Exile Without an End

The first ethnic cleansing in American history.


A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians From Their American Homeland, by John Mack Faragher, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 592 pages, $28.95

"Where is the thatch-roofed village, the home of Acadian farmers– / Men whose lives glided on like rivers that water the woodlands / Darkened by shadows of earth, but reflecting an image of heaven?" So asked Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his epic 1847 poem Evangeline, a Tale of Acadie. His answer was fittingly grim: "Waste are those pleasant farms, and the farmers forever departed! / Scattered like dust and leaves…"

In his remarkable book A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians From Their American Homeland, the Yale historian John Mack Faragher provides the first modern, in-depth examination of the Acadian tragedy that left thousands dead and survivors "scattered like dust and leaves." Previously known for his award-winning books Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer (1992) and The American West: A New Interpretive History (2000), Faragher now not only offers the definitive study of the Acadian chapter of North American history but also argues convincingly why a story that played out from 1606 to 1785 holds sobering, direct, and immediate implications for the present day.

"The point is not to moralize about the past but to better understand it," Faragher writes. The story of the Acadians, French colonists who in 1606 established communities in present-day Nova Scotia that predated both Jamestown and Plymouth to the south, warrants better understanding for several reasons. One, according to Faragher, is that le grande d?rangement, or "the great upheaval," the Acadians suffered at the hands of the British government after nearly 150 years in North America qualifies in contemporary terms as the first example of state-sponsored ethnic cleansing on the continent.

In 1992 the United Nations Security Council created a Commission of Experts to explore the violent situation in the Balkans. The resulting report defined a new term: "?'Ethnic cleansing' is a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas. To a large extent, it is carried out in the name of misguided nationalism, historic grievances, and a powerful driving sense of revenge. This purpose appears to be the occupation of territory to the exclusion of the purged group or groups."

Applied retroactively to the Acadian example, the term certainly fits. Faragher details how the British expulsion of the Acadians was an operation planned years in advance and authorized by the highest leadership, conducted with ruthless military efficiency as spouses and families were separated and scattered across the continent from present-day Nova Scotia to present-day Louisiana in order to eradicate the Acadian way of life. Various motives fueled the policy. Antipathy between the British and the French already was legendary, and the Acadians flouted convention by declaring neutrality and claiming common law rights, as well as recognizing close kinship and alliance with the native M?kmaq. But at the heart of the policy was simple British lust for the fertile Acadian land. As one British colonist wrote in The Pennsylvania Gazette, "by all Accounts, that part of the Country they possess, is as good Land as any in the World: In case therefore we could get some good English Farmers in their Room, this province would abound with all Kinds of Provisions."

Prior to the development and introduction of industrial weaponry, readers learn, deliberate mass murder was not a consistent part of the ethnic cleansing formula. This distinction is useful but academic. Whether or not the British intended to commit murder on top of theft, the hardships created by the expulsion campaign led to the death of approximately 55 percent of the Acadian population. Long before Faragher concludes his gripping account, the reader recognizes that the Acadian experience may have been the first of its kind in North America but certainly was not the last.

The 19th century overflowed with incidents of, as Faragher put it in a recent Salon interview, "an organized campaign, at the state level, organized and hierarchically carried out, to remove all the people of a small nation and ship them elsewhere." The Removal Era of the early 19th century, for example, included a series of military operations that relocated and decimated dozens of American Indian nations, spanned decades, and cost tens of thousands of lives. The most visible example became known as the Trail of Tears, which also resulted in a catastrophic death toll (perhaps as much as 30 percent of the population), this time for the Cherokee Nation.

Looking backward through the late-20th-century lens of ethnic cleansing brings two conclusions into clear focus. First, it reveals how long the tradition of state-sponsored theft, removal, and cultural obliteration has existed in North America. Indeed, it is part of the very fabric of United States history. Though ethnic cleansing reached its peak when perpetrated by the U.S. government against the indigenous nations, its past is by no means limited to Anglo-Amerindian encounters.

This unsettling revelation about the size and span of the tradition leads to a second conclusion: Contrary to the frontier thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner, American history, in this respect at least, is not exceptional. Instead, it fits into the larger pattern of world history and the behavior of nations, including similar patterns in colonial, even imperial, atrocities.

Beyond the issue of ethnic cleansing, there is another reason Faragher's account warrants contemporary attention. The expulsion campaign is important not only because of the North American pattern it began but also because of the way of life it ended. Over a century and a half, the Acadians developed a culture based not on conflict and conquest but on accommodation and interaction. The semi-literate fishermen-traders promoted peace by intermarrying with and adopting customs of the native M?kmaq, who in turn blended the Acadians' Catholicism with their own religion and looked upon the Acadians as family instead of encroachers. Even the name Acadia reflects cultural syncretism: It is best understood as a combination of the French l'Acadie, a corruption of "Arcadia" (by which name the area was christened in 1524 by explorer Giovanni da Verrazano), and the suffix akadie, or "place of abundance," in the language of the M?kmaq. Eventually the distinct Acadian dialect would include ingredients from the M?kmaw?simk, archaic French, and English languages.

The peaceful Acadians grew prosperous thanks to their devotion to trade across ethnic and national boundaries. Since they found themselves on the very edges of imperial authority in a land alternately claimed by the French and the British, they took advantage of the fact that they were not within easy reach of governments; for all comers, they offered free trade without the inconvenience of the tariffs and regulations that were the hallmarks of the mercantilist economies of Britain and France. Furs, guns, rum, crops, and finished goods all passed through Acadia.

With this peace and wealth (not to mention a group emphasis on good food, good drink, and simple merrymaking) grew an unprecedented and almost organic understanding of natural rights. Faragher argues that the Acadians, by repeatedly insisting on their own neutrality and cleverly manipulating the officials who would have bound them to either British or French allegiance, became "premature Republicans." In an era when everyone was subject to some kind of sovereign, the simple, semi-literate, unsophisticated Acadians managed to articulate the belief that, because they had exercised rights and enjoyed liberty for several generations, continuing to do so was their birthright, and they would not relinquish it. What they had earned and maintained was theirs and theirs alone, they argued, by common law right. The same arguments would lead British colonists in North America to declare their independence in 1776.

The Acadians' political thought, like their society, was in many ways ahead of its time. Faragher credits two factors in particular with shaping the unique Acadian way of life. First, the Acadians were ecumenical Catholics, and their faith dictated a certain view of the Other that predisposed them toward developing close relationships with their M?kmaq neighbors. Similar patterns can be traced across the Americas through various first-contact situations: Catholics tended to focus on converting the native population, while Protestants were often more concerned with clearing and obtaining native lands.

Each approach, of course, ultimately built its own shameful legacy. But the Catholic drive to convert presupposed that the natives had souls and thus in some way were related to the colonists. Moreover, the drive to convert the Other often implied the need to know the Other first. From this perspective, the first Acadians approached the M?kmaq as fellow permanent inhabitants rather than a populace to be removed and supplanted. Early communication led to friendships, cooperation, and intermarriage; by the time of le grande d?rangement, the Acadians were the literal as well as figurative cousins of the M?kmaq. After they developed kinship with the natives, it seems the Acadians found it required only a small leap to consider the distinction between French and British all but irrelevant.

A second factor in Acadian thought came from the fact that the Acadians were more of a commercial people than an agrarian one. They knew from firsthand experience that enemies and strangers became friends, or at least civil acquaintances, when the opportunity for trade appeared. In a sense, the "black market" financial success story of the Acadians made them a target for national powers that would steal rather than create such abundance, and then discard the ideas that would make similar accomplishments possible. The Acadians' economic achievements added fuel to their determination to remain free of government control, outside the contest between the British and French empires. In this sense both the Acadians' society and economy required that they maintain their prized neutrality. In Faragher's words, "They couldn't give it up without abandoning their own identity."

To be sure, the earthy Acadians do not fit the stereotypical role of the well-bred, well-read heroes of epic lore. And unlike the other, more memorable republicans of 1776, the Acadians did not push for independence per se; they wanted only to be left alone.

In 1755 the British chose to accept this situation no longer. And by scattering the Acadians and uprooting their culture, the British destroyed an alternate vision of the North American future.

Here the importance of the Acadian example cannot be overstated. The fact that a French community of up to 18,000 existed and even thrived on a policy of accommodation and cooperation with Native Americans and other Europeans suggests that the later North American experience of oppression, ethnic cleansing, and even genocide was not the inevitable conclusion of colonization. The North American story was not written in stone in 1492 or 1607. Had the historical actors been more simple-Acadian and less nationalist-European at heart, Faragher argues, the last 250 years might have unfolded quite differently. Of course comparable dramas continue to play out across the globe, and there are many contemporary groups that might benefit from a case study in how tolerance and trade led to generations of peace and prosperity.

In 2003 Elizabeth II issued a royal proclamation officially apologizing for the British expulsion of the Acadians. Faragher's work proves why it is important not to forgive and forget. Thanks to his compelling, exhaustively researched volume, the Acadian chapter of North American history now can be part of the national and international dialogue, and readers will remember the lessons behind what Longfellow described as "exile without an end, and without an example in story."?