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Oath Of Allegiance Becomes Sticking Point With Acadians

Almost from the beginning of their regime in 1713, the British governors of Acadia faced a dilemma. They feared and distrusted the Acadians, but could do nothing but to keep them on the land.

It wasn't their first choice. Indeed, almost from the beginning, the British thought about expelling the Acadians. In a letter sent to Queen Anne announcing the fall of Port Royal, the army commanders Francis Nicholson and Samuel Vetch proposed, "In order to bring the native Indians entirely under your Majesty's subjection as well as to convert them to the protestant (sic) religion it will be necessary to transport all the French from the country save such as shall come over to the Protestant religion."

The big problem was that there were nearly 2,000 Acadians in 1713 and fewer than 500 British at Annapolis Royal. The Acadians knew how to nurture the land - and provide the food the British garrison needed. As much as the British wanted to send the Acadians away, it just wasn't practical.

Instead, the British tried to force the Acadians to take an oath of allegiance to Great Britain.

Most Acadians steadfastly refused. The oath would become the nominal bone of contention that would finally bring about the Acadian exile. The fact that the Acadians owned some of the richest farmland on the Eastern seaboard and that the British lusted for it didn't help matters.

The Acadians had good reason to refuse the oath. They feared it would require them to give up the independence they had begun to enjoy, and that it might one day force them to fight against France. Also, they didn't want to make promises to a government that they hoped might not be around for long. Their fathers and grandfathers had each lived for a while under British rule, but it never lasted. They thought that this episode would turn out the same.

They also knew that, at least for a while, they held the upper hand. There were more Acadians than Britons in the Annapolis Basin, and the British needed the Acadians to feed the garrison there.

The Treaty of Utrecht that ceded Acadia to the British gave the Acadians certain rights, providing, for example, that they "may have liberty to remove themselves within a year to any other place as they shall think fit, with all their moveable effects. But those who are willing to remain here, and be subjects to the Kingdom of Great Britain, are to enjoy the free execise of their religion according to the usage of the Church of Rome as far as the laws of Great Britain allow the same."

Queen Anne later agreed to relieve the Acadians from any time limit for moving. On June 23, 1713, she wrote to her governor in Acadia: "Whereas our good brother, the Most Christian King (of France) hath, at our desire, released from imprisonment...such of his subjects as were detained on account of their... Protestant religion; we, being willing to show...how kind we take his compliance herein, have, therefore thought fit...to...permit such of them as have any lands or tenements in the places under our Government in Acadia and Newfoundland...and are willing to continue our subjects, to retain and enjoy their said lands and tenements without molestation, as fully and freely as our other subjects do...or sell the same, if they shall rather choose to remove elsewhere."

Thus, the Acadians who decided to stay were guaranteed freedom of religion and equal rights with other British subjects. Those who planned to leave thought they could do so at any time they wanted to. But now the struggle began for their hearts and minds, and warm bodies.

In January 1714, Pastour de Costebellow, the last French governor of Newfoundland, became the first governor of Cape Breton, which was still French, and built the historic fort at Louisbourg. He immediately tried to convince the Acadians that they should migrate there. The British, meanwhile, wanted to keep the Acadians where they were, at least for a while longer.

Vetch wrote to his superiors in London on November 24, 1714, "One hundred of the Acadians (who) were born upon this continent and are perfectly at home in the woods, (and) can march upon snowshows and understand the use of birch canoes, are of more value and service than five times their number of raw men newly arrived from Europe. So their skill in the fishery, as well as the cultivating of the soil must make at once of Cape Breton the most powerful colony the French have in America, and to the greatest danger and damage to all the British colonies as well as the universal trade of Great Britain."

He also wrote to the Board of Trade in London, "The removal of (the Acadians) and their cattle to Cape Breton would be a great addition to that new colony, so it would wholly ruin Nova Scotia unless supplied by a British colony, which could not be done in several years, so that the Acadians with their stocks of cattle remaining here is very much for the advantage of the Crown."

Most Acadians didn't want to move, anyway. These had been their lands for generations, and Cape Breton, though French, offered them little. A delegation visited there during the summer of 1713. Delegates reported: "On the whole the island is no land fit for the maintenance of our families, since there is (sic) no grass lands large enough to feed our cattle which is our principal means of livelihood....To leave our homes and cleared lands for new uncultivated land which must be cleared without help or credit would expose our families to perishing by famine."

Some young Acadians moved to New Brunswick, which they regarded as French soil, but most of the established families decided to stay put on farms and homesteads they had worked long and hard to build.

Efforts to require an oath of allegiance from these families began in earnest after Queen Anne died in 1714, when George Thomas Caulfield, the new British head of the government in Acadia, took advantage of King George's accession to require sworn fealty to the new ruler.

The Acadians of Grand Pré and Beaubassin refused to take the oath, period. They argued that France and England were still arguing over boundaries and whether their land had been ceded under the treaty. They said they could take no oath until the issue was decided.

That argument could not be made at Annapolis Royal, however, and 36 Acadians signed a provisional oath on January 13, 1716, to "be faithful and maintain true allegiance to His Majesty King George, as long as I shall be in Acadia or Nova Scotia and that I shall be permitted to withdraw where so ever I shall think fit with all my moveable goods and effects when I shall think fit without any one...to hinder me."