This review appeared in The Eighteenth-Century Intelligencer, N.S. 27:1 (March 2013): 26-30.
Christopher Hodson. The Acadian Diaspora: An Eighteenth-Century History. (An Oxford Study in International History.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xi + 260; notes (213-47); index (249-60). ISBN 978-0-19-973977-6. Hardcover. $34.95
Christopher Hodson has written a significant book whose subject, modest stance and unassuming plain style may cause readers mistakenly to omit to read it, supposing it too narrow or insufficiently theorized. This would be an error. The history of the pitiless expulsion and extirpation of the people who comprised Acadia in the Maritime provinces of northeast Canada in the fall of 1755 (44-46) has hitherto been told as having a somewhat unexpected or unusual ending for a “victim diaspora”1: It is said that in the Acadian case communal and familial bonds, a kind of sustained corporate identity recognized by custom, governments and then law, enabled groups of Acadian individuals to survive in the face of the harshest injustice, and then slowly tenaciously re-form Acadian communities in Louisiana or on small pieces of land not far or near the same spot that they were expelled (southwest Nova Scotia). Hodson's argument is that those groups who survived basically assimilated; they “remade themselves in terms of the landscape” and milieus they found themselves in (63), and those communities that re-formed were radically transformed by their experience, sufficiently to enter into local social and cultural arrangements, while keeping contact when and where they could so as not to lose any previous right to capital (social or monetary). He does not deny that some Acadians traveled thousands of miles to find family members or friends, advertised in newspapers, organized, re-assembled and moved, or stayed put wherever they landed and then managed to assert an integrity of self in the face of corrosive forces (47-51, 196-25). Those groups who survived may be found in many more places than is usually acknowledged (throughout Canada and in the UK, in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Texas, in the Caribbean, and in Mauritius within the Indian Ocean). The typical story of most of the attempts to re-group was one of egregious destruction of whatever was accomplished (often not much) and many, many deaths.
Using the numbers and documents gathered over ten years of research, and concentrating on stories of individuals, Hodson shows the immiseration of large numbers of Acadian people, their deaths, lives of servitude, beggary, treatment as “cattle” or “slaves” (in their words), or as “commodities” (in Hodson's), their abject despair; or their exploitation as a movable laboring community sometimes as the result of aggrandizing, powerful people's geographical fantasies (116-39) and such people's false representations (138, 157-59). Hodson thoroughly undermines the argument that we can explain what happened to the Acadians before and since 1755 (and by implication that of other peoples so dispersed) by examining their technological know-how (referred to as level of “sophistication” or “civilization”), willingness to work hard, or cultural norms (family values, religion, particulars of an ethnicity). Once people are dispersed, displaced, divided up, we see how easily people's cultural norms, their local social capital (to use Bourdieu's term), sentimental ties dissolve, or are bypassed, when the need for food and shelter becomes subject to local arrangements set up to profit the people already on the ground in whose interest it is to move them about (e.g., local ordinances which force parents to send their children to live at a distance from them to work as apprentices, 47). We see how technological abilities are blocked or made counterproductive: we watch militarily-backed treatises adhered by cooperatives of people running governments (local as well as national), and entrenched companies backed by law, prevent the Acadians from holding on to what they built (they are summarily thrown out from the Falkland Islands, 141-2) or from profiting from it (their work is taken over, becomes owned by someone else, from Canada to the Caribbean). Hodson demonstrates that for individuals and family groups with only small or no property, no connections they can call on to enable them to overcome local exclusionary customs, and no military to support them, the ability to control their circumstances and future is extremely limited (169-71). He shows that “ordinary people's safeguards” are long-standing and recognized commercial and familial relationships and also known and understood local economic environments that cannot be misrepresented to them (129-30, 152-61, 176-81).
The pivotal events of other books, the Treaties of Utrecht, 1713 (30-32) and Paris, 1763 (79-80) whereby some French people lost to some British the possibility of enriching themselves through control of over-seas colonies across the globe, emerge in this book as more of the same. Local monopolies on violence (even if private as between individuals and followers), guerilla wars (between the British and the Acadians who hid out in outlying areas of the original settlements); or sudden incursions of maroons, enslaved black people who escaped into the inland forests of the Caribbean (9, 93-100) are just as destructive to unmoored groups of people as these large scale multiple acknowledged government conflicts, or national wars.
To understand what happens to a dispersed people, we need to pay attention to particulars: who were the faces, what the inducement, the means, where the power came from that (in the Acadian case intermixing with other colonialist ventures, including those using enslaved people) led to absurdist nadirs of emigration, slaughter, mass poisonings, executions, community wars, and just plain venality and corrupt pre-arrangements making for squalid, indifferently cruel results, e.g., refusals to let Acadians market their goods in coastal cities and ports and their subsequent deaths by slow starvation. So, in this book history is told through recounting specific documented events, using what is on credible records for historical people which enables Hodson to expose what specific individuals did (11-14), why this or that group of Acadians went along with a project, where the ideas came from, what powerful people's agenda this suited, who were on the take, why the failure. And it offers middling and even subaltern people's utterances, voicing how they entered history and what their fates. After an introduction where Hodson sets out his premises, there are six chapters connected by following related individual's stories, chosen so that the reader travels far (Chapter 3, The Tropics or Caribbean; Chapter 4, the Unknown, which includes the islands in the Atlantic convergence) and sees that the same treatment meted out to emigrants going far reappears inside the US (Chapter 2, The Pariahs), the UK, and France and its nearby islands (Chapters 5 & 6, The Homeland and The Conspiracy). Hodson concludes with how chance and a concatenation of political and geological circumstances led to a few groups of Acadian people settling in Louisiana. For each of its chapters, the book provides full notes for further research.
To appreciate Hodson's achievement, we need to know how the history of the Acadian dispersal has been influentially set forth not just in scholarly history but in fiction, biography, poetry, and today's websites. As mythically set forth in the moving poetry of Longfellow's Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie, now long a site de memoire (10-12) or as told with verisimilitude in popular middle-class novels like Margaret Marshall Saunders's Rose à Charlitte or Rose of Arcadia (1898/99), where--while it's conceded the Acadian characters are impoverished, lack access education, and suffer from traumatic past shaping present electoral arrangements,-- nonetheless, we have traumatic interludes ending in heroic contentment. Still read early 20th century histories and novels (e.g., Willa Cather's Shadows on the Rock) also create a picture of a stable, safe Eurocentric French-Catholic Acadia before the Seven Years or French-and-Indian Wars. This despite Francis Parkman's readable and at one time popular history, which, whatever may be his prejudices, tells a story of continual intense conflict (74-77). Hodson shows us that the earliest experience of the Arcadians was fraught with conflicts with Indians, conflicts between the French and English already there, and attempts to derail the Acadians by the American colonists further south (Massachusetts) who felt threatened by the Acadian successes (15-43).
Ironically, the Acadians’ eventual relative success, though they had little way of protecting it, attracted envy and then a desire to take what they had built and replace the Arcadians with Protestant English-speakers. Hodson puts it that this belief by others in Acadian prowess “would follow them – stalk them – to the ends of the earth” (46). Their attempts to hold on and their notion that they could negotiate from a perceived position of minimal mutual respect aroused retaliation when their enemies perceived how vulnerable they were and what could be done to them. Voltaire may have been accurate when he wrote that “le grand dérangement” (immense upheaval) was “la première épuration ethnique de l'homme blanc by l'homme blanc in Amérique” (quoted in Larochelle “Voltaire du termblement de terre de Lisbonne à la deportation des Acadiens,” The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755: Representations and Reactions, edd. Theodore E.D. Braun and John B. Radner. SVEC 2 (2005):243) – as long as you exclude say the British Isles where one of the actors in the Acadian story, Cornwallis, brutally expelled the Scots highlanders (39, 44). Voltaire was rather testifying to a type of shock not often well recorded until the extermination camps in mid-20th-century Europe.
Hodson’s seems to be the first academic book to cover the wide diaspora across the transatlantic world of the later 18th century into the early 19th century in scrupulous concrete detail. Previous and later 20th-century historians' large books focus on the deportation itself, its sources (with sometimes some earlier history) and its immediate aftermath. Still much respected (I mention it as startlingly recent) is Geoffrey Plant's An Unsettled Conquest: the British Campaign against the People's of Arcadia (2001), an argument that the British intended a “forced assimilation”; Naomi Griffiths's many studies (e.g., From Migrant to Acadian: A North American Border People, 1604-1744), texts by Barry Moody, Marc Milner, and Sheila Andrew, although unflinchingly accurate, give over most of their space to the deportation and first dispersal, and, then, like Plank, jump forward to the later 19th-century conferences for or about Acadians (Naomi Griffiths, “Longfellow's Evangeline: The Birth and Acceptance of a Legend,” Arcadiensis, 11:2 :28-41), or today's communities of people identifying as French and Catholic descendents of Acadians surviving in parts of Canada (e.g., the Magdalen Islands) and (most famously), Louisiana. Emile Lauvrière's several books (e.g., Brève histoire tragique du peuple acadien: Son Martyre et sa Resurrection) are rare for including brief chapters detailing the harsh market imperatives driving some Acadians to the US, the Caribbean, and as far as the Falkland Islands, and telling of the 19th-century creation of an “Irlande d'Amerique” in Canada. Thus, no matter how long-lasting in terms of say an individual life or several generations of lives, the assumptions underlying these studies are that, however terrifying and tragic the dispersal was, it was still an interlude, the people as a people survived and their survival can be explained as the result of their strong ethnic community loyalty.2
Amid the welter of detail that comprises Hodson's texts, I've chosen two characteristic episodes. We encounter glimpses and whole narratives of many otherwise unknown people's lives. In 1762 Jean-Baptiste-Christophe Aublet, a 42-year-old scientist, working for a rich radical philosophers, founded a laboratory in Mauritius to develop nutmeg with a crew of intelligent slaves; cut off by a rival, Pierre Poivre, he freed his slaves (he hated slavery, his own wife and children having been slaves he bought and freed). He returned to Paris to try to develop a project using free people in Cayenne; he would break into the Dutch monopoly and made a pre-emptive strike against the British. He sent a proposal to Versailles, but another more powerful person's project to found a colony also based on white European laborers was deemed more attractive (80-81). Two years later he turned up as a botanist in Mole St Nicholas on St. Domingue (106-14), a military base which it had been hoped would become “a rural bread basket,” but became a stony grave, where literally thousands died of disease and starvation (111-16). Hodson exposes the delusions and selfish perspectives of philosophes, and classical scholars turned geographers (e.g., Jean-Pierre de Bougainville), the tyrannical machinations of aristocrats, powerful office-holders, and mid-level property owners. Among all these, in 1774, Turgot, as Louis XVI's controller general of finances, finds it suits his political alliances and laissez-faire agenda to conspire with an Acadian leader, Jean-Jacques Leblanc, who had projects of his own which he genuinely believed likely to succeed. The two successfully make sure a venture using Acadians inside France (the original Poitou area) fails--Turgot acting because its success was dependent on privileges, closed markets, and perceived corporate rights that Turgot was determined to abolish. In the end whatever little had been achieved disintegrated, partly because local people who had been displaced were incensed (173-96).
Hodson ends his book with the death of Charles White (born Leblanc), a Philadelphian who had made use of far-flung French connection during his life for his successful business, and whose Acadian ancestry is revealed when he deliberately does not make a will in an effort to leave his money to some Acadians relatives he hoped would be told of it. White “counted on greed [and need] to energize those old relationships,” and people did come from Baltimore, elsewhere in Philadelphia and Louisiana in hopes of a legacy (205-12). Christopher Hodson's book resembles V. S. Naipaul's early and then highly original history The Loss of El Dorado: A Colonial History (1969). Hodson's explanations similarly derive from the perceived self-interested bases on which people cooperate, build and destroy one another's lives. Hodson may not have had Johnson's sardonic and eloquent Thoughts on the Falkland Island particularly in mind (he quotes the treatise once, 144), but it's no small merit of this post-colonial study that it provides convincing examples for Johnson's arguments and recent abstruse post-colonial texts (by Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak). Hodson also uncovers analogous fallacies, trampling egoistic behavior, counterproductive customs and laws. Hodson’s book is altogether quieter and more persuasive than others I have read (e..g, Cesaire's Discourses on Colonialism). Hodson is respectful of texts which try to console and inspirit readerships. I suspect he would approve of and hope to see more widely read Marie-Therese Humbert's fine semi-epistolary La Montagne des Signaux, a 20th-century Acadian novel (tellingly not labeled that) set in the Ile Maurice, where education is conducted in English and characters rise in life by going to live in Warwickshire where the family has connections, although their ancestry is both Indian and Acadian and their native or vehicular language French.
1 “Diasporas differ:” see Rogers Brubake, “The 'diaspora' diaspora,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 28:1 (2005):1-19.
2 In addition to Lauvriere, who stresses how long lasting the unfortunate results were, I cite Emma Rothschild as another exception; see her “A Horrible Tragedy in the French Atlantic,” Past and Present 192 (2006):67-108. 2.