HERBIN’S GRAND PRE HISTORY (June 25/99)

“Dedicated to awakening interest in Acadian history (he was) instrumental in creating the Grand Pre National Historic Site.”

This quote from the Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature (1997 edition) refers to John Frederick Herbin, who perhaps is best known here for his history of Grand Pre and other writings. Born in Windsor in 1860, Herbin attended Acadia University, graduating in 1890 with a Master’s degree. While at Acadia, Herbin settled in Wolfville; there he put his skills as a goldsmith and watchmaker to use, opening a jewelry store in 1887 that still bears his name.

Herbin’s mother was an Acadian and it appears that his interest in the plight of her people was awakened early. A man of keen intellect, Herbin’s diligent research lead to several books about the Acadians. Herbin wrote two novels and three volumes of poetry. A paper he wrote in 1898 about life around the Minas Basin in Acadian times was later reworked into a history of Grand Pre, which was published in 1907.

In most of his work, Herbin portrayed Grand Pre as the spiritual heartland of the Acadians. For a lifetime dedicated to the Acadian cause and for his historical writing, Herbin is remembered and honored today by their descendants. The park at Grand Pre salutes what Herbin called the “Acadian fact,” but it is also a reminder of his dedication to his people.

In 1996 John Frederick Herbin’s manuscripts and papers were deposited at Acadia University. There, in the Kirkconnell Room, I found his Grand Pre history and in the introduction Herbin notes that “the pages of Acadian history make unique and strange facts.” Herbin proceeds to verify this statement in a review of the complicated series of events leading to the expulsion in 1755. We can conclude from reading these pages that the expulsion need not have taken place, that a different solution to the Acadian question was possible.

People unfamiliar with the Acadian story may be unaware that the deportation took place without the sanction of the British government. In fact, Herbin points out that orders forbidding the expulsion had been issued but arrived in Nova Scotia after it had been carried out.

Herbin also notes that later historians writing about the expulsion – Haliburton and Richard are mentioned, for example – did not accurately tell the Acadian story; which may be one of the reasons Herbin took on the onerous task of researching and writing the Grand Pre history.

Be that as it may, the story of the Acadians has been told and retold in books and articles and my rehashing of that old tragedy will solve nothing. My interest is in Herbin’s history book and in Herbin himself. Frankly, I’m surprised that the role Herbin played in recording the Acadian story is not given more prominence. Herbin may be remembered for his pioneer work but he is rarely saluted. Little mention is made of Herbin, for example, at the annual Acadian celebration days at Grand Pre.

I enjoyed reading Herbin’s history of Grand Pre for the insights into the life of the Acadians. In their petitions to the government the Acadians come across as a resolute, dedicated and proud people who were willing to compromise up to a point. Herbin’s account makes it clear that the Acadians also were a hardworking people whose labor actually shaped the Minas Basin landscape as we know it today. Wresting the vast dykelands from the sea was a monumental task and this work still stands as a silent tribute to the Acadians.

Next week some interesting trivia from Herbin’s Grand Pre history.

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