HALIFAX – Somewhere in Halifax, a large statue honouring British commander Edward Cornwallis — founder of the historic port city — is gathering dust.
In a move that made international headlines, city council ordered the statue cut from its downtown pedestal and hauled away this winter amid a heated debate over Cornwallis’s role in a bloody conflict with Nova Scotia’s Indigenous people in the mid-1700s.
Local resident Beth Anne MacEachen says the statue should never have been erected in the first place.
“He didn’t deserve that type of notoriety,” she says. “To celebrate him is not what we should be doing.”
But the source of MacEachen’s disdain for Cornwallis extends beyond his sordid deeds in Canada.
Cornwallis, as it turns out, was no friend of Scottish Highlanders, many of whom would later emigrate to Nova Scotia, which is Latin for New Scotland.
“I don’t think Nova Scotians realize that what happened with the Mi’kmaq was part of a second wave of Cornwallis’s cruelty … It wasn’t taught in school,” says MacEachen, a descendant of Scottish immigrants and president of The Scots North British Society, based in Halifax.
“If they knew about Cornwallis and what he did to their great, great, great grandparents (in Scotland) … then more people would be up in arms about this monument.”
Almost a third of Nova Scotia’s residents can trace their roots to Gaelic-speaking settlers from the islands and Highlands of Scotland, according to the provincial government’s Office of Gaelic Affairs. To this day, about 2,000 residents still speak Gaelic, and the language is taught at the Gaelic College in Cape Breton.
Still, it’s a safe bet most Nova Scotians have no idea what Cornwallis did before he founded Halifax with a group of settlers and soldiers in June 1749.
“He, as a figure, is not someone I would want to celebrate, knowing my history,” says Allan MacMaster, member of the provincial legislature for the Cape Breton riding that shares its name with the Scottish city of Inverness.
MacMaster, whose ancestors came from the Highlands to Nova Scotia in the early 1800s, says the British had engaged in the systematic “ethnic cleansing” of Gaelic Highlanders for hundreds of years, and Cornwallis was part of that deadly drive.
In 1745, four years before Cornwallis arrived in Halifax, he was dispatched to Scotland to help crush a rebellion led by Roman Catholic Scottish leader Charles Edward Stuart, later known as Bonnie Prince Charlie.
And on April 16, 1746 — 272 years ago Monday — British soldiers killed as many as 2,000 Jacobite warriors in a decisive battle at Culloden.
But the killing wasn’t over.
British troops pushed farther into the Highlands to hunt for fleeing rebels.
Cornwallis led 320 soldiers to “pacify” an area of northwestern Scotland. Properties were looted and burned, livestock was driven off, crops were destroyed and some Jacobite families were burned alive in their homes.
“They had full permission to plunder, burn and destroy through the western part of the Highlands — the part of Scotland where many of the ancestors of the people of (Nova Scotia’s) Inverness County and Antigonish County and eastern Pictou County come from,” MacMaster says.
The details of Cornwallis’s terror campaign are detailed in a journal kept by Michael Hughes, one of his soldiers.
“What Cornwallis did (in Nova Scotia) to the Mi’kmaq was no different than the attitude that was shown to the Gaels in Scotland,” says MacMaster, whose grandfather’s first language was Gaelic.
While the story of Cornwallis’s grim tour of duty in the Highlands is not well known in Nova Scotia, his ugly legacy remains raw in Scotland.
After his statue was removed on Jan. 31 in Halifax, Scotland’s national newspaper, The Scotsman, carried a story that described the lieutenant-general’s harsh treatment of the Mi’kmaq, as well as his previous orders to “plunder, burn and destroy” in western Scotland.
John Reid, a history professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, says Cornwallis’s punitive campaign went on for months.
“With the involvement of Cornwallis, among others, there certainly was a great deal of violence after the battle of Culloden,” he says.
“The reality is that they were doing more than killing rebels, though the evidence is pretty sparse … But it’s reasonably clear there were some elements of random killing.”
However, MacMaster stressed that recalling Cornwallis’s brutal behaviour in Scotland should in no way diminish what he did to the Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia.
Though the Mi’kmaq had initially greeted Cornwallis with hospitality, he quickly asserted British control over the region and signed a treaty with Maliseet chiefs — leaving the Mi’kmaq as the sole Indigenous group opposed to colonial rule.
The Mi’kmaq declared war on the British, attacking military, shipping and trade targets.
On Oct. 2, 1749, Cornwallis and his military council approved an infamous proclamation to “take or destroy the savages.” The decree promised a reward of “ten Guineas for every Indian Micmac taken, or killed, to be paid upon producing such savage taken or his scalp.”
In recent years, there has been a spirited debate in Nova Scotia over Cornwallis’s legacy, as activists repeatedly staged protests at the foot of the statue to denounce the former governor as a genocidal tyrant.
As for his bloody campaigns in Scotland, those gruesome stories are adding a new dimension to the public discussion.
Later this month, on April 21, near the rural community of Knoydart, N.S., hundreds of people are expected to gather at a coastal cairn that commemorates those killed at the Battle of Culloden.
The cairn, erected in 1938, pays tribute to Angus MacDonald, Hugh MacDonald and John MacPherson, three men who fought for Clan Ranald Regiment and are now buried near the monument.
The ceremony has been held every year since 1982.
“If you go along the coast in Antigonish County, you’ll see (Scottish) place names like Arisaig, Moidart, Knoydart,” says MacMaster. “Those are the very places where Cornwallis was plundering, burning and murdering.”
Despite Cornwallis’s ignominious past, Halifax city council voted last fall to launch a special advisory committee that will provide advice on what to do with Cornwallis commemorations, as well as make recommendations for honouring Indigenous history.
“There is no commitment to any course of action on the statue at this point,” Shaune MacKinlay, spokesperson for Halifax Mayor Mike Savage, said last week in an emailed statement. “This will be determined at a later date by council with the benefit of the recommendations from the committee.”
MacEachen says if the Cornwallis statue is returned to public view, it should be accompanied by displays that offer historical context.
“The statue does have a place in Halifax’s history, but I do not feel that Cornwallis deserves to be commemorated with something like a park,” she says.
“We could tell people why he came here and where he had come from, instead of just celebrating the man. I don’t think this man deserves to be celebrated at all.”