The European Romantic Revolutionary Years and their Consequences in Prince Edward Island: 1830 – 1848.

In my view the history of Prince Edward Island in the Nineteenth Century is powerfully connected with intellectual, artistic, and political events in Europe. Most of its leading citizens had been born in Britain and would have been quite familiar with that art, literature, and shocking events.

The 1830s and 1840s experienced the crest of the Early Romantic period which affected and transformed art, literature, and music. The spirit of independence and desire for freedom from suffocating social and political repression would migrate from the arts into politics, leading to rebellion and revolt in Europe, and, by extended reverberations, across the world. Prince Edward Island would not escape this new spirit of rebellion.


ROMANTICISM (as opposed to the rational Classicism that had appeared in the Renaissance) burst forth in the late Eighteenth Century. Its origins, and its very name, came from the French word for novel – roman – and there was a great craze and endless desire for moody occult stories in those years. One kind of novel dealt with stories from the middle ages and was set in Gothic ruins. This caused a craze for Neo-Gothic architecture and garden ornament – all of it lightly borrowed fantasy from the real mediaeval sources.

There was a great enthusiasm for old songs the country people sang, and when they were collected and studied, many proved to be from the Middle Ages. Poets like Sir Walter Scott began to imitate these forms and churned out endless books of mediaeval novels and ballads:

O young Lochinvar is come out of the west,
Through all the wide Border his steed was the best;
And save his good broadsword he weapons had none,
He rode all unarm’d, and he rode all alone.
So faithful in love, and so dauntless in war,
There never was knight like the young Lochinvar.

Another first-generation Romantic was Samuel Taylor Coleridge who wrote his very long, very captivating Rime of the Ancient Mariner with its gripping first stanza.

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?”


And who can forget Kubla Khan, written in 1797 but published in 1816, with the “woman wailing for her demon lover?

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

Wordsworth and the younger Keats were gentler types, with extreme sensitivities to nature. Keats writes an Ode to Autumn, not the usual joyful cry to Spring, freshness and vigour, but to the beginning of ripeness and decay:

“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…”


This was also a time where the cult of personality flourished, and its most amazing actor was George Gordon, Lord Byron. He wrote about bad boys having wild adventures and in his new wild verses, revived the sexual profligacies of Don Juan. Early in his career he wrote an immortal stanza where the roar of distant cannon captures the attention and sobers the mood of the exuberant dancers on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo:

There was a sound of revelry by night,
And Belgium’s capital had gathered then
Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o’er fair women and brave men;
A thousand hearts beat happily; and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again,
And all went merry as a marriage-bell;
But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!

And there is this stanza from the blazing poem, The Isles of Greece, that still makes people cry, and which inspired an entire generation to turn to revolution in all its forms to set Greece free from the Turks.

The mountains look on Marathon—
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream’d that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persians’ grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.

…that Greece might still be free


This is the face of the poet, engraved by H. Meyer in 1816, after a watercolour sketch by G. H. Harlow, that Europe fell in love with, and emulated in costume and manners; and this is the man, who, in the swamps of Missolonghi in 1824, died a miserable death, funding, and urging on, confused Greeks to drive out the Turks.

In time they did, and perhaps they succeeded because of wildly popular art like this, inspired by Byron’s poetry and actions. In the same year as Byron’s death, the French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix painted this tearing scene of the Turkish Massacre at Chios, now one of the treasures of the Louvre.

A teenaged Bavarian prince, Otto, became King of Greece on 27 May 1832. No Greeks qualified for the job. Otto’s father, a great philhellene, had poured a lot of money into the war against the Turks. In his official portrait by Gottlieb Bodmer, Otto has himself portrayed in Greek national dress, just like Byron, as seen in Phillips’ portrait now in the British Embassy in Athens. It was Hero Worship in its most elevated form.

The art of the Early Nineteenth Century became filled with works that implied criticism of the time and of the monarchies. You may recall the small 1799 etching by Goya called The Sleep of Reason produces Monsters (Caprichos – No. 43 – El sueño de la razon produce monstruos), where the sleeping artist is being destroyed by nightmares filled with nameless horrors. The bright mind of the Enlightenment was becoming sickened by social and technical progress. It is no wonder that various attempts at understanding mental illness were being made in those years. These theories would evolve, and survive into our times as psychoanalysis.

Not very much later, a brilliant young French Romantic painter called Theodore Géricault, in 1819 painted The Raft of the Medusa, showing the moment of salvation for the survivors – ordinary emigrants – of a naval disaster caused by bureaucratic corruption – but not before some had resorted to cannibalism in order to survive.

Paintings like these – and this one in the Louvre is enormous! – drew huge crowds, and circulated by means of prints, reached even more people who, horrified that this could happen in their society, began to change their attitudes toward governments in irreversible ways.

Byron’s example would inspire years of civil unrest in Europe.


The Revolution of 1830

By 1830 Revolution was in the air all over Europe and the streets of major cities were filled with blockades of household furniture, as earnest hot-headed youth faced the troops. This painting of Liberty leading the People, painted by Eugene Delacroix in 1830 and now in the Louvre, captures most powerfully that particular moment. It has become the everlasting icon of popular revolt.

In the end the people brought about changes in the monarchies of France and Belgium. The Poles made progress against Russian tyranny and the Italians, hiding in dense forest thickets, made the first assaults that, a generation later, would result in the creation of the modern state of Italy. It Switzerland and Portugal small revolts brought about changes in government and in Brazil, of all places, the Emperor was forced out. There were no major confrontations in Great Britain, but a tone had been set, and a fear set free, that such events, if allowed to happen, might disrupt Britannia’s Rule.


The Revolution of 1848

In 1848, building upon the upheavals and dissatisfaction of the 1830s, there were a series of quick violent revolutions in Europe, the most extensive and passionate in European history. The ultimate goal was the establishment of democratic institutions that would make life easier for everybody while limiting even more the power of the aristocrats. The planners with their ever-changing coalitions were not united in their goals and were weakened to the point where, ten years later, the aristocrats regained control. But the seeds of democracy had been laid.

These years saw the great potato failures in Europe that were behind the great migration of Irish country people to the British Colonies in America. It is remembered as the Potato Famine. General agricultural failure caused vast numbers of rural people to emigrate to the cities which led to even more problems.

And there was the Industrial Revolution which, for 75 years or so had created machines and processes that destroyed the traditional crafts at the base of rural society, leading to unrest, always on the verge of breaking out into violence. The air was filled with the claims and counter-claims of those who favoured a whole collection of -isms: liberalism, radicalism, nationalism, and socialism and democracy. The world as we know it today was being very agonizingly born.


Revolution on Prince Edward Island

As the Nineteenth Century progressed in some lots with supportive and progressive landlords, settlements grew, and the 20,000-acre townships began to be divided into individual farms. Settlers came from different parts of the British Isles and, in a very small way, a mini-Britain began to appear here and there across the Island.

Not everything was sweetness and light, however. As early as 15 June, 1833, a little-known but highly symbolic riot took place in New London in Lot 20. Crops were particularly bad that year and rents could not be paid. There were violent altercations and five men were brought before a judge for “riot, assault and obstruction of an officer of the Crown.” As an example to others, the judge gave a very harsh sentence. Tenant/landlord relations, already bad, were soured for years. This story is told in some detail by Katherine Dewar in the Island Magazine (see reference section). It is a sickening story about greed, warped justice and the lack of care landlords had for their tenants in times of crop failure.

Discontent was spreading across the Island. On several occasions in these blog posts I have referred to events in my home township, Lot 1, which, you may remember, was first settled in 1799 by a number of Acadian families who left Lots 16 and 17 where they had established themselves under the mostly benign eye of their landlord. Before being joined by Irish immigrants in 1811 they had settled mostly around the Tignish River and Harbour and around the big lagoon now know as The Green to the west of the harbour. In two generations they had reclaimed marshland and opened up new farms in the wilderness. This 1853 map shows the forms and extent of the settlement.


1853 – John Ball, detail of PLAN/ of/ LOT N 1/ shewing the Extent of the/ Fishery Reserve to the/ Crown. … PARO 1052 03.

The first landlords may have been asleep in 1799, and if they heard rumours of a few illegal settlers, would not have been much disturbed. But by the 1840s ownership of land had changed hands and Lot 1 was now owned by Edward Palmer (1809-89) and Samuel Cunard (1787-1865). Palmer was a politician and jurist and a reluctant Father of Confederation. Cunard was involved in many things, starting with whaling. In time he became the greatest shipping magnate in the world. He became a landlord on Prince Edward Island and in time owned 1/7 of the entire Island, some 200,000 acres.

This manuscript map in the Public Archives shows the Palmer and Cunard holdings in Lot 1. It is not dated but probably was made in the 1850s.


[1850s?] – Plan of Township Number One, comprising the Palmer and part of the Cunard Estates./ Partially corrected from Surveys by V. S. Gillis L.S., 127 x 55.4 cm, PARO, Lot 1 cartouche.

You can see in this detail of the larger map how quickly, at mid-century, the Lot has filled up. Soon the new Roman Catholic church, a masterpiece of the Gothic Revival, will be built and in a few years after that the railway will push its terminal into the centre of what will then become known as Tignish.

The cartouche, below a very fancy wind rose, describes this as a correction of an earlier map.

This was a time when very little money was in circulation and throughout the whole Island rent, and many other kinds of bills, were paid in kind. This could be in the form of farm produce or animals, and in some cases, labour. A few receipts issued by landlords survive from this time and are very informative. Take for example this one. On May 5, 1846 James Horsefield Peters (1811-1891), who had married Cunard’s daughter and acted as his collections agent, receive from Romain Arsenaux in Lot 1 one pound, six shillings and three pence paid by means of 5 bushels of wheat (photo: Tignish Arts Foundation Collection of Negatives).

One wonders how that transaction went. Two years before, in February 1844, at a time when Cunard was experiencing severe financial problems, the rent collectors were out in large numbers to collect what no doubt were considerable arrears from the residents of Lot 1. Quite amazingly an account, in French, was written by Gilbert Buote, the Editor of the Impartial newspaper in Tignish, probably at the time of the 1899 Centennial of the coming of the Acadians. The manuscript is among the papers I inherited from his granddaughter Alma Buote and tells of a very violent nighttime encounter where pistols were brandished by the rent collectors and the sheriff Warburton having his horse knocked to the ground by an Acadian woman wielding a log from a woodpile. I give you first the original French version, with its very rich picturesque language. I append my English translation below.

L’année des « Constables »
C’était vers la mi-février 1844. Il était neuf heures du soir. Un manteau de neige de deux pieds d’épaisseur couvrait la terre. Il n’y avait pas une haleine de vent. Le temps était fin et clair comme une vitre. On entendait les arbres craquer sous l’effet de la gelée. La lune était à son plein, et dans sa course majestueuse, inondait la terre de ses rayons argentins.

Toute la famille était à la maison. Le père, dans le grand fauteuil qu’il avait confectionné de ses propres mains, était assis près de l’âtre … la mère … tricotait. Le vieux et la vieille s’entretenaient des temps sombres par lesquels on passait et des misères auxquelles ou était en proie à cause des persécutions des propriétaires. Les enfants, au nombre de sept, moins soucieux des inquiétudes qui dévorent la vie, occupaient le reste de la maison qui était toute d’une pièce.

Soudain le cri perçant du borgo (porte-voix) se fait entendre de la cabane des sentinelles postées dans le portage à McNeill. Depuis le commencement des troubles deux hommes, à tour de rôle, occupaient cette cabane, le jour et la nuit, et chaque fois que quelque étranger arrivait, ces sentinelles donnaient l’alarme en faisant retentir l’air de l’écho de leur porte-voix, et ces étrangers, quels qu’ils fussent, étaient arrêtés sur la route et obligés de rendre compte de leur mission. En moins d’un quart-d’heure les porte-voix se faisaient entendre dans toutes les parties de la paroisse et tout le monde, hommes, femmes et enfants était sur pied, les uns armés de bâtons, d’autres de fourches de fer ou de haches. Tous, au nombre de près de trois cents, se rendirent à la croisée des chemins devant la porte à Firmin Julien. Presqu’en même temps arrivèrent les officiers de la loi qui venaient déterminés de faire main basse sur les propriétés de plusieurs habitants contre lesquels ils avaient des mandats de saisie et de faire prisonniers plusieurs autres personnes contre lequelles ils avaient des warrants … Ces émissaires étaient au nombre de seize: le grand shérif Bearsto, le député shérif Warburton, et quatorze constables.

Arrivés à la croisée des chemins, la foule qui était déjà arrivée là, les attendait et leur barra le chemin. Le député shérif venait le premier. Arrêté par la foule, il commanda, au nom de la loi, qu’on les laissat passer. Personne ne fit cas de ses paroles. Alors se tournant vers le grand shérif qui venait après lui il cria: pass me your pistol. À peine avait-il prononcé ces paroles que son cheval tomba comme un corps mort. La grand’ Nannette à Bélone, une des femmes qui était venue avec les autres pour défendre ses foyers s’était armée d’un rondin sur le bûcher à Firmin, et d’un coup porté entre les deux oreilles du cheval du député shérif, abattit l’animal qui, les yeux hors de leurs orbites, resta étendu comme un corps mort sur le chemin.

Gilbert Buote

And here is my English translation:

The Year of the “Constables”

It was mid February 1844. It was nine o’clock in the evening. A mantle of snow two feet thick covered the ground. There was not a breath of wind. The weather was fine and clear as glass. You heard the trees snapping with the frost. The moon was full, and in its majestic course, covered the earth with its silver rays.

The entire family was at home. The father [was] in the big armchair that he had made with his own hands, sitting next to the fire, [and] the mother was knitting. The elders were talking about bad time they were going through and the evils they were prey to because of the proprietors’ persecutions. The children, seven of them, less aware of the anxieties that dominated their lives, were  [busy] elsewhere in the one-room house.

Suddenly the piercing sound of the borgo (alarm) was heard from the sentinels’ cabin at McNeill’s Portage. Since the beginning of the troubles two men took turns staying in the cabin, day and night, and each time a stranger arrived, those sentinels sounded the alarm and made the air ring with their borgos, and these strangers, whoever they were, were stopped and asked to give an account of themselves. In less than a quarter of an hour the alarm was heard in the rest of the parish and everybody, men women and children, were up and ready, some with sticks, others with iron forks or axes. Nearly three hundred of them gathered at the cross-roads in front of Firmin Julien’s house. Almost at the same moment the officers of the law arrived. They were determined to grab hold of anything they could that belonged to those people against whom they had seize warrants, and to take prisoner several other people against whom they had arrest warrants … There were sixteen of them: Bearsto, the high sheriff, deputy-sheriff Warburton and fourteen constables.

When they arrived at the cross-roads the waiting crowd barred their way. The deputy sheriff advanced first. Stopped by the crowd he demanded, in the name of the law, that they be allowed to pass. His words were ignored. Turning to the High Sheriff who was behind him he cried, “Pass me your pistol!” Scarcely had he uttered these words than his horse fell from under him, as if dead. Big Nanette à Bélone, one of the women who had come with the others to help defend their homes, was armed with a log from Firmin’s wood pile. With one blow between the ears she knocked the deputy sheriff’s horse to the ground, and, with eyes protruding from their sockets, it lay there like a corpse on the road.

Gilbert Buote, L’Impartial, c. 1899


Revolution spreads on the Island

The Island’s most spectacular revolution took place on election day, March 1, 1847 in the District of Belfast, seen here in a detail from the near-contemporary Cundall map of 1851.

Reform was in the air at that time and about 200 Irish supporters of the Reform movement were pitted against an equal number of Scottish followers of the Conservative candidates. It was also a crucial moment in the history of introducing the Bible into all school curricula, Protestant or Catholic. The repercussions of the Bible Question still reverberate today. Tempers flared in an encounter at Pinette Mills, a tiny confluence of roads shown here in a map from Meacham’s ATLAS, and naked hatred made itself felt in murderous violence.

There were three deaths – two Irishmen and one Scotsman. It was a holy war in the guise of politics.

The best accessible account of this episode that took place just a few minutes from where I live is this article in the Island Magazine by Harry Holman. I include it here as a pdf file.

Holman – The Belfast Riot – Island Magazine

A much more extensive discussion of the religious aspects of this revolt is to be found in this thesis by Callum Vere Beck, The Protestant-Catholic Divide on Prince Edward Island, Canada: Its Creation, Growth and Resolution. I also include a pdf of it here.

Beck – Protestant Catholic Divide on PEI

The Island was very much a child of the Romantic Rebellion in Europe, and the events in various Island localities in the 1840s, filled with violence and even death, a counterpart of the rising power of the people.


You may have noticed that this post was mainly concerned with portions of the Island, not the complete map. That is because as growth speeds up, our attention is fragmented to the individual lots where the most progressive activity is taking place. The Public Archives has a large number of Lot maps, all telling of similar frustrations and joys of manipulating the Island landscape during these years of awakening.




Beck, Callum Vere, The Protestant-Catholic Divide on Prince Edward Island, Canada: Its Creation, Growth and Resolution, Submitted for the Degree of PhD in Religious Studies, Open University, May.2010. Pdf courtesy The British Library through EThOS.

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