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McDONELL, JOHN, Le Prêtre (1768-1850) – Volume VII (1836-1850)

d. 17 April 1850 in Pointe-Fortune, Upper Canada


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

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The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

ARMSTRONG, LAWRENCE, lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia, 1724/25–1739; lieutenant-colonel of Philipps’ Regiment (later the 40th Foot), 1720–39; b. 1664 in Ireland; committed suicide at Annapolis Royal, N.S. 6 Dec. 1739. It is not known which of the three branches of the Irish Armstrongs he was born into, but all three contributed distinguished officers and engineers to the British service in the 18th century.

In the early 1690s Armstrong joined a regiment raised in Ireland, and saw service in Marlborough’s campaigns on the Continent until 1711, when the regiment was detached from the Duke’s forces to join Sir Hovenden Walker’s expedition against Quebec. When several of Walker’s ships were wrecked on the night of 22–23 August (o.s.) off Île-aux-Oeufs, Armstrong suffered the first of the reverses that were to mark his career in Canada. He was cast up on the littered shore with only his clothes, having lost his money, his personal effects, and the equipment of his entire company.

Armstrong’s men formed part of the force that was detached from the battered Walker expedition in September to reinforce the garrison at Annapolis Royal. The former Port-Royal had been captured from the French only a year before; but already its new masters were floundering in the problems of exercising British control over Nova Scotia from an isolated fort The garrison was poorly clothed and demoralized because of Governor Samuel Vetch’s inability to pay his New England agent for supplies; the arrival of the destitute reinforcements aggravated the situation so much that Armstrong and his fellow captains had little choice but to use their own pay to support their companies.

By 1712 the officers of the garrison had settled into a pattern of semi-poverty, continuing debt and petty quarrels that was to prevail for 30 years. Armstrong, possessing an erratic temperament and strong convictions, soon succumbed to the closeted atmosphere. The officers, “. . . a multitude . . . whose jarrs about Command and Rank create one Endless trouble, . . .” became involved in heated polemics about the virtues of the Protestant succession. As a member of an Irish family who had been “great sufferers for the Protestant Interest,” Armstrong was hardly the type to have doubts about the question; and reacting to the pro-Jacobite remarks of George Vane, a fellow officer, at the mess table he smashed a wine decanter over his head. In 1714 he fell out with the gentle Caulfeild, Vetch’s successor as governor, and quarrelled with the local New Englanders, one of whom, William Winniett*, accused Armstrong of uttering “virulous Conceptions” against him.

Armstrong’s debts accumulated as the problems of supporting his company increased, and with his Boston creditors pressing him he went to England in 1715 to seek redress. In February 1715/16 he presented his case to the Lords of Trade, who arranged to reimburse him for his losses. He spent four years in England, living on his pay and compensation.

When he returned to Nova Scotia in 1720, the province’s situation held greater promise. Colonel Richard Philipps* was governor, with orders to form a civil government, secure the Acadians’ allegiance, and consolidate British control. The orphaned “independent companies” had been formed into a regiment of foot under Philipps. The latter established a provincial council consisting of the regimental officers and New England civilians, and Armstrong, as the new major of the regiment, was given a council seat.

He took little part in council meetings, being dispatched to Louisbourg in the fall of 1720 to negotiate with the French governor, Saint-Ovide de Brouillan [Monbeton*], for the return of property seized by Indians from the New England fishermen at Canso (Canseau). The Canso area had posed a delicate problem for French, British, and New England authorities since 1718, when Captain Thomas Smart, commanding the Squirrel, plundered the French fishermen there on the grounds that the fishery was in British-held territory. Responsibility for encouraging the Indians to raid the New Englanders in 1720 was disavowed by Saint-Ovide at Louisbourg; but Philipps sent Armstrong to deliver a stiff protest to the governor and press for compensation. Saint-Ovide received Armstrong politely, and by giving him every assistance in collecting evidence from French fishermen in the Canso area skilfully underlined the fact that the British had never given satisfaction for the 1718 incident.

Throughout his career Armstrong shared Philipps’ view that the Canso fishery was a significant asset to the province. In fact, by this time Armstrong’s ideas about Nova Scotia were firmly set, and were to undergo little evolution. Like Philipps, he favoured Protestant immigration as a logical confirmation of conquest; yearned for a strong military force that would overawe the Acadians and Indians; recognized the importance of securing the Acadians’ allegiance, or at least their neutrality; and chafed under the inability of the government at Annapolis Royal to control the province.

Aside from this basic attitude, Armstrong shared little with Philipps. The two men took an instant dislike to each other. Philipps distrusted his major, fearing the latter’s influence with the authorities in England, while Armstrong made no effort to hide his contempt for the governor. He was in financial straits again, his company’s provisions having been lost in shipwrecks on two occasions in 1720. Philipps refused to bear the cost of one of these setbacks, and blocked Armstrong’s attempts to get leave.

Armstrong, now a lieutenant-colonel, returned to Annapolis from Canso in 1721 and took advantage of Philipps’ absence to hurry to England. His movements during the next four years are obscure. He bombarded the Lords of Trade with requests for compensation for his Canso losses, obtaining substantial repayment with the help of friends and relatives in the government. He took a house in Westminster, lived comfortably, and seems to have kept in close touch with the political machine of the Duke of Newcastle. On his own request he was appointed lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia, effective 8 Feb 1724/25. Philipps was at this time living in England, although still holding the governorship; John Doucett was lieutenant-governor of the town and fort of Annapolis Royal.

Armstrong’s first period of residence as lieutenant-governor (May 1725 until the fall of 1729) was marked by a determined attempt to solve local problems, by quarrels with the council and with members of the Roman Catholic clergy, such as Father Gaulin, and by complete failure to achieve the progress he so earnestly desired for the province. After a year at Canso, where he vainly hoped to establish a large permanent settlement of fishermen, he came to Annapolis Royal resolved to settle the Acadian issue. On 25 Sept 1726 he met the Annapolis Acadians at the fort, where he presented an oath requiring them to be “true subjects,” to swear “submission and obedience,” and to affirm (an Armstrong touch) that “no hopes of Absolution from any in Holy Orders” would move them from their allegiance.

Predictably, the Acadians requested exemption from bearing arms. Armstrong replied that British law prevented Roman Catholics from serving in the army in any event, “His Majesty having so many faithful Protestant subjects first to provide for “J. B. Brebner suggests that this was an ingenious dodge on Armstrong’s part, but it is equally plausible that Armstrong’s reaction was a spontaneous one, entirely in character. After some discussion he agreed to have the exemption written on the margin of the document “in order to gett them over by Degrees.” Another attempt was made to impose an unqualified oath in September 1727. This time the Annapolis Acadians asked for several conditions, including the exemption from bearing arms and the provision of more priests. Armstrong and his council reacted sternly, arresting four Acadian deputies, including Abraham Bourg; three of them were briefly imprisoned.

Armstrong’s last attempt to deal with the issue was made a month later, when he sent Ensign Robert Wroth to the Acadian settlements to achieve by diplomacy what had been lost in September by imperiousness. Wroth gave the Acadians a written confirmation of the exemption from military service, a concession that Armstrong and the council refused to ratify. It does not appear that the Acadians were officially informed that the modified oath was annulled; and the net result of Armstrong’s efforts was simply to strengthen the Acadians’ belief that they were entitled to neutral status in war time.

His attempts to impose the oath tell much about Armstrong. It was characteristic of him to meet a problem head-on, without much subtlety, and with an insistence on complete success that made disappointment inevitable. His prejudices, although standard for the times, ensured defeat in the Nova Scotian situation. He distrusted the priests, with some justification during his first residence, and did not yet recognize the pragmatic value of consistently cultivating their support. His chances of ever obtaining an unqualified oath from the Annapolis Acadians were effectively wrecked in 1728 by his violent treatment of their priest, Father René-Charles de Breslay. For reasons which remain obscure because of contradictory evidence, Armstrong believed that the priest was interfering in secular matters, and Breslay was forced to hide in the woods after his house was pillaged on the angry lieutenant-governor’s orders.

Other difficulties beset Armstrong during this period. The merchants at Annapolis engaged in clandestine trade with the Acadians and French at will. Perhaps because of his experiences with the garrison’s New England contractors, and certainly because of their “antimonarchical” tendencies, he quarrelled with the local New Englanders, who reciprocated by petitioning against him to the Board of Trade. His problems were compounded by a corrosive and perennial feud with Major Alexander Cosby*, a council member and Philipps’ brother-in-law.

The complaints which accumulated against Armstrong were probably responsible to some degree for Philipps’ reappearance in Nova Scotia in 1729. Yet it is not clear that the authorities were greatly dissatisfied with Armstrong He left Nova Scotia as soon as Philipps arrived, but was back in 1731 bearing a new commission, the orders for Philipps’ recall, and an entitlement to Philipps’ pay.

For the next eight years Armstrong wrestled mostly with routine problems. His inconsistency, as usual, made his work more difficult than necessary. He had always believed in using Acadians as rent-gatherers and notaries, and as far back as 1727 had appointed Prudent Robichaux as notary for the Annapolis area. Yet in 1737 he dismissed Alexandre Bourg*, dit Belle-Humeur, who had been appointed for the Minas district by Philipps, and replaced him with François Mangeant*, dit Saint-Germain, a Frenchman of doubtful character who had fled Quebec after killing a man in an alleged affair of honour, and who was detested by the Acadians for his peremptoriness and his earlier part in the Breslay affair. At the same time Armstrong was urging the home authorities to allow Acadians to become justices of the peace in an official, regular sense – an obvious impossibility under the British laws governing Roman Catholics. Nevertheless, in spite of these aberrations he seems to have made a genuine attempt to rule the Acadians wisely, arbitrating their numerous disputes with unaccustomed patience – or resignation – and applying himself assiduously to the most mundane details of administration. Despite his suspicions about the priests, and a few quarrels with them, he avoided outright clashes, and even gained an admission from Saint-Ovide that he was tolerant towards their religion.

His relations with the garrison and council, however, worsened in this period. The continuous personality clashes, the failure of his hopes to attract settlers to the province and establish new townships, the lack of encouragement from home, and a tendency to “Melancholy fitts” wore him down until he became an aged caricature of himself. On 6 Dec. 1739 he “put a Period to his life with his own Hands” and was found with “five Wounds in his Breast and his sword Lying carelessly by him in his bed.” The officers held an inquest and discreetly attributed his death to “Lunacy.”

Armstrong was a difficult man to his contemporaries, and is a difficult man to judge now, for his character and career were full of contradictions. He considered the Acadians “a Rebellious crew,” an “ungovernable people,” but tried frequently if clumsily to cultivate their loyalty and support. His deep-rooted distrust of the priests was not universal, being reserved for regular priests, and he was generally on amicable terms with their secular brethren. No one was more aware than he that British control of the province lacked substance, and yet he seemed genuinely mystified whenever the prestige of his position failed to command respect and obedience from the Acadians. His reports to the home authorities reveal a mixture of shrewd assessment and administrative myopia, of objectivity and gross exaggeration.

Until J. B. Brebner produced a deft analysis of the man in 1927 (New England’s outpost), Armstrong suffered at the hands of historians of the Acadian period, notably Édouard Richard and H.-R. Casgrain. This is understandable, since Armstrong clearly displayed bad temper, arrogance, impatience, and lack of perception in dealing with people. Yet, with the possible exception of his harsh treatment of Breslay, he cannot be accused of questionable motives, and was fiercely dedicated to British retention of Nova Scotia. Nor can he be charged with oppressing the Acadians, for he had neither the force at his disposal nor the mandate to do so; and his characteristically exaggerated language provides no safe clue that he really had the inclination. It is worth noting that Armstrong’s unpleasant traits have obscured the fact that he had a minor effect on the Acadians and the future of the province.

Indeed, it could be said that personality is largely irrelevant to an assessment of any resident authority’s influence on events in Nova Scotia during this confused period. Philipps brought blandishments and poise to his attempts to get an unqualified oath from the Acadians, and concluded the business by retreating drastically from his demands. Paul Mascarene*, who followed Armstrong and understood the Acadians better than his predecessors, enjoyed some success in dealing with them; but he could not solve the basic problem of the oath, and recognized the futility of the attempt. Armstrong, with a more simplistic outlook, based his hopes on imperiousness and the imaginary prestige of the lieutenant-governor’s position. He failed too, and not only because of his unsuitability for the post. A good part of the fault lay with a British government which was occupied with greater things than Nova Scotia, and which could bring little interest, less understanding, and no coherent policy to bear on the problems of the far-away province.

As a man Armstrong may justly be considered a complex, quarrelsome, and unlikeable individual whose traits were aggravated by the frustrating circumstances under which he lived. As an administrator he shared with Philipps the responsibility for the Acadians’ conviction that their status was an officially neutral one, for their first understanding that they were exempt from bearing arms came during his regime In summary, he has a place as one of the men who laboured with little guidance and support to keep Nova Scotia at least nominally British in a period when Walpole’s policies precluded any consolidation of overseas empire.

Maxwell Sutherland

AN Col., B, 53, 59, 65; C11B, 8 (see also calendars for these series in PAC Report, 1905, 1887) Mass Hist Soc., Gay papers, V. N. B. Museum, Webster Coll., pkt. 200 PAC, Nova Scotia A, 3–7; 8, pp. 19, 133; 9; 12–14; 15, pp. 33–210; 16; 17, p. 283; 19–24 (see also PAC Report, 1894). PRO, C.O. 217/3 Coll. Doc. inédits Canada et Amérique (CF), I (1888) N.S. Archives, 1, II, III. PAC Report, 1905, II, App A, 70–72. PRO, B. T. Journal, 1734/35 to 1741; CSP, Col., 1720–21, 1722–23, 1724–25, 1726–27, 1728–29, 1730, 1732, 1733, 1734–35, 1735–36, 1737 Walker expedition (Graham). Army list of 1740 (Army Hist. Research Soc. Reprint, Sheffield, 1931), 43. John Burke, A genealogical and heraldic history of the commoners of Great Britain and Ireland (4v., London, 1838), IV, 338–49. Le Jeune, Dictionnaire, I. W. P. Bell, Theforeign protestantsand the settlement of Nova Scotia (Toronto, 1961). Brebner, New Englands outpost. Casgrain, Les Sulpiciens en Acadie. McLennan, Louisbourg Édouard Richard, Acadia; missing links of a lost chapter in American history, by an Acadian (Montreal and New York, 1895) Robert Rumilly, Histoire des Acadiens (2v., Montréal, [1955]), II Waller, Samuel Vetch H.-R Casgrain, “Éclaircissements sur la question acadienne,” RSCT, 1st ser., VI (1888), 38–44.

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Cite This Article

Maxwell Sutherland, “ARMSTRONG, LAWRENCE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 2, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 17, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/armstrong_lawrence_2E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/armstrong_lawrence_2E.html
Author of Article:   Maxwell Sutherland
Title of Article:   ARMSTRONG, LAWRENCE
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 2
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1969
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   April 17, 2024