RACISM IN 1763 (September 19/16)

In the History of Kings County Arthur W. H. Eaton skims lightly over an incident involving “some of the new settlers in Horton and Cornwallis” and an “Indian named Batholemew Nocout.”

As Eaton put it, Nocout, a Mi’kmaq, got into some difficulty with the settlers and “received at their hands severe if not dangerous injuries.” Eaton describes the incident in the current events chapter of the history, noting that Isaac Deschamps, at the order of Lieutenant Governor Belcher, spent four days investigating the incident. At the conclusion of the investigation, orders were issued to the Attorney General to prosecute the settlers who had beaten Nocout.

That prosecution never happened. As Eaton put it – and he was copying from Murdoch’s history of Nova Scotia – the settlers involved in the beating admitted their fault “and the trouble was satisfactorily settled without recourse to the law.” In other words, the settlers who attacked Nocout admitted they were in the wrong and apparently that was good enough for the courts of the day. The settlers were never prosecuted.

On reading this account in Eaton my first impression was that racism was involved. No doubt it was to some extent but there’s more to the story. First of all, two prominent settlers, described as “Messrs Burbidge and Best,” came to the assistance of Nocout and helped nurse him back to health. Undoubtedly Burbidge and Best influenced higher ups in the court system into investigating the incident. Burbidge had to be the prominent Col. John Burbidge. Best likely was William Best, who like Burbidge was an early member of the provincial governing body and a prominent community leader.

As I said, there’s more to the story. I mentioned racism but likely this incident also was an early example of native Indians attempting to exercise their treaty rights and in so doing, running afoul of the settlers. You have to read Murdoch to learn that the Mi’kmaq named Nocout was attacked and severely beaten because he believed he had a clear right to harvest a tree in the wilderness.

That’s what Nocout was doing, according to Murdoch. “The Indian believed he had a clear right to cut down or bark a tree in the unfenced and uncultivated wilderness,” Murdoch writes. “Those who held a written grant or deed… grudged him this privilege and considered him a trespasser on their rights.”

Nocout may have been under the influence of alcohol, provided undoubtedly by traders when he went tree hunting. “By too free a use of booktiwithch,” (literally firewater) writes Murdoch, Nocout had twice “got into difficulties with some of the new settlers.” One of those “difficulties,” the forest incident, apparently led to the beating.

Nocout was within his rights to harvest the tree. The first treaty with the Mi’kmaq was signed in 1725 in Boston and ratified in 1726 at Annapolis Royal. In 1760 and 1761 the Governor of Nova Scotia reaffirmed this treaty, a treaty that gave the Mi’kmaq harvesting rights in the province.

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