham Young University, has tracked the quintessential Cajuns across the globe, from their Canadian origins to their arrival in Spanish Louisiana. So much happened to the clannish French-speaking refugees between their expulsion in 1755 and their settlement in our neighborhood some 25-30 years later, that it’s remarkable these proud, rugged, world-class farmers should have survived intact.
Hodson’s story of the Acadian diaspora, or grand dérangement, is profound and, in some places, simply jaw-dropping in its accounting for a people’s struggle to be something other than pawns in an imperial game. For the first century, the Acadians lived in the shadow of the diplomatic Mi’kmaq tribe, along the Bay of Fundy, in today’s Nova Scotia. The hardy Europeans built up 10-foot-tall, strong sod dikes to protect their farmland. But the constant competition between England and France resulted in the Seven Years’ War, which ruined the hopes of New France.
Despite the Acadians’ credible professions of neutrality, they were at the mercy of the victorious British, whose policy was fixed. Some 8,000 of the settlers escaped into the forest to launch a guerrilla war against the invaders; but the majority stayed put, and said a long goodbye to the lives they had known.
Split up and deposited on vessels heading for various ports — Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston — they should at least have been a welcome addition to the City of Brotherly Love. Yet, the displaced Acadians knew not where they stood: Are we “Subjects, Prisoners, Slaves, or Freemen?” they asked anxiously.
Virginia’s royal governor branded them “bigotted Papists,” and did not mourn the hundreds who died of disease or malnutrition.
Their Catholicism did not sit well with the American colonists, and before much longer the Acadians were returned to France, where King Louis XV and various officials devised strategy after strategy to relocate them to French possessions. Disturbed at once by the idle ways of uninspired white settlers and the ever-present threat of slave rebellion, government administrators proposed a list of challenging sites where, they imagined, only the loyal Acadians could turn fallow land into imperial profit. There was Belle-Île-en-Mer, an island off the French coast, Cayenne (Guiana) in South America, Ile de France (Mauretius) in the Indian Ocean — even the Falklands, closer to the South Pole than to France. But none of these places proved attractive enough to excite the underemployed Acadians.
In narrating the story of the Acadian farmers and their intense political trials, Hodson explains the popular agrarian theories of the mid-18th century that show why the Acadians were placed in limbo for so long. In their desire for a diversified agriculture to render slavery unnecessary, the French physiocrats were a most intriguing group — the Francophile Thomas Jefferson was a friend to physiocracy. They believed in entrepreneurship, which required first stripping the clergy of its vast holdings, then replacing stupid peasants with committed yeomen, and promoting early marriage and lots of children — a demographic solution.
The great puzzle that weaves its way through Hodson’s narrative is this: why Acadians were never properly repatriated on their return to the French homeland in the early 1760s. After all, the French were impressed by such a people, who struck them as “big, robust, hardworking, and very fecund” — the last of which quality celebrated the hardy country wives. Simple, sociable and adept at their trades, the former Canadians were ultimately treated as tools through whose colonizing fortitude France could revitalize — perhaps completely remake — its unhappy, slave-driven possessions.
Spurred by the efforts of a promoter, Jean-Jacques Leblanc, a mass migration of Acadians occurred that took the French nationals off the royal dole once and for all. Despite promises, the King of France had not set aside lands for them, and word from brethren who had found happiness in Louisiana planted new hopes. The place was susceptible to the ravages of nature; but the Acadians had braved harsh conditions in Canada for generations.
In 1785, sixteen hundred of the dispossessed gathered in Nantes, on the French Atlantic coast. And so the boats set sail for New Orleans. And so began a new life for this remarkable, indivisible people. You may know what comes next. But the point is, you don’t know what came before — and that’s all the advertisement you’ll need. The Acadian Diaspora is a masterful history, a moving story of exile and transformation and chance.
Andrew Burstein is Charles P. Manship Professor of History at LSU and author of books on American politics and culture. His website is: http://www.andburstein.com.