AKINS, THOMAS BEAMISH, lawyer, historian, archivist, and bibliophile; b. 1 Feb. 1809 in Liverpool, N.S., only child of Thomas Akins (Akin), merchant, and Margaret Ott Beamish; d. unmarried 6 May 1891 in Halifax.
Thomas Beamish Akins’s mother died ten days after his birth and he was brought up by her family in Halifax, along with his first cousin, Beamish Murdoch*, who was nine years his senior and like an elder brother to him. He almost certainly followed Murdoch in attending Halifax Grammar School, where he would have received a solid classical education. After training for the law in his cousin’s office, he was called to the Nova Scotia bar on 3 May 1831. Most accounts state that Akins had a lucrative practice, mainly as a solicitor (his name rarely appears in the court records of the day). The income from this practice and most likely a fairly substantial inheritance soon made him independently wealthy, allowing him to retire at an early age and devote himself to archival and bibliophilic pursuits.
While Akins was articling in Murdoch’s office, he and his cousin assisted Thomas Chandler Haliburton* in the research for An historical and statistical account of Nova-Scotia (Halifax, 1829). Akins also joined, possibly as a founding member, The Club, which gathered regularly in the late 1820s at the office of Joseph Howe*’s newspaper for cakes, ale, and literary discussions. Through his mother’s family Akins could trace his ancestry to the first settlers of Halifax, and he was a founder and president of the Old Nova Scotia Society, which was formed some time before 1838. All its members claimed descent from the first Haligonians, and their self-appointed task was to ensure that the anniversary of the city’s founding should never be forgotten. It was natural, therefore, that when the Halifax Mechanics’ Institute offered a silver medal for the best essay on early Halifax, Akins should enter the competition. The only entry was his “Essay on the early history of Halifax,” which was awarded the silver medal in 1839 and first published eight years later. Throughout his life he continued to correct and add to the essay, and in 1895 the Nova Scotia Historical Society published as the eighth volume of its Collections the version he had left at his death.
His youthful involvement in the research for Haliburton’s history had made Akins aware of the need to preserve and catalogue the public records of Nova Scotia. In 1841 he wrote to the Halifax Mechanics’ Institute “proposing the foundation of [a] Depository of Colonial Records.” Nothing came of this proposal or of a similar attempt made four years later by a committee of the institute, which included Akins and was chaired by Joseph Howe. The issue of the public records remained dormant until 1857, when Akins appeared before a committee of the House of Assembly to plead for their preservation. Departing from his normally quiet manner, he spoke with such force and emotion that, as Adams George Archibald would later recall, “the practical politicians of the day” were won over by his enthusiasm. That April, Howe moved a resolution in the house which led on 29 May to Akins’s appointment as commissioner of public records. The creation of the Nova Scotia archives thus preceded that of the dominion archives by 15 years, and there would not be another provincial archivist until 1903, when Alexander Fraser* was appointed in Ontario.
Akins was to hold this position until his death 34 years later. He reported, through the provincial secretary, to the assembly, which set up committees to examine his reports and make recommendations. He submitted 13 reports and received grants totalling approximately $18,800, of which $10,938 was for his salary. The cataloguing system he adopted was that used for the Harleian Collection in the British Museum. The documents were arranged by date and by subject, such as governors’ dispatches, and then bound in volumes. In 1859 Akins published a Descriptive catalogue of books in the iron safe of the Provincial Secretary’s Office, Nova Scotia, a reprint of the catalogue published in the assembly journals of that year.
He soon realized that some of the official correspondence was missing and that it could be found in the State Paper Department of the Public Record Office in London. After repeated urgings on his part, arrangements were made through the lieutenant governor, Lord Mulgrave [Phipps*], to have copies made of the official correspondence of the Board of Trade, secretaries of state, and governors. Early in this work a serious problem arose that would continue to trouble Akins: his copyists transcribed only the dispatches themselves and not the often more important enclosures, many of which had become separated from the relevant dispatch. Akins was obliged to order transcripts of the enclosures separately after reading references to them in the dispatches. The publication of the Catalogue of the Library of Parliament by the Province of Canada in 1857–58 drew Akins’s attention to documents in Paris relating to Acadia, and he had this material copied in 1860–62. There followed a nearly continuous stream of transcripts from the British Museum, the Public Record Office, and the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London, and from the library of the Séminaire de Québec, the new dominion archives, and the Massachusetts Historical Society. At the same time Akins continued, as finances allowed, to collect and catalogue the Nova Scotian records that he found in various government offices. By 1886, 473 volumes in all had been bound and many boxes of documents sorted. These were described in a catalogue published that year, which remained in use until 1976. As a result of Akins’s efforts, most of the public records of the government of Nova Scotia were preserved, catalogued, and made available well before any other province had embarked on such an enterprise and when the dominion archives had only just begun one.
In his reports Akins repeatedly urged the publication of selected documents following the practice in several American states. Finally in 1865 the assembly authorized the printing of 1,000 copies of a one-volume compilation. Selections from the public documents of the province of Nova Scotia, edited by Akins, was published in 1869. The volume was given a wide distribution with copies going to libraries in Canada, the United States, and Britain. It included documents relating to the Acadians, the Seven Years’ War, the settlement of Halifax, and the establishment of a representative assembly. In selecting these documents Akins was under severe constraints of space and cost: his initial request had been for three volumes. As a result he did not publish all the documents in full, generally omitting wordy instructions. (His pencilled directions to his copyists can still be seen on the originals in the Public Archives of Nova Scotia.)
Akins, like many of his contemporaries, was sensitive to growing criticism of the expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia in 1755 [see Charles Lawrence*]. One of his aims in publishing the Selections was to correct misunderstandings about the deportation. In his preface he stated that he had selected all the documents then in the possession of the government that “could in any way throw light on the history and conduct of the French inhabitants of Nova Scotia.” In 1880–81 he obtained transcripts of Lieutenant-Colonel John Winslow*’s journal from the Massachusetts Historical Society and material relating to the Acadians in the papers of the Reverend Andrew Brown* in the British Museum. Both were published in the Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society in the 1880s. The publication of these documents increased interest in the, by now, highly charged international debate over the expulsion. Nova Scotians felt compelled to defend both the necessity of the deportation and the integrity of Akins, who was accused of suppressing evidence and of partiality in his choice of documents relating to the Acadians in his Selections.
What really gave the debate international prominence was the publication of Francis Parkman’s Montcalm and Wolfe (Boston, 1884), which included a chapter entitled “Removal of the Acadians.” For this chapter, in which he argued that the expulsion had been necessary, Parkman relied heavily on Akins’s Selections, which he called “a Government publication of great value.” In 1887 Henri-Raymond Casgrain* published at Quebec a reply to Parkman in Un pèlerinage au pays d’Évangéline, but he was in turn severely chastised by Parkman for his lack of research. Casgrain then spent the winter of 1887–88 in London and Paris examining the evidence. In a paper given before the Royal Society of Canada in 1888, he charged that Akins had “systematically eliminated and deliberately ignored the most compromising documents, those that would best establish the rights of the Acadians.” Casgrain quoted documents favourable to the Acadians, which he had found in London but which were not in the Selections.
Casgrain believed, as did others who had challenged Parkman’s thesis in the United States, that there had been a conspiracy, at the time of the deportation and subsequently, to suppress evidence favourable to the Acadians. The origin of this theory was Haliburton’s statement in his history that he had been unable to discover among the public records in Halifax any papers relating to the deportation. He suggested that they had been concealed from a sense of shame. Casgrain saw the Selections as further proof of this conspiracy. He even suggested that the government of Nova Scotia should conduct a judicial inquiry into its publication.
The debate over the Selections was the most distressing episode in Akins’s life, and his natural inclination was to refuse to engage in polemics. He did not, however, want for defenders, among whom were Parkman, Henry Youle Hind*, and Adams Archibald. He himself took part in the debate only twice, and on both occasions it was to refute the charges with completely factual defences. Regarding Haliburton’s charge of a conspiracy, which in 1885 was the focus of an exchange in the Boston Evening Transcript involving Parkman and others, Akins wrote a lengthy letter to the paper on “The records of the Acadian expulsion.” In this letter he clearly demonstrated that the records Haliburton had claimed were concealed had, in fact, been available. Further, Haliburton had been allowed to take some of them to his lodgings for more convenient reference. As Akins noted in a letter to Parkman, quoted by Parkman in an article published in the New York Nation on 22 Jan. 1885, Haliburton had not pursued “his search with sufficient diligence,” a fact now recognized by modern scholarship.
In 1890 Akins again entered the debate with a letter to the Halifax Morning Herald. He stated that his first reaction to Casgrain’s charges had been to search in Halifax for the omitted documents. He soon realized that most of them were enclosures in dispatches that had not been sent to Halifax from Annapolis Royal when the government was transferred in 1749. Akins simply had not known of their existence until Casgrain located them in London. Casgrain also believed – perhaps a deliberate misreading of the preface to the Selections – that Akins had been in London and seen the documents that he had omitted. Akins, in fact, had never been in London (in his whole life he left Nova Scotia only once, on a trip to Prince Edward Island). He had been at the mercy of his copyists, and he was able to show that Casgrain’s charges were completely without merit. Further, he could point to the fact that he had provided the transcripts from the Andrew Brown papers published by the Nova Scotia Historical Society. Included was an annotation by Brown that, “excepting the Massacre of St. Bartholomew,” he knew of “no act equally reprehensible as the Acadian removal, that can be laid to the charge of the French nation.” If Akins had wished to suppress this remark, he could have done so, but he ensured that it was published, as he had for other documents favourable to the Acadian case.
His explanation should have ended the debate over the Selections, but historians to the present day have continued to charge him, if not with outright suppression of evidence, at least with partiality in his choice of documents. However, only one historian, John Bartlet Brebner*, has been able to cite an instance where Akins omitted from a document a part that could be considered significant, and even this omission was almost certainly inadvertent. Akins felt that the removal of the Acadians “was a terrible necessity – how cruel, yet how unavoidable,” a view he shared with most of his Nova Scotian compatriots. He strongly believed that “the public documents of a country are its true history and nothing else”; they spoke for themselves.
Akins’s antiquarian interests were not restricted to the collection of public documents. When he was appointed record commissioner, he also accepted an unpaid commission as provincial librarian. But he was not able to carry out this appointment because the government had not yet amalgamated the libraries of the assembly and council to form one legislative library. Instead, he concentrated on collecting together the many books and pamphlets he found scattered around Province House and procuring books for a future library by gift, exchange, or purchase. In two years he acquired 1,750 volumes, of which only 138 were purchased, at a cost of £17. Akins laid the foundation upon which the first paid provincial librarian, John Thomas Bulmer*, was able by the 1880s to build the Legislative Library of Nova Scotia into one of the first rank in Canada.
The bibliographies and booksellers’ catalogues that Akins obtained as provincial librarian made him aware of many books and pamphlets bearing on the history of Nova Scotia and British North America. He urged upon the government the “paramount importance” of obtaining these books for a legislative library. It was the government’s lack of interest that turned Akins into a private collector. By his death his collection on the history of colonial America and of British North America had reached some 4,000 volumes. Known today as the Akins Library and housed in the Public Archives of Nova Scotia, it was at his death both the largest of its kind in private hands and, in the rarity of some of its volumes, the finest in the dominion.
His reason for collecting British North Americana was obvious. What remains somewhat of a mystery was his fascination with books of the 15th and 16th centuries, particularly German and Italian incunabula, Aldines, and Elzevirs. Dalhousie professor Archibald McKellar MacMechan*, who talked with him before his death, remarked in 1932 that Akins had been interested in early printing. Whatever the reason, Akins in the 1860s and 1870s put together one of the finest collections of incunabula in North America; before 1880 there were probably fewer than a dozen collectors of 15th-century books on the continent. At the Montreal exhibition of 1877 honouring English printer William Caxton only 26 incunabula had been displayed; by 1888 Akins owned 28. Among his rarest volumes were the first Bible (1475) printed by Anton Koberger (the oldest Latin Bible then in Canada and possibly in North America) and a copy of Rodrigo Sanchez de Arévalo’s Speculum vitae humanae (1471) from the press of Günther Zainer in Augsburg (Federal Republic of Germany). Akins donated 152 volumes from his collection of rare books to King’s College, then at Windsor, N.S., in 1872, and another 250 items came to the college at his death. In the 1950s more than 100 books from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries were found in the attic of his summer home at Falmouth. These volumes are now in the Dalhousie University Library.
Akins maintained a close association with King’s College, which in 1865 awarded him a dcl honoris causa. In the previous year he had established at the college the Akins Historical Prize, to be awarded annually for the best history of one or more counties of Nova Scotia [see Mather Byles Desbrisay; Peter Stevens Hamilton; George Patterson]. Akins’s intention was to encourage the writing of local history before “the local traditions among the people relating to the commencement and progress of settlements” were lost to posterity. Before his death, prizes were awarded for histories of 14 counties, a number of which are still primary sources for the study of early settlement in the province.
Akins was by temperament an antiquarian rather than a historian, and his few published works reflect this trait in their strictly factual, chronological approach. In addition to his history of Halifax, he published A sketch of the rise and progress of the Church of England in the British North American provinces (Halifax, 1849), A brief account of the origin, endowment and progress of the University of King’s College, Windsor, Nova Scotia (Halifax, 1865), and an article, “The first Council,” in the Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society for 1879–80. He served as president of the society in 1882–83 and at his death was one of its vice-presidents. He was also an honorary or corresponding member of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, the American Historical Association, and the historical societies of Massachusetts, Maryland, and Texas.
Archibald MacMechan described Akins as “a gentleman of the old school.” A gracious, retiring man, to the end of his days he dressed in the fashion of the 1830s, wearing starched high collars and broadcloth ties and going clean-shaven. He had a fine taste in paintings and in his youth showed his own work in provincial exhibitions. The winters he spent at his Brunswick Street home (now a registered heritage property owned by the city of Halifax) and his summers at Falmouth, where his paternal ancestors had settled as New England planters. There he indulged his horticultural tastes, planting many varieties of rare bushes and trees. In religion always a low churchman, he became strongly evangelical in the late 1880s, regularly attending prayer meetings and Bible classes, including those of the Methodists and the Salvation Army. Throughout his life he was a kindly and generous man. In his will, among many charitable and religious bequests, he left $7,000 for the support of the Halifax City Mission. The remainder of his $54,000 estate was bequeathed to numerous relations. The annotation on his burial record in St George’s Church, Halifax, is a line from Horace, “Multis bonis flebilis occidit” (He died mourned by many good men).
[Thomas Beamish Akins’s Prize essay on the history of the settlement of Halifax, at the Mechanics’ Institute, on 18th April, 1839 was issued as a pamphlet in that city in 1847. The greatly expanded and revised version he left at his death appeared in 1895 as “History of Halifax City,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 8 (1892–94); it was reprinted at Belleville, Ont., in 1973.
Genealogical information on the Akins and Beamish families is found in PANS, MG 1, 5, and on the Beamish family in PANS, MG 100, 109, nos.18–19. Akins’s admission to the bar on 3 May 1831 is recorded in PANS, First barristers’ roll for Nova Scotia. His will, dated 6 Dec. 1890, is in Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), Estate papers, no.4109 (mfm. at PANS). Obituaries appear in the Halifax Acadian Recorder and Evening Mail on 6 May 1891 and in the Morning Chronicle on 7 May; there is an “In memoriam” notice in N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 7 (1889–91): 157–58. Archibald McKellar MacMechan’s reminiscences were published as “A gentleman of the old school” in the Halifax Herald, 31 Dec. 1932.
The main source for Akins’s work as commissioner of public records from 1857 to 1885 is his reports in N.S., House of Assembly, Journals and proc., app., 1858–86, and the reports of the assembly’s record commission, also published in the journal appendices, particularly those for 1860 and 1864. The correspondence regarding transcripts from the PRO is in PANS, RG 1, 103–4, 106, 125. NA, RG 37, B, 106, contains correspondence between Akins and Douglas Brymner*, the dominion archivist. The T. B. Akins papers at the PANS (MG 1, 5–8) include his record commission book (MG 1, 8), in which are noted his reports to the assembly, work accomplished, and copies of a few letters relating to the commission. B. C. Cuthbertson, “Thomas Beamish Akins: British North America’s pioneer archivist,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 7 (1977–78), no.1: 86–102, is the major study of Akins’s work as an archivist. Adams George Archibald’s account of Akins’s appearance before the House of Assembly committee in 1857 is contained in his inaugural address to the N.S. Hist. Soc., in its Coll., 1 (1878): 29.
Letters by the various protagonists to the Boston Evening Transcript in 1885 and the Halifax Morning Herald in 1889 and 1890 are the primary source for the debate over the Selections. Akins’s letters appear in the Boston Evening Transcript, 19 March 1885, and the Morning Herald, 4 April 1890. His letter to Francis Parkman was published by Parkman in the New York Nation, 22 Jan. 1885. H.-R. Casgrain’s paper was published as “Éclaircissements sur la question acadienne” in RSC Trans., 1st ser., 6 (1888), sect.i: 23–75. The transcripts from the Andrew Brown papers on “The Acadian French” were issued in N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 2 (1879–80): 129–60; Brown’s comment on the expulsion appears on p.150. M. Brook Taylor’s dissertation, “The writing of English-Canadian history in the nineteenth century” (phd thesis, 2v., Univ. of Toronto, 1984), is the best source for the historiography of the Acadian expulsion in Nova Scotia.
Akins’s bibliophilic activities are discussed in B. C. Cuthbertson, “Thomas Beamish Akins,” Atlantic Provinces Library Assoc., APLA Bull. (Fredericton), 44 (1980–81): 49, 51. Other sources are Harry Piers’s “Historical introduction” to the Catalogue of the library of King’s College, Windsor, Nova Scotia, with occasional annotations by Harry Piers (Halifax, 1893); A catalogue of the Akins collection of books and pamphlets, comp. S. I. Stewart (Halifax, 1933); and D. C. Harvey, “The Akins Library in the Public Archives of Nova Scotia,” Journal of Education (Halifax), 4th ser., 5 (1934): 57–60. b.c.c.]
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Cite This Article
Brian C. Cuthbertson, “AKINS, THOMAS BEAMISH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 6, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/akins_thomas_beamish_12E.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:
|Author of Article:||Brian C. Cuthbertson|
|Title of Article:||AKINS, THOMAS BEAMISH|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1990|
|Year of revision:||1990|
|Access Date:||June 6, 2023|