The Acadian Diaspora. An Eighteenth-Century History

Hodson, Christopher
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Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Tom Tölle, Princeton University

In 1755, British regulars and Massachusetts militiamen forced thousands of French-speaking families – the so called Acadians – to leave their British colony for an unknown future. Sometime in December 1758, eight miles east off Lands’ End, the hopes of c. 360 of these refugees for a new beginning ended in the freezing water of the British Sea (p. 168). A letter in the Pennsylvania Gazette detailed their desperate attempts to save their souls[1]: On November 29, they had discovered five feet of water in the hold of the Duke William. For days and days the forced migrants successfully struggled together with the British crew that was deporting them to fight a common fate. They pumped the water out. They used boats to fix the hull. They prayed and they mourned. When the leak opened again, however, not even four pumps and all the industry in the world could save the ship.

Anthony Benezet, a Quaker and French-born abolitionist, who introduced the narrative in the Gazette, framed the story as a struggle of virtue against providence. The Acadians, he explained, were ordinary Catholics, prejudiced and lacking education. Yet, they were virtuous rustics. They had potential and skills. They could, he believed, be made useful. Drowning in the cold water with their tools literally in hand, while their priest and the British crew mounted a tiny boat, they seemed to underline the reputation that they exploited and that haunted them to the last minute: that they were a free-floating reservoir of ideal, industrious peasants and a commodity for future imperial expansion.

Christopher Hodson’s new book places their dérangement at the heart of an eighteenth-century history. His main caveat to the existing literature, which has either focused on their expulsion or on the restoration of their community, is the sheer diversity of Acadian diaspora experience. Acadians did not just strive to rebuild what they lost, but adapted to the imperial projectors that wooed them, endured conflict among one another, and used their reputation to claim status within the French monarchy. To make this case, the Assistant Professor at Brigham Young University tells an enthralling story about the diverse paths that Acadians were forced to take.

In the first decades of the eighteenth century, British and French colonial officials competed for the borderland settler group renowned for dike-building, agricultural improvement, and good relations with the Mi’kmaq Indians. During the War of the Austrian Succession, however, relations with the British – doubtful about Acadian loyalty – went awry, and local officials opted for their expulsion (ch. 1). This forced migration of British subjects of French origin carried families not directly to their later major resettlements in Canada and Louisiana. It dispersed them to South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, and from there to Britain and France. In the American colonies where demographic pressure, political conflict, and warfare with French and Native Americans were widespread, Acadians soon appeared suspicious (ch. 2). No less than in their home region they were as much confronted with the imperative to be economically productive as they were used for political projects – like Benezet’s Quaker critique of the British Empire.

Having left British dominions for good, they served as a tool of French expansion much in demand in new colonial ventures after the Seven Years War. Some were shipped to the interior of French Guiana as well as to Saint-Domingue to propel local agricultural improvement (ch. 3). Near the Antarctic Convergence, their struggle to adapt to the harsh environment undergirded France's claim to terra australis incognita – a project which ended abruptly when resources stopped flowing and the Crown left the Falkland colony to Spain (ch. 4). On the Belle-Île-en-Mer off the French Coast, Acadians were planted to prevent British incursions. In the process, they clashed with local privilege and won royal recognition as a corporation (ch. 5). Finally, Turgot lured some of those who trickled back to France on a mission to the dirt-poor region of Poitou to improve domestic agriculture in a project of internal colonization (ch. 6). At this critical juncture, internal rifts emerged between those who wanted to embrace the opportunities of an ancien régime-corporation – protected by and dependent on royal goodwill – and those who wished to enter the Atlantic market for colonists.

Closely intertwined with cases of steered migration, Hodson sheds light on the search of French imperial officials, ministers and philosophes for orientation after the Seven Years War. They did not give up on their empire, he details. They struggled to improve it. His work connects the high-flying, oftentimes conflicting projects of physiocrats and agronomists, the individual schemes of imperial entrepreneurs, the economic incentives of international traders in migrants, and the family politics of Acadians. They had choices, Hodson is careful to underline. Yet, the rivalry between European empires and the French political development made certain choices more appealing than others.

Hodson, thus, contributes mainly to three fields of enquiry: firstly, the project of writing a revisionist history of the French Atlantic, which emphasizes intellectual connections between France and its colonies, gives individuals agency, and re-evaluates France’s role as a colonial power after the Treaty of Paris.[2] A prime example is given in chapter 3 where a long-lasting intellectual fascination for the unknown continent is discussed alongside a particular colonization project on the Falkland Islands, and a later scientific mission pushing beyond this colonization scheme. While the intellectual undercurrents read lofty at times, wedding them to the Acadian story results in a satisfying argument.

Secondly, he analyses failing imperial projects to shed light on competing visions of empire in early modern Europe and North America. During the Korou-expedition, detailed in chapter 2, for instance, recruitment efforts and means of transportation lived up to the task of moving thousands of settlers to South America. The utopia on the ground, however, was neither able to keep up with the desperate shiploads of scurvy- and smallpox-ridden utopians, nor were established locals able to communicate their failure home to prevent a catastrophe. When starving European settlers demanded rights, slavery immediately reappeared as a viable alternative.

Thirdly then, he tackles the competition of slavery with other early modern work regimes. Hodson explores a globalizing market for the hands that would do the groundwork to make lofty colonial schemes reality. Wherever the Acadians went, their reputation had already overtaken them. Clearly, Acadians were commodified, but – at times – they also had the talent and social standing to ‘sell’ themselves to the highest bidder. The demand for them also underlines that slave economies were not a foregone conclusion. Despite the sugar boom, there existed conflicting ideas about the viability of a slave economy spurred by fears of rebellion. France should, some mused, not be an ‘aquatic, swamp-dwelling plant’ with ‘floating, unsupported leaves’ like the British commercial empire (p. 92), but perhaps an empire of industrious peasants constantly improved by domestic innovators.

Hodson is neither writing the imperial history of generations past, nor is his diaspora story targeting specialists or Cajun-enthusiasts: It is highly readable, often ironic, transnational in scale, and inventive in placing Acadians amidst larger questions of changing labour markets, forms of religious exclusion, slavery, and persistent imperial rivalry between Britain and its North American colonies and France with its Native allies. It revisits the French Atlantic as an open arena for scheming technicians anxious to please the monarch, adventurous activists of colonial settlement, and uprooted families constantly pulled in different directions. Naturally, this is a messy Atlantic, but it is probably a realistic one.

The praise, however, ends when the reader approaches the narrative for systematic answers to the many analytical questions that Hodson’s story invites. Its laudable readability and sense for detail at times stand in the way of analytical clarity. Readers looking for change over time in French domestic attitudes to slavery, migration, and agricultural reform, let alone for reasons for certain political agendas, will find questions rather than answers. The same goes for those, who seek to understand migration patterns, family structures, participation in certain colonial ventures, and overlaps between them more systematically. While the latter is entirely the author’s choice, the former partly concerns Oxford University Press. One clearly gets the sense that the roughly two hundred pages of the main text leave Hodson’s story wanting and the extra fifty pages could have added some clarification of the larger story that he tries to tell.

Nonetheless, Hodson’s Acadian diaspora raises exciting questions about the nature of the early modern French empire in a format that is readable to a broader academic audience. As such, it is a fine addition to and a corrective of Geoffrey Plank’s work on ‘British’ Acadia, Naomi Griffiths’ focus on Acadian ‘identity’, John Mack Faragher’s study of the expulsion, and Carl Brasseaux’s analysis of Cajun cultural revival.[3]

[1] The Pennsylvania Gazette, 19.04.1759.
[2] Together with Brett Rushforth, Christopher Hodson is preparing Discovering Empire: France and the Atlantic World from the Age of Columbus to the Rise of Napoleon.
[3] Geoffrey Plank, An Unsettled Conquest. The British Campaign Against the Peoples of Acadia, Philadelphia 2003; Naomi Griffith, From Migrant to Acadian. A North American Border People, 1604–1755, Montreal 2005; John Mack Faragher, A Great and Noble Scheme. The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from Their American Homeland, New York 2005; Carl Brasseaux, The Founding of New Acadia: The Beginnings of Acadian Life in Louisiana, 1765–1803, Baton Rouge 1987.

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