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  • Rural Protest on Prince Edward Island: From British Colonization to the Escheat Movement
  • Ian Ross Robertson (bio)
Rusty Bittermann . Rural Protest on Prince Edward Island: From British Colonization to the Escheat Movement. University of Toronto Press. 2006. xiv, 372. $29.95

Rusty Bittermann has produced an important book that will stand for decades as the authoritative work on the militant Escheat movement, which brought rural protest to the forefront of public life in Prince Edward Island during the 1830s and early 1840s.

Based on near-exhaustive research, the book commences with a superb chapter on the roots of the movement, which stretched back to a British [End Page 566] decision to divide the Island into townships of approximately twenty thousand acres each and distribute all but one of sixty-seven to individuals or small groups, leaving virtually no Crown land. The result was, in effect, a land monopoly for a small number of owners, most of whom resided in the British Isles, and the likelihood of tenant status for ordinary working settlers.

The Escheat movement had two prongs. One was agitation for a court of escheat (hence the name) that would 'investigate' the original land grants to determine whether conditions respecting settlement and public finance had been met. They had not - for various reasons - and the investigation would be a euphemism for resumption of title by the Crown with a view to re-granting farms to the actual occupiers, who would become freeholders. In the 1830s a political movement dedicated to this solution to the 'land question' emerged, and by 1838 it held most seats in the assembly. The attempt to create a court of escheat would be stymied by the British government, which was much more sympathetic to landowners than to tenants.

The other prong was less deliberate and formal, and more spontaneous and reactive. Bittermann documents widespread resistance of two basic types. In the first instance there was withholding of rent from landlords or their agents. After that came opposition to the sheriff and his assistants sent to enforce court orders against tenants and, additionally, defiance of those sent to arrest the persons who had thwarted the officials.

It is one triumph of this book that Bittermann repeatedly conveys a feel for the texture of the times in, for example, electoral politics, with its delicate balance between orderliness and intimidation. Some of the best analysis concerns the positions of such lieutenant-governors as Sir Charles FitzRoy (1837-41), who oscillated between, on the one hand, an understanding of the position of the tenants and the fact that they were unwilling to accept the unmodified status quo, and, on the other, determination to undermine the Escheat movement in the eyes of London and the electors of the Island.

FitzRoy's special target was William Cooper, the leader of the Escheat movement, who emerges from this book as a sympathetic figure. Yet the author does not deal with important questions surrounding Cooper's behaviour. Harry Baglole, the historian who first brought Cooper to light for modern readers, observed that he had been paying his own rent at the same time that he was counselling his followers to withhold theirs; Baglole also pointed out that Cooper purchased a number of farms in the 1830s and 1840s 'but refrained from having the sales registered until the 1850s, possibly for political reasons.' There may have been a plausible rationale for this behaviour, which on the surface appears inconsistent and opportunistic, but there is no explanation, or even acknowledgment of it, in the book under review. There are other, minor flaws: for example, [End Page 567] on two different occasions, in 1814 and 1837, Bittermann refers to persons as having been 'mayor of Charlottetown,' yet there was no such official until 1855, when the capital was incorporated. The index does not include the endnotes, many of which contain information allowing the reader to establish connections.

This is an outstanding contribution to the history of Prince Edward Island, to the history of agrarian movements in Canada (too often written without reference to the Island), and to the history of popular politics. No one can now approach the land question, which dominated public life...


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