While the name is relatively new, the practice of deliberate ethnic cleansing reflects thousands of years of human cruelty and inhumanity. On the North American continent, the treatment of native Americans amounted to one form of such cruel displacement from home and prosperity, that of African slaves another. But few remember the clearest case of tragic forced removal as government policy in North American history: the treatment of the tens of thousands of French-speaking Acadians living in Nova Scotia in the 1750s, the central topic of Faragher's book.
The ethnic divide here was one of religion, language, and political affiliation as well as race. The Protestants of New England feared attacks from the Catholic French forces in North America, and had suffered defeats against them before. The Acadians by their language and religion seemed more naturally allied with the French crown than the English, and British officers and governors constantly suspected them of sedition and treason. The Acadians had also intermingled freely with local Indian tribes, something much rarer in the English settlements. Before the French, New Englanders had feared the natives at least as much, so the native element did not help improve relations.
The other clear element in the ultimate expulsion policy was one of greed: Acadians were clearly prosperous, their farmlands producing great plenty; the prospect of free developed land was surely a strong motivating factor in the displacement. But this seems to have been lost in the event itself - in the end it was only years afterward that English settlers came to claim it, and much longer before they learned how to prosper there.
Faragher does a wonderful job of describing the early history of the settlers, the first families who came in the 1600s, and additions through the years. After several exchanges of sovereignty, Nova Scotia finally fell into the hands of the British, who demanded a loyalty oath of the inhabitants. The Acadians were happy to be good subjects, but refused to swear to take up arms against their fellows, and constantly insisted they were entitled to a modified version of the standard oath, a constant source of irritation to those in the British bureaucracy not attuned to local custom and feelings. The Acadians had a natural streak of independent feeling coupled with close community ties, using local representative councils to present a unified front to their governors.
The irony is that this expulsion of "traitors to the king", spurred principally by the New England colonies and Massachusetts in particular, happened only a bit over a decade before the rebellion of the thirteen colonies from that king's son. And that time, the French were on the colonies' side.
Faragher's account is most enthralling in the chapters covering the preparation for and act of expulsion. The process was clearly meticulously planned by the local British leaders. Adult males were separated from their families for a space of time, lies were told to them about what was happening, then all were boarded on ships and dispersed in small groups to other English colonies, some of which were clearly surprised by the new refugees. Huge fractions of those thus deported died in the process, or not long after arrival; Faragher estimates a total of 10,000 lost. The treatment was truly horrific.
The treatment was also greatly reminiscent of the so recent dispersal of victims of Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans was not the original destination of any of the Acadians, but via France and the other colonies, many arrived in Louisiana in the years that followed the expulsion, settling new lands on the Mississippi and gulf coast and developing a new culture from the old Acadian one: the Cajuns. The connection in place and culture over time is haunting; Faragher's book of course predates the 2005 hurricane season.
Many of the Acadians settled much closer to home - among the much more numerous French population of Quebec, or in the interior of what are now New Brunswick and Maine. Some returned to Nova Scotia, but were treated as little better than slaves there for a very long time. Faragher covers all this aftermath, both positive and negative, in as thorough a fashion as the early history.
While this book has clear villains and victims, as the truth surely does, Faragher spends much time considering the motivations and thinking behind those who caused this to happen; in some ways he makes it all too easy to understand. We prefer to keep what is clearly evil more remote from us, but this is not the story of the Holocaust, communist purges, or other familiar injustice; seeing how such tragedy can happen in a situation unfamiliar yet so close to home would force any reader of this book to come away questioning prejudices, and perhaps a better person for it.