The Possibility of Acadian Prisoners on Devils Island, Halifax Harbour, in the Period 1755-1768
Terry J. Deveau — 2013-10-14
I've been trying to track down the source of the information that some
Acadian prisoners were held on Devils
The source for this information, I found, is Susan Surette-Draper's pamphlet, Return to Acadie, 2004, p. 20.
Susan was kind enough to point out to me that her source for this particular bit of information is the book by Ronald Labelle, Acadian Life in Chezzetcook, 1995, p. 13. The endnote in this book attributes the source of the information to Edmé Rameau de Saint-Père, Voyage de Rameau de Saint-Père en Acadie 1860 : Halifax, as published by La société historique acadienne (SHA) — Les cahiers, Vol. 4, No. 8, 1973, p. 345. This is one of a series of articles printed in the cahiers that were extracted from Rameau's notes held in the archives of the Centre d'Études Acadiennes (Rameau 1820-1899, 2, 13-2). The relevant portion is as follows:
Chezetcook, c'est le nom de ce village, a eu pour origine un certain nombre de familles acadiennes, qui ayant été capturées à diverses reprises dans l'intérieur, après la proscription, furent dirigées sur Halifax où on les retint longtemps en captivité dans une île qui se trouve au milieu de la rade méridonale et que l'on appelle l'île rouge. Ils vécurent là, tantôt des rations de la geôle, tantôt du produit de leur travail quand on leur permettait de travailler pour les habitants. Enfin 10 à 12 ans après la grande catastrophe, on leur permit de s'établir à quelques lieues au nord d'Halifax sur le petit Havre de Chezetcook.
There is nothing surprising or unexpected in this material except for two things: the location of the lengthy Acadian confinement and the name of this island: “l'île rouge.” It is somewhat well-known from various sources that in the period 1755-1764 there were Acadian prisoners who were kept, at times, on Georges Island, which was close by the South Battery, in the inner Halifax Harbour (perhaps among other, lesser-known places)—reference the execllent article on this subject by Ronnie-Gilles LeBlanc: link. It is notable that Rameau's textual description of his “île” fits Georges Island perfectly, though it definitely does not fit Devils Island. Rameau says that the Acadians were held in captivity for a long time “in an island that is found in the middle of the southward roadstead and that is called the red island.” [The adjective “méridonale” is often used to mean “southern” but it technically means “southward.” A roadstead is an old nautical term for a navigation channel.] Devils Island is not in the middle of anything, it is at the outermost southeastern fringe of the harbour, not in any roadstead at all, but surrounded by treacherous reefs (witness the wreck of HMS La Tribune, which initially foundered near there).
On page 312 of the same cahier, Père Anselme Chiasson writes “Enfin, nous continuons la suite du VOYAGE DE RAMEAU EN ACADIE EN 1860, en tirant ce qu'il y a de lisible de ses notes originales en forme de brouillon.” This made me wonder whether this could be the key to the enigma: if Rameau's original notes were in the form of a barely-legible rough-copy, he could have written “l'île ronde,” which is what the French then called Georges Island (although in earlier times it was “L'île-aux-Raquetes”), and if hard to decipher it could have been mistaken for “l'île rouge” when the article for the cahier was being edited.
I’m very grateful to Stephen A. White for taking the trouble to check this for me in the original Rameau manuscript. He reports that “l'île rouge” is written quite clearly (no capitals) and was transcribed correctly in the SHA cahier. It seems to me, therefore, that Rameau himself must have been misinformed, or made a mistake in writing his notes, because the well-known location, “l'île ronde,” fits his own location description perfectly, whereas “l'île rouge” does not.
Further evidence for this error is the fact that although Devils Island
has been known under a number of names throughout history, “l'île rouge” was
actually never one of them. It would have been known to Rameau’s informant as
“Île Rouse,” perhaps, as it had been granted in July 1752 to Capt. John Rous
(variously, Rouse, who’s brother Joseph would later be the first lighthouse
keeper on Sambro Island. ). The early French name for the island was
actually “Île Verte” (
Another check on the above analysis is to consult Rameau himself. His
“notes,” after all, were for the purpose of his book, published in two volumes
in 1889 as Une Colonie Féodale en Amerique :
L'Acadie. In the second volume he makes several references to the
“semi-captivity” of the Acadians in Halifax during the period in question (pp.
174, 178, 183, 184, 197, 200, 201, 214, 220), however, he is never specific
about the location at all. The closest he comes to anything specific is on p.
178, “… under a regimen of semi-captivity in the suburban military quarters of
Is there any source whatsoever, then, that indicates that Acadian prisoners were ever held on Devils Island?
I know of none that say so directly. The only candidate, discussed
above, appears to be a mistake resulting from two compounded errors:
(A) a mistake by Rameau or his informant: giving “l'île rouge” in place of “l'île ronde.”
(B) an interpretation error in assuming that Île Rouse could be also known as “l'île rouge.”
Given the above, what do we actually know about where the Acadians were
held during their period of captivity in the environs of
In all of these references, Murdoch mentions only twice a specific place where the prisoners were kept in confinement: Georges Island. Those two instances are (a) the Acadian deputies incarcerated on the eve of the Deportation in July 1755 (p. 284), and (b) the 151 Acadians captured at Cape Sable and kept prisoner in Halifax from June 29 to November 9, 1759, (pp. 373, 375) then taken to England, and subsequently reaching Cherbourg, France, on January 14, 1760.
Apart from these two specific instances, however, Murdoch intimates by
other remarks that they most-likely resided in various places and in various
degrees of confinement during their period of captivity in
(1) September 21, 1761, Council resolves that Acadian prisoners are to
be employed in making the road from
(2) May 9, 1762, Lt. Gov. Jonathan Belcher stated to the Council that
he had information that the French prisoners assembled frequently in great
numbers at the Mass house; ([BM:] where?) also that they were mostly armed, and
were possessed of several armed vessels, under pretence of fishing, particularly
at Dunk cove. He went on with apprehensions of their capturing our vessels
coming into port, taking them to the
(3) July 8, 1762, both houses address the Lt. Gov. and ask that those French neutrals be put under a guard and not permitted the use of boats or shallops, nor suffered to go abroad without the proper passports (p. 414).
(4) July 10, 1762, the Lt. Gov. convened a council of war where it was resolved that the French neutrals, prisoners of war, be collected together, lodged, and put under such regulations as the commanding officer directs,—those who might be fishing on the coast were to be brought in; … The French neutrals who are at work for the inhabitants in Kings and Annapolis counties, to be ordered to Halifax, under escort of 100 of the militia of Kings county. ([BM:] 130 were brought to town.) (p. 417).
(5) July 23, 1762, French prisoners were at work upon the wharf at the
Lumberyard, who were only out of confinement by day upon tickets of leave, and
employed as axe-men by order of major-general
(6) July 26, 1762, the House refers to the lenity shewn the Acadian prisoners—liberty to work at the highways—allowance of provisions, etc. … That these French neutrals, as they are now collected together, are at present a heavy charge upon the inhabitants, especially the labouring people, who are obliged to mount guard every third day and night in their turn, to prevent the escape of prisoners confined only in open barracks, there being no place of close confinement to contain such a number (pp. 414-415).
(7) December 10, 1763, Gov. Montague Wilmot wrote “They are now chiefly victualled by Government, having no lands or houses. If they are to remain here they should be scattered in small numbers” (p. 437).
(8) March 22, 1764, Gov. Wilmot wrote that the chief means of their support was from the provisions they received ‘on the military list’; they also worked at high rates, and the wages they got clothed them (p. 440).
(9) November 9, 1764, Gov. Wilmot writes “Some prisoners, taken in the course of the war and residing here, have much fomented this spirit [devotion to the French king and the Roman Catholic religion] … all those people who live in and about this town have so peremptorily refused to take the oath of allegiance” (p. 443).
(10) December 24, 1764, many of the Acadians (prisoners) hired vessels
at their own expense, and 600 of them (including women and children) departed
(11) February 20, 1768, Lt. Gov. Michael Franklin writes that the arrival of the French Acadians from St. Pierre and Miquelon, [November 13, 1767] disposed to become British subjects, had made an impression on the French Acadians who were before in this government, and on a proclamation being issued, they sent in deputations, desiring permission to take the oaths to the king, and requesting to have lands granted to them. The council advised 80 acres to be given to each head of a family, and 40 to each other person … (p. 473).
From the above, it can been seen that there were Acadian prisoners in the vicinity of Halifax, subject to various degrees of confinement and dependence upon victualization, without the right to own land, more-or-less continuously, from 1759 to 1768.
It is also apparent that only a few of them ever were confined to
One place where the fishery was prosecuted, as named above, was Dunk
Cove, now called Herring Cove, just to the south of
Although only 37 acres in extent and deserted today, Devils Island has supported a thriving fishing community in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1920's there were 28 families living there (all fishermen), two lighthouses, a school, and a post office. By 1932 there were 21 children attending the school on the island. (John Boileau, Historic Eastern Passage, 2007, pp. 97-102).
The name Rouse’s Island (variously Rous's Island and Rous Island) dates
from 1752 and persists on maps until at least 1814, if not longer. However, the
It would appear that, if there is any truth to this theory of the
origin of the name “Devil’s Island”, this supposed French occupant would
have to have been there sometime before 1766 (but not too much before), and
long enough to have his name stick. This would have been during the period of
the Acadian prisoner presence in
Another clue comes from the Register of Abbé Bailly, who travelled
around to the numerous groupings of Acadian and Mi'kmaq Catholics during this
period: Registre de l'abbé
Charles-François Bailly, 1768 à 1773 (Caraquet), transcribed under the direction de Stephen
By examination of this document, a list can be made of the locations
and dates near
a. Halifax (July 21, 1768; June 2-4, 1769; July 6, 1769; Oct. 27 – Dec. 25, 1770; Nov. 29 – Dec. 1, 1771; Apr. 29, 1772)
b. Windsor = Pisiguid = Sainte Famille (July 12, 1768; Aug. 28 – Sep. 4, 1768; April 30 – May 14, 1769; Jan. 12 & Mar. 3, 1771)
c. Birch Cove = between Fort Sackville and Halifax (April 21, 1772; also mentions a birth that took place there prior to a baptism performed in Eastern Passage on Sep. 28, 1770)
d. Chezzetcook = Chegetkouk (July 23-24, 1768; June 14-25, 1769; Mar. 25-30, 1772)
f. Dartmouth (Abbé Bailly doesn't explicitly go there, but he mentions several births that took place there in the period 1770 – 1771)
g. Eastern Passage = Pointe-du-Passage = Pointe-de-l'Est-Passage (Sep. 28 – Oct. 1, 1770)
h. Pointe-du-Diable (July 8-10, 1769)
Birch Cove is of interest with respect to item (1), the
work on the road from
Of more immediate concern are Eastern
Passage and Pointe-du-Diable. It
seems likely that Pointe-de-l'Est-Passage is where the Eastern Battery (renamed
It is possible that there was an Acadian prisoner refugee settlement on this point of land nearest to Devils Island. It would be close to the Acadians who may have been fishing out of Devils Island, close to the Eastern Battery where the rations were distributed (but not too close), and would have better access to mainland resources (such as day-jobs in Dartmouth for the women) than would be the case for people actually resident on Devils Island. (Perhaps more questions for further research.)
From Bailly's register we can find that one of my ancestors, Jacques
Deveau (variously Desvaux, deVaux,
Devault, etc.), was one of the family men who met
with Abbé Bailly at Pointe-du-Diable to have his children baptised. When Abbé
Bailly was there in August 1769, Jacques Deveau had not seen a Catholic priest
in seven years, since the time that Abbé Maillard had baptised one of his older children in 1762.
This despite Abbé Bailly's multiple visits to
In terms of the actual names of any such Acadians, there are only a few sources that I know of where possible names for this "former French occupant" could be suggested; the best known ones are Bailly's Register (cited earlier) and Manuscripts of Chief Justice Deschamps 1750-1800 (NSARM - Family Papers Deschamps, Isaac - Vol. 32). The prisoners are listed with the number in each Family.
I don't find any other names in Bailly or Deschamps that make a better-sounding match, but perhaps there was a “Deval, Devol, or DeVille,” etc. among the Acadian prisoners fishing out of Devils Island who did not get recorded in Bailly’s register nor in the Deschamps manuscript of Fort Edward prisoners.
The article by Ronnie-Gilles LeBlanc, cited earlier, also includes an appendix: . Again, Deveau is the only name in this list that even remotely sounds like Devil or Diable.
The earliest date that Jacques Deveau could have gone to Devils Island would be the fall of 1762 (other Acadian prisoners could theoretically have been sent there as early as 1760). If bilingual fish traders started referring to “Devault’s Island” (or Deval’s, etc.) around the Halifax fish markets—initially not intending to rename the whole island after him, but meaning the island where he was fishing—the English speaking community probably would have made the linguistic jump to the name “Devil’s Island” rather quickly (as it has a natural catchiness, and could have started as a joke or a witticism). With conditions as despicable as they likely were for the Acadians on the adjoining mainland, where it seems some were located by 1769 (and likely earlier), it would be all too poignant and ironic for the French speakers to resist subsequently picking-up on the linguistic twist of fate and refer to their own location as “Pointe-du-Diable” (Devil’s Point).
This appears to be the extent of the available information regarding an association of Devils Island with the Acadian prisoners of the period 1755-1768. It is likely that Rameau’s informants told him about Acadian prisoners briefly held captive on Georges Island (Île Ronde) and possibly also about a much longer confinement, as fishermen, on Devils Island (Île Rouse). In collecting his notes together, Rameau may have inadvertently coalesced these two locations into one and mistakenly written its name as “l'île rouge”. Later historians, in reading “l'île rouge” in Rameau’s notes, have interpreted this as a reference to Île Rouse (Devils Island), which in the end may be partly correct, although also partly wrong as Rameau himself has apparently confounded it with the Acadian confinement on Île Ronde (Georges Island).
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