The statue of Edward Cornwallis by New York sculp;tor J Massey Rhind had stood in downtown Halifax since erected in 1931. Gone this weekend. PHOTO: hantsheroes-wiki

Statue of Cornwallis, city founder removed: rewriting history?


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Edward Cornwallis was a British career officer when he arrived in the rough lands of Nova Scotia in 1749.

His orders were to create a colony with his 2,500 settlers and soldiers, the first permanent British settlement in the region.  He decided on the location of the new settlement, today the busy port city of Halifax, with Dartmouth on the other side.

As the founder of Halifax, his name is common throughout the region on streets, schools, geographical features, and with a large bronze statue in the city.

Edward Cornwallis painted by Joshua Reynolds in 1756 several years after the officer had resigned as Governor of Halifax IMAGE- Wiki

That statue was removed last week and put in “temporary” storage at the loud demands of local M’ikmaq aboriginals who said he was a bloody murderer who attempted a genocide of their people.

Villain, or victim, or both?

Cornwallis is vilified for his edict to pay a bounty for M’ikmaq scalps, the aboriginal group that occupied the region.   But, who started the atrocities, which occurred on both sides, and which apparently included a French payment for British scalps? These are stories which are very seldom heard in the current politically correct atmosphere which has solely targetted Cornwallis.

The Cornwallis statue being removed by city workers before being sent for temporary storage while the city decides its fate. PHOTO-Craig Paisley-CBC

Cornwallis was given a tough military assignment designed to establish a British presence to counter the French bastion of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, not far away, and the still strong French settler presence in the surrounding region

Although England and France were not at war at that point, the tension was thick and the local M’ikmaq were mostly French allies.

The M’ikmaq were also very concerned about the British presence in their territory.  Apparently inspired and armed by a zealous French priest working as an agent provocateur, they suddenly attacked, murdered, and scalped a group of woodcutters near the settlement.

The vicious sneak attack prompted Cornwallis to issue a proclamation of paying for M’ikaq scalps, an act which has led to his present-day vilification.

British action “cannot be viewed entirely by today’s standards and values, . . . there’s too much present-day emotional weight.” Historian John Grenier

Meanwhile, M’ikmaq raiders attacked and murdered the settlement at Dartmouth some eight times over the next ten years leaving many dead.  In one pre-dawn raid in 1751, a dozen settlers were killed and scalped. An account of the period said, “they spared not even women and children . . . (and among the wounded) . . . the casualties mounted each day for about a month.”

Half the settlers left the settlement by 1752 over fears of attacks, and the settlement was virtually abandoned in later years as sporadic deadly raids by the M’ikmaq continued.

Payment for British scalps

As for paying for scalps, the French priest “Le Loutre” is reported to have paid a substantial sum to M’ikmaq for 18 British scalps.

Another report sent to British church officials by a local priest in 1751 said, “many outrages and most unnatural barbarities (of the Mi’kmaq) at Dartmouth, (which) have so intimidated the inhabitants that they have mostly deserted it.”

Meanwhile Cornwallis attempted peace with the M’ikmaq by rescinding his own scalping edict signing a treaty with one group of aboriginals in 1751.

A group of M”ikmaq women celebrate the removal of the Conrwallis statue and its pedestal in central Halifax
PHOTO: E McMillan-CBC-twitter

This however did not stop the conflict, and frustrated, Cornwallis resigned as governor and left the fledgling colony.

That didn’t solve much, as the conflict under new leadership continued with atrocities on all sides, eventually leading to a much larger British military presence to quell the conflict which also then led to a mass expulsion of the region’s French speakers, the Acadians, who refused to swear allegiance to Britain.

Presentism  (the anachronistic introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past-Wikipedia)

Although the local M’ikmaq are today claiming victory with the removal of the Cornwallis statue, some historians are questioning the reasons.

In a PostMedia article by Len Canfield, American historian John Grenier is quoted saying that actions like those of Cornwallis “cannot be viewed entirely by today’s standards and values, . . . there’s too much present-day emotional weight.”

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4 comments on “Statue of Cornwallis, city founder removed: rewriting history?
  1. Blair says:

    Council acted too fast and gutless… only four members voted the way they felt… mob mentality won the day…

  2. David Parker says:

    Nobody would say our shared history was without terrible consequences. I don’t think anyone can claim innocence. Why are we seeing this “Presentism” in the US UK and now Canada?
    What is behind this?
    In grade 13 and first year university we learned about both sides of conflicts- it was about understanding I think it was called historiographical history? Understanding from the contemporary point of view. A very good way to look at history through the eyes of the folks who lived then. How else would you understand? My issue is how can arm chair self styled historians have the ability to change our view- they either don’t understand or they are doing it for another reason. We are not ignorant we already know Cornwallis wasn’t perfect from some perspectives. But really, tear down the statute? If people view Edward Cornwallis as a criminal then I would refer you to the John Howard Society- “a man is better than the worst he is ever done.”
    Please shed light on this perilous trend- you and independent journalists
    are our defense!
    We should remember we live in a democracy and not bend to the latest pressure group out of fear- politicians need to get a backbone
    Best regards

  3. Stanley Isherwood says:

    While I have some appreciation of the desire to acknowledge the “wrongs” perpetrated so long ago, would it not serve reconciliation better if leadership and bravery on the part of M’ikmaq were celebrated alongside that of the “invaders”.
    From a long time resident of Halifax and student at Cornwallis Junior High.

  4. Roger Morais says:

    So Cornwallis had a bounty on MkMaks” scalp, however where did he get the idea of “SCALPING”? looks like tit for tat on this one and while we’re at it, let’s change history,so as to appease the native, what a sad looking bunch with their feathers and drums.Next on the menu would be Christopher Columbus for discouvering the new world and I hear some aren’t too happy with the results of WW2.No recognition for F.N.”s soldiers