A Short History of Cape Breton Annexation (Part I)

“Unconstitutional and illegal”

So declared 2,000 passionate and angry Cape Bretoners, in their eighth bid to get the British government to reverse its decision to annex Cape Breton to Nova Scotia in 1820.

In light of Senator Dan Christmas’ recent speech re-opening the issue of Cape Breton provincehood, I think it may be useful to re-offer some supportive material originally published in The Cape Bretoner in 1993 on the Annexation of 1820.

A review of the source materials available on the Island’s independence as a Colony and its abrupt annexation reads more like a movie script than dry history. The eruption of Tambora, plagues of mice, the illegal collection of taxes, Napoleon and Waterloo, the American Revolution, Peterloo, Mad King George III and George IV, Democratic Reform, Tories, Whigs, the early importance of rum and coal, the Industrial Revolution, barbarous Scottish Highlanders and Queen Victoria are some of the characters and events that played a direct role in the evolution of this story.

Cape Bretoners’ passionate attachment to their Island is clearly not a recent phenomenon and the Annexation story has a direct bearing on Cape Breton’s current condition. Some would argue that the legality of the annexation of 1820 is still very much in question today.



Chart of Cape Breton Island, 1767. Unsigned but presumed to be the work of Joseph Frederick Wallet Desbarres, modelled after Samuel Holland. (Source: Beaton Institute https://beatoninstitute.com/)

Chart of Cape Breton Island, 1767. Unsigned but presumed to be the work of Joseph Frederick Wallet Desbarres, modelled after Samuel Holland. (Source: Beaton Institute)

With the second defeat of the French at Louisbourg in 1758, the British were faced with a dilemma. They had already developed the Citadel and to some degree the port in Halifax. These were to act as their base of operations for controlling the gateway to North America. They also had in hand, as a result of the defeat, a second, well-developed site in Louisbourg.

The resolution came with the physical destruction of the Fortress, followed by the formal annexation of Isle Royale, as Cape Breton was then known, to the government of Nova Scotia in 1763. The area was declared to be “frozen” and no one could legitimately reside on the Island without special dispensation from the Crown – a ruling which was studiously ignored by many Acadians, Irish and others who couldn’t resist having sensible access to the nearby lucrative fishery. The freeze was also supported by the British Admiralty which wanted sole control over the Island’s forests as a source of building materials for its fleet.

The Island would have gone on indefinitely as an isolated and relatively uninhabited spot had it not been for the United Empire Loyalists in New England and others in Britain who saw the “colonial” potential of Cape Breton. The Loyalists were on the losing end of the American Revolution and desperate to establish new bases for themselves. The colonists in Britain tended to be fairly ambitious individuals who, for social and economic reasons, felt advancement at home in England was not possible. As a result of this pressure, the Crown decided to establish Cape Breton as a colony in 1784. The physical founding took place in 1785 with the arrival of both groups in Sydney harbor.


Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

Cape Breton had been granted full colonial status — complete with an appointed executive and the right to convene a House of Assembly once the population had grown to a sufficient size. Toward the end of the 18th century, the Island boasted about 2,500 inhabitants — a number too small to warrant the convening of a House. To make matters worse, from the British point of view, many of the new immigrants to Cape Breton were Gaelic-speaking, Highland Scots, considered to be “barbarians” by many in power, for whom the memory of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 was still fresh. (By 1845, 20,000 Highlanders had emigrated to Cape Breton.)

As a result, control of the Colony remained in the hands of the few people who composed the colonial government’s executive council. The executive supported its government by taxing revenue from two main sources — coal and rum. In 1811, George III was officially recognized as “mad” and incapable of rule. His son succeeded him as Prince Regent until the old King’s death in 1820. This Regency period was notable for a number of developments. The Regent, sometimes called the Prince of Pleasure, was a Tory by inclination — strongly upholding the view that power was best wielded by executive privilege. He was opposed by a growing reform movement which found its focus in the Whig Party.

The concepts of human rights and greater democratic enfranchisement were certainly not new to this period. They had found fertile ground in the American colonies, whose self confidence was bolstered by events such as their involvement in the defeat of Louisbourg in 1745, which later blossomed into full-fledged revolt in the 1770s.

In 1789, liberty, equality and fraternity surfaced in Paris and, despite his dictatorial behaviour, Napoleon Bonaparte did much to disseminate those ideas throughout Europe. Back home in England, however, and in Cape Breton, the executive was still in control. Then in 1815, two events occurred which set opposing forces in motion. The first was Napoleon’s escape from the island of Elba and his speedy and dramatic return to power in France, a development brought up short by his defeat at Waterloo. The Tories in England exulted. Their might had proven right and muscles were being flexed again.


Leaver & Ritchie

The second event occurred on Tambora, Indonesia — a massive volcanic eruption spewed an estimated 30 cubic miles of ash and dust into the atmosphere. 1816 became known as “the summerless year.” In Cape Breton, it snowed frequently that summer and frost did enormous damage to the crops. This pestilence was followed by a disastrous plague of mice which destroyed what was left. (Souris in P.E.I. was named for these mice plagues).

Peterloo Massacre. Painting by Richard Carlile (1790–1843) Manchester Library Services, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Peterloo Massacre. Painting by Richard Carlile (1790–1843) Manchester Library Services, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Cape Breton’s colonists and pioneers were devastated and had to be sustained through the remainder of the year with food bought and paid for by the Colonial Treasury – which was soon depleted. 1816 was doubly disastrous, however, because Messrs. Leaver and Ritchie, operators of the Cape Breton Coal Mines and major contributors through taxation to the Colonial Treasury, at the behest of several Cape Breton reformers such as Richard Gibbons, Archibald Dodd and David Matthews, challenged the executive council’s right to levy taxes in court. Their case was based on the claim that such taxation was only legal if approved by a House of Assembly, which had not yet been convened.

The courts decided in Leaver and Ritchie’s favor. This not only emptied the Treasury, it forced the Colonial government to the realization that the only way to raise new revenue was to lessen executive power and demand that London call the House of Assembly. The response came from London in 1819, the same year a jittery group of volunteer soldiers dozens and injured hundreds more peaceful protesters at a meeting for parliamentary reform in St. Peter’s Fields, Manchester, England, an event that became known as the Peterloo Massacre.

That same year, the government in London, leery of reform and the inevitable loss of privilege, proclaimed that Cape Breton was to be annexed to Nova Scotia. The deed was done officially in 1820.


Kenzie MacNeil


Kenzie MacNeil is a writer, performer, producer and director whose credits include producing The Rise and Follies shows and composing the anthem “The Island.” He also served as editor and publisher of The Cape Bretoner.







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