After 2 ½ centuries, Edward Cornwallis as Founder of Halifax and Governor of Nova Scotia/Acadia 1749 -1752 continues to attract supporters and detractors alike in the province where he spent a short period of his career. The former recognize Cornwallis for his perseverance in establishing Halifax, one of Canada’s most historic cities and an internationally recognized port; the latter include Mi’kmaw leaders who condemn Cornwallis for placing a bounty on the Mi’kmaq in 1749.
This website provides a synopsis of the interwoven imperial, colonial and aboriginal events and influences in Nova Scotia/Acadia prior to, during and following Cornwallis’ tenure as Governor. The goal is to provide context and balance relating to the Cornwallis era and the actions he took to establish and secure Halifax and attempts to advance other settlements on the Nova Scotia mainland. The references cited are among the sources used in researching and preparing the material.
General Background on Cornwallis
Edward Cornwallis (1713-1776) was the son of Charles Cornwallis, 4th Baron Cornwallis and Lady Charlotte Butler and twin brother of Frederick who became the Archbishop of Canterbury. He attended Eton and entered the army at 18. In 1744 he joined the staff of the Duke of Cumberland, served in Flanders (Battle of Fontenoy) and obtained a post at the court of King George II. In late 1745/early 1746 he was put in command of a regiment that participated in the ‘pacification’ of Scotland (Battle of Culloden) but was later relieved of command due to ill health by James Wolfe (victor at Quebec in 1759).
In 1749, Colonel Cornwallis was named leader of an expedition to establish a fortified settlement on the Nova Scotia mainland at Chebucto Bay (‘Big Harbour’) as a counterweight to the French fortress at Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. He arrived 21 June 1749 with 2500 settlers during a period of geopolitical turmoil (end of War of Austrian War of Succession and lead up to the Seven Years War). He was successful in establishing Halifax but came into conflict with the French and their Mi’kmaw allies who opposed any British encroachment in the province. His most controversial act during his three years as Governor of Nova Scotia/Acadia was placing a bounty on the Mi’kmaq after they had declared war on the British in September 1749. Clashes between the British and Mi’kmaq – including the taking of scalps on all sides — would dominate much of his tenure as Governor. Prior to returning to England in 1752, Cornwallis rescinded the bounty proclamation in hopes of making peace with the Mi’kmaq.
On returning to England, Cornwallis resumed his military career and married Mary Townsend. He participated in several unsuccessful British campaigns in the Mediterranean (Minorca 1756) and against the French (Rochefort 1757) before being appointed Governor of Gibraltar in 1762 where he served (in failing health) until his death in 1776.
Nova Scotia political scientist J. Murray Beck has written (Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, Vol 1V) that, “From the letters of Edward Cornwallis there merges a picture of a stern man with a strong sense of duty, one who was convinced of the importance of his mission to develop a British presence in Nova Scotia… None could question his intention to do what he thought best for Nova Scotia, however; almost no one has questioned the basic decisions he made relating to Halifax. Because bad luck or personal weakness dogged his European ventures, the three years Cornwallis spent in Nova Scotia may well have been the most successful of his career.”