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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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Our current living quarters in Grand Pre, Nova Scotia, are about as different from our rental house in Melbourne as it is possible for two places on the planet to be. The place in Melbourne has an art deco influence, but it is ultra modern. This is a 220 year-old colonial farmhouse of post and beam construction. It was probably put together from sugar pines that were growing on the property.

This land was home to Micmac Indians from time immemorial, then French settlers arrived in the early 1600’s. They built dykes and farmed rich soil reclaimed from the sea. They called themselves Acadians. Their deportation by the British, starting in 1755, and their subsequent diaspora is the subject of a long narrative poem by Longfellow, an American poet. Many of the French peasants ended up in Louisiana where they were dumped in a completely different environment, hot, humid, swampland. An English corruption of the word “Acadien” led to the word “Cajun.”

Even though Longfellow never came here, he set the story in Grand Pre because his best source material, the journal of Colonel John Winslow, was local to this area. It was reasonably accurate and the story he related could have happened. I believe it caught on in the public imagination because the poet made this place sound so idyllic. And in summer, it truly is. Longfellow made the expulsion of the French peasants from “Acadie” sound like the Garden of Eden story set in historical time, with the British thrust into the role of God.

A young Acadian woman named Evangeline and the son of a blacksmith named Gabriel are about the get married when the soldiers arrive. The men and boys of the village are locked in the church until ships can be found to send them on their way. Evangeline gets put on one ship, Gabriel on another. She spends years trying to find him, finally gives up and becomes a nurse in Philadelphia. She grows old. One day, making her rounds, she comes across an old man in the hospital. It is Gabriel. They have a brief moment of recognition, then he dies in her arms.

In 1755, the soldiers burned the buildings and killed the farm animals to prevent the Acadians from returning. For five years the fields were fallow. Then the Crown invited settlers from New England and the other colonies to come and settle. My wife’s ancestor came from Scotland by way of Ireland and New England about 1770.

The people who came and replenished the land were called Planters. Most of them were from protestant farming stock, often the second or third sons of New England settlers. They built houses like the ones in Connecticut and Massachusetts. This is one of the few that has stayed in the same family since it was built.

Wherever we are in the world, it calls to us. We feel compelled to come back and do the endless repairs and updates that the place seems to need. The weather in the Maritimes is hard on buildings. Someday, perhaps, we’ll settle in for good. In the meantime, it is the one place that brings us back to our senses.

All five at once. It makes us glad to be alive.

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