By Christopher Hodson
Nearly two decades ago, I stumbled out of my small hometown (beautiful Logan, Utah, USA) into a PhD program in history at Northwestern University near Chicago. I arrived with the intention of studying and writing about revolutionary France, but after a few months of work, I began an innocent flirtation with colonial America – a field about which I then knew basically nothing, but whose lines of argument I found appealing. It got serious fast. By the end of that first hectic year, it was clear to me that my interests had shifted, and that if by some miracle I managed to write a dissertation and earn a doctorate, it would be as an early Americanist.
This personal revelation notwithstanding, I was still missing one all-important thing: a subject to write about. As a graduate student in the early stages, dissertation topics are everything. In addition to providing light at the end of a tunnel littered with potential failure and drudgery, they function as a kind of currency – something you could distill into a couple of sexy-ish sentences at the department mixer marked you as a “serious young scholar” and not the twenty-something joker you in fact were. After jumping ship from French history, however, I was dead broke.
That all changed, however, during a conversation with one of my professors, an eminent early American historian with a roguish streak. “You know, if I were a young guy in your position,” he said, “and I really wanted to write a career-making dissertation, I’d have a good look at the Acadians.” By that point, I’d had quite a bit of practice at giving a knowing, chin-stroking nod to mask my interior cluelessness, so I executed one: “Ah, yes. The Acadians. Mmm. Indeed. So interesting.” I then ran off to perform the 1999 equivalent of a Google search (Ask Jeeves?) to confirm what I suspected, but didn’t rightly know: that the Acadians had been the original French settlers of what are now the Canadian Maritimes, that Anglo-Americans had done something terrible to them in the eighteenth century, and that their descendants were the Cajuns of Louisiana.
As I dug deeper, what struck me was the sheer scope of that something terrible – the grand dérangement, or great upheaval, that followed their violent expulsion from their tideland villages on the Bay of Fundy. To be sure, the Acadian story encompassed those villages, but the grand dérangement widened their experiences radically. Acadian exiles came to rest not just in Louisiana, but throughout the lands ringing the Atlantic: British North America (from Boston in the north to Charlestown in the south), Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti) and Guiana in the Caribbean, the port cities of England and Cornwall, a variety of spots in metropolitan France (the scrubby plains of Poitou, Belle-Ile-en-Mer of the coast of Brittany, seafaring towns such as Nantes, Cherbourg, and Dunkerque), and the Falkland Islands, then the southernmost European habitation on earth. The list of places Acadian refugees might have gone if certain colony-builders of the 1760s and 1770s had gotten their way is still more exotic: it included Corsica, Spain’s Sierra Morena Mountains, the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, French coal mines, and Ile Kerguelen, a frigid crag some 3000 miles southeast of Africa’s southernmost tip.
Much of the early American history I’d read to that point had been geographically bounded, dealing in depth with individual New England towns, regional units like Pennsylvania or the Illinois country, or imperial links such as those that sped goods, ideas, and people from Great Britain across the Atlantic to its American colonies. The Acadians, however, seemed to transcend all such boundaries, unwillingly becoming some of their era’s most cosmopolitan people. Visiting archives in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and France, I followed their wanderings and in time produced a dissertation and then a book (The Acadian Diaspora, published back in 2012) that examined plans to resettle and exploit Acadian refugees, as well as the creative responses of the Acadians themselves, to rethink the way the British and French empires functioned during the second half of the eighteenth century.
Although I worked hard to recover Acadian voices in my wide-angled look at the grand dérangement, subsequent events have made me think more about the value of history at close quarters. Going back through the documents that relate Acadians’ intimate, face-to-face experiences after 1755, one word keeps leaping to mind: trauma. There is, of course, an entire subfield – one that ranges from psychology to sociology to literature – devoted to the study of individual and collective trauma. With a few exceptions, such “trauma studies” tend to be pretty modern, focusing on the aftermath of relatively recent, and thus more directly accessible, phenomena such as the Holocaust, world wars, murderous Latin American dictatorships, the September 11 terrorist attacks, and so on. That all being said, it is clear enough that the Acadian victims of the grand dérangement experienced trauma. Take, for instance, an observation made in 1755 by Thomas Hutchinson, the future governor of Massachusetts. Ships crammed with Acadian refugees expelled from Nova Scotia had just reached Boston’s docks, and Hutchinson headed down for a look. He there encountered a despondent Acadian man who wailed, seemingly to no one, that his lot “was the hardest…since our Saviour was upon the earth.”
Setting aside for now the fascinating, but necessarily speculative new work on the intergenerational transmission of trauma, the fact remains that unlike survivors of the Holocaust, the world wars, or September 11, we cannot talk to Acadians who endured that lot. We do, however, have some revealing analogs. The first two decades of the twenty-first century have yielded displaced people in unprecedented numbers: nearly 70,000,000 by early 2018, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Some of these forced migrants have fled natural disasters and climate change, while others, like the Acadians of the 1750s, have been driven into exile by conflict or persecution – think of the Syrian civil war, the ongoing unrest in Sudan, or the expulsion of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority. What might we learn about the eighteenth-century experience of trauma from them?
Exploring trauma – tricky business, even among living refugees – may seem an impossible task among semiliterate folks who died two centuries ago. But if we are to understand what the globe-spanning grand dérangement meant to those who endured it, we may well need to try. The process of violent dispossession, we are beginning to understand, destabilizes people in profound and varied ways. As people become refugees, rates of anxiety, depression, and PTSD skyrocket, as do the negative physical consequences that accompany those conditions. While by no means universal across the centuries, these sorts of effects certainly seem to be related to aspects of forced migration that hit the Acadians hard.
Take, for example, statelessness. For modern refugees, becoming stateless – that is, when one is “not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law,” to quote the UNHCR – is in itself traumatic. Deprived of a core element of modern identity, stateless people endure mental stress and physical deprivation that citizens do not. Although the phrase “statelessness” had yet to be coined in the 1750s, the Acadians’ words drip with the uncertainty imparted by that condition. Addressing the General Assembly of Pennsylvania, for example, Acadians exiled to Philadelphia demanded to know “whether we are Subjects, Prisoners, Slaves, or Freemen….for we must be something, or be reduced to a state of non-existence.” Both collectively and individually, Acadians stared into the void of “non-existence” and emerged transformed.
Death and separation, of course, traumatized Acadian exiles as well. The impact of such experiences on modern-day exiles is well-known, but accessing the evidence of that impact on the Acadians is surprisingly difficult. After all, the harsh realities of refugee life meant that Acadians had limited opportunities to record their reflections. But consider an exceptionally rare hand-written letter from one Acadian refugee to another – in this case from Joseph Leblanc, stranded in Liverpool, to his brother Charles, stuck elsewhere in Great Britain, in 1757. “My dear brother,” it begins, “my very dear wife has left this world for the next.” Long-crippled, she had died after an eight-week illness, but not before receiving “all the care that can be given to one in agony.” Joseph them asked Charles to embrace any nearby friends and family members before signing off: “I am, in tears, your servant and brother.”
A perfect understanding of Joseph Leblanc’s state of mind, of course, is likely out of reach. It is clear, however, that the trauma of the grand dérangement had, on some level, undone and remade him. After many years of reading and thinking about the Acadians, many such stories of trauma bubble up. They include the tale of the Paul Landry, who journeyed by sea and over land from Maryland to Connecticut during the frigid winter of 1756-7 in search of his five small children, lost in the chaos of the expulsion. When he reached them, Landry was so emaciated and vermin-scarred that they scarcely recognized their own father. They include the saga of Augustin Benoit, an exile who landed him first in France, then in a tiny French settlement on the Falkland Islands, then back in France by the early 1770s. Begging authorities for financial aid from a promoter of the Falklands colony, Benoit knew the odds were stacked against him: “We are poor and he is rich,” he wrote: “He is powerful and we are nothing.” And they include the story of Alain Daigre, who lived through multiple forced migrations in the 1750s to emerge in the 1760s in Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), meting out torture – and trauma, surely – to a crew of African slaves clearing timber along that colony’s remote northwest coast.
While the wanderings of the Acadians surely can tell us something about the imperial world in which they took place (just as today’s forced migrations serve as indictments of present conditions), it is important to remember that the most intimate experiences of refugees have their own integrity, and that their value is inherent. To be sure, any attempt to understand the trauma inflicted upon Acadian exiles is bound to strike some rocky interpretive shoals: evidence lacks, theories falter, and analogies stretch only so far. But a human – and even humane – retelling of the Acadians’ saga demands that we venture out.
Christopher Hodson is the author of The Acadian Diaspora: An Eighteenth-Century History. He is an associate professor in the Department of History at Brigham Young University.