By Jon Tattrie
The first time I wrote about Edward Cornwallis, it was for a front-page article in the Chronicle Herald. A Halifax hairdresser had accidentally run an ad for “real human hair extensions” featuring models posed on the Cornwallis statue. Given the city founder’s notorious role in ordering the scalping bounty against Mi’kmaq people, it led to a hot debate about history, racism and colonialism.
People emailed me, called me at home and wrote letters to the editor. The conversation went national when Cornwallis Junior High was ordered to drop the English aristocrat’s name; it was renamed Halifax Central Junior High.
I wanted know more about him. To my amazement, I found not a single book had been written about him – in fact he barely earned a few chapters. If I wanted to read Cornwallis’s biography, I’d have to write it.
I spent two years digging through the archives and history books. My search led me to experts in Canada, Gibraltar, Scotland and England. I even found Cornwallis’s cryptkeeper in Bury St. Edmond, England.
The result, Cornwallis: The Violent Birth of Halifax (Pottersfield Press), came out in May. Normally, you have to beg for media coverage of books. But Cornwallis was a force of nature: on launch day, I did print, TV and radio interviews from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The launch at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic was standing-room only, with more than 130 people. I fielded increasingly hostile questions. Was I defending a genocidal butcher? Was I trying to rewrite history in the name of political correctness? The moderator had to cut people off as emotions threatened to boil over.
A week later I spoke to Dalhousie’s University Club. At the end of my talk, a prominent historian accused me of fudging the research to bend the book to pre-held opinions.
A week later, someone sprayed graffiti on the statue and I was back for another full media blitz.
“Stepping onto the contemporary battlefield, surrounded on all sides by belligerents with bayonets fixed, the author produces a peace offering,” wrote the Herald’s book reviewer.
That’s exactly what it felt like. I asked myself: why am I doing this? I have a lovely wife and baby son at home. I’m a full-time writer, but books make up a tiny proportion of my income. I’m not in it for the money. I love writing books, but don’t enjoy facing large, hostile audiences. So why?
I wrote Cornwallis not in spite of the controversy, but because of it. It was like that scene in Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers where Roberta Anderson stumbles on a little metal object poking out of the ground. She scrapes away the dirt and eventually excavates an ancient alien spaceship.
The “real human hair extensions” was the pokey metal; this book is the spaceship.
With the truth about Cornwallis now exhumed, I hope we can have a thoughtful post-mortem discussion about history and contemporary identity. Now that we know how Halifax began, we can better map out where we want our city to go.
Nova Scotia has given me a lot. This book is my way of giving a little bit back.
Jon Tattrie is an award-winning author and journalist. Cornwallis: The Violent Birth of Halifax is his third book, after The Hermit of Africville and Black Snow: A novel of the Halifax Explosion.