In the 1750s, in the throes of the final conflict that stripped France of its North American empire, British and American forces deported thousands of Acadians—some of the earliest French-speaking settlers in the New World—from what are now Canada's Maritime provinces. A human tragedy on a massive scale, the deportation inspired poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to create the fictional heroine Evangeline and generations of historians to debate whether Acadian treachery, British callousness, or French indifference was to blame. Less has been written, however, about the hardships the uprooted Acadians endured as they were scattered to far-flung locations on both sides of the Atlantic. Some made their way home and reestablished the Acadian community that thrives today on Canada's east coast, while others settled in Louisiana, where the vibrant Cajun culture was born.
Historian Christopher Hodson fills in many missing details in The Acadian Diaspora, which (as the subtitle makes clear) concentrates on the first fifty years of the Acadians' arduous journey from refugees to survivors. The “Janus-faced theme” of the book, as he puts it, is the role deportees played “in building empires, and the role of empires in transforming Acadians” (10). He traces their dispersal to the American colonies in 1755, where they received a hostile reception from authorities preparing to fight the French and their native allies. More than 1,500 drowned in shipwrecks or died of disease in a second major deportation in 1758. The survivors, as well as thousands of other exiles, sought refuge in France, where the court of Louis XV was ill prepared for their arrival. In the 1760s, they became pawns in France's effort to retain the few overseas possessions it had left after the disastrous Seven Years War. The hardy Acadians were seen as the perfect settlers for outposts in present-day Haiti and French Guiana, where they suffered miserably in the tropical climate, and a few families were recruited to bolster France's short-lived colony on the Falkland Islands. Others were dispatched to Belle-Île-en-Mer off the Brittany coast or left to eke out a living on neglected estates in western France.
Hodson's focus is on how exiled Acadians found a place in “the labor market undergirding the eighteenth-century Atlantic world” and in particular how France's empire builders exploited them as an alternative to African slaves and recalcitrant peasants (120). Extensive archival research provides fresh insights into how the Acadians interacted with British and French authorities and allows Hodson to re-create the ordeals of individual deportees, giving a human face to the tragedy. But it is a narrow focus. Little attention is paid to the mass migration of thousands of exiles to Spanish-held Louisiana in the 1780s, a success story amid the many failed resettlement schemes. And, surprisingly, Hodson devotes just thirty pages to the Acadians' century-long history prior to 1755 and the horrors of their round-up and banishment. The predeportation bonds of family and community and a shared sense of injustice—not just their ability to adapt to the eighteenth-century labor market—ensured the survival, against incredible odds, of the Acadians as a distinct people.