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Mar 31 , 2018

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Cornwallis cultists, have you no self-respect?

by Guy Pothier
Cornwallis cultists, have you no self-respect?
One lesson from the whole intellectually incoherent and messy donnybrook over the Cornwallis statue: 
Statues inherently confer an iconic, mythic, even quasi-religious status to the subject. Therefore, we should confine statues to world historical figures — Churchill or Lincoln. Or for people of towering moral stature — Ghandi, Mandela, Martin Luther King. Or perhaps for figures who exemplify cultural identity — statues of Robbie Burns or Walter Scott in Halifax. 
Cornwallis does not fall into any of these categories. Yet by 1931, there had developed a sufficient Cornwallis cult to result in the notorious statue being erected by the recently built Nova Scotia hotel, the Union Railway Station and the Ocean Terminal, Pier 21. 
The person who was most responsible for elevating Cornwallis’s status to almost mythic proportions was almost certainly an English professor. He was Archibald MacMechan, the commanding figure in the Dalhousie English department during the 40-year period between 1890 and 1930. 
MacMechan was originally from small town Ontario with an American PhD in medieval literature. Arriving in Halifax, he became perhaps the classic case of a Come From Away who embraced his adopted city and province with the zeal of a convert: celebrating Halifax’s slightly faded gabled houses, the sea in its various moods, the nearby lakes, the intimate scale of life in a small metropolis. Rather the image of Halifax cherished by many heritage advocates today. 
MacMechan devoted himself less to conventional literary scholarship than to popular accounts of Nova Scotia history and lore. 
He took a particular interest in Nova Scotia’s age of sail, which was passing during his lifetime, and which he set out to record before it gave way entirely to steam. He is largely responsible for preserving many of the almost legendary stories of Nova Scotia’s age of sail that are now fading from memory but which were celebrated during much of the last century and became a large part of Nova Scotia’s collective sense of identity. 
Peter Waite, the historian of Dalhousie, has acknowledged that MacMechan’s books may have become dated largely because of their self-conscious Victorian style. (Edmund Morris, who was too young to have been a student of MacMechan’s, also showed something of that anachronistic Victorian literary persona, both as journalist and politician.) 
So it was that in 1927, MacMechan wrote a celebration — and that is an understatement — of Cornwallis in the Dalhousie Review. The article is entitled Ab Urbe Condita, Latin for “from the founding of the city.” The city in question is ancient Rome, a reference that almost any reader of the article in 1927 would have instantly caught. Such readers would have instantly picked up the theme of imperial settlement and conquest implicit in that title. 
MacMechan begins by saying the English should take justifiable pride in the achievements of their race as a colonizing power wherever ship could sail. Also in the opening paragraph, MacMechan asserts that, with his sterling manhood, Cornwallis triumphantly brought order out of chaos, and left a city where he had found a houseless forest. Still, even in 1927, according to Macmechan, Cornwallis’s merits are not fully recognized. 
The Cornwallis depicted by MacMechan is much more a figure of the late Victorian period than the 18th century. He seems to prefigure British Imperial pro-consuls such as Livingstone, Lugard, Kitchener, Curzon. All of these were far more credible empire builders than the hapless self-pitying Cornwallis. 
MacMechan’s portrait reminds me of the famous paean to leadership by Teddy Roosevelt, popularly known as The Man in the Arena. There, TR celebrates glorious failure and famously dismisses “little men of criticism.” And TR was a proponent of a robust American imperialism. 
MacMechan was reported to respect those of his students who had experienced life before attending university. Examples were being born in a ship in Bombay, or witnessing a knife fight in Rio. 
It is one thing for a sedentary academic to respect experiences different than your own, but where does that end and where does an unholy fascination with violence begin? Ironic that MacMechan celebrates the British Empire after it had in fact reached its apogee, and was in its decline. A decline that would prove to be so rapid that it would have shocked MacMechan had he lived to see it. 
MacMechan sees Cornwallis as being as impatient with the niceties of 18th century prose style and official etiquette as he would be with the claims of “mutinous Acadians.” 
MacMechan chooses in his article to pass over Cornwallis’s long struggle with the obstinacy of the mild Acadians and their fierce sheep dog, Le Loutre. Instead, he dwells on the problems created for Cornwallis by the original settlers of Halifax, mostly a drunken proletariat. MacMechan gives figures for the massive consumption of rum in Halifax’s first years. This would have resonated with his original readers in 1927, with prohibition still in force in Nova Scotia. 
MacMechan can safely note the fecklessness of the original settlers, since few of their descendants form part of Halifax’s population in 1927. So, none of his contemporary readers will have reason to be offended. 
The condescension in MacMechan’s reference to Acadians is clear enough. I need not and will not belabour it. But by giving way to a slight at the Abbe Le Loutre, MacMechan misses the significance of a Catholic priest creating a personal army made up almost entirely of aboriginals. You would think such a man-bites-dog situation would invite much more historical scrutiny than he has in fact received. 
Trouble is, the people likely to question the role of Le Loutre may lack the necessary linguistic or religious literacy; while some of us of francophone or Catholic heritage may have been too defensive about Le Loutre, what has been written about him has come from nationalist Quebecois historians who have been too incurious about how religiously fuelled nationalism can morph into political reaction — or even outright fascism. 
Aboriginals may be sensitive about Le Loutre, who in effect made them subordinate to agendas and purposes not their own. 
One striking feature in 2018 of MacMechan’s article is how little he has to say about aboriginals. 
 
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Many people have understandably welcomed the undoubtedly well-intentioned proposal from a group of Valley students to add three other statues to that of Cornwallis. I assume they had in mind statues to stand for Mi’kmaq, Acadians and African Nova Scotians. But imagine the debates over who should represent these groups? 
Assume we succeed in crossing that hurdle. We will have four supposedly representative cultural icons. Which will become cultural stereotypes. Which will define the cultural groups and identities so represented. Which may limit our understanding of those cultural groups. Which might ultimately constitute a form of prejudice. I regard any cultural stereotype as ultimately discriminatory. 
This proposed statue circle represents a popular pedagogical technique for schools: putting your desks and chairs in a circle and making nice. This may be good pedagogy, especially in elementary grades. But it is a far less sound social or cultural policy. 
And for those of you Anglos, or Anglo Americans, or Anglo Celts, or Anglo American Celtic Germano North European Prods — those of you who appear to be coming to see Edward Cornwallis as your chosen cultural icon: 
Have you no self-respect? If you really need to identify with some cultural icon, can’t you come up with a better role model, someone more worthy of admiration or emulation? Are you that desperate for cultural validation or collective self-esteem? 
 

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