The Three Lives of Edward Cornwallis

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

“The Three Lives of Edward Cornwallis”

John Reid, Saint Mary’s University

Dr. Reid is a widely respected Atlantic Canadian historian, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the current co-editor of  Acadiensis: Journal of the History of the Atlantic Region. Dr. Reid’s principal teaching and research interests include the history of early modern northeastern North America  with a focus on imperial-aboriginal relations in Acadia/Nova Scotia and northern New England.

His topic this evening was the three faces of Edward Cornwallis, the first governor of Nova Scotia in the Halifax era of governance.  The first face is that of the colonial governor – the man who was charged with establishing what was initially seen as an agricultural settlement on the eastern seacoast of Nova Scotia in 1749.  As part of his initial appointment activities he was reminded of the earlier treaties with the First Nations peoples of the area.  The premise of an agricultural settlement is the repurposing and occupation of land. First Nations peoples’ adverse reaction was to be expected and Cornwallis did not shy from his military options. Indeed he favoured, independently of the Board of Trade, a significant response.  There is some evidence in the form of his continued references to headaches that Cornwallis suffered from neurological or mental health issues and these contributed to the shortness of his term in Halifax.

The second Cornwallis is the Cornwallis of commemoration.  Starting with the 1899 RNSHS publication of James S MacDonald’s biographical paper, Cornwallis was seen as a founder – a person to be commemorated not necessarily as a person but as a figure representing that triumph and evolution of the English people in Canada.   Reid traced the commemorative cortege though the activities of Archibald MacMechin, Dugold MacGillivrary, the 175th anniversary of Halifax in 1924, JC Webster’s quest for an authentic portrait and other activates that culminated in the pitch to Canadian National to include a statue as part of their new station development in Halifax.  Unveiled in 1931 the statute was funded mostly by CN when attempts to collect pennies from school children and dollars from governments produced nothing.

The final face of Cornwallis is actually that of Daniel Paul.  A Mikmaq historian who authored “We were not the savages”, Paul’s work was promoted by Premier John Savage in 1993 and the following year was the co-recipient of the Dartmouth Book Award.  Paul’s work brought into the present the actions of Cornwallis in the past – the war against the Mi’kmaq, the offering of bounties – items long forgotten or not mentioned in less recent histories became the central themes in contemporary interpretation of this past.

Reid concluded by saying that the different faces of Cornwallis are products of historical memory rather than reality.

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