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Book Review: Cornwallis - The Violent Birth of Halifax

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Edward Cornwallis - Genocidal murderer and father of Halifax  [Wikipedia]
Edward Cornwallis - Genocidal murderer and father of Halifax [Wikipedia]

Jon Tattrie has written a new book - Cornwallis – The Violent Birth of Halifax - that should be required reading at some level of Nova Scotia group education.

Edward Cornwallis, that British, blue-blooded, rheumatic, genocidal murderer – who also happens to be the father of Halifax – sits like some wart on our collective posterior. We really need to talk about him, and Tattrie's book is a great, well-balanced, biographic investigation upon which to start the conversation.

Tattrie, in what also amounts to a voyage of self-discovery of his own familial roots, has unearthed some fascinating information on Cornwallis, who is most famous in these parts for at once issuing a scalping proclamation against the original peoples of Mi'kma'ki, and, it must be acknowledged, forging a fort settlement out of the Nova Scotia wilderness.

For example, did you know that Cornwallis was a genocidal murderer long before he ever set foot in Point Pleasant Park?

Indeed.

The silver-spooned Cornwallis was an important military commander in the British ethnic cleansing of the Scottish Highlands, and was reputed to have cleared a fifty mile swath of any living being, or animal, prior to his ever taking on the task of establishing an English foothold in Nova Scotia.

In a roundabout sense, Cornwallis was in part responsible for the Scottish exodus to Cape Breton; which is as good a starting point as any in beginning to examine the potential of shared experience - and pain - that has embedded itself into the recent history of this land.

Also, did you know that Cornwallis' scalping proclamation was effectively bankrupting his settlement, and that his higher-ups in mother England continuously called for him to make peace with the Mi'kmaq and Acadians, rather than to effectuate genocide?

Uh-huh.

Which isn't to say that an argument against genocide framed in economic terms at all takes the British off the hook of moral responsibility for Cornwallis' heinous actions. It does, however, cast at least a shadow of doubt upon the Cornwallis apologists' argument that he was simply a man of his times, doing what had to be done.

And from there, well, maybe we can talk about that statue of him down by the waterfront...

I also found it fascinating that Cornwallis twice faced a court martial later in his military career, both effectively on counts of cowardice.

He was cleared on both counts, but what emerges is a more complete picture of the man; not so much as a trailblazer of the wilds, but as a man more comfortable in the role of English fashionista, quite comfortable in effectuating genocide against weakened foes from the comfort of a horse behind the lines, or a fortress.

He seems more like a bully. Provided there was no potential of harm coming his way, Cornwallis was all bluster and bravado and murdering of women and children. When faced with real opponents, or, more succinctly, situations where his own personal safety was brought into question, he was no military strategist, and instead opted to cut and run rather than to engage.

Little wonder that effigies of him were burned in the streets of London, further promotion passed him by, and that he died in anonymity, essentially banished to the governorship of Gibraltar.

As Tattrie notes, nobody but Nova Scotia even remembers Cornwallis. This isn't to say that he should be forgotten. But we really need to talk about that statue. And that river. And that street in Halifax...

Get this book.

Jon Tattrie will be speaking tonight, May 21st, 7:30pm, at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.


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