This week, I’ve been dipping into Chris Hodson’s recently published The Acadian Diaspora: An Eighteenth-Century History (Oxford, 2012). He’s currently at work on a history of the French Empire from “the age of Columbus to the rise of Napoleon.” Hodson, who teaches in the BYU History Department, also has a Roddick-like tennis serve.
Apart from the necessity to travel to some picturesque spots (I’ve always wanted to go to the Bay of Fundy), the incredibly wide dispersal of the Acadian refugees creates a host of challenges for historians. Hodson tracks one family (surname Gautreau, Gautraux, or Gatrot) for four generations. Charles Gautreau, a fourth-generation Acadian, lived at the eastern end of the Bay of Fundy. Although he escaped to what is now Prince Edward Island during the 1755 British invasion. It was no use – the British soon came there as well. Gautreau was sent to France.
His son Gervais Gautreau (sixteen at his father’s death) didn’t stay there. Along with several dozen Acadians and ten thousand German peasants, he participated an early attempt to establish what became French Guiana. Gervais Gautreau made it back to France, lucky to be alive. Eight years later, he went to central France and participated in a (failed) attempt to colonize peasants into newly planned villages.
Charles Gautreau, Gervais’s son, became a ship’s captain, as did his son Achille. This final Gotrot (as he rendered his surname) eventually captained a whaling boat. When he docked his boat off the North Island of New Zealand in 1838, Gotrot got off and shot himself in the temple.
Beyond the compelling cast of characters, Hodson uses the Acadian diaspora to explore developments within European imperialism after the Seven Years’ War. French officials who wanted to shore up the country’s reduced overseas empire (along with their counterparts in London and Madrid) looked for new ways to secure and make profitable their colonies. These realities, Hodson argues, “generated a superheated demand for labor.” Especially in the wake of a series of bloody slave revolts, the “Acadians look[ed] awfully good,” “the kind of men most proper to found a flourishing colony.” Not a great deal of flourishing in Hodson’s account, at least in the bits that I’ve read so far. “All of these exiles,” he writes, “moved, changed, came together, and pulled apart in dialogue with transformations in the imperial world around them.”