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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Nineteenth-century Cape Breton : a historical geography Hornsby, Stephen J.


This thesis is an historical geography of Cape Breton Island in the nineteenth century. It aims to provide a geographical synthesis of the Island over a hundred years, elucidating the changing relationship between the Island's population and their environment. The Island is considered as a region and the scale of enquiry is at the regional level. The patterns of population, settlement, economy, and society are identified, and the processes that created them are discussed. Finally, the wider relevance of the Cape Breton experience is suggested. Three distinct and largely separate patterns of settlement, economy, and society coexisted in early nineteenth century Cape Breton: the old commercial staple trade of the cod fishery, semi-subsistent family-farms, and industrial coal mining. After the end of the French regime on the Island, British and Nova Scotian capital was invested in the inshore cod fishery, creating specialised fishing settlements, a fishing population, and an economy tied to distant, international markets. Superimposed upon this staple trade in the 1820's was a fee-simple empire of family-farms. Agricultural changes in Western Scotland displaced thousands of people, many of whom fetched up on Cape Breton - among the cheapest of overseas destinations. By mid-century, these immigrants had occupied all the good land and considerable areas of poorer backland. After years of backbreaking work, the settlers had created semi-subsistent farms on relatively cheap land far from markets. About the same time as the Scots arrived, British industrial capital exploited the Island's coal reserves, introducing skilled British labour and steam-technology to win coal for external markets. Until the final decades of the century, the fishery changed little. The cod fishery, organised and supplied by Channel Island and resident merchants, remained dominant. Only in the 1870's was it augmented by the rapid rise of the lobster fishery. Both farming and mining, however, were transformed in the years after 1850. As the agricultural population grew, largely by natural increase, settlement expanded farther onto backland, and growing numbers of subsistent farmers combined agriculture with seasonal work in the coal mines and in Boston. Under the successive stimuli of Reciprocity and the National Policy, the coal industry expanded, attracting more companies, increasing output, and employing more men accommodated in several new settlements. Yet these three economies remained essentially separate. Agriculture supplied some produce and seasonal labour to the fishery and the mines, but the two staples -exploiting different resources and tied to different sources of capital and markets - had no contact. With limited capacity to generate multipliers, a larger, more mature economy did not develop on Cape Breton. Faced with limited land and uncertain returns from the staple industries, many Islanders emigrated to the burgeoning towns and cities of New England. This cycle of immigration, population growth, and emigration, set against an economic background of staple industries and semi-subsistent farming, was common to much of settled Canada in the nineteenth century.

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