Playing the Indian Card

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Cornwallis the War Criminal

The statue in Cornwallis Park

The city of Halifax is now pulling down the statue of Edward Cornwallis that has stood for over 75 years in Cornwallis Park; having originally been a charitable donation by CN hotels. Cornwallis has been traditionally felt worthy of the honour as the founder of the city. He has, however, fallen afoul of modern politics because he put a bounty on the scalps of local Micmacs.

I fear this is a manufactured controversy, and mostly a case of little brother Canada feeling the need to emulate big brother America, in his recent flurry of iconoclasm involving Civil War heroes.

Edward Cornwallis can plausibly be accused of war crimes. But not so much in Nova Scotia. The better case would be his behavior in the Scottish Highlands after the Battle of Culloden, in which he burned down barns and scattered cattle to punish the population for rebellion. In his defense, he was acting on clear orders from his superior, the Duke of Cumberland. And such scorched earth policies have been followed elsewhere: by Sherman in Georgia, or by the allied bombing campaigns during World War II.

More interestingly, in a place named “Nova Scotia,” largely settled by Highland Scots, there has never until now been an outcry against his commemoration.

Instead, the outcry has come from the Indians, or their spokespeople, over the more dubious case of his actions in Nova Scotia during Father LeLoutre’s War. Yes, he put a bounty on Micmac scalps. But it seems unfair to single Cornwallis out on this basis; he was following established custom of the time. The French already had a bounty on English scalps; the British in New England already had a bounty on Indian scalps. And, of course, scalping was standard practice among the Indians during war. Given the position and the times, Cornwallis was more or less obliged to follow suit; just as, once the Germans in WWI resorted to poison gas, the Entente were more or less obliged to use it as well. Notably, Cornwallis limited his bounty to scalps of Micmac “fighters”; Indian civilians, women and children, were not supposed to be so molested. This was not the Indian practice.

Moreover, it seems that few Indians were actually affected. According to historical records, the bounty was deemed to be “ineffective.” As a result, Cornwallis raised the scalp price. With the raised bounty, precisely one scalp was ever presented for redemption during Cornwallis’s tenure. That’s some historical atrocity. Indeed, the French Father Maillard, on the other side in the conflict, recorded Cornwallis’s term as governor as free of any atrocities.

Cornwallis is being used, in a thoroughly cowardly way, as a scapegoat.

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