John Grenier. The Far Reaches of Empire: War in Nova Scotia, 1710-1760. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008. xvi + 270 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8061-3876-3.
Reviewed by Geoffrey Plank (Department of History, University of Cincinnati)
Published on H-War (July, 2008)
One War, or Many, over Fifty Years
Eighteenth-century Nova Scotia has caught the attention of many talented scholars in recent years, in the United States as well as in Canada. Nonetheless, American military historians have been generally slow to recognize the province's importance, and John Grenier's The Far Reaches of Empire: War in Nova Scotia, 1710-1760 goes some way toward filling a significant a gap in the literature. Grenier has provided us with a detailed, unified, tightly chronological narrative of the military confrontations that preceded the establishment of political stability in the colony in 1760.
Nova Scotia's story is not an easy one to tell. As Grenier describes it, the colony experienced a fifty years' war with at least six distinct phases beginning in 1710, when a combined force of New Englanders and British marines, with naval assistance, ousted the French garrison from what had been the French-ruled colony of Acadia. France ceded sovereignty over the colony, renamed Nova Scotia, in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. New disputes quickly surfaced, however, over the geographical boundaries of the colony and the nature of British authority over the region's inhabitants, the French-speaking, Catholic Acadian colonists, and the local (or nearby) indigenous peoples, the Mi'kmaq and the Maliseet. From 1722 to 1726, the Mi'kmaq and Maliseet fought the British. A period of peace followed, broken by the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1744. In 1749, almost immediately after that conflict ended, a new one began which Grenier identifies as Le Loutre's War, and which culminated, according to his account, with the British expulsion of the Acadians in 1755. Grenier describes the last period of conflict as a "guerilla war" lasting from 1755 to 1760, during which the Acadian and Mi'kmaq presence in the colony was nearly eliminated, and room was made for settlers from New England.
In his discussion of the interval of peace, Grenier recounts the controversies that swirled around the Acadians' refusal to admit to the possibility of military conscription. While intense, that debate was also abstract and hypothetical. No British officer ever planned to arm Acadians. Some Acadian men would eventually take up arms against the British, but as a community their greatest military significance was as food-producers. They raised meat for many of the fighters (and potential fighters) in the region. The British relied on the Acadians for food, and Acadian provisions similarly helped feed the French garrison at nearby Louisbourg.
Grenier has studied the region closely, relying on the work of other scholars as well as his own extensive archival research using French-language as well as English sources. Nonetheless, his work is valuable not primarily because he has uncovered new information, but rather because he, as a military historian, applies a distinctive mode of analysis to his material. He is at his best examining the dynamics operating in specific military engagements, weighing the relative strengths and vulnerabilities of the contending parties.
This raises a difficulty, however. If one concentrates on the forces deployed on the ground, the British regiments in Nova Scotia may seem weaker than they really were. They were almost continuously undermanned, and often they lacked adequate supplies. Nonetheless, they enjoyed intangible advantages as representatives of the British Empire. The French knew something about the extent of British power. So too did the Native warriors who came to Nova Scotia from the west. By 1745, after New England's conquest and mass evacuation of Louisbourg, everyone in the region should have had some sense of what the Anglo-Americans could do militarily. On the other hand, the British government's decision to return Louisbourg to the French in 1748 may well have led some to question the utility of military deployment and the resort to force.
Grenier pays less attention than he should to the impact of distant events on the course of developments in Nova Scotia. This is perhaps most evident in his discussion of the last five years of conflict, between 1755 and 1760. He suggests that by 1756 the French were decisively evicted from the Bay of Fundy region, and that there was virtually no possibility that they would ever return. This assumption leads him to describe the "guerilla war" of that period as an anomaly, one in which the insurgents had no hope of concluding their operations with the help of a friendly conventional military force. Jeffery Amherst and the other local commanders of the British army had a different perspective on the conflict, however. Their actions, especially in present-day New Brunswick, were motivated in large measure by an abiding fear that Britain's diplomats would restore large swaths of North American territory to the French Empire in exchange for concessions in the Caribbean--specifically Guadeloupe. Until 1763, no one knew for sure that the French were permanently gone from the region, and this circumstance helped determine the behavior of all of the combatants, the Acadians, the Mi'kmaq, the Maliseet, the British, and the New Englanders.
There are hints within Grenier's narrative that warfare threw the Mi'kmaq into a devastating economic cycle, leaving them without the means to support themselves except by fighting. But Grenier's analysis of Native peoples--whom he identifies (ignoring Canadian sensibilities) as "Indians"--is the weakest element in this book. In his account of Mi'kmaw operations at Annapolis Royal in 1744, and again more extensively in his discussion of Le Loutre's War between 1749 and 1755, he suggests that the Mi'kmaq took direction from Jean Louis Le Loutre, their favorite Catholic priest.
Grenier's analysis suffers from what he admits is his primary concern--seeking to understand "Anglo-American" perspectives (p. 4). In pursuit of this goal, he inflates the power of Le Loutre, because the Protestant officers of the British army did so. Like them, he exhibits virtually no interest in understanding Le Loutre himself. Grenier presents the priest as a petty autocrat, without "the slightest reservation about doing whatever was necessary to completely rid Nova Scotia of his enemies." He asserts that Le Loutre "would not permit outside interference with or internal opposition to his designs for the colony" (p. 139). He goes so far as to suggest that the Mi'kmaq had shown no interest in defining or defending territorial boundaries until Le Loutre instructed them to demand land concessions from the British in 1754. The evidence contradicts this suggestion (see, for example, the Mi'kmaq statement from 1732 quoted on pp. 89-90). The Mi'kmaq were capable of thinking for themselves, and they made their own decisions. Le Loutre knew that he could not arbitrarily command them. This matters enormously for our understanding of Nova Scotia's military history. Mi'kmaw warriors profoundly shaped the course of events through the 1750s, even though they fought only intermittently. We cannot understand the colony's military history without asking why the Mi'kmaq fought.
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Geoffrey Plank. Review of Grenier, John, The Far Reaches of Empire: War in Nova Scotia, 1710-1760.
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