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Click the flag to hear the Acadian anthem
Fier d'être acadien - Proud to be acadian

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Longfellow's Evangeline was a blessing and a curse

"This is the forest primeval.” These are the opening words to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Evangeline - A Tale of Acadie. It has been a staple in American public education for generations. The poet from Harvard did well to describe Grand Pré, Nova Scotia, travels down the Mississippi River, and Louisiana's bayous considering he never travelled to any of them. He wrote the epic poem from afar, utilizing stories retold, accounts written by others and his own imagination.

Evangeline was a blessing because it gave North Americans an accessible, romantic tale to capture the tragic events of Le Grand Dérangement - the forced expulsion of Acadians from their homeland. It could be argued that without this epic poem, the story of the Acadian Diaspora would have been just a footnote in history. The eternal love story of Gabriel Lajeunesse and Evangeline Bellefontaine has inspired many to learn more about the "home of the happy".

The story became so well known that it was immortalized in plays, Hollywood movies, and numerous songs.  Today, tourists travel The Evangeline Trail through the Annapolis Valley along the North coast of Nova Scotia. In front of the replica church at Grand Pré National Historic Site is a statue depicting Evangeline.
Statue - Grand Pré National Historic Site
There is also the Longfellow - Evangeline StateHistoric Site in St. Martinville, Louisiana along Bayou Teche. During Mardi Gras, the City of Lafayette, Louisiana crowns King Gabriel and Queen Evangeline to reign over the parade.

With the accolades and esteem heaved upon this fictional character, you may be wondering what the curse could possibly be. Here are my reasons for choosing to describe the popular poem in this way. Conveniently, Longfellow did not include the large part the New England Colonists played in forcibly removing the Acadians from their homeland. Poems, by their nature, are not historically accurate. Without further research, the reader is led to believe the British authorities banished exiles to Louisiana. This is entirely incorrect.

Le Grand Dérangement started in September of 1755. Louisiana was not a British Colony. In fact, it was under French control. Acadians were sent to British Colonies all along the Atlantic coast. Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia received ships carrying 'French Neutrals' - Acadian exiles. The Governor of Virginia refused to accept the exiles. They were then shipped to England and imprisoned.

In September of 1762, the Treaty of Fontainebleau was signed ceding control of Louisiana west of the Mississippi from France to Spain. The first documented Acadians to arrive in Spanish Louisiana were 21 exiles from New York in 1764. Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil then led a group of nearly 200 who had been imprisoned in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A large number of families exiled to Maryland soon followed. The largest group to sail to Louisiana, nearly 1,600, was those exiled from Acadia to France or imprisoned in England until the Treaty of Paris in 1763, then repatriated to France. In 1785, these Acadians boarded seven ships from Nantes, France at the urging of the Spanish Crown.

Today, we have historical information available to us on laptops, tablets, and smart phones yet the myth persists. You can find it perpetuated in newspaper articles, magazines, and on television. “Cajuns were sent to Louisiana by the British”. Ummm, mon cher ami, no. They were not.

“MANY a weary year had passed since the burning of Grand-Pre,
When on the falling tide the freighted vessels departed,
Bearing a nation, with all its household gods, into exile,
Exile without an end, and without an example in story.” (Evangeline, Part the Second, I)

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