J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, July 15, 2021

“The idea of a place called Nova Scotia”

One of the most thought-provoking historical articles I’ve read recently is Alexandra L. Montgomery’s essay for the Journal of the History of Ideas blog, “Imagining Nova Scotia: The Limits of an Eighteenth-Century Imperial Fantasy.”

Montgomery, a Nova Scotian herself, writes that the visions of people far from the province have often overlaid actual life there.
Particularly during the decades on either side of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), the then-colony became a near obsession among British colonial administrators on both sides of the Atlantic. Generations of men poured over questionable maps, spinning out schemes meant to exploit the region’s rich fisheries, timber stores, and geographically advantageous location along the major ship routes between Europe, the British mainland colonies, and New France. And yet,…while proposals for the region were unending, facts were in short supply.

Indeed, even the idea of a place called Nova Scotia was, for much of the early modern period, unmoored from any objective reality.
In the middle of the eighteenth century, the Earl of Halifax wanted to mold Nova Scotia into a “model colony,” with lots of British government money and oversight and a new capital named, naturally, Halifax. The French and Indian War made British Canada safer to settle but harder to pay for.
While the new leadership of the province and Board of Trade supported Halifax’s broad vision, they balked at its cost and chose to outsource the next phase of Nova Scotia’s transformation to private individuals and land companies. It was in this post-war context that some of colonial America’s most notable names became involved in the colony to their north. The Board of Trade’s open call for respectable land investors to take up and settle Nova Scotian land attracted no less a figure than Benjamin Franklin, and another company from Philadelphia hired a fresh-faced and not-yet-“mad” Anthony Wayne to survey their potential Nova Scotian lands.
But that fuse fizzled instead of booming, and by the time the more populous British colonies to the south were coming together to resist Parliament’s new taxes, American Whigs saw Nova Scotia as what a colony shouldn’t be.
In his 1767/1768 Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, John Dickinson pitted the colonies that would eventually break away from the empire against the somewhat newer areas of British control, among which he included Nova Scotia. He rejected the attempts to settle Nova Scotia as damaging to the population levels of the older colonies, not to mention a colossal waste of money.
That attitude colored the American Revolutionaries’ thoughts on whether to treat Nova Scotia as a potential ally, Montgomery writes.

The last image her article left me with was Nova Scotia at the end of the war, firmly within the British Empire and now the Loyalists’ first place of refuge. “Shelburne, Nova Scotia,…transformed from a boom town of as many as 14,000 people in 1783 to a near ghost town with over 300 empty houses just a few years later.”

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