The Scattered by Richard Holledge
I was having one of those chats about the meaning of life - from the fall of the British Labour Party to the rise of Donald Trump's comb over - when our conversation turned to the plight of the refugees forced out of their countries by genocidal regimes to flee to the west .Why? What? How? Answer came there none.
I'd been talking to Richard Holledge, a journalist I've known for many years from the times we worked on tabloid newspapers in the UK. In fact he gave me my first "shift work" in London's Fleet Street, then the home of the bulk of the British national press.
Holledge told me about a little known example of genocide which, if nothing else, reminds us that the powerful have always been able to do what they like, the weak invariably suffer and the whys, hows and whats often remain unexplained, unknown and unjust.
His book, The Scattered, tells the story of the Acadians, who were expelled by the British from their homeland of Nova Scotia in 1755 at the start of the Seven Years' War.
Acadians? I'd never heard of them. It turns out that they were innocent bystanders in what was to become the first global conflict and who, as descendants of French immigrants, were perceived as a threat by the British who owned Nova Scotia at the time. The Acadians were forcibly evicted from their homes and farms, and their village of Grand Pré - immortalised by Longfellow in Evangeline - was burnt to the ground. They were loaded onto prison ships and sent to the British colonies in North America where they were treated shamefully - left to die in ports on the decks of the ships, exploited as cheap labour, or shunned as 'intestine enemies'.
One group of about 1,200 was prevented from landing in Virginia and shipped to England where they were interned in concentration camps in Liverpool, Bristol, Falmouth and Southampton. Within weeks of arrival hundreds died from smallpox. After six painful years they were condemned to cheerless exile in France where they endured discrimination, hostility and exploitation. Many were compelled to take painful, and often fatal, detours to disease-ridden purgatory in Haiti and Guyana, where they were press ganged into building new fortifications. Ironically, some were sent to settle the Falkland Islands.
The challenge that Holledge had to face was that little is known about the years of exile. Most of the information had to be gleaned from the genealogical lists with their litany of births, deaths and marriages, so the story is told through the imagined experience of one Joseph 'Jambo' LeBlanc. He did exist. He was 26 when the British seized him, his wife, and two children from their home in Grand Pré on October 27, 1755. His wife died in their Liverpool prison in July1757 and he was left with two children aged seven and three. He married another refugee and started a new family. They were exiled to France where, far from being greeted with the friendliness they expected from erstwhile compatriots, they were treated in just the same way as refugees and unwanted immigrants are today - with suspicion (at best) and hate. Plus ça change
Thirty years after The Expulsion, on June 29, 1785, LeBlanc and family were transported to New Orleans in Louisiana and settled nearby. He died within a year.
The Scattered is a powerful book - not just in the way the pain of the exiles is captured, but in the way a historical moment has been dramatised. Holledge suggested I look at a book on the battle for power in North America between France and Britain by the historian Fred Anderson called Crucible of War, in which he describes the expulsion as 'chillingly reminiscent of modern ethnic cleansing operations...executed with a coldness and calculation rarely seen in other wartime operations'.
Even the Queen seemed to sympathise with that. In 2003 she 'acknowledged' the wrong done to the Acadian people.
So our conversation about the perils and evils of the modern world went full circle. The best we could manage was that, when it comes to man's inhumanity to man, very little changes - and few of us have the power or energy to resist the bad guys. I think it was the American philosopher Henry Thoreau who said: "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root."
After some years in the Spanish, then French, state of Louisiana the name Acadian became corrupted to Cajun. "Strangely, people usually react more to that than any of the saga of suffering I've been explaining," says Holledge.
For those with an eye to history the Acadians were expelled 260 years ago in August 1755.
The Scattered, by Richard Holledge, available on Amazon.Suggest a correction