The Death of Saint John’s Island and the Birth of Prince Edward Island

Saint John’s Island, which I believe might well have been given that name by the Basques in the Fifteenth Century, had become a source of confusion in the Early British Colonial Period. There was Saint John’s in Newfoundland and also the new Loyalist settlement of Saint John New Brunswick which had been established in 1785. The Island administration and politicians began to look for a new name and very wisely rejected Governor Patterson’s passionate plea for renaming it New Ireland. It was Governor Edmund Fanning’s government which, in November of 1798, selected the name of Prince Edward Island in honour of the Duke of Kent, who had established himself in the most elegant style in Bedford Basin in Halifax. The Duke was the commander in chief of the British Forces in North America and would distinguish himself for posterity in 1819 by fathering a child who, only 18 years later, would become Queen Victoria. Here is an oil sketch of the twenty-year old Prince, painted in 1787 in informal rural surroundings by Thomas Gainsborough, and now in the Yale Centre for British Art collection.

Prince Edward arrived in Halifax in 1794, accompanied by his French mistress of long-standing, optimistically given the new name of Madame de Saint Laurent. He rented and modified a country house in Bedford Basin and lived there in the most civilised fashion. Here is a watercolour of the Prince’s Lodge Estate from the collection of Henry and Barbara Dobson which was being auctioned off in 2011, and which, to my great sorrow, I could not afford. Note a round temple on a little hill, in the left of the picture.

He was a man of the greatest culture and left his mark on the city of Halifax by promoting the construction of three round buildings, something which, to my knowledge, has never been carefully examined as an architectural phenomenon. There is a lecture there, crying out to be given. These buildings were the clock tower, still standing on Citadel Hill, Saint George’s Church, an amazing round structure, and a round music pavilion in Bedford Basin that is on the edge of a railway cutting. You can visit it. The best photo of it in its original context is this one taken in 1864 and now in the collection of Trevor Gillingwater. Even then the hill was disfigured by a cutting to make room for the railway system whose construction began in 1858.

Prince Edward was the best thing that could have happened to Halifax. He worked on the military defences and was very supportive of the colony’s various institutions. In 1798 he had a fall from a horse and returned to England to recuperate. On April 24, 1777 he was created Duke of Kent and Strathern and also Earl of Dublin. In may he was promoted to the rank of general and appointed Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in North America. The Prince is remembered for many things, one of the sweetest, perhaps, is his use of the world “Canadian” as an inclusive description of both the English and French citizens of the British Colony.

All sorts of important things happened in 1799. The decision to rename Saint John’s Island to Prince Edward Island had been taken in 1798 and in anticipation of this, a new map, based on the Holland model, was published by H. A Ashby.

https://www.islandimagined.ca/guides/discovery/st_johns_island#:~:text=In%20late%20November%201798%2C%20during,the%20father%20of%20Queen%20Victoria.

Gone are the fantasy estates found on the Holland maps. Here new settlements are recorded, and an attempt made to show the emerging system of roads on the Island.

 

 

1798 – Prince Edward Island/ divided into/ Counties & Parishes,/ with the Lots,/ as Granted by Government,/ Exhibiting all the/ New Settlements,/ Roads, Mills/ &c &c., 18.3 x 35 cm. London, Publish’d as the Act directs March 1, 1798, by H. Ashby, King Street, Cheapside. [Also called the Stewart map after use in 1806], Robertson Library, UPEI.

1798 Ashby – Prince Edward Island – UPEI

This page from Island Imagined at UPEI provides details about the new settlements that appear on this map.

https://www.islandimagined.ca/book/export/html/36

This map is often called the Stewart map because John Stewart used it 10 years later as the map for his book, An Account of Prince Edward Island … published in 1806. There was no other map available at the time with the new name of the colony – Prince Edward Island – on it.

We have come to the end of our long 300+ years of the story of Ile Saint Jean. The Nineteenth Century, which was about to begin, would witness the old island with the new name struggle to emerge from the grip of British Colonialism, and to explore the possibilities of unification with the other Canadian colonies to achieve an independent Canada.

 

AN ACADIAN POSTSCRIPT

The GREAT EVENT of 1799, the changing of the name of Saint John’s Island to Prince Edward Island, overshadows all other events at that time. Even so, life went on for everybody – the British settlers, the Acadians and the Mi’kmaq – and, at first, nothing much changed. However, the year 1799 had a SMALL EVENT, which has never been associated with the great one, and that was the founding of a new settlement around a lagoon, at the southeast corner of Lot 1, next to what, in a generation, would appear as Tignish Pond on the maps. In October of 1799, eight Acadian families left Malpeque, and perhaps furtively, made their way to this carefully chosen place. There they settled around what is now known as the Green, and by 1853 the land they lived on, originally without permission, had been surveyed and placed, for all time, on a map by John Ball (PARO 1052 03) after absentee landlords had recognised the rich fisheries potential of this harbour and begun to collect rent.

By 1801 the Acadians had built a log chapel and by 1826, a large handsome Neoclassical church. They placed their tiny cemetery near the water, not far from the church, and it is still fenced off and respected to this day. You can see the small green area just to the right of centre at the top of this photo.

In 1811 the Acadians were followed by some Irish settlers on the west side of Lot 1. But that is another story in another century.

This little story reminds us that settlement and development, often on a very small scale, and at times by the least expected people, was continuously taking place in what was now Prince Edward Island. This story is also included here because the often much-reviled Tignish is my home town where I spent my childhood with my mother’s Acadian family. I remember these traditions, and this landscape, with fondness and respect.

 

 

RESOURCES

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Buote, François J. And Buote, Gilbert, L’Impartial: Numero Illustré – Souvenir de la Celebration du 100me. Anniversaire de la Fondation de Tignish, L’Impartial, Tignish, 1899.

Campey, Lucille H., Planters and Paupers: English Settlers in Atlantic Canada, A Natural Heritage Book, A Member of the Dundern Group, Toronto, 2010.

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Cran, Emily Elizabeth, Success on the Edge: Portrait of a Small Town, New World Publishing, Halifax, 2000.

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Naftel, William D., Prince Edward’s Legacy: The Duke of Kent in Halifax: Romance and Beautiful Buildings, Formac Publishing Company Limited, Halifax, 2005.

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Rayburn, Alan, Geographical Names of Prince Edward Island, Surveys and Mapping Branch, Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, Ottawa, 1973.

Stewart, John Esq., An Account of Prince Edward Island, In the Gulph of St. Lawrence, North America. Containing Its Geography, a description of its different Divisions, Soil, Climate, Seasons, Natural Productions, Cultivation, Discovery, Conquest, Progress and present State of the Settlement, Government, Constitution, Laws, and Religion, Folding map, 33 x 17 cm, W. Winchester and Son, Strand, London, 1806.

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