Sunday, March 18, 2012

responses to my edward cornwallis profile

part of my reason for writing last week's cornwallis piece for the herald was to fire up a flare and gauge public response. today's herald ran three letters in response - it would seem i managed to get it equally wrong on both sides of the debate.

the first writer, Brian Sanderson of Wolfville, brings in some great information about voltaire. the french writer's famous quote about byng's execution is, "In this country it is a good thing to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others."

and i readily agree voltaire is more brilliant than i am, and i do include his take on the byng affair in my forthcoming biography. Mr Sanderson makes a compelling argument for lionic leaders like Byng (and he says Cornwallis) caught up in a political maelstrom. it is hard to judge, so i try not to - i have uncovered the actual transcript from the court martial, including cornwallis's own testimony. i didn't have room for it in the article, but will use it extensively in the bio. 

Noella Fisher read it in quite a different light - as a condemnation of cornwallis, and calls to bring down the statue and his name. i don't have any position on the statue controversy. i once did, but have purged myself of opinion in the hopes it will allow me to get to the raw facts and present his life in clear terms, so that we today can better understand our history. 

Len Canfield takes me to task for 'selective use of data' and ignoring the broader geopolitical turmoil. i did try to include as much as i could, but 1,500 words is not a lot for covering a man's whole life - especially a life that was as action-packed as cornwallis's. the three years cornwallis spent here certainly can't be understood isolated - you do have to understand the previous 200 or so years of mi'kmaq, british and french history. i have been studying intensely about this broader period of history and can only hope that Mr Canfield finds the full biography covers it to his satisfaction. 

i don't think i used a '21-st century values and standards lens' in the article, but it is an important bias to watch out for. i will say the 1750s was that long ago though. this year, much of canada is celebrating the War of 1812, which seems quite recent - and it was only 62 years after cornwallis was here, and just a few decades after his death. the past is closer than we think in this case. 

i'm glad to many people wrote - it is a great help toward improving my writing and will hopefully make the biography a better book. 

meanwhile, i've got to get back to the writing itself. 

Voltaire’s version
I was surprised to "Meet the real Edward Cornwallis" in The NovaScotian (March 11). In his zeal to cast shame upon Cornwallis, Jon Tattrie exploits the failure of a British fleet to relieve the garrison at Minorca and the subsequent "arrest and execution of Admiral John Byng."
Voltaire portrayed the matter more brilliantly and far more accurately in his satirical novel, Candide. The admiral was shot "because he did not put a sufficient number of his fellow creatures to death."
Admiral John Byng (and Edward Cornwallis) were caught in what we would now call a "catch-22." Incompetent political superiors needed a scapegoat to placate public hysteria. Having been found guilty for not wasting the lives of his men, Admiral Byng received the mandatory sentence of death.
Voltaire would not be surprised that we are still beset by the same old problems; public hysteria, politicians, and mandatory sentencing.
Brian Sanderson, Wolfville

Expunge Cornwallis
Re: John Tattrie’s article on Cornwallis on March 11. How can our community hold this man, Cornwallis, up as a hero? He not only had a bounty on the natives’ heads (who I might add, had every right to defend themselves from invaders), but he was a murderer of mammoth proportions.
It is time we removed his statue and plaque in Cornwallis Park, the street named after him in Halifax and remove his name from all public places in Nova Scotia and elsewhere. The Halifax Regional School Board got it right when they removed his name from the former Cornwallis Junior High in Halifax. Cornwallis was and is a disgrace to all that is good and holy!
Noella Fisher, Halifax

Change the lens
Jon Tattrie appears to have relied on the "selective use of data" approach in preparing his "Meet the real Edward Cornwallis," particularly comments about Cornwallis’s tenure as Founder of Halifax and Governor of Nova Scotia/Acadia 1749-1752.
Much of the article focuses on Cornwallis’s less than sterling military career prior to, and following, his time in Nova Scotia. There is little context and balance with regard to the geopolitical turmoil of mid-18th century Nova Scotia, the challenges he faced in dealing with the Acadians and the opposing French-Mi’kmaq alliance and why he placed a bounty on the Mi’kmaq.
Rather, we have such sweeping statements as, "Cornwallis implemented the tactics of the Scottish Pacification: terror, brutality and mass killings" and "...the Mi’kmaq and Acadians were chewed up in the middle."
The northeastern North America frontier in the 1700s was beset by hostilities involving imperial rivals Britain and France and First Nations, with scalping and mistreatment of prisoners on all sides. Scalping of combatants and non-combatants in Nova Scotia preceded Cornwallis and continued throughout the 1750s after he had rescinded the bounty proclamation in 1752 prior to returning to England. The bounty did not halt Mi’kmaq raids and they pretty much kept the British contained at Halifax in the early 1750s.
Using a 21st-century "values and standards" lens to view 18th-century Nova Scotia and Cornwallis’s role in our province’s history/development does not always reveal an accurate picture (or biography).
Len Canfield, Halifax
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