Environmental Change, War, and Neutrality in Imperial–Indigenous Relations in the Maritime Colonies, 1793–1815

Hervey Smyth, A View of the Pierced Island, a remarkable Rock in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (1760)

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This is the second in a series of excerpts from The Greater Gulf: Essays on the Environmental History of the Gulf of St. Lawrencerecently published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Environmental elements of Indigenous dispossession through colonial settlement from the late eighteenth century onwards had key implications for conflict and ultimately for the nineteenth-century future of Indigenous diplomacy.  The continuous era of warfare associated with the French Revolutionary War, the Napoleonic Wars, and the War of 1812, embroiled Great Britain with France from 1793 to 1815, and with the United States during the final four years.  The four Maritime colonies – Cape Breton Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island (known until 1799 as the Island of St. John) – occupied a strategic position within the geo-politics of the North Atlantic, characterized not only by proximity to the United States by land and sea but also by being islands within or having extended coastlines upon the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  

In Cape Breton, a Council meeting on 30 April 1794 saw pessimistic observations made on the colony’s vulnerability.  Councillor Ingram Ball declared that the colony stood in danger of being placed “in the midst of three [fires], a French one, an American one, and an Indian one.”  Having been an army officer during the American Revolutionary War and as the older brother of a naval commander on the Newfoundland station, he was well positioned to appraise the consequences for the colony if hostilities with the U.S. were at some point added to the existing war with France.  Also crucial to Ball’s assessment, however, was the third fire.  

In considering the Mi’kmaw population as a serious threat to British colonial settlement of the island, if combined with French and U.S. action, Ball reflected views that had been expressed on a number of occasions at Council meetings.  A year earlier, the Council had recorded its anxiety that the colony would be, in effect, defenceless in the face of Indigenous resistance.  Such apprehensions also characterized neighbouring colonies.  In early 1794, Nova Scotia’s Indian Commissioner, George Henry Monk, reported to Governor John Wentworth that “the Indians appear more restless and dissatisfied with their situation than I have ever known them to be.”  That spring, the governor of New Brunswick, Thomas Carleton, reported to London of the Mi’kmaw and Wulstukwiuk (Maliseet) inhabitants within the claimed boundaries of that colony that “in the present posture of affairs it is certainly requisite to guard against their dissatisfaction.”

That imperial officials in Cape Breton and elsewhere took the possibility of Indigenous military manoeuvres as a serious threat was indicative of a transitional phase in imperial-Indigenous relations throughout the Indigenous territories that the British claimed as the Maritime colonies, a phase that endured until the close of the War of 1812.  This extended era of warfare marked the fading from historical significance of an imperial-Indigenous relationship that had passed its high-water mark at the time of the Loyalist migration, and now manifestly yielded its centrality to a configuration of colonial-Indigenous relationships that had an entirely different tenor.  

Diplomacy, which led in 1812 to the conclusion of a series of neutrality agreements in the borderland jurisdiction of New Brunswick, contributed to the forestalling of outright military conflict in the region.  But diplomacy of this nature at the same time was approaching the end of its effective life, as the balance tipped decisively towards a geography dominated by settlement.  Settler encroachments, abetted by the institutions of the settler colonial state in each of the colonies, combined to create environmental degradation – the result of clearance for agriculture and consequent destruction of animal habitats, intensive river and inshore fisheries, and forest exploitation – through which the critical erosion of the subsistence and health of Indigenous populations increasingly precluded any realistic possibility of military resistance and crucially weakened the formerly powerful tools of Indigenous diplomacy.

John G. Reid is professor emeritus in History from Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

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