Edward Cornwallis’ troubled history
by Fred McMahon


The Moncton Times and Transcript, The Halifax Daily News

Things got pretty weird at the celebration of the 250th anniversary of the founding Halifax last week.

A local actor playing the city’s founder, Col. Edward Cornwallis, made a surprise appearance at the celebration. He wasn’t supposed to. Cornwallis had placed a bounty on the heads of all Mi’kmaq men, women and children.

Not surprisingly, Mi’Kmaq leaders objected to early plans to give Cornwallis pride-of-place at the celebration. Cornwallis was dropped from the program and Halifax Mayor Walter Fitzgerald sent a letter to Nova Scotian Mi’Kmaq apologizing for Cornwallis’ brutality.

If Cornwallis were alive today, he would be wanted by the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. The MLA (Mi’kmaq Liberation Army) would be feted in Washington. Of course, we can’t judge the past by today’s standards. But we can learn from it.

Standing beside the actor playing Cornwallis, Mayor Fitzgerald quickly proved he had a learning disability. He associated himself with the English settlers of 250 years ago rather than the mixed population of Halifax today. And, the mayor tried to take the sting out of Cornwallis’ policy of ethnically cleansing Mi’kmaq. In an apparent defense of Cornwallis, Fitzgerald charged that Mi’kmaq “probably killed a lot more than we (white settlers) did.”

Fitzgerald was back at it the next day, defending his statement and arguing he simply spoke the truth. This is absurd. The idea that Mi’Kmaq killed more English settlers than the reverse is almost certainly wrong. Just take a look at the population numbers as the 18th century drew to a close.

And, this business of my ancestor being less worse than your ancestor is equally silly. Our ancestors were human beings with the same quotient of kindness and cruelty that characterize all peoples. Fitzgerald’s statement is the same sort of ancient grievance Northern Irish Protestant and Catholics or Kosovo Albanians and Serbs might lobby at each other.

Fitzgerald is right about one thing. All this is long past. We view the world differently today, and it’s sometimes difficult to reconcile our current world view with history.

The United States has had a tough time with its past. Many of the greatest heroes in the U.S. pantheon were slave-holders, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who fathered children with one of his slaves, something long rumoured and now proved through DNA evidence.

Even the Great Liberator, Abraham Lincoln, made racist statements that would knock him out of polite company today and off CNN permanently. Lincoln also said things of real beauty about the equality of humankind and the dignity of slaves and their right to freedom.

Had Lincoln just said racist things, had Washington and Jefferson just been slave-owners, they would not be condemned today – because we can’t post-date their behavior – but neither would they be praised.

They are remembered for the great and good things they did. We praise historical figures when they exceed the understanding of their time, but recognize their human limitations when they fall to the prejudices or cruelty of their day. It’s an important asterisk over the historical record, which helps us distantly see our own limitations.

The problem in dealing with Cornwallis is that there is no offsetting greatness to give reason to celebrate him. I was able to find nothing on the whole World Wide Web about Cornwallis other than a brief description on the Halifax Regional Municipality website. The on-line catalogue of all Nova Scotia universities produced not one book dedicated to Cornwallis.

He appears to have been a run of the mill British officer who got the unpleasant task of setting up a new community of ruffians and scoundrels brought over from England to a harsh, forbidding and isolated place.

There appears little distinguished about the way Cornwallis handled the task, except maybe some unnecessary cruelty, even by the standards of his day. Cornwallis’ successor, Peregrine Thomas Hobson, seems to have changed the attitude of new colony towards Mi’kmaq and to have treated them with greater honesty and openness. Cornwallis resigned in 1752, just three years after founding Halifax, and in the same year Hobson negotiated a new treaty with the Mi’kmaq though this did not entirely end hostilities.

That does not mean we write Cornwallis out of history. An actor representing him should be present at any historical re-enactment, not to celebrate Cornwallis but to be true to history and, more important, as a reminder of history’s lessons. A review of the past does not need to be mere celebration.

Annapolis Royal Mayor Phil Roberts, who spoke at the ceremony, got things right. He called on people to remember “ethnic cleansing” against both the Mi’kmaq and, a little later, the Acadians. Then he described the thoughtful way we should approach such anniversaries. “For many Nova Scotians, it’s not a time for celebration but sober reflection.”