August 10, 1938
By Nellie L. McClung
No part of Nova Scotia holds more interest for the tourist than the little village of Grand Pre with its tragic memories of the Expulsion of 1755. I first made the acquaintance of Longfellows "Evangeline" at Northfield school in Manitoba, when this narrative poem was part of the course of studies in the western provinces. Evidently there was no fear in the heart of "our betters" then, that this story would undermine our love for the British Empire, even though our hearts burned within us, with indignation, as we read of the peaceful Acadians, and the sorrows that came to them. There was a feeling of indignation, and shame, that this could have happened by order and consent of British authority. But 1755 was a long time ago and the times were more barbarous then. Besides, we had a feeling that there must have been more in it than we knew. Certainly we knew that it could never have happened in Queen Victorias reign and that was some comfort. Longfellow, who never saw Grand Pre or the Gaspereau River, told his story well. He took seven years to think about it and must have seen it clearly when he wrote his description of this lovely country. The long metre is exactly right for this abundant scene, with its rolling hills, and undulating valleys.
One of the questions on a teachers examination, when I was a student, was: What is the secret of the charm of "Evangeline"? and a lad from the prairie wrote in reply:
"The charm of this poem lies in the long, lingering melancholy sweetness between the subject and the predicate." and I hope the examiner recognized the glimmer of genius.
The first day we visited Grand Pre was a Sunday, when we attended the United Church service in the Old Covenanters Church, built in 1804 of handsawn boards and handmade nails. It has the high pulpit and sounding board, and the box pews, each with its own door. We sat in the Stuart family pew, where the old footstool, which ran the whole distance, has served the family for a hundred years. Sunday school began at 9.30 and the preaching service followed. Two oclock was the time for dismissal. So the people of that day took their devotions in heavy portions.
But on this Sunday, the service lasted one hour. The church was gay with flowers; the choir was made up of young people, and after the service laughter was heard around the tombstones. A Chicago car drove up as we stood around in groups and the driver asked if he might photograph us, and had it done before we had begun to look pleasant. He said he was getting pictures of the places of interest. He had the Dionne sisters, Niagara Falls, the Reversing Falls and Evangelines monument. He told us he had just two weeks for his holiday, but he had covered a lot of ground. Then wiping his beaded brow for the day was hot he vanished down the road.
But no one else in Grand Pre was hurrying. A Sabbath peace rested on the woods and down the shady roads and paths where the people wandered leisurely homeward to their Sunday dinner of baked shad, from the river Avon; green peas and cherry pie. At least, that is what we had, served on lovely old china taken from a corner cupboard.
Evangelines monument stands in a Park just north of the D.A.R. station. Beautiful French marigolds circle around it, and the clover sod was, that day, damp with the recent rains. Evangeline clasps her distaff, and turns her head toward the river. I asked about this but no one seemed to know. She should, we thought, be looking up the hill toward the home she was leaving forever.
The church, built on the site of the one where the Acadians worshipped, and where the proclamation was read to them on that fateful Sunday morning, is now a museum where we saw a series of pictures, which tell the story of the Expulsion. One scene at the seashore is full of misery, where the people sit with their pathetic little treasures in their hands, waiting for the boat to take them away.
I remembered Longfellows tragic lines:
"Wives were torn from their husbands, and mothers too late saw their children,
Left on the shore extending their arms in wildest entreaty."
Whether there was any foundation for such a picture of needless cruelty, no one knows now and no one ever will know. Longfellows story has been accepted. It reads so well we reason it must be true!
Here in the museum are pots and pans of iron, used by the Acadians, old tools of wood, a wooden plough, old brooms, rusty plough-shares, spinning wheels, and "carders" and "hecklers," homemade chairs and stools and a pair of shoes, which may have been made by an Acadian cobbler.
At the gate we saw Evangelines willows, gray with age, and listing to leeward, gnarled and twisted old warriors that have bent before many a bitter blast from the Atlantic, but have somehow survived the buffetings of time. Still they stand and put forth their leaves each spring. Somehow they moved me more deeply than any of the treasures of the Acadians, or the pictures men have drawn of their sorrows, for in their battered trunks and twisted branches they seem to hold the unconquerable spirit of the men and women of that heroic and tragic time.
We looked at the old well, with its heavy bucket, admired the beds of delphiniums, and snap dragon; and the golden alders that brighten the shrubberies; bought some cards at an attractive curio shop, and passing by the railway station had a few words with Miss Brooks, the agent. Then we went into the village, and had tea at the Perry Borden House, where the Womens Institute were conducting a sale of work to raise money for
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a hospital. Inside the old house, erected in 1761, there were tables for bridge; outside under the trees people guessed the number of beans in jars, and the weight of candy boxes, and there was animated conversation ranging from the Russian Japanese trouble to the question of women preachers.
Longfellows words rang in my ears:
"Still stands the forest primeval, but under the shade of its branches
Dwells there another race, with other customs and language!"
I visited the library at Acadia in Wolfville and had the privilege of reading some old historical documents, dealing with the Expulsion. That it was a tragic and brutal blunder no one can deny. But there evidently were some mitigating circumstances. At least, some explanation.
The Acadians had occupied their lands for forty years under British rule. They had prospered and were given their freedom. They had been entreated to take the oath of allegiance, but acting under bad advice, they had declined. Governor Phillips in 1719 wrote that the Acadians had "growne so insolent as to say they will neither sweare allegiance nor leave the Country." The British authority feared that they might cut the dykes and so ruin the country, if they decided to go. They had said they would leave the country rather than be subject to British rule; and they would have been welcomed in Isle Royal, or New Brunswick, under French rule.
The simple Acadians were the victims of other peoples ambitions and designs. They were content to remain neutral, and were called for years the "neutral French." The final action seems to have been taken immediately following the defeat of the British forces at Fort Duquesne. Fear of the effect this would have on the French in Canada prompted the cruel deed which was considered, by the Governor, a justifiable war measure.
- NELLIE McCLUNG.