Notes on 42nd Text for Reading Field: Gwyn

Canadian History, Week 7


Artist Unknown, “ Banner of the Nova Scotia Loyalists,” dated 1789, described as “likely a banner of the Nova Scotia Loyalists … Scholars have reiterated that the date is late to early nineteenth century and that the motto is appropriate to the Nova Scotia Loyalists. There has been some investigation but no successful link to any particular family. Heraldic expert Darrel Kennedy from the office of the Governor-General examined the item in early 2008 and recognized the design elements as a hatchment. … The banner was acquired from the Museum Book Stores, London, England post 1929 … is made of black silk and bears a rather elaborate achievement of arms. There are three shields of arms on each of which appears a golden box below the sun, the crest, and a stork. Below the shields, a scroll bears the inscription “RESURGAM” (I shall rise again).” Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. R5780-1.

Julian Gwyn. Excessive expectations: Maritime commerce and the economic development of Nova Scotia, 1740-1870. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998. [Google books online preview:]

Using statistical analysis to back up his thesis, Julian Gwyn disputes the idea that Nova Scotia experienced a golden age of development prior to Confederation. He breaks his study into three periods:

  • 1740-1815, which was largely determined and disrupted by war;
  • 1815-1853, which was notable for the “stress of structural adjustments to peacetime economic realities” particularly during the “dreadful 1840s”;
  • and 1853-1870, which saw optimism, revived with recovery from an economic depression, turn to disappointment.

Gwyn focuses on such indicators as regional differences, volume and type of imports, standard of living, trade reciprocity with the United States, and the balance of payments. In the course of his analysis, he documents a litany of economic weaknesses. He opens his account by stating, “Nova Scotia’s past may have been glorious but there is precious little evidence of it from the study of its economic history.”[1]

Overall, Gwyn does not view the Maritime region as having any particularly competitive advantages geographically or materially. What resources were available for exploitation in world markets (timber for example), were not systematically harvested. Neither were they marketed or integrated, horizontally or vertically, into comprehensive business plans (or, in the case of coal, the resource proved to be of inferior quality). Success, in his view, would have required organization and planning beyond what occurred and probably beyond what it is reasonable to expect should have occurred.

Nevertheless, Gwyn finds that there were missed opportunities. These might have been taken advantage of, but were not — because officialdom was blinded by an assumption that wealth naturally accrued to those who possessed territory, rather than to those who made optimal use of settler initiatives in a territory. Gywn, therefore, views the Acadian deportation as a debilitating step in terms of agricultural development. The loss of improved land (improved in a real sense agriculturally-speaking), and the loss of people with the knowledge to effect such improvement was not easily or readily overcome. From the first period through to the end of Gwyn’s study, official neglect of fishery potential is also viewed as myopic.

One resource that Gywn lists on the ‘advantage’ side of the historical economic ledger was British public spending. In his view, this was the real “proximate cause of what prosperity existed before 1815.”[2]

The factor that Gywn finds drove development most consistently was population growth. However, the development it fostered was deceptive in that it was extensive rather than intensive – meaning that it merely kept pace with population growth. In essence, more people caught more fish and bought more tea, but production and consumption did not move any further beyond what were really only subsistence levels.

The ‘excessive expectation,’ that Gwyn is critical of, was the idea that the appearance of ‘more’ meant that a future leap in prosperity was assured to all; that industrialization was sure to follow. Contrary to previous historiographers (W.S. Macnutt is mentioned), Gwyn argues that historical fact shows this scenario to have been false. He argues that the economic evidence indicates that “On the whole, the picture by 1851-52 was gloomy in the extreme. The performance of the colonial economy had largely disappointed the postwar generation, which blamed the failure on lack of enterprise by the capitalist class.”[3]

Gywn’s approach is interesting. He suggests, for example, that rather than regarding economic theory as a metaphor for how processes unfold, grow, or move through time and space, historians might do better to treat such a theory as a null model. It is also interesting that Gwyn identifies himself as a Central Canadian. In places his tone seems angry enough that it sounds defensive, and, I wondered, about what?

Ultimately, Gwyn finds that “Reciprocity had important, short-term economic reverberations,” although these were not nearly as substantial as contemporary politicians and newspapers alleged. As for the union of British North America, in Gwyn’s opinion:

Confederation, if initially not as important as some current historians suggest, realigned public finance and removed the fisheries from the jurisdiction of Nova Scotia, to which anyway its capitalists had largely paid only lip service. There is no short term evidence that Confederation, in any measurable way, harmed the provincial economy. Gywn allows, however, that there was certainly a perception that it had harmed Nova Scotia’s economy. I suspect that his statistics, no matter how well-marshalled, will not dissuade anyone who maintains a view contrary to his own from continuing to do so.[4]

Additional resources:

Robin Neill, “The Globalization/Continentalization Paradigm: with special reference to the Maritimes,” (September 2002), cached at

[1] Julian Gwyn, Excessive expectations: Maritime commerce and the economic development of Nova Scotia, 1740-1870 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998), 226, 3.

[2] Ibid., 33.

[3] Ibid., 84.

[4] Ibid., 226.


Edward Hicks, handcoloured aquatint with etching, “ South Aspect of Halifax Nova Scotia in 1780.” Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1990-178-1.


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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