IN SEARCH OF A FRIENDLY
The transfer of more than 1600 Acadian exiles from France to Louisiana in 1785 was the largest single trans-Atlantic colonization project ever carried out in North America, and 1985 was the bicentennial of this historic event.
It was through the generosity and humanity of the government of Charles III of Spain that these weary exiles from Nova Scotia, unwanted and abandoned in France, were transported to South Louisiana and settled on friendly land, where their descendants remain to this day.
The voyage marked the end of 30 years of untold hardship, heartache and humiliation that had been the lot of these once-proud people.
They had been uprooted from their
Canadian homeland in 1755 by a cruel and callous British government and
were forcibly shipped off to destinations unknown under circumstances
which scarcely have a parallel in human history. Too few ships
were provided, some of which were not seaworthy. Families were
separated by accident or deliberately, food supplies for long sea
voyages were inadequate, and transports were so crowded and conditions
so unsanitary that disease, especially smallpox, was rampant among the
refugees, and death claimed an incredible number of lives.
In Boston they were treated as slaves. New York's governor persuaded them to emigrate to Santo Domingo, where, naked and destitute, many of them perished. North and South Carolinians enticed some 2,000 of them to board leaky vessels to return to Acadia, their homeland. Only 900 made it alive. Those dumped in Georgia fled immediately, for they preferred death to the slavery to which they would have been condemned. Destitute, mistreated, unwelcome and miserable exiles found no friendly government among these colonies, except in Connecticut, where they were treated as human beings.
Two groups of 650 were put on board transports bound for England, but the ships were in such poor condition that both sank, and all on board drowned in the cold Atlantic, except 27 who miraculously reached port of Penzance in a lifeboat. It is doubtful that any of these survivors were Acadians.
Some Acadians eventually found their way back to France, and these were the ones who took part in the great migration to Louisiana in 1785. A group of 1,500 were put ashore in Virginia, but the Virginians resolutely refused them admission and loaded them aboard ships for England. Once there, they were held as prisoners of war, but were finally rescued and taken to France, their numbers reduced to 866 after seven years of misery under ghetto-like conditions in the port cities.
Noting the stiff resistance of the American colonies to the dumping of these unwanted exiles in their ports, Governor Lawrence decided to send some 2,000 of them directly to France. About 1,300 died by shipwreck during the crossing, and upon arrival the government of France refused to accept the remainder. They were taken to England.
A third group of about 500 Acadians, responding to an invitation of the French Ambassador in London, escaped from various parts of the American colonies to France after the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The Duke of Nivernois, convinced of the Acadians' intense loyalty to France, their love for the king and their agricultural and economic value, and deeply touched by their years of suffering and hardship, eventually arranged for the Acadians in England to be moved to France.
One would think that once in France the Acadians would have been absorbed by the nation of their forefathers and would have developed a respectable and comfortable life for themselves. But such was not the case. The great problem for the French government was where to settle these strangers.
A colony was established on the island called Belle-Ile-en-Mer, but it eventually collapsed after untold hardships. Other Acadians were sent to the Falkland Islands but returned to France due to the conflict between Spain and England over the possession of these islands. Some 500 Acadians, now desperate to settle somewhere, accepted the French government's offer to colonize the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, but most returned to France disillusioned in a few months.
Public hostility against the Acadians grew, and the government began to look upon them as a burden. The Acadians were desperate, discontented and disillusioned.
As a last desperate move they petitioned Louis XV to grant them passports to leave France so that they might accept the offer of Charles III of Spain to settle in the Sierra Morena, where the Spanish monarch had successfully settled thousands of Germans and Swiss. But Louis XV refused despite the advice of all of his counselors. He was determined to settle the Acadians along what was to be known later as the "Grand Ligne." This project collapsed, too, and the Acadians were once again reduced to living on an insufficient government dole, discouraged, sick at heart and now thoroughly disillusioned that their king had not rescued them from the miserable conditions of their life.
Just when the Acadians in France reached this desperate point in their lives and were in danger of losing their identity, if not their lives, to want and despair, Peyroux de la Coudrenniere, a druggist from Nantes, France, who had amassed a fortune during a seven-year stay in Louisiana, appeared with a plan to rescue them. It was he who conceived the idea of persuading Spain to transfer the unhappy Acadians in France to Louisiana, where other Acadians had prospered.
Back in France, Peyroux teamed up with Oliver Terrio, An Acadian shoemaker from Nantes, to persuade the Acadians to go to Louisiana. Peyroux presented his plan through channels to the Spanish ambassador in Paris, the Conde de Aranda. The latter was very favorably impressed with the idea of moving the discontented but nevertheless useful, hard-working Acadians to Louisiana not only to farm the fertile lands of that region, but also to serve as a bulwark against American or English encroachment. Peyroux's petition finally worked its way through the Spanish bureaucracy to the King of Spain, Charles III. At first he was reluctant to approve the plan for he feared it would be too costly and might end in failure, but eventually he issued an order approving the project. The French king agreed to allow the Acadians to leave France, and the Spanish Embassy was informed of this fact. Peyroux and Terrio now began to canvass the Acadians to determine which ones wanted to sign up to go to Louisiana, a task that was not easily accomplished.
The Spanish ambassador in Paris was charged with the responsibility of organizing the removal of the Acadians to Louisiana, and he found in Manuel d'Asprer, Spanish Consul at St. Malo, a most efficient and hard-working assistant. It was d'Asprer who negotiated detailed contracts with French ship owners for the transportation of the colonists to America. He was very careful to specify in the contracts all sorts of measures to protect the Acadians during the voyage, including the amount of food for each individual, a cask of water for each passenger, coal and wood for cooking, hammocks for each one, special diets for the sick and for pregnant women, including poultry, the distribution of small children among the various ships so as not to have too many on any given one, sufficient quantities of vinegar for aspersions and for cooking, wine rations for everyone, and a limit on the number of passengers to be placed aboard each ship. In addition, d'Asprer and his aides inspected every ship personally to make sure it was sea worthy and properly provisioned.
As the moment to embark on the historic voyage approached, the Acadians became restive and suspicious. How would they be treated in Louisiana? Would they be safe there, and would they be able to have land and make a living for themselves? They had heard rumors of the alleged cruelty of the Spanish colonial governors, and they feared their bad luck might continue in Louisiana.
To quiet these fears and reassure them, Charles III made public his orders to Bernardo de Galvez, Spanish governor of Louisiana. He was to give every Acadian family sufficient land to farm, build them houses, provide them with farming tools and continue the payment of a salary until they became independent. He also agreed to pay all costs of the ocean voyage, to provide them free transportation up the river to their new lands, and to give them absolute freedom of choice in selecting the areas where they would settle. This reassured the Acadians, and after many delays, doubts and problems, the great migration began.
"Le Bon Papa," a French frigate, sailed for Louisiana on May 10, 1785, with 125 Acadians on board, thus ending 30 years of exile, abuse, poverty and desperation. Six other ships with Acadians aboard made this historic voyage. A total of 1624 of them, including some stowaways, were safely landed in New Orleans. In contrast with their departure from Nova Scotia, the Spanish consul, d'Asprer, did his best to keep families and friends together and to make the voyage as comfortable as possible. "Le Bon Papa" made the crossing in 81 days, and because of the humane care taken by the organizers of the expedition there was no sickness of any kind on board. Furthermore, they encountered only favorable weather and arrived in New Orleans in good condition. Of the six other voyages carried out from France to Louisiana, the last one arrived at the mouth of the Mississippi River on December 12, 1785.
The Spanish colonial government had made excellent preparations for the arrival of the Acadians. Martin Navarro, the Intendant, was placed in charge of the newcomers. He appointed as his assistant an Acadian already in Louisiana, Anselmo Blanchard.
Navarro increased the salary paid to the Acadians, prepared special shelters for them during their stay in New Orleans before transporting them to lands given to them elsewhere, erected two hospitals to care for the sick, provided them with medicines and transportation by water free of charge, gave them tools and firearms, and allowed them to choose freely the place in Louisiana where they would like to settle.
After 30 years of wandering, aimless exiles, the Acadians had finally found a new home where they were welcome. Here was a government that was benevolent and kind and truly interested in their welfare.
Exiled, mistreated, shunned, despised, enslaved, indentured, deprived, cruelly separated from one another, and driven to despair by the rest of the world, the Acadians found a friendly welcome only in Spanish Louisiana. Through many years of hardship and suffering, however, the Acadians never lost their identity as a people, clinging tenaciously to their religious faith and stubbornly refusing to forget who they were. This is the miracle which the late Dudley LeBlanc wrote about in his book, "The Acadian Miracle."
The world little recognizes Spain's contribution to the survival and welfare of the Acadians. The records shows, however, that the government of Spain was the only friendly government the Acadians found in the days of their exile. The celebration of the bicentennial of the Great Migration of 1785 should recognize that it was Spain that these Acadians (our forefathers) to Louisiana and had welcomed hundreds more of them to the colony before the arrival of the 85'ers. Without Spain, there would have been no migration of 1785.
Indeed, the Spanish were the best friends the Acadians had in the 18th century.
SPECIAL NOTE: In 1955 Oscar
Winzerling published a book called "Acadian Odyssey," which
gives a full account of this fascinating story. Many of the facts
in this article were taken from this book. Readers interested in
the full story of this chapter in the history of the Acadian people
would do well to read it.
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