In 1755, during the early days of the Seven Years’ War/French and Indian War between France and Britain, thousands of French farming families living in Nova Scotia were forcibly deported by British troops. The dislocation of the Acadians, as these French colonists were called, became almost a mythical example of the injustice and brutality of 18th-century warfare.
Although several thousand Acadians would eventually return to their homeland, thousands more, often separated from their families, ended up as far away as the West Indies and Louisiana, where the refugees became known as Cajuns.
Although the French were first to exploit the fur, fishing, and farming potential of the New World, France had trouble persuading its citizens to live in the wilderness at the mouth of Canada’s St. Lawrence River.
Meanwhile, British colonies, especially those of New England, soon overtook French colonial holdings in both population and hunger for land and wealth. Along what became the Canadian border, French and British colonists frequently trespassed on each other’s claims, regularly enlisting the help of friendly Native tribes.
In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht ending the War of the Spanish Succession redrew the political map of Europe and dealt to Britain control of Hudson Bay and Newfoundland. In addition, fertile lands occupied by the Acadians for several generations were no longer New France but now became British territory.
At first, British authorities assured the Acadians that their farms would be safe and their beliefs respected. But Britain also demanded that its new colonists swear loyalty oaths and give up any notion of fighting for France in future conflicts.
Most Acadians declined to take the oath, considering themselves French neutrals. As tensions in Europe between Britain and France escalated and played out in their respective colonies, neutrality—hard to achieve under the best of circumstances—became untenable for both sides.
By the spring of 1755 the British believed that 300 Acadians had taken up arms in support of France. In July Acadian leaders were summoned to Halifax and ordered to take loyalty oaths immediately. A month later the British rounded up their recalcitrant French subjects and put them on ships for deportation.
Historians disagree on the magnitude and brutality of this mass deportation. The number of Acadians affected has been estimated between 6,000 and 18,000 people. Many families were separated and many had trouble finding a place to relocate.
Some believe family separations and dislocations were unintentional results of mistakes and confusion; others have likened British actions to modern-day ethnic cleansing.
In 1847 American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow made the Acadian expulsion the subject of one of his extremely popular epics. Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie told of young French-Canadian lovers torn apart by war and politics.
A sensational success, the poem kept alive remembrance of British misdeeds, both among French Canadians, now subjects of British Canada, and the Cajuns of Louisiana who traced their heritage back to Acadia.