Notes on 38th Text for Reading Field: Bumsted

Canadian History, Week 7

J.M. Bumsted. Land, Settlement, and Politics on Eighteenth-century Prince Edward Island. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 1987. [Google books online preview:]

J.M. Bumsted surveys 35 years of political history surrounding land proprietorship and settlement. The historical territory in question is the Island of Saint John, which became a 5,600 square kilometre British possession in the Gulf of St. Lawrence with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, and was renamed Prince Edward Island in 1798.


Samuel Holland, map, “A plan of the island of St. John : with the divisions of the counties, parishes & the lots granted by government likewise the soundings round the coast and harbours / surveyed by Capt. Holland,” dated 1765. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Ref. No.: NMC 23350.

In 1767 the island was divided by lottery and sold in 20,000 acre townships, the majority of which were allotted to 65 private proprietors (with reservations for the Crown). The proprietors were charged with the responsibility of seeing the island peopled and developed along lines prescribed by British officialdom. The goal appears to have been to replicate successful American development. The means was to transplant approximations of British patterns of social organization and institute a traditional – though already largely a past – semi-feudal system of governance. The ongoing project was to be funded according to a formula in which strict observance of a quitrent system was necessary —  at the outset and through the first decade. This prescription proved difficult to adhere to.

The resultant politics largely involved competitive manoeuverings of, and between, proprietors who were present on the island and proprietors who remained absent. The motive of most of the interested parties – including the British government — appears to have been to realize a profit (monetarily and status-wise), without venturing beyond the absolute minimum in investment of time, energy, or money.

The outcome was odd: the quitrent system never worked; the settlement scheme did not pay out according to plan; yet colonial status, granted in 1769, was not revoked; and, despite ongoing “deep-seated antagonism between the absentee proprietors in Britain and the government of the island,” the proprietorial system remained in place well into the nineteenth century.[1]

Traditionally in Canadian historiography, the absentee landlords figured as the villains of the island’s history. In Bumsted’s account, the absentees come off as perhaps less reprehensible than the landlords residing on the island – if conniving to protect self-interest is regarded as reprehensible. The absentee landlords, as victims of distance, ignorance, and financial inadequacy, appear to be to be victims as well of misplaced optimism. Their failings, though different in degree, appear to have been shared in kind by the island-living proprietors.

The biggest mistaken assumption was that the island, as a spoil of displacing warfare, had already been sufficiently cleared and otherwise laid out by the defeated power, with fields and buildings awaiting new tenants.

A second serious miscalculation — especially as the first assumption proved false — involved the amount of the cash outlay required to bring into existence an English-style civil society, complete in every detail with equally complete colonial state institutions.

A third mistake was made in assuming that settlers of a particular type were available for transport, willing to be transported, or willing to stay where they had been transported to.

A fourth misapprehension would be the landlords’ belief that tenant settlers would necessarily be grateful, and celebrate their overlords’ vaunted status through to posterity. Instead, as Bumsted puts it, “Hostility to the proprietors runs long and deep in Island mythology.”[2]

Bumsted’s use of sources found in England’s, Scotland’s, and Canada’s archives illuminate the machinations of the proprietors well. He supplies a local study that succeeds in keeping sight of the larger imperial context. But this is really a study of imperialist nabob behaviour. It sheds little light on what the people ostensibly under their governance were up to, beyond trying to survive. In consequence, the overall sense imparted by the text is that the proprietors and British officials had very little idea of what settlers were doing either. The text may accurately reflect how little those who remained in Britain knew. It may, however, disguise the extent to which those proprietors who were present on the island were unwilling to disclose in writing their lack of control over their ‘lessers.’ Bumsted does not offer any opinion on the matter, apparently preferring to let existing documents speak for themselves, thereby setting the limits of what is knowable.

What information Bumsted imparts about the tenant-settlers leaves them only dimly perceivable — their presence to be inferred or guessed at given the actions of proprietors. The original plan held that “settlers could not originate from the British Isles and had to be Protestants.”[3] However, it is apparent that many were otherwise. The settlers were mobile and tended to shift for themselves, beginning with Catholic Acadians, who were displaced, and/or joined, and/or deserted by arrivals in the 1760s from the Scottish Highlands — arrivals who were rapidly impoverished if they had not already been so. The American rebellion effectively shut down settlement activity. Privateering was a serious enough problem to have set development back for tenants and it may have inspired impropriety in the elites. The brazen land-grabs of the latter may be read as straight forward fraud, greed, and graft, or as an instance of necessity being the mother of invention (and to mix aphorisms, of mice busying themselves in the absence of an effective cat). The failure of the quitrent scheme left them without pay (consequently Britain was compelled to supply funding, but did not promise to do so regularly). Bumsted does not supply statistics as to the resident proprietors’ level of comfort – their lifestyle may have been decent on the island, relative to the tenants, but it must have been bleak relative to that of their compatriots back in England. At least one proprietor, Governor Walter Patterson went bankrupt – as a result of hearings in 1789 before the Lord Committee of the Privy Council. His problems stemmed from an attempt to compete for loyalist settlers, who arrived in the 1780s (and then left). The final influx of settlers that Bumsted describes was that of Highland Catholic Scots who arrived in the late 1780s and 1790.

Bumsted opines that “unusual local conditions produced results not always easy to integrate into larger historical patterns,” but, arguably, that observation is a truism for all settlements to some degree.[4] He does demonstrate that the proprietors who divided up the entire colony in the lottery can not be held entirely responsible for the pace and nature of the island’s development. It was complicated by linking the land grant system to financing by quitrent payments to support colonial government, and by war with American colonies.

One pattern that Bumsted suggests did fit historically was that “justice would not be obtained in this world.”[5] He notes that all proprietors and elites, of all stripes, who were intent on politicking for land on St. John and for power were disparaged by one of their own, John MacDonald, who in 1795 observed, “Power will only change hands, and be sure to get into the hands of rascals to play the like cards over again.”[6]

[1] J.M. Bumsted. Land, Settlement, and Politics on Eighteenth-century Prince Edward Island (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 1987), 170.

[2] Ibid., 54.

[3] Ibid., 45.

[4] Ibid., 98.

[5] Ibid., 179.

[6] Ibid.


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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