After Le grand dérangement

Acadians exiles ended up everywhere from Louisiana swamps to London slums

Call me concussed, but I enjoy PhD theses, especially when they are nicely rewritten and turned into real books. And Christopher Hodson’s The Acadian Diaspora: An Eighteenth-Century History is a very good book indeed. Hodson began to study history at Utah State University, then at Northwestern University. He now teaches at Brigham Young University, and his book has that lovely sense of geographic space as being both plastic and manageable that one gets from someone with a historical sensibility formed by the American West. Even though the Acadians were moved about from the north-eastern shores of North America, they were an ethno-religious group that was kicked about in big spaces and yet kept their identity intact, albeit modified by the impact of tough experiences. The several maps in this book are not merely decorative, but are an absolute necessity and a very helpful part of Hodson’s exposition.

Christopher Hodson takes it as read that the Acadians were a separate people well before their problems exploded in 1755. They were caught between the two great empires in the northern sector of the North American continent, but from 1713 onward were under English rule as specified by the Treaty of Utrecht. Their expulsion in 1755 was not, however, an inevitable event, as there were several alternatives, ranging from their somehow keeping everyone sweet until they could see the virtue of joining the winning side to, at the other extreme, their undergoing genocidal extermination. Hodson uses the appropriate term “coerced migration” for the middle course that they experienced. The mixture of old school English imperialism (usually thought of as Empire Mark I, the pre-1776 sort) and of embryonic American imperialism (most of the round-up squads were made up of volunteers from Massachusetts) led to Acadians being dispersed to places that, taken together, would in their era define a package tour to Hell: the Falkland Islands, Mauritius, the less salubrious parts of the eastern seaboard of the United States, including the South Carolina and Georgia borderlands, French Guiana, Haiti, Martinique, agriculturally backward lordships in France, and urban slums in England, France and, of course, the swamps of Louisiana.

In using numbers to describe the sequential expulsions, Hodson is cavalier and that is his only serious flaw. He has 8,000 Acadians evading capture and taking to the woods of eastern North America, and about the same number being hived away. Perhaps he is right, but he is frankly uninterested in the hard slog of tabulation. Instead, he loves story, and he tells tale after fascinating tale of individuals. These are not just potted anecdotes, but deeply researched, fluidly related mini-biographies—and I am not here retelling any of them, because that would flatten this book’s crowning glory. Hodson is a master at the short biography as a form of historical pastiche.

In strongly recommending this book both as a recreational read and as a source of tales that will help lecturers in Canadian studies keep their audiences awake, I do not mean to imply that it cannot be used as part of a profitable discussion of broader and deeper matters. Quite intentionally, Hodson avoids three big issues that are still alive in North American culture generally: 1) To what extent were matters that historians define as geopolitical rivalries or as linguistic competition actually based on fundamental splits within Christianity? Thus, why were the Acadians kicked about so badly in the English empire, but the Palatines and the Huguenots treated so comparatively well? 2) What responsibility do victim populations have for their own subsequent victimization of other groups? Usually in North America, the final victims were either indigene or Africans. Hodson lets the Acadians off almost blame-free. And 3) could anyone other than a 21st-century U.S. believer in the muscular and the efficient as virtues write the following?

To be sure, the Acadian diaspora speaks to us of a disturbing injustice, and of the men, women, and children who suffered the “astonishment of heart” that has always gone together with such things. But it also traces the outlines of something at once larger and more particular: an eighteenth-century moment of creativity in which the fashioning of more just, efficient, and muscular empires seemed not just possible but inevitable. But like so many other inevitabilities, this one proved unreachable, and thus forgettable.

Christopher Hodson is genuinely empathetic with the pain of the Acadians, but his framing of that empathy with the belief that empires, however efficient and muscular they may be, can also be just and creative, is stunning. And stunningly wrong.