Wednesday, November 9, 2016


The Violent Birth of Halifax

The bulk of Jon Tattrie's bio of Edward Cornwallis covers the period 1749-52 -- that is, between the year of his founding of Halifax and the year of his return to England.

The difficulties in starting a new colony were many, not least of which was the quality of the "settlers," who were described by the chaplain as "profligate wretches debilitated by drink."

For about half of his time spent in Nova Scotia, Cornwallis remained in bed due to rheumatism. He is notorious for the bounty he placed on Mi'Kmaq men, women and children. The bounty was verified by scalps.

Before Halifax

Cornwallis came from an aristocratic family. His father was a baron and his mother the daughter of an earl. George II and his son the Duke of Cumberland were family friends. Edward's twin brother became George's personal chaplain and later the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In 1745 Cornwallis fought under Cumberland's command at the Battle of Fontenoy in Flanders. Although a disastrous defeat for the British, Cornwallis was rewarded with the post of Groom of the King's Bedchamber.

In 1746 he served once again under Cumberland at the Battle of Culloden. Afterwards he took part in the "Pacification" of the Scottish Highlands, a campaign of terror that sanctioned rape. "In later years, Cornwallis's operation was remembered as one of unrestrained violence."

After Halifax

He became a member of a group of dandies known as the Corinthians. One of this group was Admiral Byng, "infamous for his brutal floggings," who in 1756 was given command of a force sent to relieve a British garrison on the island of Minorca. When the expedition returned without attempting to land its forces, Britain was outraged, and Cornwallis and others were burned in effigy. Following a court martial, Byng was executed by firing squad.

In 1757 Cornwallis joined an expedition to invest the French port of Rochefort. It turned out to be a repeat of the Minorca fiasco with the leader, General Mordaunt, being court-martialled. The not-guilty verdict so angered the King that Cornwallis and others were removed from his staff.

George II died in 1760 and was succeeded by George III, who did not care for his grandfather's favourite. Cornwallis was "quietly released from his post at the king's bedchamber with no notice."

In 1762 he resigned his seat in Parliament -- he had spoken only once and was not well-liked -- to become governor of Gibraltar. It was a post that he was unhappy with, but his pleas to resign went unnoticed by London. He died there in 1776.

The book ends with this question for the reader: "You now know Cornwallis's full story: is this a man you wish to honour?"

A Few Ironies

The ship that brought Cornwallis to Nova Scotia was named after a mythological monster -- the Sphinx.

One of the first streets in Halifax suggests the name of a former acquaintance, Lord Sackville, who took part in the Battle of Fontenoy and the Pacification of the Highlands. In 1759 Sackville was cashiered and court martialled for his role in the Battle of Minden. The ruling stated that he was "unfit to serve his Majesty in any military capacity whatsoever."

Edward's nephew, Charles Cornwallis, surrendered in 1781 to French and American forces at Yorktown, Virginia, and became known as the general who lost the American colonies.

The Pacification inaugurated the Highland Clearances, which continued into the 19th century, bore similarities to the Expulsion of the Acadians, and resulted in many Highlanders emigrating to Nova Scotia. At the Halifax Citadel re-enactors wear replica uniforms of the 78th Highlanders, who were stationed there in 1869-71.