The Homeland

Thou shalt carry much seed out into the field, and shalt gather but little in; for the locust shall consume it. Thou shalt plant vineyards, and dress them, but shalt neither drink of the wine, nor gather the grapes, for the worms shall eat them. Thou shalt have olive trees throughout all thy coasts, but thou shalt not anoint thyself with the oil; for thine olive shall cast his fruit.

—Deuteronomy 28:38–40

Told in reverse chronological order, the story of Joseph Leblanc dit le Maigre is a heartening tale of hard work and just desserts. It begins on a farm in western France. There the protagonist suffers, living on charity while barred from the opportunity he craves. So le Maigre (“the Thin,” a tongue-in-cheek nickname for heavyset men) takes bold action, migrating to the island of Miquelon off the southern coast of Newfoundland. The move backfires. The island is barren of vegetation but overcrowded with seekers just like him. Dispirited, le Maigre sails for home, where he gets a fortunate break. During the 1740s, he seizes a chance to fight the British, displaying heroism that earns praise from Louis XV’s ministers. After receiving compensation from Versailles, he moves again, this time to a handsome ranch on the Bay of Fundy. Financial and paternal increase ensues. Surrounded by a growing family, herds of handsome livestock, and well-tended fields, le Maigre settles into a life of good harvests and better company.

But it did not happen this way. Indeed, le Maigre’s real story reflected some of the harsher realities of living as an uprooted refugee in the post–Seven Years’ War French Empire. Born in Acadia in 1697, Joseph Leblanc married Anne Bourg in the early 1720s. For him, it was a good match. Anne’s father, Alexandre Bourg dit Belle-Humeur, was descended from one of Acadia’s most prominent families and served as a deputy to the British government at Annapolis Royal. The couple farmed, raised cattle, and dabbled in trade near Grand Pré, transforming Anne’s dowry into a burgeoning estate. As King George’s War consumed Nova Scotia in 1744, le Maigre sensed an opening. He helped French troops as they marched toward Annapolis Royal, billeting François du Pont Duvivier’s soldiers and furnishing them with “all that was necessary.”1 When the French siege failed to dislodge the British, le Maigre paid a heavy price for transgressing the bounds of neutrality. Neighbors informed, and the British gave chase. They caught up with le Maigre in the Strait of Canso between Ile Royale and Nova Scotia, where he was paddling a “bark canoe” dressed as a “simple hunter.”2 Thinking fast, he threw the documents he was smuggling from Louisbourg into the water, then played the fool. “If I broke the law, it was purely by ignorance,” he told British authorities, and while he promised to find out “what was doing” with France’s Mi’kmaq allies, no leads emerged from his interrogation.3

The British let le Maigre off easy, but they were less forgiving when, in September 1746, he participated in a scheme to provision a massive French fleet commanded by the duc d’Anville and destined to attack Annapolis Royal, Boston, and the British West Indies. Le Maigre drove fifty head of cattle and two hundred sheep across Nova Scotia to Chebucto Bay (now Halifax) to feed nearly eleven thousand French soldiers and sailors. Disease and accidents, however, hamstrung the expedition in the Atlantic, and d’Anville’s sudden death just days after his arrival in Nova Scotia left le Maigre and his livestock high and dry. In 1747, Governor William Shirley ordered his extradition to Massachusetts along with other “notoriously guilty” Acadians.4 Arrested and spirited to Boston, le Maigre freed himself (or so he later claimed) by sawing through the iron bars of his jail cell and making a “stealthy” escape across New England. Informed of his return to Grand Pré, the government at Annapolis Royal banished him, sending soldiers to “pillage, raze, and burn all [his] buildings.”5 With his family, he fled to Port Toulouse on Ile Royale, where in 1750 one official took pity on the rundown rancher, a “good Frenchman … reduced to begging.”6

The British campaign against the Acadians in 1755 worsened his already bad lot. Fleeing Acadians swarmed onto Ile Royale, triggering panic and food shortages. When the British took Louisbourg in 1758, le Maigre departed for “the coasts of Miramichi” on the mainland, where over the next three years he became a pirate, seizing several British “prizes” in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. By 1761, however, the French had failed to retake Québec and British warships were cruising the gulf with little resistance, leading the Acadian insurgents to sign what they believed to be a “treaty of peace and neutrality.” For le Maigre, it turned out to be an excuse for more “vengeance, cruelty, and inhumanity.” Contravening the terms of the treaty, the British confiscated his meager possessions and imprisoned him in Halifax. After two years there, he joined his wife on a hand-built skiff bound for Miquelon in the spring of 1763. A storm dashed the vessel to bits as they neared the island, ruining the few “little effects” the couple had managed to acquire. Exhausted, Anne Bourg died three years later. Le Maigre stared down his last choices alone.7

Then nearly seventy years old, the patriarch petitioned Louis XV to rejoin his son Joseph on Belle-Ile-en-Mer, an island off the southern coast of Brittany where the crown had founded a colony for “repatriated” Acadians. There, on the morning of February 5, 1767, in the town of Le Palais, le Maigre endured another affront. To gain access to the 6 sols per day earmarked for Acadian refugees, he was forced to appear before a panel composed of his old friend the abbé le Loutre; the “venerable and discreet” Jacques-Marie Choblet, a local rector; and Jacques Fronteaux de Lacloir, representing Louis XV himself. As many of the parish registers of Nova Scotia had been lost, the men were charged with determining the “filiations” of Acadian families at Belle-Ile, thwarting impostors with pretensions to the king’s lucrative graces.8

To prove himself a “true Acadian,” le Maigre literally gave the performance of his life. From memory, he ranged across time and geography to reconstitute the world he had lost. There was Marguerite, his eldest daughter, dead on Ile Royale in 1752 at twenty-eight; his sons Simon and Olivier, both shipped to Maryland in 1755, one of whom he had not seen since then; his son Joseph’s second wife, dead at Southampton, England, in 1756; dozens of grandchildren he had never known.9 He passed the test and got the money, but it was never enough. In 1771, le Loutre begged the king to grant le Maigre a pension, of which “this poor old man has great need.”10 The request went unheeded. Poor and forgotten, le Maigre died sometime after 1773.11

Among the many personal tragedies of the Acadian diaspora, le Maigre’s was one of the more tragic. The greater import of his sad story, however, may lie in the setting of its final act. In its way, Belle-Ile-en-Mer was as unlikely a backdrop for French imperialism as the Falkland Islands. Less than ten miles south of Brittany’s Quiberon Peninsula, the island had been known to the ancient Roman settlers of Gaul, who called it Vindilis. By the eighteenth century, farmers and fishermen had been living on Belle-Ile for hundreds of years. Where the remote Falklands had drifted in and out of European cartography so often that by the 1760s “even their existence has been called into question,” Belle-Ile was scarcely more mysterious than the streets of Paris.12 Yet le Maigre was pulled to its shores by the same forces that landed the Cyr family in Port Saint-Louis: France’s quest for imperial innovation, filtered through the lessons of the classical past.

At issue was less ancient geography than ancient demography. For early modern kings and queens, the science of population was a touchy subject. The health or decay of a state was measured in multiple ways, but birthrates and population figures functioned as one of the most reliable indicators. By all appearances, the Bourbon monarchs and their contemporaries had failed. Charles-Louis Secondat, baron de Montesquieu, devoted a large chunk of his 1721 book Persian Letters to the problem of depopulation. After some quick figuring, Montesquieu’s Rhedi offered a sobering assessment: “I have come to the conclusion that there is scarcely a tenth of the men on the earth that there was in former times.”13 The reasons, Rhedi’s correspondent Usbek explained, flowed from the imposition of Islam and Christianity over older, less artificial religious and political systems. Where Muslim polygamy made men too exhausted to father many children, Christian prohibitions on divorce simply “took the pleasure out of marriage.” The celibacy of the Catholic clergy hurt matters, as did European wars and the twin evils of colonialism and African slavery. Dramatic alterations in “customs” had sapped the “prodigious fertility” of classical Europe while speeding the exportation of depopulation to the rest of the world.14


Although not everyone agreed on the particulars, evidence of the ancient world’s demographic superiority accumulated as the eighteenth century progressed. “If one believes Herodotus,” wrote Étienne-Noël d’Amilaville in Diderot and d’Alembert’s midcenturyEncyclopédie, certain pharaohs of Egypt had commanded some “410,000 soldiers, all born Egyptians,” protecting some thirty million inhabitants.15 D’Amilaville had still more proof. Homer reported that the Greeks had transported more than a hundred thousand soldiers to the siege of Troy; in the third century AD, Athenaeus estimated the population of Greece at fourteen million; Diodorus of Sicily claimed that the ancient Assyrian king Ninus had put nearly two million men in the field against four hundred thousand Bactrians; Julius Caesar counted thirty-two million inhabitants in Gaul, far more than the Encyclopédie-era population of the kingdom of France. Even artificial additions failed to slow the kingdom’s decline. “Since the beginning of the last century,” d’Amilaville noted, “this monarchy has taken several large, well-peopled provinces; yet its inhabitants are less numerous by one-fifth than before these acquisitions.”16 Intellectuals and political figures obsessed with the reproductive gap between the ancients and moderns, wrote one observer in 1751, “talk of nothing but propagating the species.”17

War only heightened anxieties over birthrates, and not just in France. Imperial dominance was at stake, for, as one Anglo-American writer declared in 1747, “it is the PEOPLE which are the true Riches, Beauty, and Strength of every Kingdom, Nation and Province; and when the People are taken away, and the Country thereby thin’d and made bare of Labourers and Inhabitants; then also, almost every Blessing is taken away with them.”18 In 1753, a proposed census to “ascertain the collective strength of the nation … [and] what number of men might upon a sudden exigency be levied for the army” failed in the British Parliament. Opponents thought the idea “subversive of the last remains of English liberty,” fearful that measuring their population would lead Englishmen to be “pressed into the fleet” and “transplanted like felons to the plantations abroad … driven from place to place as graziers do their cattle.” A contributor to Gentleman’s Magazine held that a census would harm the war effort by inspiring needless worry. When threats arose, he argued, the British would “raise a force proportioned to the exigency, let the number … be what it will.”19 Others had less faith in raw bravery. In 1755, the Reverend William Brakenridge published research alleging that the population of London had declined since 1700. With war in the offing, his findings caused a stir. Thinkers such as David Hume debated the problem anxiously, as did ordinary subjects.20

In 1755, 1756, and 1757, as British arms suffered loss after agonizing loss in the American theater, the writer and politician Joseph Massie blamed rural expropriation for what he deemed the “national weakness” of depopulation:

Some hundred thousands of farmers and cottagers, who were most to be depended on for the Defence of the Nation, and the Increase of People, have been bereaved of Property or Interest in Land, the only certain means to maintain wives and children … and have been driven to seek for maintenance, by uncertain means arising from trade; wherein luxurious living or poverty of circumstances, and the want of manly exercise, or being much confined, have impaired their health and bodily strength: from whence have followed, decreases in the number, stature, and vigour of their posterities, from Generation to Generation, which have ended in their total extinction.

Massie’s solution involved tough love for prostitutes and other members of the “lawless population” whose dissipation had caused “A RAPID DECREASE in the Number of People” and the ascent, however short-lived it would prove to be, of French power.21

Battlefield victories, however, managed to cure what ailed the British, reducing fears over depopulation to mere background noise in national politics by the early 1760s. Not so for the French. With their military fortunes plummeting in North America, the Caribbean, Europe, and the Indian subcontinent, Louis XV’s ministers cast about for immediate sources of blame. Even before the war ended, they hauled luckless officers such as Charles des Champs de Boishébert (accused of war profiteering in Canada and dereliction of duty while commanding Acadians in the Nova Scotia borderlands) and Thomas Arthur, comte de Lally (who surrendered the Indian outpost of Pondicherry to the British in 1761), before tribunals. Generally, these trials reflected the sense that France’s nobility—once deemed men of “sword and wrath,” the cutting edge of a strong French society—had abandoned the virtues that had animated their martial courage.22

But in a moment of surging nationalism, the French concluded that aristocratic failures were symptoms of a deeper illness. The cancer of depopulation seemed to have taken root in the most fundamental institutions of the absolute monarchy. From the Catholic Church to the French army, everything seemed to conspire against reproduction. While priestly strictures made legitimate fatherhood an impossibility, the soldier’s very equipment worked against his proper sexual performance. Horseback riding on campaign, some claimed, had emasculated the ancient Scythians, and probably had done the same to the French cavalry.23 When the soldier was out of the saddle, the encyclopédist Nicolas-Luton Durival recognized, he had a pressing need “to safeguard the loins against humidity.” Durival proposed that the monarchy issue special leather breeches to “conserve men of such a precious kind … in the decline, unhappily all too noticeable, of our population.”24

A fanciful solution, but the problem had penetrated beyond the army to the very heart of the French nation. A midcentury observer in the village of Frontenay in eastern France, for example, noted that a recent militia draft had netted twenty-three young men. They were not much for conjugal duties. During the preceding eighteen months, only one marriage and one baptism had taken place in Frontenay, and the latter involved “the child of the Lord’s new gamekeeper, who arrived with his wife pregnant.”25Confronted by an enemy whose “luxury and population … have risen in the same proportion” even as it populated “vast colonies,” Frenchmen from Louis XV down had ample reason to worry.26

Since, as the military engineer Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban had written early in the eighteenth century, “princes without subjects are nothing more than inconvenienced private individuals,” both Louis XV’s officials and concerned patriots alike embarked on a program of demographic revitalization in the wake of the Seven Years’ War.27 Ideas proliferated fast. Some mused about awarding lucrative privileges to “fathers of twelve living children,” while airier notions—Durival’s sperm-conserving uniforms, the legalization of polygamy and divorce, the abolition of warfare and clerical celibacy, and the marquis de Mirabeau’s campaign to turn woods and flowerbeds into wheat fields for the nourishment of more and more Frenchmen—made appearances at the margins of the argument.28 Whatever their specific recommendations, though, French populationists all groped for a moral catalyst that might spark in their countrymen a revival of the traditions of male virility and female nurturing that had so effectively peopled the ancient world. The key, it appeared, was to excite in ordinary people the desire for “emulation,” presenting vivid examples of virtues (modeled, naturally, by the social and intellectual elite) to be copied in the interest of the public good. During the early 1760s, emulation became something of a cure-all, a remedy for everything from inefficient farming to bad painting to economic self-interestedness.29 Why not depopulation?

Acadians, as it happened, provided a perfect example. Their fecundity had long been the stuff of legend. Back in 1708, an aspiring poet named the sieur de Diéreville published an account of a voyage to Port Royal he had made ten years earlier. While marveling at the simplicity of Acadian sociability and the sublime beauty of the Bay of Fundy, Diéreville was interrupted by a remarkable, joyful “swarming of Brats.” He traced the gang of children to two families, Acadian neighbors “united by love and the bonds of marriage,” with eighteen living children apiece. Another couple, locals told the stunned Frenchman, “had made it to twenty-two, and promised still more.”

Marriage among the Acadians, Diéreville later revealed in verse, began when two young people fell in love. After that,

All that remains is to people the world;

Which is, in any case, what they do best,

Never dividing their tenderness,

From the first transports of callow youth,

They have many children well into old age.

Even enemies admitted that when it came to procreation, the Acadians had, as Diéreville put it, a “capacity in the business.”30 Like “Noah’s progeny,” declared Richard Philipps in 1730, the Acadians of Nova Scotia were rapidly “spreading themselves over the face of the Province.” In Massachusetts, William Shirley likewise marveled that six thousand “fighting men” lived along the Bay of Fundy in 1746.31 The French were even more impressed when the refugees began arriving in 1758. The Acadians were, exulted one metropolitan observer, “big, robust, hardworking, and very fecund.” Scores of pregnant women, evidently game for childbirth even under the hardships of exile, highlighted the point.32

By 1763, then, Acadians looked like the right sort of people to serve as models for the seemingly impotent inhabitants of the French countryside. Although powerful men from the duc de Choiseul to Louis-Antoine de Bougainville would, in the immediate aftermath of the Seven Years’ War, think of France’s nearly four thousand refugees as potential settlers for overseas colonies, an equally powerful bundle of ideas promised to replant them in the metropolis. The abbé Gabriel-François Coyer laid out the rudiments of the argument in 1756. France’s troubles, he wrote, began not with widespread moral failings or monarchical despotism but with unused farmland. The kingdom’s “25 million acres of pure loss,” most of which was owned by impoverished or backward noblemen, had hampered economic growth for decades. He proposed a two-step remedy. First, landowners who could not afford to put their lands to the plow were to abandon the fields entirely, instead participating in commerce. This, of course, meant that noblemen who followed Coyer’s advice would shatter one of the old régime’s most durable cultural and legal taboos, a controversial sullying of aristocratic honor that prevented many readers from considering step two. Once they had made a little money, Coyer wrote, the “trading nobility” would reinvest in land. Moving peasant-tenants onto fallow soil and directing the work of clearing, planting, and harvesting, such men would ensure their own fortunes while creating the conditions for a baby boom. “If we wish to favor population,” Coyer explained, the French must “clear new lands” in the kingdom’s interior—the equivalent of “conquer[ing] new countries without making any victims.”33

In effect, Coyer was describing the colonization of France itself, the most radical of all the revisions of empire to emerge from the disappointments of the Seven Years’ War. During the late 1750s and early 1760s, a growing, diverse cadre of thinkers and writers played with the idea, linking internal imperialism and a revival of agriculture in a potent remedy for the kingdom’s ills. Among them was Philippe-Auguste de Sainte-Foix, chevalier d’Arcq, an illegitimate son of an illegitimate son of Louis XIV, and Coyer’s main opponent in the controversy over the role of the French nobility. Although d’Arcq focused on noblemen as warriors, he practically equated rural development with combat. “Gentlemen who exploit their lands,” he argued, merited military-style “marks of distinction,” especially those who “recover an abandoned field,” thus increasing the kingdom’s yield of crops and men.34

Ange Goudar, a philosophe and European traveler, was more explicit. Decades of aping British “designs of commerce,” he complained, had induced France to empty its “towns of vagabonds … to bolster our colonies in America.” By contrast, he advocated “peopl[ing] the countryside of France” by sending “colonies to our husbandmen.”35 An influx of new migrants would provide a valuable kick start in both international politics and economics. “Agriculture is the engine of battle, the soul of victories,” Goudar wrote, for it alone gave “empire of the land and the sea to the nation that establishes it as the first principle of its administration.”36 After the Treaty of Paris, the benefits of self-colonization seemed self-evident. Many bought into the conclusions of the marquis de Mirabeau in his 1764 physiocratic manifesto, La philosophie rurale: that France would be best off settling “colonial lands … in the fallow soil of the kingdom’s interior.”37

Theorists such as Coyer, Goudar, and Mirabeau were soon joined by ministers with concrete plans. Initially these centered on the eight hundred or so Acadians redeemed from Great Britain in 1763. The duc de Nivernais commissioned an estimate of costs for settling those refugees somewhere in France. For “120 habitable houses, each with an oven and a chimney,” he estimated 16,000 livres. For “instruments of farming and gardening” including “pickaxes, hoes, hatchets, saws, [and] hammers,” as well as household items like “a kneading bin, a cauldron, and a pot,” 10,000 livres would do. In addition, the colonial booster suggested “two fishing boats … common to the colony, as the Acadians had in their land.” All of this added up to 120,000 livres—a hefty sum, especially for a king saddled with war debt. But given the twin problems of depopulation and agricultural decline, the benefits would outstrip expenses. “The acquisition of 120 families which over the course of 20 years will produce 240 families of faithful, hardworking subjects” seemed a wise investment. These Acadians, Nivernais continued, “will produce for the state, by the augmentation of their work and consumption, [a dividend of] more than 10 percent after the second year.”38 Nivernais’s hope, of course, was to lay hold of funds from Versailles to settle the Acadians on Ile de Bouin, his island domain on the Atlantic coast. Choiseul killed that project, ostensibly because the Acadians had been reserved for the Kourou colony. But the minister had his own attachments to internal colonization. Behind Nivernais’s back, he ordered the managers of his estate near Amboise in central France to find parcels of land for “a part” of the Acadian community.39

Soon after the Treaty of Paris, like-minded proposals flooded Versailles, floating through the ministry alongside plans for Guiana, Saint-Domingue, and the Falkland Islands. Although the controller-general of finances, Henri Bertin, mused about Acadians as miners (a suggestion that even the unsentimental Choiseul found “cruel”), most of these initial settlement schemes focused on farms where Acadians might, as one booster later put it, “perform the miracle” of demonstrating proper work habits to slovenly peasants.40Some argued that Acadians could clear the “king’s woods” or dry ancient marshes near Blaye, just north of Bordeaux on the Gironde River, while others touted a hemp-growing project in Brittany aimed at supplying the French navy with rope.41

Louis-Elizabeth de la Vergne, comte de Tressan, an old-régime polymath known for his translations of medieval poetry, crafted a proposal that illuminates the ambitions of internal colonizers and the pitfalls facing their would-be colonists. Centered on the town of Bitche, a woodland village on France’s border with the Holy Roman Empire, Tressan’s lands had a complex history. During the Thirty Years’ War, Gustavus Adolphus had “devastated” the area, scattering its peasants and consuming their crops and livestock. Late in the seventeenth century, the duc de Lorraine tried to revive Bitche, hiring Vauban himself to rebuild his château and paying for a new parish church in the village square. The area “began to repopulate, but slowly.” In 1736, Bitche was inherited by Stanislas Leszczyński, the former king of Poland and son-in-law of Louis XV. Progress continued. An overgrown basin outside the village was cleared, and by 1763 even the gullies that sliced through the plains surrounding Bitche held crops. But with the area to revert to the French monarchy after Leszczyński’s death (born in 1677, the ex-king seemed perpetually at the grave’s edge), much work remained. Bitche and its neighboring villages “contained only twenty thousand inhabitants,” Tressan reported. By his lights, the population should have been double that. The region, he wrote, remained “seven-tenths covered by forests” whose trees would, once Leszczyński died and passed the territory to Louis XV, “yield nothing for the king.”

The main impediment to Bitche’s development was dirt. “The base of the soil is sand that appears thin and sterile, which it in fact is,” Tressan confessed. He had already attempted to implant outsiders onto the land, only to have soil stop him. Years earlier, Tressan had participated in a venture that would have settled wounded German soldiers and their families in the forest. Given free land and tools with which to clear it, the invalids were destined not just to grow food but also to raise children to serve in “our German regiments.” It became clear, however, that the soldiers had no talent for demanding farm work, and the plan fell apart. Not so, wrote Tressan, for refugees from North America. “Leaving a cold and sterile country,” both Acadians and Canadians were accustomed to the back-breaking toil needed to extract potatoes and grain from Bitche’s soil. Given six hundred colonists, one hundred dairy cows, two hundred goats, thirty-six oxen, five hundred sheep, 25 livres’ worth of salt per year, and timbers for construction, Tressan promised great things. While the cost of the new settlement would rise to 200,000 livres after the sixth year, in year seven the colonists, by then certainly under Louis XV’s direct rule, would begin to pay taxes and perform corvée duties for twenty days each year. Second sons could be sent to the army. If supported, the enterprise would pay for itself within twenty years. For all these benefits, Tressan demanded only that the king give him 40,000 livres and 120 tenants for his own lands.42 The plan died later in 1763 when Choiseul “changed his opinion.”43

Rejecting Tressan and others like him, Choiseul confirmed his administration’s postwar turn away from the eastern frontier and toward the Atlantic. South America, the Caribbean, the South Atlantic, and a renewed confrontation with the British dominated his agenda—and the last of these demanded that attention be paid to Belle-Ile-en-Mer. The strategic island had shown signs of succumbing to the scourge of the mainland. In 1755, officials fretted that sluggish trade and a declining sardine fishery “tend to depopulate this island.”44 Then, in 1761, Belle-Ile played host to one of France’s most embarrassing moments of the Seven Years’ War, succumbing (after a long, valiant defense) to a British invasion. Having taken the island by force, the enemy then used Belle-Ile as a staging ground for assaults on the mainland and as leverage in negotiations. Traded to France in exchange for the Mediterranean island of Minorca via the Treaty of Paris, Belle-Ile, along with several other vulnerable islands on the Atlantic seaboard, suddenly became a priority for Louis XV.

Geopolitical imperatives seemed destined to push at least some Acadians toward Belle-Ile even as others made sail for the Kourou River and Port Saint-Louis. Occurring even as the Kourou colony imploded and Bougainville’s settlement on East Falkland succumbed to diplomatic pressures, the movement to Belle-Ile also produced the profound realization that the Acadians had become commodities. From the monarchy’s perspective, the refugees were simply demographic and economic spackle—a means of filling gaps. As so many Acadians would discover during the mid-1760s, that status could lead to some horrific outcomes. But others came to see the value of living, acting, and thinking like commodities, playing off monarchical desperation in order to obtain rights and redress.

Louis Courtin benefited from that desperation one night in September 1764. Courtin had spent several weeks moldering in the prison of Landivisiau, a landlocked town in northern Brittany. He had been convicted of murder, and an unexplained delay in handing down a sentence was taking a psychological toll. Suddenly a courier arrived from Versailles bearing “expedited and sealed” letters from Choiseul himself to the local judge. The minister demanded that the judge release Courtin from prison without so much as a fine. “The poverty of this individual” and his “long detention, which has caused him to lose the few possessions he had left,” factored into the king’s decision to spare the man. Ultimately, Choiseul explained to the judge, “I flatter myself that you will obey [the king’s orders] all the more willingly because … His Majesty accords a special protection to all the Acadians.”45

Assured of that “special protection,” Courtin eventually reached Belle-Ile, taking up residence in the parish of Sauzon on the island’s northern coast. Ironically enough, Courtin had reaped lifesaving benefits from the king under somewhat false pretenses. Born in Frétéval in central France, he was not an Acadian at all—but in 1760, he had married Annapolis Royal native Marie-Josèphe Martin in Cork County, Ireland. How Courtin and Martin ended up in Ireland together remains a mystery, but after the Treaty of Paris the couple and their infant daughter headed for Morlaix, taking up residence near the other Acadians redeemed from Great Britain. A year later, Courtin turned up in, and then was turned out of, the prison of Landivisiau.46

To be sure, few Acadians would get away with murder. But Courtin’s close call speaks to a side effect of internal colonization that would reshape the refugees’ lives in two hemispheres. Suddenly, unexpectedly, but officially, it paid to be an Acadian.

As a destination, it was hardly exotic. But Belle-Ile-en-Mer had at least one thing in common with Guiana and Saint-Domingue: it had once been inhabited by slaves. Or so said the island’s royal governor, the marquis de Saint-Sernin, in 1741. During a dinner meeting at his residence in Le Palais with the island’s four parish priests and a variety of local officials, Saint-Sernin made an aggressive proclamation of his own authority. He was, he declared, “a viceroy on your island, and here you shall have neither intendant norparlement.” As for Belle-Ile’s commoners, he deemed them “serfs and slaves” whose sole function consisted of paying the taxes he chose to levy. With a “respectful but lively liberty,” a subdelegate of the intendant of Brittany reminded Saint-Sernin that “slavery was unknown in France, and the slave acquired his freedom by merely setting foot in France, and that the residents of the island were under the authority of laws.” Surprised, the governor started mumbling. Finally he managed to state that whatever anyone else thought, “he was the master … and no other authority, however respectable it may be, would prevent him from following his path.”47

This uncomfortable argument illustrates what the reformers of the 1760s saw as the key problems in Belle-Ile’s history. The island had long suffered from confusion over who ruled. Through the medieval period and into the eighteenth century, Belle-Ile had been private property, passing from religious orders to noble families with remarkable frequency. In 1658 the island was purchased by Nicolas Foucquet, Louis XIV’s minister of finance. When, three years later, the king arrested Foucquet, tried him on charges of treason and gross peculation, and banished him from the kingdom, Belle-Ile remained in the disgraced minister’s family. The monarchy, however, whittled away at the family’s authority, constructing royal fortifications at Le Palais during the 1680s. Finally, in 1718, Foucquet’s grandson deeded Belle-Ile back to Versailles. Retaining the right to appoint a royal governor, Louis XV’s regent gave control of the island to the Compagnie des Indes; a few years later, Belle-Ile’s government passed to the farmers general, a syndicate of financiers who contracted with the crown to collect taxes. In 1759, the crown shuffled the deck again, placing the Estates of Brittany in charge. The result was a multilayered jumble of offices and claims that made governing Belle-Ile a tall order even in good times. The sort of inefficiency encouraged by this state of affairs became evident during bad times—as in 1674, when Dutch ships attacked the island, or in 1703, 1746, and 1761, when British vessels did so.48

For Belle-Ile’s inhabitants, the geopolitical importance attached to the island must have seemed all out of proportion to its resources. With under 85 square miles of surface area, Belle-Ile hosted a dispersed population of perhaps five thousand prior to the British assault. It was no economic powerhouse. Much of the correspondence to and from the island during the eighteenth century dealt with decay and corruption. In 1742, for example, the rector of the parish of Bangor complained to mainland officials that François Bescond de Kermarquer, Belle-Ile’s receveur du domaine (a sort of royal treasurer), was committing “a species of highway robbery.” Kermarquer gave wheat to needy farmers only if they promised to make declarations to a notary that he was “an honest man, and they had no cause to complain of him.” He also went door-to-door with his own “certificates of good conduct,” extorting signatures from illiterate peasants by claiming that the document was in fact a marriage contract requiring witnesses.49 The rector’s other letters whipsawed between condemning the “injustices, vexations, and frauds” of profit-minded officials and describing the “epidemic diseases,” including contagions and food poisoning from moldy grain, that struck down his parishioners.50

Disease was but one aspect of Belle-Ile’s harsh environment. Although visitors praised the soil, good farmland was hard to come by. In October 1749, tenants near Le Palais reported a near-total crop failure, the consequence of a wet summer and “sea-water, which flowed over all their lands.” Earlier that year, villagers near Bangor watched as a “hurricane” ripped their houses apart and tore up fields, threatening ruin if the government did not intervene. By 1750, more than three thousand of Belle-Ile’s inhabitants (perhaps 60 percent of the total population) appeared on parish poor relief rolls, receiving a grand total of 220 bushels of grain. With nowhere to turn and their own agriculture flagging, island officials contracted with merchants in the mainland town of Vannes, who supplied and transported wheat to Belle-Ile for a tidy profit.51 In a way, the marquis de Saint-Sernin had been on to something. The inhabitants of Belle-Ile may not have been slaves, but their island did resemble someplace in the French Caribbean. Although potentially profitable, the island could neither defend itself nor grow its own food, leaving its poor laborers vulnerable and uncertain about the future.

The 1761 siege of Belle-Ile by the British only made matters worse. Launched in April, the attack, along with the nearly simultaneous invasion of Martinique, formed part of William Pitt’s grand plan to make off with a maximum of French territory before pressing Louis XV for a debasing peace. The siege pitted a fleet of 115 British ships bearing nine thousand ground troops against fewer than four thousand French regulars, most of whom were holed up in the fortifications at Le Palais. It lasted just over a month.

The siege turned Belle-Ile upside down. After an amphibious landing, hungry British troops planted themselves in Belle-Ile’s villages while their artillery blasted away at Le Palais. After the French surrendered and departed, they left the British with a viable base overlooking the key naval ports of Brest and Rochefort, as well as the Compagnie des Indes’s home base at Lorient. The French also left behind five thousand confused islanders (the bellilois), who had no inkling what might happen to them under the new régime. Most of their oxen, cows, and sheep, reported one observer, had been requisitioned by the French in the weeks before the siege of Le Palais. After their victory, the British snapped up the rest at low prices. Deprived of seed and supplies from the mainland and unable to plow, the bellilois got by on British wages. Some worked on the docks or helped patch up the walls of Le Palais. Others, though, crossed the Gulf of Morbihan looking for jobs or charity in Brittany.52

Holding the island for its military and diplomatic value and unconcerned with its economy, the British allowed Belle-Ile to revert to what eighteenth-century philosophes would have identified as a state of nature. Upon retaking control in 1763, one French official described the island as “more or less as it was when it emerged from the hands of the Creator.”53 Pierre d’Isambert, an envoy from the Estates of Brittany sent to assess the damage, despaired at what he saw: “One sees villages totally destroyed, and their number is considerable. All that remains in some are gables, walls, and stones, and in others few houses are left standing, … the British having taken the beams and planks for firewood.”54 Others recoiled at the “extreme misery to which nearly all of the inhabitants are reduced … the greater part of their lands having been burned.” Without help, the Estates warned the crown, Belle-Ile risked a “general desertion” of its prewar population.55 French officials gamely made up a list of damages owed by the British, but those debts were swallowed up in the payments France owed Britain to redeem prisoners of war. Versailles could only promise limited aid to the bellilois, “however urgent their needs.”56

No less than the wild Kourou River or the uninhabited Falkland Islands, Belle-Ile became a canvas for reformers. The new governor, the baron de Warren, an Irish émigré who had participated in the failed Jacobite invasion of England during the 1740s, took over in the summer of 1763. Pieced together with the help of royal and local officials, his vision for the revival and repopulation of the island was steeped in the principles and aims of internal colonization. Everyone agreed that Belle-Ile needed a catalyst to remedy its “shortage of cultivators, of which we have complained for so long and with such reason.”57 “To inspire the love of work among the other settlers [the old bellilois],” wrote Isambert, “we would do well to place more industrious people in the different villages.” Warren seconded him, demanding colonists who “would provide an object of emulation for the natives of this country, who are very lazy and who possess no industry.”58 On Belle-Ile, the audacity of postwar imperialism could be expressed as it could be nowhere else. Guiana was too insalubrious, Saint-Domingue too scarred by generations of slavery, the Falklands too remote. Belle-Ile, however, offered the chance to remake French society in miniature, washing away the accumulated errors of the ages and creating not just a new place but new people.

The stakes were high. It would be in the state’s best interest, wrote one colonial booster, “to make Belle-Ile better cultivated, more abundant, and better peopled. … Being by its location one of the most important places in the kingdom, anything that may add to its security, fertility, and growth is worthy of the king’s attention.”59 Well suited to agriculture (which was, reported one Breton observer in 1763, the Acadians’ “preference, and their principal talent”) and legendarily fecund (“the populationist spirit of the day certainly clamors in their favor,” as an Acadian admirer in Morlaix wrote), refugees from Nova Scotia were ideal candidates to resettle the island.60 Perhaps just as important as rustic skill or reproductive capacity was the Acadians’ history of patriotic sacrifice. Showing a praiseworthy “attachment to our religion,” wrote the curés of Saint-Malo, the Acadians had “abandoned their settlements, regardless of how well cultivated they were, rather than subject themselves to another monarch.”61

These were the same images of Acadians used by proponents of migration to Guiana or the Falkland Islands, but with a twist. In the case of Belle-Ile and France’s first, halting attempts at self-colonization, the Acadians helped to produce those images themselves. “Some deputies of this respectable colony of ours (I mean to say the Acadians) came to find me,” recalled one resident of Morlaix who sent a letter to the Estates of Brittany in the summer of 1763. “They begged me to solicit you in their favor,” he wrote, and after rattling off a list of Acadian virtues, he declared himself “united with them in beseeching you to do all that you can. … [And] I cannot imagine that you would ever regret having done too much, for they are honest people.”62 With deep traditions of political petitioning in Nova Scotia in their heads, eight years of exile under their belt, and a bewildering hodgepodge of colonial schemes in the air, the Acadians had no choice but to become savvy managers of their reputation.

Soon enough, some of the refugees tried to use what leverage they had acquired. In July 1763, three Acadians from Morlaix visited Belle-Ile. They declared that nearly eighty Acadian families might settle on the island, leaving room for the originalbelliloisinhabitants. After the group returned to Morlaix, however, the process of recruitment stalled. Transported from Great Britain only a few months earlier, most of the town’s Acadians balked at plans drawn up by the Estates of Brittany. Joseph-Simon Granger, Honoré Daigre, and Jean Hébert made a first attempt at bargaining. In a memorial dated October 30, 1763, they laid out some demands. The first had to do with the allowance, or solde, granted them by Louis XV. “As it relates to the solde of six sols per day,” they told the Estates, “it is impossible for us to survive and establish ourselves unless it lasts at least six years.” This struck them as natural, considering that even the hated British had given them an allowance during the seven years of their captivity and had “very much wanted to continue doing so, had we become their subjects.” The memorial further stipulated that masons be hired to help them build houses, that sheep be provided gratis, and that a single all-Acadian parish be established, ensuring that the refugees would receive “the good land with the bad,” rather than being shuffled onto the worst parts of the island’s four parishes. The Acadians also worried about history repeating itself. “As Belle-Ile is evidently more exposed to the enemy,” an expulsion was hardly out of the question. All in all, they preferred to go someplace within the kingdom besides the island.63

The Estates of Brittany called on the duc de Choiseul to break this impasse, and he in turn called on someone the Acadians knew well: the abbé le Loutre. Now sixty years old, the aging priest had not only a “knack for leading” but also a desire for a new challenge.64 Captured by the British in February 1756, le Loutre had spent more than seven years imprisoned at Elizabeth Castle on the Island of Jersey. He had endured painful economies. While his jailers had hoped to receive six shillings eight pence per day for his upkeep, officials at Whitehall only sent one shilling for the man they called “the Otter.”65 Released in August 1763, le Loutre headed for Morlaix that winter, armed with a mandate from Choiseul to push the Acadians toward Belle-Ile. “It is high time that they settle somewhere,” the minister snarled.66

Le Loutre played the role of broker well—too well, perhaps, for Choiseul’s taste. Instead of browbeating the Acadians he became their advocate, drawing up on behalf of seventy-seven interested families a counteroffer that reached Versailles in February 1764. While they gave up on the idea of a single Acadian community on Belle-Ile, the Acadians demanded to be settled in three parishes instead of four. This arrangement would allow them to “live like they had always lived, always neighbors, always in close proximity to one another,” sheltering them from the Breton-speaking bellilois, whose “language was unknown and foreign to them” and who might cheat them in matters of trade and justice.

Le Loutre had his own reasons for touting a concentrated settlement. “I cannot dissimulate,” he would later write to Warren, “that I would like better to see the Acadians in three parishes because I could then be among them, to encourage them to work.” His age made the prospect of far-flung parochial visits on horseback seem unpalatable.67 The Acadian families also demanded a twenty-year exemption from “all sorts of taxation,” including tithes and the dreaded vingtième, a royal tax that swallowed up 5 percent per of all net income. They reiterated their need for experienced masons (Acadians were, le Loutre explained, “not used to building … in the French style”) while claiming an assortment of special privileges: the right to plant pine trees on their land to hold the soil in place, exclusive use of several ovens and mills lest the bellilois lock them out, and so on.68

An uncomfortable period of negotiation followed. Belle-Ile languished, Choiseul and the Estates of Brittany stewed, and the Acadians weighed a surprising number of options throughout the summer of 1764. Self-proclaimed “enemies of idleness,” they nevertheless had no intention of working in any but the best conditions they could procure.69 That meant thinking hard about an offer from the mysterious comte de Laz, who offered land near Pontivy in central Brittany.70 Floated by both private individuals and crown officials, other options included uncultivated lands in Carhaix, Poullaouen, Douarnenez, or Aoulanhiry, all underdeveloped Breton hamlets.71 With word of the Kourou disaster electrifying French ports that fall, the Acadians and le Loutre pressed their advantages even more forcefully.

They got much of what they wanted. Drafted under Choiseul’s guidance and with the help of the Estates of Brittany, final plans for Belle-Ile included plenty of tax exemptions, a continuation of the solde until the Acadians’ first harvest (and perhaps after), free farm implements, and guarantees of help with the construction of homes. Emulation, however, carried the day when it came to living arrangements. The prospect of displacing bellilois families to create a single Acadian parish struck officials as cruel and impractical, not least because it would deprive these “old islanders … of the example of [the Acadians’] activity and love of work.”72 Internal colonization aimed at radical social and cultural transformations, not just economic and military gains. “I find it to the advantage of the king, and in the interest of the province,” wrote the comte de Warren, “to distribute [the Acadians] in the four parishes of the island … that all the inhabitants may have one spirit and become one people.”73

Although less invasive than they might have been, these plans still necessitated fundamental changes on the island. Using new surveys, planners divided Belle-Ile into 551 separate plots of roughly twenty journaux (plural of journée, a variable old-régime unit that referred to the area one man could plow or harvest in a day) each. Three hundred and seventy-five of the plots went to farmers among the bellilois, while 108 belonged, more controversially, to gourdiecs. This Breton-language slur referred to agricultural workers, fishermen, and artisans imported from the mainland to speed the rebuilding of the island. Finally, seventy-eight plots, a number derived from le Loutre’s recruiting spree in Morlaix and Saint-Malo, were earmarked for Acadians. The plots, some of which were preexisting farms while others had been pieced together from multiple sources, had been carved from dozens of villages in all four parishes, displacing some old residents toward the coast.74 Some bellilois were slated to “decamp,” in the euphemistic official language, to make way for the Acadians; others, such as Guillaume Thomas of Le Cosquet and Albin Legallin of Pouldon, were to be “expelled” for “laziness.”75

As in Guiana and Saint-Domingue, the postwar reconstruction of Belle-Ile yoked imperial designs, enlightened ambitions, and coercive practices in a volatile embrace. Le Loutre’s seventy-eight families finally agreed to come to Belle-Ile, although haggling over details in the ports and material preparations on the island took so long as to delay their departure until the late summer of 1765. In some quarters, hopes ran high. Isambert predicted that once the Acadians and Belle-Ile’s old settlers had been mingled together, “they will soon get along, and will even marry one another.”76 Elsewhere, old alarms sounded. How, wondered one Belle-Ile planner, could the French satisfy “the interests of these different inhabitants” without creating “grounds for animosity”?77

Still pockmarked and charred by British guns, the walls of the citadel at Le Palais rose directly from the sea to loom over the Acadians’ port of entry, looking for all the world like the burned-out shell of Louisbourg, another symbol of French power and insecurity. The Acadian families passed beneath the walls in late September or early October 1765, only to discover that the island was not yet ready to receive them. Surveyors were hurriedly triangulating and measuring in the interior, while the arrival of hundreds of hungrygourdiecs made for unneeded chaos. Welcomed ashore by le Loutre, Warren, and Isambert, the Acadians were shuffled off to temporary lodgings in an oat warehouse, an abandoned mill, and the home of “Dame Kermarquer,” which had once been a barracks.78

The promoters presented the Acadians their contracts. The documents confirmed the agreement hammered out by le Loutre and offered a host of incentives for hard work and good behavior. Each Acadian family was promised a house composed of two rooms and a loft, totaling about twenty-seven square meters. In addition, each family was to receive two oxen, a cow, and a horse, along with carts, spare axles, hoes, spades, and sickles. Like peasants across the kingdom, Belle-Ile’s settlers owed corvée labor for the repair of roads, mills, bridges, and other structures, facing fines if they did not comply. For the first four years on the island, they would pay no taxes. After 1769, two small dues, both paid in grain, were to be given to royal officials in Le Palais each year, while a minuscule tithe would support the island’s clergy. If the new colonists managed to clear, till, and farm the land successfully, it became their private, inheritable, incontestable property. But Belle-Ile’s settlers could not sell their land until January 1, 1776, nor could they leave it uncultivated. The penalty for both offenses was expulsion from the island.79 Perks notwithstanding, the Acadians had signed up for a decade-long hitch as glorified serfs.

Trouble cropped up early. Le Loutre dispatched the seventy-eight Acadian families toward their lands as soon as land transportation became available, dividing the migrants into mutual-assistance “brigades” of thirteen families each. But since none of their houses had yet been built, the new arrivals were lodged with old inhabitants and gourdiecs.80 Relations soured quickly. In Bernantec, a hot dispute landed one Acadian in a bellilois barn, while in Kerzo another lived in an abandoned smithy. In Kergoyet, not far from Le Palais, the gourdiec widow of Henry Loreal put up a fight over a single room destined for an Acadian family, claiming that her brother-in-law, the house’s original owner, had left it to her before abandoning Belle-Ile for the mainland. Her actions, wrote representatives of the Estates of Brittany, “cannot be punished too soon or too severely, because this woman, who lives only by charity, might draw many gourdiecs toward her, inspiring among them the same resistance.”81

Officials tried to silence them, but women such as Loreal had long acted as agitators for a nascent bellilois / gourdiec insurgency. On Monday, March 25, 1765, several months before the Acadians’ arrival, the abbé Pierre-Jacques-Philippe le Sergent had crisscrossed his Bangor parish, informing heads of bellilois families of their impending displacement. They seemed “happy enough” about the new arrangements. The next day, however, a group of men interrupted le Sergent at the rectory in Bangor, telling him that upon hearing the news their wives and children had “cried aloud, and refused to cede their places to the Acadians.” If they were to be moved, French officials “may as well come to bury them.”82 It stood to reason, the bellilois families complained, that they “should receive the same treatment as the new colonists, the same event having stripped us of our possessions.”83


Belle-Ile-en-Mer in the eighteenth century. Courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

Le Loutre, who had taken pains to identify himself with the Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia, had no sympathy for these natives. “The old settlers think everything belongs to them,” he complained, accusing the bellilois and their gourdiec allies of “not permitting the Acadians to labor.”84 On a visit to Kerbellec in the late spring of 1766, le Loutre and Isambert informed villagers of their determination to take from them “eight journaux of arable land, of which they have too much.” Unsurprisingly, the bellilois protested, but in le Loutre’s ears their words registered only as “invectives and nonsense.”85 The old missionary’s ham-fisted style of advocating for the newcomers (when Charles Granger came to him “upset and chagrined” in June 1766, he fired off pointed letters on behalf of “myAcadian”) triggered an ecclesiastical war that contributed much to the growing unrest on the island.

In their priestly way, the participants were vicious. Jacques-Marie Choblet, the parish priest of Sauzon, helped the illiterate gourdiec Marc Querel of Chubiguier write an angry complaint against le Loutre and Isambert for unjustly dispossessing him of a house.86Scarcely hiding his contempt, le Sergent went on the attack against le Loutre and Isambert in the summer of 1766. Seeds and tools provided by the Estates of Brittany had, he claimed, been distributed “by predilection and fantasy,” with Acadians taking the lion’s share and the bellilois the leftovers.87 Dozens of bellilois, “strong and robust” young people capable of laboring, had been deprived of land by le Loutre and Isambert, leading all four of the island’s curés to condemn them for favoritism.88 The old colonial dream of intercultural unity proved no easier to realize in a new setting.

As Belle-Ile’s settlers struggled to build, clear, and plant, the prospect of violence became real. In the village of Antoureau near Le Palais, the bellilois François Thomas’s house burned down one frigid night in January 1766. Isambert reported that Thomas and his family had saved only a few effects from their ground-level room and nothing from the barn, but that the man deserved “no charity, … being very lazy and always begging.” The Estates of Brittany agreed, noting Thomas’s unwillingness to “give himself to work” and his refusal to help provision the French military during the 1761 siege. Indeed, the Estates went so far as to order Isambert to drive Thomas from Antoureau and give his land to an Acadian. Once it was done, Isambert drily reported that “this Acadian bothers the old tenant.”89 Weeks later, Thomas “armed himself with a pitchfork and made various threats” against the Acadian, le Loutre, and Isambert.90 He eventually left, but Thomas’s outburst signaled things to come. That April in Parlavant, a group ofgourdiecs threatened to burn down a house rather than cede the property to Acadians. Officials toyed with expelling them but eventually promised to “treat them favorably” if they demonstrated “total submission” to Belle-Ile’s new order.91

That “submission” was a pipe dream, especially in Parlavant. Laurent Babin, a twenty-six-year-old Acadian who had married Le Palais native Marie-Françoise Carrière upon reaching Belle-Ile, discovered as much while trying to plant crops on a condemned footpath just outside the village. The path was unquestionably on Babin’s land, and both le Loutre and Warren had encouraged his efforts. But the bellilois persisted in using it, trampling Babin’s seedlings and threatening him with “total ruin.” Babin appealed to Warren, who took the unusual step of sending a lone soldier from the king’s regiment in Le Palais to “arrest anyone who attempted to pass through his land.” At seven in the evening on March 15, 1767, six peasants from Bangor did just that as they returned home from work at the nearby farm of the sieur le Luc. “Seeing so many of them armed with pickaxes,” the soldier admitted to Babin that “if they wanted to avenge themselves, he could not stop them.” As the bellilois unsheathed daggers and “raised their pickaxes to strike,” Babin brandished a sword and held them off long enough for the soldier, now feeling confident, to disarm and arrest them. The pair took the six assailants to prison in Le Palais, but by the next morning they had been released. Babin soon found himself harassed by a drunken le Luc, an angry le Sergent, and a host of bellilois leaders, “all of them brothers-in-law or kin to one another, and all banding together” against him.92 Warren practically begged the besieged Acadian not to “abandon your concession, … a fine resource that may one day be useful to your children.”93

By late 1768, only two years into France’s experiment in internal colonization, le Loutre wondered aloud to Warren what he or anyone else could do to “reestablish peace in your empire.”94 The process of rendering the island populous and fertile seemed to have stalled, and the mixture of bellilois, gourdiec, and Acadian into a single community of French patriots had never even begun. Emulation had been the project’s aim: pliable, virtuous Acadians were to receive instruction from the elites who ruled the island, after which the bellilois and gourdiecs would follow their example. But as the colony grew, emulation seemed to flow in the opposite direction, with Acadians drinking in the vices of the allegedly “lazy” and contentious old settlers. Elizabeth Vincent, for example, gave herself over to “the most infamous debauchery,” eventually forcing Warren to expel her from the island.95 In 1769, with the solde expiring and expectations high for Acadian agriculture, the new colonists faltered. “The continual rain of the fall and winter, coupled with a great drought in the spring and summer,” explained Charles Leblanc and Joseph-Simon Granger in August, “occasioned such a bad harvest that more than three hundred of us did not reap enough grain to pay the rent on our land.”96 Marguerite Granger, a “more than septuagenarian widow,” wrote that she had arrived at Belle-Ile in 1765 with many “children, nephews, nieces, and other kin whom I had … served as a mother.” By 1770, however, the “misery of the weather and the cost of wheat” had left her “poor children unable to support me.” Driven “to the edge of the grave,” Granger subsisted on charity.97

Bad fortune became the island’s great equalizer. Conflicts between the Acadians and their bellilois and gourdiec enemies subsided as the expiration of the solde, poor harvests, and impoverishment leveled the playing field. By the early 1770s Belle-Ile became again what it once had been—a struggling island of fishermen and petty farmers who, according to one account, “were unable to plant the lands they had prepared … in spite of all of their goodwill.”98 The ambitions of France’s internal colonizers were, for now, deferred. The vast majority of the 383 Acadians who came to Belle-Ile in 1765 stayed on for a generation—even Laurent Babin, whose residence in Parlavant had nearly ended in a killing spree. Others, however, left. Marie, Geneviève, and Henriette Haché, daughters of the late Jacques Haché and his widow, Aimé Boudrot, took Easter communion in Bangor in 1773, receiving written confirmation from a conciliatory le Sergent that they “lived well and had good manners.” A few days later, they sailed for Morlaix with a passport from Warren, who declared the sisters “unable to live here due to the miserable weather.”99

From imperial aspirations to clan violence to agricultural capitulation, the Belle-Ile experiment appeared to have been a waste of time. It had changed nothing: not for the French state, still saddled with a exposed, unprofitable island just off the Breton coast; not for the bellilois or the gourdiecs, whose many character flaws abided in the eyes of mainlanders; and not for the Acadians, whose situation remained as precarious as ever.

And perhaps that was true—except for one thing.

Who was who? In the years after the Treaty of Paris, this simple question became an obsession throughout the French Empire. To be sure, as the historian Sarah Maza has noted, slotting people into categories is a quintessentially French practice: social classification, she writes, “has long been a national predilection.”100 But with France’s wounds in the Seven Years’ War still stinging, the proper ordering of society took on special importance. In the French Caribbean, this process centered on race. Elites focused on building barriers between whites and mixed-race gens de couleur and on constructing ever more baroque schemes for categorizing slaves according to African origins. In France itself, the abbé Coyer, the chevalier d’Arcq, and dozens of lesser authors wrangled over what made someone noble and what that person’s function ought to be. At the same time, physiocrats adapted Europe’s traditional “three orders” by identifying a class of landowners, a class of those who worked the land, and a catchall “sterile” class that produced no real wealth. The great surge in postwar French nationalism situated the scheming British (“a barbarous people … prepared to fill the universe with horrors,” wrote François-Antoine de Chevrier in 1758) beyond the pale of European civilization; but such attempts to crowbar Frenchmen into a “single family of brothers and equals” were in large part prompted by the jumble of regional identities and linguistic traditions that made the kingdom less a whole than a collection of parts.101

Belle-Ile’s Acadians felt the weight of these developments. The French desire to categorize them was a distillation of broader trends. But their case was also shaped by some very particular fiscal realities. The solde alone represented a big investment, to which was added, in the case of Belle-Ile, the cost of houses, farm implements, livestock, and seed, for a total estimated cost to the crown of 56,000 livres. Acadians were thought to be worth the expense precisely because they were Acadians, not bellilois or gourdiecs. These last groups, of course, were singled out for contempt and derided as “lazy.” “It is truly surprising,” wrote a particularly haughty representative of the Estates of Brittany in June 1766, “that no one has yet been able to convince these [bellilois] settlers that they have no property on the island, that they are nothing more than tenants that the owner may move at his will.”102 But Acadians could, through hard work, piety, and virtuous love of country, transform the island’s culture by example.

All of this was predicated, however, on Acadians actually being Acadians. In light of what the refugees had been through during the 1750s and 1760s, making that determination was more difficult than it might seem. Early on, Belle-Ile’s boosters had sought help from the Seminary for Foreign Missions, the Parisian headquarters for most of the missionaries who had ministered to Acadians in Nova Scotia and on Ile Saint-Jean. The priests offered little good information. The abbé Pierre Cassiet, for example, told investigators that in 1758, as word spread that the British navy was on its way to Ile Saint-Jean, his fearful parishioners at Saint-Louis de la Rivière du Nord had gone into the woods and buried “all of the effects” from their little chapel, including the precious register of births, baptisms, and burials. So quickly were these Acadians expelled that the registers remained, decomposing in their own shallow grave. The abbé Jean-Baptiste de Gay Desenclaves likewise declared that “it was not possible for me to save or retain the registers” during his harried last months at Cap Sable in Nova Scotia. The abbé Jacques Girard related his departure from Ile Saint-Jean aboard the Duke William with 366 Acadians, most of them originally from Cobequid in Nova Scotia. The ship sank “40 leagues from the coast of England,” and Girard—in a moment that would torture him for the rest of his days—managed to get on a lifeboat, but “without taking anything.” He watched as his parishioners drowned, taking their registers down with them.103

Not all of the Acadians’ old records perished, but for French officials in the 1760s they were certainly hard to come by.104 So as the recolonization of Belle-Ile began to take shape, the French determined to reconstitute the Acadians’ family histories from scratch. Already in 1765, planners from the Estates of Brittany reminded Warren to set aside some money for “the honorarium of the scribe employed to write and put in order the genealogies of the [Acadian] families.”105 As arguments arose over the proper allocation of the solde and other funds, Belle-Ile’s leaders began to take lineages seriously. They soon learned of a 1746 case in which the inept parish priest of Sougeal, a village to the southeast of Saint-Malo, kept records on “loose sheets” that were eventually lost, leaving parishioners without vital information. In January 1767, the Estates of Brittany instituted a solution for Belle-Ile that had worked well in Sougeal. Each Acadian head of family was required to make a declaration “that will contain all the details relative to the condition of the declarer, that of his wife and children, with the most exact and clear genealogy possible of the father and mother, of the place of their births and marriages, and the place of the births of their children.” Le Loutre was to be present, adding his own knowledge of “facts … which may be unknown to the deponent.” The goal, then, was to establish a full matrix of “ascending, descending, and lateral lines, with places and dates insofar as [the Acadians] can recall.”106

Beginning in February 1767, Acadians began trudging across Belle-Ile’s cheerless winter landscape to the island’s four parish churches in Le Palais, Bangor, Sauzon, and Locmaria. Honoré Leblanc, Joseph Leblanc dit le Maigre, Joseph-Simon Granger, and Jean-Baptiste Granger were among the first to make their declarations, converging on Le Palais from their respective villages on the parish’s outskirts. They arrived together and spoke in quick succession, likely relying on one another to fill in the forgotten links among their interconnected clans. They remembered well. Joseph-Simon and Jean-Baptiste both began their stories with Laurent Granger, their seventeenth-century Acadian ancestor, who migrated from Plymouth, England, and “after his abjuration” of Protestantism married Port Royal native Marie Landry. The Leblancs traced their ancestry to the French migrant Daniel Leblanc, who arrived at “Port Royal, the chief settlement of Acadia, after the Treaty of Breda of July 31, 1661.” The statement was a near miss—the Treaty of Breda had been signed on July 31, 1667. Still, at exactly a century’s remove, these and dozens of similar Acadian declarations reveal a powerful sense of the familial past.107

Recounting the present was more painful. So many Acadians were simply gone. Brothers Joseph and Mathurin Granger of Kergoyet, for example, had grown up near Grand Pré, tending a farm on the rivière aux Canards with their five siblings. They were deported early in the 1755 British campaign, first to Virginia and then to England. A dozen years later, Joseph and Mathurin’s brothers, both teenagers, lived in Brest and Nantes. Eldest sister Marie-Josèphe and her husband had been deported to Boston, and their whereabouts remained unknown. Middle sister Marie-Magdalene, now twenty-nine, had married a Frenchman while both were held in Falmouth, England; they had gone to Martinique together after 1763. Known only as Marie, the youngest Granger sister had married as well—in Morlaix, to Jacques-Hypolite Constant, a Frenchman who took her to Cayenne as soon as the match was made.108 The South American settlement loomed large in the Acadians’ declarations. Brothers Jean, Allain, and Pascal Hébert had taken their families there in 1764. By February 11, 1767, when their sixty-eight-year-old father made his declaration in Locmaria, Allain, Allain’s wife, and Pascal had all died on the Kourou River, while Jean and his wife had simply vanished. That left only Pascal’s shattered widow, Marguerite Trahan, who had escaped from Guiana and now lived near Bangor.109 If, as one commentator has argued, the Acadians’ declarations represented “a particularly generous, social, humane idea” that allowed the refugees to “find in the bosom of French society roots that events had severed,” to speak aloud of such things was nonetheless gut-wrenching.110

Whatever the French state’s intentions had been (and cost cutting, not kindness, was likely the key motivation), the Belle-Ile genealogies set in motion a chain of events that few could have foreseen. True, the island’s Acadian families were supposed to set a new example for a French nation obsessed with issues of reproduction and domestic life—for, as Mably wrote in his 1763 best seller Entretiens de Phocion, in “the bosom of their families” the French learned “the first model” of public virtue.111 But Acadians were also to be adopted into the metaphorical family of oldrégime political society. The king, of course, played the father. Below him were millions of his children, many of whom were organized into a mind-boggling collection of corps, or bodies. According to one Parisian jurist, the system looked like this:

The clergy, the nobility, the sovereign courts, the subaltern courts, the officers attached to these courts, the universities, the academies, the finance bodies, the trade companies, all present, in all parts of the state, existing bodies that may be regarded as links in a great chain, the first link of which is in the hands of Your Majesty, as head and sovereign administrator of everything that composes the body of the nation.112

From the nobility down to the guilds, these corps were distinguished by possession of privileges—literally, “private laws”—that regulated their relations with the monarchy and society at large. With wide-ranging exemptions from taxes, militia duties, and the corvée, noblemen profited most from privilege. But, to a lesser degree, others did too. Walloons were liberated from the state’s salt and tobacco monopolies; Bordeaux’s inhabitants eluded the taille, the Bourbons’ much-hated land tax, while urban manufacturers and artisanal confraternities held up crown-granted privileges as a shield against taxation and regulation. Even the peasants of Brittany would rally to the defense of their “exemptions and privileges” when, in 1789, the National Assembly maneuvered to abolish them.113

All privileges, then, were good. But hereditary privileges such as those belonging to the nobility were the best. And in their zeal to distinguish reliable, fertile, and patriotic Acadians from the shiftless bellilois and to weed out interlopers, the combined authority of the crown and the Estates of Brittany had given such privileges to the island’s new settlers. They had tax exemptions, promises of free land, and general promises of “special protection,” all of which marked Acadians, in the words of a provincial newspaper, as “one among the many corps” attached to the French king.114

The crown viewed the granting of Acadian privileges primarily as a way to save money. As the early expectations for Belle-Ile faded into a more mundane reality, royal officials began to repeat the tedious process of genealogical declarations elsewhere. In 1772, they charged Antoine-Philippe Lemoyne, a naval commissioner in Nantes who had served in Cayenne at the time of the Kourou disaster, with creating a “general roll” of Acadians throughout the kingdom. Plowing through mountains of data collected in northern ports, Lemoyne began making cuts. First to go were families from Ile Royale with no Acadian ancestors. Lemoyne placed them in a “separate class” from those whom “the king wishes to establish … in the kingdom, making them proprietors of lands.”115 Next came the impostors. There were 354 of them, Lemoyne discovered, lurking among the 2,700 “true Acadians” in the kingdom.116 Deemed “European” and not Acadian, couples such as Louis Gressin and Angelique Gaillet found themselves pulled from the lists.117Likewise for one François Philibert, his wife, and “Jean Gussman, native of Seville,” each of whom lived with the Acadians and drew the solde in the northern city of Le Havre.118

Lemoyne was pleased. The right people, he believed, had received “the decided protection of the Government.”119 “Truly Acadian families,” he explained to former minister Henri Bertin, “are those alone which, by privilege, must enjoy the usage of the king’s freely given graces, in order to put them in a state to provide, by their own work, for their own subsistence.”120

The Acadians learned that privilege had its benefits. One group living near Saint-Malo did so in 1773, when Pierre Landry and Marie-Jeanne Hébert both died, leaving behind a three-year-old son. Soon a local notary and a financial attorney arrived to settle the couple’s debts and set up a “guardianship” for the boy. Tactlessly, the Frenchmen began by discussing their fees. The Acadians would have none of it. They protested to Versailles, claiming exemption from the “costly formalities of justice.” Although they had been living “in the heart of France” for fifteen years, they had been endowed with the right “to govern themselves without the constraints of local laws.” As a “national body [corps de nation]” composed of “kinsmen who watched over one another,” their situation wascompletely different from that of a mere “transient.”121 This was more than clannishness or tightfistedness. It was the exercise of what one French official termed “the privilege, so to speak, of an Acadian.”122

The recolonization of Belle-Ile-en-Mer, then, had taught much to many. For the French, it revealed that imperialism was imperialism wherever it happened. Colonists and natives clashed over land, resources, and, sometimes, a stray insult or wayward look. Sneaking suspicion turned into outright antagonism. Violence, disorder, and productive paralysis followed. Perhaps Diderot, Mably, and the anti-colonial philosophes had been right after all. And yet the experiment had seemed so ingenious, so sensible. To some, internal colonization still looked like the wave of the future. In 1767, even as Belle-Ile’s Acadians struggled to build homes and sow crops, the Ephémérides du citoyen lauded the establishment of an agricultural colony in the Sierra Morena of Andalusia. Here was imperialism come full circle: thirst for “precious metals” had made sixteenth-century Spaniards into “ferocious plunderers,” shedders of “so much innocent blood,” and slaves to “mad pride and detestable policies” that had impoverished the homeland. Now, however, “the king … has learned that it is within Spain itself that colonies must be founded.” Was this not, the author exclaimed, a true “example to sovereigns”?123

For their part, the Acadians had gained a valuable bargaining chip—a corporate identity. And when the French crown tried one last time to colonize the patrie, a few among them would deploy that chip to surprising, devastating effect.

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