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  • Cape Breton Island, 1843
  • Elizabeth Vibert (bio)

The island of Cape Breton occupied an ambiguous space in the British imperial imagination. At the dawn of the Victorian age, with a consensus emerging that imperial expansion was a necessary response to the social and economic problems facing Britain, this island off the eastern tip of Nova Scotia [End Page 14] represented a place of uncertain prospects. Cape Breton held potential in the minds of those who saw white settler colonies as sites for purposeful settlement by hardy middling and working-class Britons, people whose labours would transform "empty" lands into prosperous outposts of the metropole.1 Yet those who viewed colonies as convenient outlets for surplus population were prone to blame Cape Breton's troubles on the nature of that population—in particular, on the "feckless" Highland Scots.

Cape Breton had been caught up in contending imperial staple economies since the late fifteenth century, when Europeans began to frequent the region's North Atlantic coast in search of cod. The town of Louisbourg, on the island's south shore, became a crucial French naval base and centre of trade in the early eighteenth century. Following the French defeat in the Seven Years' War, English merchants took over the fish trade. The indigenous Mi'kmaq people were progressively pushed off their lands under the British regime; in spite of treaty promises, surveying was carried out inconsistently, and Mi'kmaq lands were lowest on the list of colonial priorities (Tanner and Henderson; Chute; Nurse; Samson). Beginning in the late eighteenth century, the island received several waves of Scottish immigrants. Many of these newcomers were people from the western Highlands and islands uprooted by transformations in the Scottish agricultural and coastal economies. Early settlers quickly took up the best of the limited arable land, and those who arrived from the 1810s onward were pushed to the rugged and rocky backlands. From the start, most small farmers had to supplement farm income with wage labour. By mid-century, the island's coalfield, among the richest in North America, was attracting British and American industrial investment. With its combination of meagre agricultural prospects and staple production dependent on external capital, Cape Breton provides a "somewhat stark" case study of development in a peripheral outpost of empire (Hornsby xxvi).

The newly ordained Rev. Murdoch Stewart was posted to Cape Breton by the Church of Scotland's colonial committee in 1843. His task was to reform the morals and disorderly habits of the immigrants. Stewart was reluctant to leave his Scottish home and family; "exile" to Cape Breton was particularly galling. As Stewart mused in his memoir, "If there was any place to which I would be more unwilling to go than another, it was Cape Breton, little was known of it in Scotland then, and that little gave it a bad name" (Nova Scotia Archives 126).2 In fact, the island was rather well known in the west of Scotland by this time. A settler population of about forty thousand was in place, many of whom had arrived in the rush from the Highlands of the previous two decades. Cape Breton and Scotland were linked by intricate movements of bodies—individuals, families, villages—commodities, and ideas across space. The typical pattern was chain migration, with friends and family members following those who had travelled earlier. Stewart's melancholic response to the place was shaped in part by the fact that he was not part of a chain. He emigrated alone and against his will. [End Page 15]

Imperial novelist and historian Thomas Haliburton's characterization of Cape Breton as "a refuge for the poor" had some currency in mainland Nova Scotia at mid-century (Hornsby 47). On the voyage over, when Stewart told a Halifax-based Scots businessman where he was headed, the man "looked at me amazed and asked what in the world are you going to do there?" (Nova Scotia Archives 139). Stewart's response to his arrival was starkly shaped by such views. In his mind, Cape Breton was wild and lawless, like the worst of the western Highlands and worse yet for being thousands of miles from Britain. The island landscape offered references...


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