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The French settlers of Acadie must have wondered how they had offended God when New England militia marched into the village of Grand Pre and locked up the men and boys in the church. The proclamation of the British colonel said they were to be transported. Like the petty thieves of London, they had got themselves on the wrong side of British law. The law had been conceived by Parliament and the new Governor, who insisted that the people inhabiting the land he called Nova Scotia take an oath of allegiance to the Crown.  It was 1755.

Thus began the expulsion of the Acadians, peasants who had been living for over a hundred years in the fertile parts of Acadie, a peninsula bordering the Bay of Fundy and the Atlantic ocean. They had dyked the sea like the Dutch, reclaiming rich soil off the bottom of the Bay of Fundy for farmland. They had prospered, skirting the constant wars between the French and English like squirrels living among wolves. Their day of reckoning became almost inevitable in 1710, when British troops took a strategic fort they called Fort Anne, not far from where the Princess of Acadia sails. From that point on, the land mass of Nova Scotia became British, while the population was French.

The British plan was to load the Acadians on ships and scatter them in the colonies along the Eastern seaboard, but they had not counted on the intransigence of the English colonists. French-speaking Catholics were not warmly  welcomed by English-speaking protestants, so many of the ships sailed on, seeking a place to offload their human cargo. They settled on Louisiana. The name of the people transported there was soon corrupted from “Acadien” to “Cajun.” The swamps and bayous of this new place were as different from Nova Scotia as anyone could imagine.

This year the American Association of Law Schools chose New Orleans for its annual conference. My wife had decided to attend some time ago, so I packed a suitcase for a trip to the home of jazz and Mardi Gras soon after arriving in Durham. Fortunately, we had booked into the hotel where the conference was held. The city of New Orleans was freezing!

What with the miserable weather and my lack of due diligence as a tourist, the visit was less than satisfying. I barely skimmed the surface, astonished at my own ignorance of the place, from Mardi Gras rituals to the Battle of New Orleans, which helped saved the country’s independence in the War of 1812.

It was a city I knew from books and jazz and television, a city of the imagination. I had no idea that Degas spent six months here before he became famous. His mother came from a prominent French-Creole family and two of his brothers settled in the city, engaging in the cotton business during its slow demise as an engine of enterprise. Degas did one famous painting here of his family’s cotton office, but his relatives and the place unsettled him.

There is a National Historic Site in Grand Pre commemorating the Expulsion of the Acadians and the long narrative poem it inspired– “Evangeline.” Although “Le Grand Derangement” was not genocide, the Acadians were certainly hard done by. And, as the disastrous hurricane relief efforts have shown, that was just the beginning.  The poor people of Louisiana are the Haitians of North America and the city on the Mississippi with the fascinating past has a very tenuous future.

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