I was as stumped as the next person to learn that city council rejected Halifax South Downtown councillor Waye Mason’s proposal to discuss if the name of Edward Cornwallis, our controversial founder, should remain on municipal landmarks.
This, after all, was the same assembly that last year managed to summon the collective will to approve the donair as Halifax’s official food.
The question of whether a statue, school, street or other public spaces should be named after Barbarous Eddy, a man who green-lit the slaughter of not only our First Peoples but also the clansfolk of the Scottish Highlanders who later settled this province?
Well, here’s what Coun. Linda Mosher (Halifax West Armdale) had to say: “He’s the founder of Halifax, and we’re a municipal government, and we’re just going to whitewash it all? We can’t do that.”
Now, councils are complex beasts. It is quite possible that a decision to shoot down a proposal presented and supported by representatives from centre-of-the-universe peninsular Halifax is more due to politics than policy.
That would make me feel a lot better about the whole thing.
If the decision, on the other hand, is supposed to be a laudable one because it respects the immutability of history, well, I have to side with Mark Twain, who calls the very ink with which the story of the past is written “fluid prejudice.”
I guess I have to throw my lot in with Napoleon Bonaparte, who calls history “but a fable agreed upon.”
It is no easy thing to impose order on the chaos of life, which is what history tries to do. Yet, facts are always, to a certain degree, works of someone’s imagination. A story emerges — but it is always subject to reinterpretation as time goes on.
A statue, on the other hand, isn’t even history. It’s a symbol that has value because of the human meaning assigned to it.
Cornwallis — hand on sword, gaze uplifted, chin thrust defiantly forward — stares west from a park on Barrington Street because every place wants a heroic creation myth. If, for a chunk of society, he’s a reminder of something terrible that happened, well, then I think it’s time for the wrecking ball.
The truth is that he had blood on his hands before he arrived in the great harbour, known by the Mi’kmaq as Chebucto. In his book Cornwallis, the Violent Birth of Halifax, Jon Tattrie tells all about his role in the Battle of Culloden — the last gasp of the Jacobite revolt and the Scottish Highland way of life — in which Bonnie Prince Charlie and his bedraggled army met the redcoats at Inverness.
A thousand Jacobite soldiers died in less than 20 minutes on the moor that day. The leader of the English forces, William, the Duke of Cumberland, who would become known as Butcher for the atrocities that followed, ordered Cornwallis and James Wolfe, the conqueror of Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham, to hunt down the fleeing Highlanders.
With relish, Cornwallis followed orders directing his troops to murder, rape, burn and pillage all through the western Highlands.
One particular incident will leave you in despair for the human race: at 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.
So I imagine that a statue in his honour would have boiled the blood of every Cameron or MacDonald who, by Cumberland’s order, suffered under the sword of Cornwallis’s troops.
What, for example, would Angus MacDonald, Hugh MacDonald and John MacPherson, whose names are on a cairn commemorating the battle that stands on a windswept shore on the Northumberland Strait, have thought spying such a statue?
The trio, born in Moidart, Scotland, fought for Prince Charlie at Culloden, which they somehow survived. Later, joining the exodus from Scotland following the Highland clearances, they landed in what would become Antigonish County, where their kin still live.
We all know that the lessons of Culloden were not lost on Cornwallis when it came time to devise a plan to take control of Nova Scotia for the British Crown. Rather than declare war on the Mi’kmaq — with the Acadians engaged in a bloody conflict to resist British colonization — he promised a reward of 10 guineas for every scalp.
It is hard reading to see how this unleashed pent-up bloodlust as uniformed rangers, volunteers and adventurers searched the woods around Halifax for Mi’kmaq to slaughter.
I’ll be honest with you: I knew none of this when I attended Cornwallis Junior High School, since renamed Halifax Central Junior High. I imagine neither did the folks who decided to put the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre on the corner of Gottingen and Cornwallis streets.
In a city as steeped in history as Halifax, you’d frankly think there would be lots of names from the past worthy of public recognition.
Developer Wadih Fares, I notice, didn’t have to look far when he decided to christen the streets in his new Rockingham development.
He chose the names of prominent Nova Scotia women ranging from Marie Marguerite Rose, who played a key role in freeing black slaves here, to Theresa McNeil, who entered the workforce after her husband died — leaving her to raise 17 kids — and became the first female high sheriff ever in Canada.
I will say that it is a nice gesture and that these are Nova Scotians who deserve every honour they get. Then I will just leave it at that.
John DeMont is an author and a columnist for Local Xpress. His Latest Book is A Good Day's Work: In Pursuit of a Disappearing Canada