i turned mr paul's email into this front-page story in the chronicle herald. i watched the storm of controversy in amazement - it was as though the hairdresser stepped on a buried landmine. while he ran for cover, a deep culture war about the meaning of cornwallis blew up across the province.
as the hairdresser put it, "Who would suspect? It’s a public park. If there’s such an offensive connection to it, why’s it there? Why aren’t there warning signs on it?"
last year, i was working for the cbc and covered the renaming of cornwallis junior high. the culture war flared up again - this time with national media weighing in.
i became fascinated with the culture war, and with cornwallis himself. i realized that while i had opinions, i had few facts. following the public debate convinced me most people are in the same situation. i pitched a cornwallis biography to pottersfield press and they accepted it. i've spent the past seven months digging through the nova scotia archives reading cornwallis's letters to london, london's letters to him, council minutes and every book i could find mentioning him.
oddly enough, that does not include a biography - mine will be the first. last month i had done about 80 per cent of the research and 70 per cent of the writing and was getting utterly lost in the vast amounts of information. i decided i needed to focus myself and pitched it as an article to the herald. it ran sunday - you can read it here or below.
rick howe has invited onto his radio show at 5:30pm today to talk about it.
cornwallis is not just about cornwallis. do you remember stephen king's book the tommyknockers? a woman out for a walk stumbles over a bit of metal and starts digging. she finds aliens who take over her life and threaten the world. digging into cornwallis hasn't (yet) yielded aliens, but it has uncovered a secret world buried under canada. it's not a country born of "peace, order and good government," but one born in horrific violence, invasion, war, resistance and rebellion.
the first draft of the bio is close to being done and we're aiming to publish it early 2013. it should be a fascinating journey.
Meet the real Edward
WHEN CORNWALLIS Junior High was renamed Halifax Central Junior High earlier this year, I felt opinion swelling in my throat. From my front-row seat as a journalist, I have covered the controversy over Halifax’s founder, Edward Cornwallis, from naming a school after him to erecting his statue.
Opinion bubbled up to my lips and was about to spew into the world when a little voice in my head asked me: What do you actually know about this man?
I could think of a few things: he founded Halifax in 1749 and he issued a scalping proclamation against Mi’kmaq people. And that he . . . Um. He was born in . . . Er. How long did he live in Nova Scotia? What else did he do? Uh . . .
I felt the pinprick of fact deflating the bubble of opinion. I figured before I judged the man, I should at least get to know him. I headed to the Nova Scotia archives and the Halifax Public Libraries and spent the next few months reading the letters Cornwallis wrote and received in Halifax, the minutes of his council meetings, and the handful of articles and books containing references to him.
Surprisingly, no one has written his biography.
Cornwallis was born in England in 1713. He was the sixth son of Lord Charles, the fourth Baron Cornwallis, and Lady Charlotte Butler, daughter of the Earl of Arran. His family was rich and influential. In addition to expansive estates in Suffolk, they kept a house at 14 Leicester Sq. in London.
His first job came at 12 when he and his twin brother Frederick were appointed royal pages to King George II. "This little appointment . . . explains why the Hon. Edward was so well looked after in later times of great emergency and difficulty," writes historian James MacDonald in an 1899 paper.
Cornwallis studied at Eton College and entered the military in 1730. Lingering in London garrisons, he became a lieutenant, then captain, then major. He took the family’s seat in Parliament when his older brother died. "Up to this date, Cornwallis appears to have lived in an atmosphere of court favour and officialism," MacDonald says.
The first "difficulty," as MacDonald put it, arose from his service in 1745 at the Battle of Fontenoy. Cornwallis’s commander died at the start of the Belgian fight and Cornwallis was put in charge. The battle was a disaster for Britain. Some 2,000 troops died, including 400 under Cornwallis’s command. The best historians could make of it was that Cornwallis helped with the retreat. The streets of London greeted the army with scorn.
Despite the setback, Cornwallis won a prestigious post as groom of the king’s bedchamber.
In 1745, he was placed in charge of a regiment dispatched to the Scottish Highlands. The Jacobites under Bonnie Prince Charlie had raised a massive army and advanced to the outskirts of London before retreating to Scotland. Cornwallis was part of the British forces sent to crush the rebellion.
The final battle came April 16, 1746, at Culloden. The professional British soldiers quickly routed the rebel Scots and killed 2,000 Highland warriors before pursuing them off the battlefield. The slaughter that followed was called the Pacification.
It became illegal to wear a kilt or tartan and an offender could be summarily executed. The ancient clan system was to be dismantled by force.
Cornwallis was in the thick of it. Michael Hughes fought with him and wrote a tract called A Plain Narrative and Authentic Journal of the Late Rebellion. It tells how Cornwallis led 320 men to destroy the house and lands belonging to a rebel leader.
Hughes notes Cornwallis’s "great humanity and honour" during
the systematic hunting down of any man, woman or child displaying any Jacobite sympathies. Such "traitors" were shot dead or burned alive in their homes. Properties were looted and claimed for King George. Patrols
were sent "rebel hunting."
"From hence the party marched along the seacoast through Moidart, burning of houses, driving away the cattle and shooting those vagrants found about the mountains," Hughes writes. The army returned in glory to London.
The historian MacDonald says 1748 found Cornwallis in poor health and his regiment in a "mutinous state." He resigned his command. His benefactor George Montague Dunk, Lord of Halifax, secured him a job as governor of Nova Scotia.
The Fortress of Louisbourg was being returned to the French and Britain needed a fortress to offset it. To that end, Cornwallis was dispatched to found Halifax in the spring of 1749.
The site he selected was in Mi’kmaq moose hunting territory and the sawmill that followed at Dartmouth sat on their vital water highway, the Shubenacadie. Both sides made overtures of peace but both sides clashed. Mi’kmaq warriors, outgunned by the soldiers, launched a guerrilla campaign to contain the English.
Cornwallis saw only one solution. "Without force and without money, nothing can be done," he wrote. London urged him to engage the natives in trade and keep the peace with France, but Cornwallis did not trust the restive province.
He fretted constantly that the Mi’kmaq and their French allies would destroy the nascent settlement. He sent soldiers and the infamous Rangers into the woods to drive them away. Newborn Halifax was heavily fortified.
In October, he issued the scalping proclamation. "To declare war formally against the Micmac Indians would be a manner to own them a free and independent people, whereas they ought to be treated as so many banditti ruffians, or rebels, to his majesty’s government," he wrote.
Cornwallis implemented the tactics of the Scottish Pacification: terror, brutality and mass killings. The scalping campaign, which paid settlers and soldiers to kill any Mi’kmaq adult or child, was designed to drive the rebels from the land claimed by his king.
"The Board of Trade rebuked him for aggression and still more for overspending," says his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
John Grenier, author of The Far Reaches of Empire, describes how Nova Scotia descended into a brutal, Vietnam-like war. Despite the official peace, superpowers France and England clashed in the remote province, while the Mi’kmaq and Acadians were chewed up in the middle.
"The war had bankrupted the colony," Grenier writes. "Parliament had authorized £39,000 for Nova Scotia in 1750, but Cornwallis had spent nearly £174,000."
The settlers were still largely confined to Halifax. Little farmland had been developed and the province relied heavily on supplies from England. The province was an expensive boondoggle — an "ill-thriven, hard-visaged and ill-favoured brat," as one critic later described it.
By 1752, Cornwallis was fed up with defending himself and sick of life in the colonies. He pleaded with London to let him come home. "At my setting out for this province, two or three years at most was the time I was to continue," he reminded his bosses.
He asked that "his majesty would be graciously pleased to allow of my resignation of the government and grant me the liberty of returning home."
He got his wish and left the war-torn province in the fall of 1752.
Cornwallis married in 1753, but his wife died a few years later without having any children. He spent his time with the "Corinthians," a dandyish troop of high-born bachelors. "In London, (Cornwallis) was well known as a leading man of fashion," MacDonald writes.
Duty beckoned and in 1756 he was ordered to join Admiral John Byng on a British fleet to relieve the garrison at Minorca, which was besieged by France.
The ships arrived, but didn’t like their chances.
"To the horror of the brave garrison . . . the fleet sailed away, leaving them to their fate," MacDonald says.
Britain lost Minorca. "Cornwallis shared the odium," MacDonald writes. Byng was arrested and executed. Cornwallis was "almost torn to pieces by the populace" and burned in effigy. His high-placed friends saved him, but the ridicule continued. Newspapers ran cartoons lampooning Cornwallis as more concerned about fashion than fighting.
In 1757, he was ordered to join an expedition to attack the French port Rochefort. The mission faltered. Some saw the French as too strong and wanted to go home. Others said a bold attack could win the day. "Cornwallis unfortunately voted with his superior . . . and the expedition failed," MacDonald says.
This retreat brought more shame, but Cornwallis’s royal connections again saved him. In 1762, he was dispatched to Gibraltar, the "most unhealthy station in Europe," MacDonald says. Over the coming years, he wrote letters to his friends in London, asking for promotion back to England. "No notice appears to have been taken of his request," MacDonald writes.
Cornwallis was only relieved of his post in 1776 when the war office marked him "DD" — discharged dead.
His family titles are extinct — the barony erased in 1823 and the earldom in 1852. "His name is fast coming under the category of ‘Britain’s forgotten worthies’," MacDonald concluded in 1899.
A century later, Cornwallis continues to fade.
Jon Tattrie is a freelance journalist and author.