For devotees of Cajun culture, books on the tragic and controversial Acadian deportation are like hot sauce.
You can go almost anywhere in Louisiana and find beaucoup varieties on the shelves, but most of them just aren’t very good. Some are lackluster, adding nothing to what’s already on the plate. Others are too hot, so strident they’re overwhelming — and hard to swallow.
Amid such confusion, there’s nothing like that sense of security that a bottle of Tabasco or Crystal hot sauce or a shaker of Tony Chachere’s seasoning brings to the table. Likewise, a high standard for insightful, readable works on the Acadians — those ill-fated ancestors of our Cajun people — has been maintained for many years by a short list of historians including Louisiana’s Carl Brasseaux and the Canadians Naomi E.S. Griffiths and John G. Reid.
Now, along comes John Mack Faragher with a major new work intent on spicing up the prevailing thought on who the Acadians were, how they settled and thrived in what now are the Canadian Maritimes, why and how they were exiled from that homeland and what happened to them. A Yale University professor who teaches and writes about the American frontier and is best known for a 1992 biography of Daniel Boone, Faragher offers up an ambitious, provocative work.
For some, it might beg the question: Do we really need another book recounting how the poor Acadians were booted out of Nova Scotia by the mean old British so long ago? With “A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from Their American Homeland,” the answer has to be a resounding yes.
For most of our history, what little that most Americans knew about this tragic episode they learned from reading Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Evangeline.” Set against the backdrop of the Acadian exile, the epic poem, published in 1847, found appeal in its tale of the fictional, star-crossed lovers Evangeline and Gabriel, but it lacked an authenticity about how the Acadians came to be — and what led to their horrific uprooting from the life they had made for themselves in the homeland they called Acadie.
With the real-life diaspora largely overlooked by most Americans, “A Great and Noble Scheme” offers an inspired take on the calamity perpetrated by one people on another in the name of God and country, with effects that continue to ripple through the modern society of both the United States and Canada.
Faragher begins at the beginning, detailing how the French sent its first explorers to the region in 1604 — before the English established Jamestown, and before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. After three decades as a military and trading outpost, Acadie welcomed its first families in 1636.
Early colonists were recruited from Poitou, France, as craftsmen or farmers, and they ventured to the New World in search of “a more peaceful and prosperous life” than the strife they knew from “the religious wars and accompanying epidemics that devastated their region into the 1630s,” Faragher writes.
Most recruits returned to France after three or four years, but “those who stayed became the founding generation of the Acadians,” he says. Allowing for a few spelling variations across the centuries, their names and stories will strike a familiar chord with Louisiana readers: Lejeune, Theriot, Aucoin, Boudrot, Cormier, Bourg, Landry, Gautrot, Dugas, Hebert, Savoie, LeBlanc, Dupuis, Comeau, Breau, Babin, Thibodeau.
Many histories of the Acadians have been written, but Faragher’s is a work apart. More than just painstakingly researched and sweeping in its scope, “A Great and Noble Scheme” marries compelling storytelling with an intricate exposition of the complexities that defined the Acadians’ peculiar and remarkable niche in colonial North America.
Living in harmony with the native Mi’kmaq, generations of Acadians thrived in their new homeland, but their success there remained tenuous due to the constant push-and-pull between France and England over control of Acadie.
Their isolation from France, in distance and lack of support, spurred a self-sufficiency that led them to think of themselves as a separate people, neutral in the political heave-ho that constantly swirled around them. English authorities were reluctant to trust the Catholic, French-speaking Acadians, but merchants from Massachusetts and other English colonies were their favored business associates, indicative of how the Acadians lived in the shadows of the era’s feuding superpowers.
“. . . (T)he Acadians ironically referred to their (New England) trading partners as nos amis les ennemis — our friends the enemy,” Faragher writes. “The phrase captured something essential about their situation. They lived in a world on the margins, a world of ambiguities, a world where by necessity people had to learn to play both sides, a world where, as the inhabitants put it, Ruse vaut mieux que force — cunning was worth more than strength.”
Push would come to shove in Acadie in 1755, with the onset of yet another war between England and France. English (read: Yankee) soldiers up from New England began a systematic removal of Acadians that lasted for years, herding them onto ships for destinations that ranged from inhospitable colonies along the Eastern Seaboard to English prisons.
Property was confiscated. Records were destroyed. Families were torn apart. Refugees were hunted down. Every French-Catholic Acadian imprint on the land was forcibly extracted.
In 1755, the Acadian population totaled 18,500. Faragher’s detailed research leads him to estimate that due to smallpox, starvation, exposure and other ill effects, the expulsion caused the deaths of 10,000 Acadians — a considerably higher death toll than reported in other published accounts.
The Acadians came to call it le grand dérangement — the great upheaval.
Faragher has another name for it.
“Before 1755 there were many instances of horrible violence against innocent people in North America, ” he writes. “But the removal of the Acadians was the first episode of state-sponsored ethnic cleansing in American history.”
Small groups of Acadian exiles eventually made their way to Louisiana, adapted to the mosquitoes and the humidity and laid the foundation for what would become the state’s Cajun culture. In this, the 250th anniversary year of the deportation, it’s worth remembering what had to happen first.
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Originally published in The Times-Picayune, March 6, 2005.
A GREAT AND NOBLE SCHEME:
THE TRAGIC STORY OF THE EXPULSION OF THE FRENCH ACADIANS FROM THEIR AMERICAN HOMELAND
By John Mack Faragher
W.W. Norton & Co., $28.95