When it’s mentioned in mainstream North American media, Nova Scotia tends to be invoked as a kind of almost-mythical, impossibly remote place; a northern, maritime Timbuktu. Today, this supposed isolation is either used an easy punchline or exploited in tourism campaigns, although it can also cause breathtaking bouts of tone-deafness, such as when a reporter and editor for the New York Times framed the deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history as having occurred in a place “normally equated with stunning beauty and smoked salmon.” This perceived remoteness and lack of knowledge about Nova Scotia is, in many ways, a historical constant in the English-speaking world. In the 18th century, however, these qualities paradoxically made Nova Scotia central to the British Empire.
Rather than an isolated fantasy land, colonial planners saw Nova Scotia as a blank space ripe for transformation: the perfect canvas for imperial fantasies. 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, though it was much more important, it was not necessarily more known, and 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. The origin of the name—Latin for “New Scotland”—was a short-lived Scottish colonial venture which was over nearly as soon as it began. The region the name was appended to was, instead, generally recognized within Europe as Acadia, part of the French empire, and in terms of practical on-the-ground control it was the homeland of the Mi’kmaq, Wulstukwiuk, Passamaquoddy and other Wabanaki people. Nova Scotia finally became a permanent legal entity after the region was “conquered” by the British in 1710, completing British control of the northeastern North American seaboard. But while Britons could now factually claim to have a colony named Nova Scotia, in practice the British presence in Nova Scotia amounted to a handful of soldiers in the small military outpost of Annapolis Royal. As historians such as Jeffers Lennox and Geoff Plank have shown, practical control remained in the hands of Indigenous nations and, to a lesser extent, the French Acadian settler population, who famously refused to swear full allegiance to the British Crown and remained Catholic.
It was this “problem” that planners sought to solve, and they were willing to throw significant money and force behind the effort. Beginning in the late 1740s, the colony was the centerpiece of the Earl of Halifax’s ambitious plan to reform the North American colonies. As a “model colony” and laboratory of empire, Nova Scotia was the site of a nearly unprecedented experiment in British colonization when, in 1749, a new, Atlantic-facing capitol—Halifax—was built entirely using Parliamentary money and peopled with settlers directly recruited by the British crown. The official plan called for the creation of several new settlements occupied by government-sponsored Protestant settler families. These settlements were a violation of Anglo-Wabanaki treaties, and armed Mi’kmaq resistance prevented their execution. However, the new Nova Scotian government made it clear that they were willing to use extreme violence to fulfil their dreams. Governor Edward Cornwallis, who had also been involved in the brutal suppression of the 1745 Jacobite rising, refused to acknowledge Mi’kmaq sovereignty and threatened to “root them out entirely.” Just a few years later, the Acadian population was rounded up and deported in what John Mack Faragher has referred to as an act of ethnic cleansing.
After the defeat of the French and the British annexation of Canada, planners continued to see Nova Scotia as a space uniquely suited for direct imperial intervention. 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 this flurry of interest—one historian referred to it as a “veritable carnival of land grabbing”—was short. By the late 1760s, what had begun with great excitement had almost entirely ceased, and Nova Scotia now gained a new reputation: a money pit, emblematic of the worst excesses of the British Empire.
It is no accident that this downturn coincided with the imperial crisis. 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. Dickinson was far from the only one to articulate this argument. In his late 1760s and 1770s writings, Franklin, no longer so enthusiastic about the province, also drew a strong line between the older colonies and Nova Scotia and Georgia, which also had a reputation as an imperial experiment. For example, in an angry marginal note in his copy of Josiah Tucker’s A Letter From a Merchant in London to His Nephew in North America, Franklin claimed that the older colonies had no obligation to the Crown, as they had never “received maintenance in any shape from Britain.” He contrasted this with Nova Scotia and Georgia, which he positioned as wasteful exercise in nepotism, done only as “mere jobbs for the benefit of ministerial favourites.”
In that light, Nova Scotia’s loyalism during the American Revolution perhaps makes more sense. The problem of why the province, peopled at that point mostly with recently migrated New Englanders, would remain loyal while the rest of the mainland colonies did not has long been a puzzle in historiography of the region. Historians have put forward theories which emphasized the (overstated) isolation of the province, its religious heterodoxy, and, most compellingly, its lack of the kind of 17th-century political traditions that colonists in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia drew on for support. Less examined is the fact that Revolutionary leaders simply did not try very hard to bring the province in. There were, in fact, more than a few Revolutionary sympathizers in Nova Scotia; some went so far as to lay siege to Fort Cumberland in 1776, and supporters of an American Nova Scotia semi-regularly petitioned the Continental Congress.
What was lacking was commitment from rebel leaders. While they mounted a full-scale invasion of Quebec, a province with much weaker ties to the old thirteen and, indeed, their historic enemy, requests for assistance from Nova Scotia were repeatedly kicked to later sessions and ultimately passed on to Massachusetts as their responsibility. All of this was entirely consistent with the dismissive views of the province, such as those expressed by Franklin and Dickenson, which had come to the fore in the years of the imperial crisis and explicitly placed Nova Scotia outside of the imagined community of the emerging United States. While Georgia was already becoming a lucrative field of action for southern slaveholders, Nova Scotia had no such lobby in the halls of Revolutionary power. While forces within the province played a huge role in its ultimate “loyalty,” and the group of dedicated rebels was small, the fact of the matter is that outside revolutionaries never really tried.
And yet, in the aftermath of the Revolution, Nova Scotia was once again the site of bold new experiments in demographic management. Nova Scotia and the two new provinces it birthed (today’s Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick) were chosen as the preferred site for the resettlement of the thousands of displaced American Loyalists who had been forced to flee the new United States. A large number of African American people, free and enslaved, were also part of this diaspora, though few remained permanently in Nova Scotia. To me, this choice can only make sense in terms of the by then decades-long quest to transform the region into a model imperial colony. Certainly, many Loyalists thought what they were doing would do just that: elites made bold claims that the new Loyalist provinces would soon become “the envy of the American states.” But these big claims and assumptions soon withered in the face of reality. Journalist Stephen Kimber, for example, has written of the “rapid rise and faster fall” of Shelburne, Nova Scotia, which 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. Even where declines were less extreme, Loyalist plans, as with those that proceeded them, fell rather drastically short of expectations.
The common thread linking these phases of 18th-century thinking about Nova Scotia was a near total lack of actual experience with the lived conditions of the province. They were plans made in New York pubs, Philadelphia coffeeshops and London boardrooms. Even the idea of “Nova Scotia” itself was made up. The men who gobbled up large tracts of land in the 1760s and the revolutionary pamphleteers who rejected Nova Scotia as a barren waste had roughly equal knowledge of the region, which is to say, none. But the land and its inhabitants were frustratingly real, messy and hard to manage—considerations that rarely disrupt the realm of fantasy. Despite the out-of-hand dismissal by imperial planners, Mi’kmaq, Wulstukwiuk and Passamaquoddy had their own strong vision of the region’s future, informed by their intimate relationship with the land and its history. They stymied British plans at every turn, and these communities persist to this day despite every effort to break them. Acadians, though removed, returned. Even the settlers the planners brought in refused to comply. Faced with less than stellar opportunities for agriculture, many simply left. Others stayed, but refused to cooperate with their supposed betters, demanding more land and less outside control, and coming up with their own schemes for how Nova Scotia should work.
And yet, Nova Scotia continues to act as a magnet for settlement schemes that assume its malleability and emptiness. I grew up there because my own parents, as idealistic young American Buddhists, followed their religious leader and hundreds of their friends from the big cities of the United States to Halifax in the late ’80s in an effort to create a spiritual utopia in a place that many thought was the ends of the earth. An article in the Washington Post written shortly after the 2016 election juxtaposes officials in Nova Scotia panicking about a population crisis with Americans looking to flee from Trump, who seem to have no opinions about the province other than the fact it is not American. Today, a reputation as a safe haven from Covid-19—boosted in part by a New York Times opinion piece that positioned the province as an idyllic “parallel dimension”—has prompted a wave of newcomers, driving up home prices and exacerbating an already existing housing crisis. As its 18th-century history shows, Nova Scotia as an idea has long captivated the imaginations of observers and newcomers who seek to fulfil their dreams and fantasies of what it should be. But this history equally shows the hard limits of these plans, and the dangers of assuming that an unknown land is the same as formless clay.
Alexandra L. Montgomery holds a PhD in early American history from the University of Pennsylvania. Her work focuses on the role of the state and settler colonialism in the 18th century, particularly in the far northeast. Currently, she is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Digital History and Cartography of the American Revolutionary War Era at Mount Vernon.