Until the oil slick started rolling ashore onto their beaches, wild life reserves and fisheries the Cajun people of Louisiana had only one reason to be wary of the British. When they discovered that B.P stood for “British Petroleum” they had two.
This story starts in 1604 when French emigrants settled in the Canadian Maritime Provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Here they established a network of small, closely knit farming communities loyal to the French king and the Catholic religion. The immigrants found their life so idyllic they called their land ‘Arcadia’ after the mythological land flowing with milk and honey. For the next 150 years, these ‘Arcadians’ cultivated the land, maintained a friendly relationship with the native Micmac Indians, and remained neutral in the ongoing conflicts between the French and the British. When Arcadia fell to the British in 1710 the 18,000 or so Acadians living in the area were allowed to remain as neutrals under the terms of the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. It was to be an uneasy truce. The British, concerned that the Arcadians might unite with other French colonies in the region, wanted them out - leaving their prosperous farms for British settlers.
In the 1755, with another war against the French looming, the Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, Colonel Charles Lawrence, decided that it would be prudent to get the Arcadians to sign an Oath of Allegiance to King George 2nd who was a Protestant. Although they had shown no previous enmity towards the British the Arcadians suspected that an Oath of Allegiance might require them to fight alongside the British against their own countrymen…and being Catholic they were not going to bend their knee to a Protestant King. The Arcadians refused to sign and in doing so triggered one of the blackest episodes in British colonial history. The British called it “mass deportation”, the Arcadians called it “Le Grand Dérangement” (The Great Upheaval). Modern commentators could only describe what happened as “ethnic cleansing”.
On the 18th August 1755 Captain John Winslow, supported by armed red coats, issued this order to the Arcadians…
“His Majesty’s instructions and commands, which are, that your lands and tenements and cattle and livestock of all kinds are forfeited to the Crown, with all your effects, except money and household goods, and that you yourselves are to be removed from the Province.”
At bayonet point the Arcadians were marched to the shore, loaded onto ships and transported to the 13 British colonies along the Atlantic seaboard, from Massachuetts to Georgia. To prevent the Arcadian communities reforming again families were deliberately broken up with men and women separated from each other. It was an act of cold-blooded cultural dispersal. Over the next 9 years more than 12,000 Acadians, 3/4 of the Acadian population in Nova Scotia, were forcibly settled throughout North America: from Quebec in the north to Carolina in the South.
Conditions aboard the overcrowded and disease ridden transports caused many deaths. One historian of the time wrote…
“We could almost follow the route of the ships by tracing the corpses that were thrown into the sea.”
Some of the ships sank. The greatest loss of life occurred on December 13th 1758 when the ‘Duke William’, a transport vessel carrying Arcadians from Prince Edward Island sank in the North Atlantic with over 360 people drowned. The sinking of the ‘Duke William’ remains one of the greatest maritime disasters in Canadian history.
In 1756 about 300 Arcadians managed to get to Louisiana which at the time was under French rule. Although they weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms- “all they gave us were swamps, mosquitoes and alligators” - one Arcadian complained, they did find a home along the bayous of the Atchafalaya basin, to the west of New Orleans. By 1764 Arcadians were arriving in Louisiana by the thousand. Here, in the isolated swamps and bayous that fringe the Gulf of Mexico they rebuilt their farms and their lives.
The Arcadians or Cajuns as they now call themselves are still there - jealously protecting their culture, their cuisine, their music, their traditions and their language - a unique mix of 16th century rural French, native American, West Indian patois and English. They are still Catholic and they still bend the knee to no man.
The full tragedy of “Le Grand Dérangement” is remembered in Louisiana, both in their traditional songs and in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s classic, if questionably researched, epic poem ‘Evangeline - A Tale of Arcadie’.
In the poem, Evangeline, “the fairest of maids”, is separated from her lover Gabriel during Le Grand Dérangement. She comes looking for him in Louisiana, only to discover that he has moved on. Finally Evangeline settles in Philadelphia and, as an old woman, works as a ‘Sister of Mercy’ among the poor. While tending the dying during an epidemic she finds Gabriel among the sick, and he dies in her arms…
Suddenly, as if arrested by fear or a feeling of wonder, Still she stood with her colorless lips apart, while a shudder Ran through her frame, and, forgotten, the flowerets dropped from her fingers, And from her eyes and cheeks the light and bloom of the morning. Then there escaped from her lips a cry of such terrible anguish, That the dying heard it, and started up from their pillows. On the pallet before her was stretched the form of an old man... Then through those realms of shade, in multiplied reverberations, Heard he that cry of pain, and through the hush that succeeded Whispered a gentle voice, in accents tender and saint-like, "Gabriel! O my beloved!" and died away into silence. Then he beheld, in a dream, once more the home of his childhood; Green Acadian meadows, with sylvan rivers among them, Village, and mountain, and woodlands; and, walking under their shadow, As in the days of her youth, Evangeline rose in his vision.
Listen to a very moving song about Evangeline recorded by Marie-Jo Therio
Longfellow’s poem is based upon an apparently true story which is equally dramatic. Emmaline LaBiche and Louis Arcenaux lived in Grand Pré in Nova Scotia and were engaged to be married. When the Redcoats came and expelled the Arcadians Emmaline and Louis were separated. The story goes that after many difficulties Emmaline traced Louis to Louisiana where there were reunited under an oak tree that still stands on Bayou Teche in St. Martinville. When Emmaline discovered that Louis had married another she had a mental breakdown that was to mark the rest of her life.
When we consider the terrible things that happen in the world around us - wars and persecution and terrorism and hatred and genocide, we British often take the moral high ground, believing that we could never do such things. But we have done such things as was demonstrated in 1755 in Canada - and tragically, being human, we are capable of doing such things again. When the Cajuns of Louisiana look upon their polluted beaches it isn’t just “British” oil that they see, but also the tears of Evangeline and her only love, Gabriel.
Vainly he strove to rise; and Evangeline, kneeling beside him, Kissed his dying lips, and laid his head on her bosom. Sweet was the light of his eyes; but it suddenly sank into darkness, As when a lamp is blown out by a gust of wind at a casement. All was ended now, the hope, and the fear, and the sorrow, All the aching of heart, the restless, unsatisfied longing, All the dull, deep pain, and constant anguish of patience! And, as she pressed once more the lifeless head to her bosom, Meekly she bowed her own, and murmured,” Father, I thank thee!”
– from Martyn Day