Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Staff Pick - Cornwallis: the violent birth of Halifax by Jon Tattrie

Boy oh boy am I ever glad that I chose Cornwallis - the violent birth of Halifax (M) by Jon Tattrie to read during my recent vacation. It was the perfect read for a Halifax staycation. It gave me a such a huge amount of insight into the history of our city and province. And it greatly entertained me at the same time. It was a real challenge not to constantly share all the interesting facts about Cornwallis and historic Halifax to all those around me. ("Say did you know that Cornwallis' brother was a famous....). In the end I simply told everybody "You should read this book!

I found the Mi'kmaq component of our history to be particularly engaging, but rather heartbreaking. The book actually starts and ends with discussions about the recent social movement to have Cornwallis' Nova Scotia legacy re-evaluated, with his Halifax statue being the focal point of the movement.

Although Cornwallis was not a likeable man. He was very much dedicated to his career and his King. Nobody can deny that he worked hard and made innumerable personal sacrifices. His methodology seems cruel and heartless, certainly by today's standards. But what of the standards of 1749?  This question is the essential dilemma of those re-evaluating his place in our history.

The book is very well written, with plenty of fascinating historical detail, but also with a real sense of the personalities involved. The pacing is spot on for a casual history fan, never bogging down too deeply in the details. Tattrie very successfully evokes the setting of colonial Nova Scotia - I could feel the damp and cold of the long winter and the pall of the fear of attack. Cornwallis' frustrations were also palpable throughout the story - I almost felt badly for him.

The story follows Edward well beyond the shores of Nova Scotia, as he also had significant career stops in Minorca and Gibraltar.

This book should go a long way with helping people come to their conclusions about Cornwallis and his legacy, and how we should move forward in recognizing him as the city's founder.  Personally, I mostly agree with the perspective of Lesley Robinson, the unofficial Cornwallis cryptkeeper in Suffolk - but you'll have to read the book to find out what that is....

Highly recommended.

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