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MacKinnon, Neil.

Kingston, McGill-Queen's University Press, c1986. 231pp, cloth, $27.50, ISBN 0-7735-0596-3. CIP

Reviewed by Robert Nicholas Berard

Volume 15 Number 2
1987 March

The Loyalist migrations to British North America after the American Revolution fueled and shaped the development of Canada politically, economically, socially, and culturally until well into this century. Canadian attitudes toward Britain and the United States, toward democracy and the role of government in maintaining social order and progress have had their roots in the Loyalist experience and its interpretation by opinion formers in later generations. In both Canada and the United States, the history of the Loyalists came to be shrouded in mythologies of national identity. Vilified in traditional American historiography as misguided or treacherous, the Loyalists were raised to the status of heroes and martyrs by Canadian nationalist and imperialist historians. Since 1970, however, these images have been challenged on both sides of the border by a number of local and regional studies.

The latest, and one of the most thorough of these reassessments, is Neil MacKinnon's analysis of the Loyalist experience in Nova Scotia. He argues that the Loyalists who came to the province believed less that they had been defeated in a civil war than abandoned by their fellow colonists and the British government. Their bitterness and pride demanded that Nova Scotia" could not simply be a haven; it must also be a vindication." Exaggerated expectations for their new home proved impossible to realize, however, for the land was poorer, the climate harsher, and the infrastructure weaker than in the older colonies, and the large number of evacuees all but overwhelmed the colonial officials who had to provide for them.

Most harried, perhaps, was Governor John Parr. Caught between the parsimony of the British government, which wished to see the Loyalists settled with as little expense as possible, and a host of refugees, whose numbers led to serious overcrowding and shortages of supplies and whose agents besieged him with apparently limitless demands for land, services, and subsidies, Parr displayed unusual energy and skill in responding to the needs of the refugees. Yet, among the Loyalists, little gratitude was ever expressed. Many expected that they would be given preferment in the new society in recognition of their sacrifices and that they should be assisted not merely to survive and rebuild their lives, but to be restored to the wealth and status that they had enjoyed before the Revolution. Instead of the promised land of their imagining, they found "Nova Scarcity", an "unfriendly soil" whose natives resented them and whose officials failed to appreciate their patriotism or their potential. Within a decade of the great migration, a substantial number of the Loyalists had left Nova Scotia for other colonies (a third of the black Loyalists departed for Sierra Leone) or returned to their former homes in the United States. Their virulent anti-Americanism mellowed with time and distance, and their old neighbours were more prepared, ten years on, to welcome back the hated Tories. The ending of British subsidies and the establishment of portable pensions for Loyalists led many to abandon the "leeks and onions" of Nova Scotia for the "peaches and watermelons of the land of bondage." Indeed, it is likely that a serious depopulation of the province would have occurred without the arrival of a steady stream of Scottish settlers into the nineteenth century.

MacKinnon skilfully demonstrates the difficulty of drawing general conclusions about the Loyalists, of distinguishing Loyalist refugees from merchants who sought to maintain trade links with the West Indies from a Nova Scotian base, from disbanded soldiers, or freebooters and drifters who joined the migration in search of better opportunities. Among the authentic Loyalists were persons of all classes and conditions. Ten per cent were free blacks. Among the whites were persons from most of the colonies (southerners predominated in numbers, but those from New York and New England [ tended to wield the greatest influence) ; and old colonial loyalties and enmities were carried to Nova Scotia. Divisions existed between those born in Europe and America, and each Loyalist community in the province was marked by its own distinctive problems and social relations.

The author captures the resentment of pre-Loyalist Bluenoses, Acadians, and Micmacs toward the privileges and pretensions of the new immigrants, who, inturn, regarded their hosts as unsympathetic, exploitative, and dangerously republican in outlook. He guides the reader through the complex political manoeuvres of Loyalist leaders, forming their supporters into an influential bloc and making temporary alliances with out-port interests to attack the Halifax establishment, while making every effort to become part of it. Succinctly, he describes a community that "feared not receiving what they would treat with contempt when received."

MacKinnon argues well his thesis that the Nova Scotian Loyalist experience was unique and complex, and he brings substantial and varied evidence to support his case. Yet, while the book's scholarly merit is not in doubt, it tells its story in clear and satisfying prose. It should appeal to both a general and an academic audience, no mean feat these days.

Robert Nicholas Berard, Dept. of Education, Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S.
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