The Great Upheaval

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In 1755, the Acadians were expropriated by the British. Descendants of the French who had inhabited “Acadia” discovered by Samuel de Champlain during the previous century, they were sent to other colonies in America, France and the Caribbean. The expression “Grand Dérangement” or “Great Upheaval” describes this historic event.

The allegiance

After the signature of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) which put an end to the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the British took over the French colony of Acadia, renaming it Nova Scotia. They tried to assimilate their new French-speaking Catholic subjects, the Acadians, by forcing them to swear allegiance to the British crown. Some accepted, but the majority preferred a "neutrality” towards the imperial powers.

In 1755, on the eve of another conflict, the Seven Years War (1756-1763), between France and Great Britain, the British aimed at conquering two French forts: Saint-Frédéric on Lake Champlain and Beauséjour, in Nova Scotia. From 12th to 16th June 1755, they laid siege to the latter. Over 250 Acadians took part in its defence alongside the French troops. For the British, this Acadian participation was an act of treason which added to the political ambivalences which were then rife. They decided to spread them out across other American colonies. On 11th August 1755, Colonel John Winslow ordered the confiscation of their goods and imposed their deportation.

The arrival in the colonies of North America 

6,301 Acadians arrived on the banks of the North-American colonies which had an estimated population of 15,000.

In October 1755, 735 Acadians arrived in the port of Boston. From November 1755 to May 1756, six other ships followed. The neighbouring colony of Connecticut accepted about 700 Acadians.  These “refugees” were well treated by both colonies which took charge of their immediate needs. From December 1755 to April 1756, the colonies of New York and Pennsylvania respectively took in 344 and 454 Acadians from Chignecto, Pisiquit and Grand-Pré. The latter remained confined in their boats until the local governors decided to provide them with the means to live. They separated the families and split them out over the country. In the colonies of  Chesapeake, 930 Acadians came in for a similar treatment.

In the colony of Georgia, despite the refusal of the governor John Reynolds (1754-1757), 400 Acadians arrived in December 1755 and remained without any aid for several weeks. The following year, Reynolds made up his mind to getting them ten ships and a “letter of good conduct” so that they could leave the colony in March 1756.

Virginia refused to accept the arrival of 1,000 of the deported and sent them to Britain where there arrived in a very weakened state in 1756. This terrible initial dispersion of the Acadians throughout the North Atlantic ended by the sinking of the Duke Williams ordered by Captain William Nicholls. It sank off the French coast with 360 Acadians on board, who had come from Isle Saint-Jean.

Many Acadians tried to flee the colonies where they had become impoverished and vulnerable. Some tried to go back to Nova Scotia, while others returned to Quebec, where they were welcomed by Catholic missionaries.

In the French empire

Given the precarious conditions of the Acadians who had since 1756 been refugees in the British ports of  Brighton, Bristol and Plymouth, France offered to accept 3,000 of them. Between 1766 and 1791, given the inflow of refugees, settlement projects arose under the recommendations of the prime minister, Étienne-François de Choiseul. 363 Acadians were settled in Belle-Ile-en-Mer and 300 others left for Poitou, under the control of Châtellerault.

After the Treaty of Paris, the Acadians embodied ideal colonists who were supposed to develop France overseas. While some of them wandered between the ports of Nantes, Saint-Malo, La Rochelle, Cherbourg and Boulogne-sur-Mer, “recruiters” of Acadian labour offered them journeys to the Caribbean colonies. These were financed by the State or landowners in the colonies.

The governor of the colony of Guyana, Étienne-François Turgot, and his intendant, Jean-Baptiste Thibault de Chanvalon, promised the concession of small plots of land to Acadians.

In June 1764, the governor of Saint-Domingue, Charles Henri d’Estaing, invited all the Acadians dispersed around North America to inhabit his territory. Over 400 Acadians answered to his call in January of the following year. D’Estaing pledged them plots of land and a grant of money during the first months after their arrival.

Three waves of migration followed one another to the island of Saint-Domingue, two in 1764 from Halifax (including 600 Acadians) and Charleston (with 300 Acadians), then one from New York in 1765 (with 500 Acadians) so in all 1,400 people. Not everyone arrived at their destination and many deaths are to be deplored. In March 1766, there were 395 Acadian colonists on the island. Governor d’Estaing chose to settle them beside the German colonists on Môle-Saint-Nicolas and in Bombardopolis. These two singular ventures are explained in the correspondence of Governor d’Estaing, in the dairies of his assistant, Daniel Lescallier, and of the intendant René Magon de la Villebague (1763 à 1766) as well as in the correspondence of the navy writer Bernard de Saltoris.

The Acadians often died of tropical diseases and exhaustion. The attempts to colonise the French West Indies by Acadians thus led to profound losses in both human and economic terms.

In 1762, the explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville presented in Choiseul a project to colonise the Falklands. In February 1763, two ships, the Sphinx and the Aigle bringing together 168 people left from Saint-Malo, including around forty Acadian refugees, who remained on the islands until 1772.


In 1765, a small group of Acadians led by Joseph Broussard Beausoleil settled on the banks of the Mississippi in Louisiana. In France, the Acadians remained deeply divided about any projected departures to Louisiana. A French recruiter, Henri Peyroux de la Coudrenière, received from the Spanish crown an important commission to convince them to inhabit Spanish Louisiana. In 1783, after several failed settlements, the French government accepted the emigration of the Acadians to Louisiana. During the summer of 1785, seven ships with Spanish flags, left from the port of Nantes for New Orleans with 1,600 Acadians. Once in place, most of them settled along Lafourche Bayou as well as the prairies of the South West. They set up communities which are still united by the memory of the great upheaval.  

Published in may 2021

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