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JOHN DeMONT: Nothing pure about Cornwallis, nor the raising of his statue

The statue was erected in the inter-war years of the 20th century, at a time when Canadian nationalism, then inseparable from the British Empire of the day, was on the rise. The sentiment the statue expressed — that a good Englishman could defeat a “cruel and at the same time childlike savagery” — was pure colonial imperialism.
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Protesters have said they will tear down the statue of Edward Cornwallis in Halifax on Saturday. (RYAN TAPLIN / Local Xpress)

Things could go south quickly Saturday if a group of protesters lives up to its promise to tear down the statue of a long-dead Englishman standing in a downtown Halifax park.

Lots of people are displeased by their plan: Our mayor, who says let’s wait for an expert panel to decide what to do with the statue of Halifax’s founder, Edward Cornwallis; the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs and the executive director of the Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre who say co-operation rather than confrontation is the way to get the contentious landmark removed; the racist simpletons like the gits who disrupted a Mi’kmaq ceremony in downtown Halifax on Canada Day; the moderate dissenting voices who say history is, well, history and therefore shouldn’t be swept under the carpet, no matter how distasteful.

It’s much ado about a guy who in his portrait looks soft and jowly, and who in reality may have been mentally unbalanced while governing over the settling of Halifax by folks he deemed “poor idle worthless vagabonds.”

In stone, Cornwallis — hand on the hilt of his sword, gaze lifted, chin raised — is all man of action. Give him this: He never shied away from the bloodletting.

In his book Cornwallis, the Violent Birth of Halifax, Jon Tattrie tells all about his role in the Battle of Culloden in which Bonnie Prince Charlie and his weary Jacobean army met the redcoats at Inverness.

A thousand Scottish soldiers died in less than 20 minutes on the moor that day. The leader of the English forces, William, the Duke of Cumberland, ordered Cornwallis and James Wolfe, the conqueror of Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham, to hunt down the fleeing Highlanders.

Cornwallis subsequently directed his troops to murder, rape, burn and pillage all through the western Highlands.

Tattrie writes how, in one hamlet, Cornwallis sent his troops in to clear out the houses and assemble the Scots in the open fields.

The women were raped one by one in front of their bound husbands. Their rapists then hauled the women to their feet and held them there, helpless, as they shot and bayoneted every man and boy in the village. Then the women were dispatched, too.

The Barrington Street statue was never meant to commemorate Cornwallis’s role in the horrors of the Highlands.

And it certainly isn’t there to underscore how he took the lessons of Culloden and adopted them when it came time to devise a plan to take control of Nova Scotia for the British Crown.

As everyone now knows, rather than declare war on the Mi’kmaq, he promised a reward of 10 guineas for every scalp.

Even the Halifax Board of Trade felt that the scalping decree went too far, Saint Mary’s University history professor John Reid wrote in a 2013 paper on Cornwallis.

It’s good reading for a variety of reasons — chief among them that Reid quietly demolishes the argument that the Halifax statue is so important that it can’t be touched.

“The historical memory of Cornwallis that was symbolized by the statue,” Reid concludes, “was governed not by history but by a potent mixture of imperialism, a racially-charged triumphalism based on the savagery-civilization binary, state promotion, and an economic agenda.”

That’s a mouthful. But allow me to summarize his main argument, which was that the statue was never some sober historical memento built with the purest of motivations.

The statue was erected in the inter-war years of the 20th century, at a time when Canadian nationalism, which Reid called “inseparable from the British Empire of the day,” was on the rise.

The sentiment the statue expressed — that a good Englishman could defeat a “cruel and at the same time childlike savagery” — was pure colonial imperialism.

The statue was about money, too. According to Reid, Canadian National Railway, which put up most of the dough, wanted to make a park out of the property it owned opposite the new railway station and hotel it had built on Hollis Street.

Lots of people were present when the statue was unveiled on June 22, 1931. In the one picture I’ve seen, they look cheerful and happy.

Saturday, a different kind of crowd will be back at that very same spot, with something entirely different on their mind.



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