DESBRISAY, MATHER BYLES, lawyer, politician, office holder, judge, and historian; b. 19 March 1828 in Chester, N.S., son of Thomas Belcher DesBrisay and Lucretia Bourdette Woodward; m. September 1876 Ada A. Harley; they had no children; d. 8 April 1900 in Bridgewater, N.S.
Mather Byles DesBrisay was a great-grandson of Thomas Desbrisay*, lieutenant governor of St John’s (Prince Edward) Island, and of the loyalist clergyman Mather Byles*. After being educated in Halifax and Dartmouth schools, he received his legal training in the office of George Augustus Blanchard and Alexander James in Halifax, and he was called to the bar in 1851. Three years later he and fellow lawyer Howard D. Steele served as secretaries to Nova Scotia’s first industrial exhibition. DesBrisay practised law in Halifax for several years before moving to Chester and then, in 1865, to Bridgewater.
After an unsuccessful venture into politics in 1863, DesBrisay, a Liberal, was elected to the House of Assembly for Lunenburg County by a large majority in the anti-confederate (Liberal) sweep in 1867. He was one of seven extreme anti-confederate mhas, led by Dr George Murray* of Pictou County, who stubbornly opposed Nova Scotia’s “coercion” into confederation. According to DesBrisay, “Canada had no more right to tax Nova Scotia without her people’s consent than Great Britain had to tax the American colonies in 1776.” He was re-elected in 1871 and 1874, but by 1871 he had realized that repeal was unattainable. He had also discovered that the Liberals, once in power, had proved as grasping as the Conservatives. Wealthy supporters of the government party were rewarded with large land grants for timber and mineral speculation. Believing that the land should be reserved for bona fide settlers, DesBrisay, who served as the province’s immigration agent in the 1870s, fought the land grab with some success by forcing the government to publish a list of the grants. In order to divert him, Premier William Annand* had him appointed commissioner for the consolidation of the provincial statutes. In May 1875 he was elected speaker of the assembly, but the following year he resigned his seat to become county court judge for Lunenburg, Queens, and Shelburne, a post he held until 1897.
DesBrisay will be better remembered as a historian than as a judge or politician. His essay on the history of Lunenburg County, submitted for the Akins Historical Prize [see Thomas Beamish Akins] at King’s College in 1868, was published in an expanded version two years later in Halifax and in a greatly enlarged second edition (Toronto, 1895). Based on a wide range of documents and on interviews with many elderly settlers, the History of the county of Lunenburg is a serious attempt to recreate the atmosphere of early Lunenburg and to describe the progress of settlement. It is not without errors, which the dependence on reminiscences made inevitable. In glorifying the county’s hardy pioneers, the book employs a tone that is often moralizing. But, like George Patterson’s History of the county of Pictou, Nova Scotia (Montreal, 1877), it is far above the genealogical meanderings that make up most county histories of Nova Scotia. DesBrisay’s work was praised and frequently used by Winthrop Pickard Bell in his monumental study The “foreign Protestants” and the settlement of Nova Scotia.
Mather Byles DesBrisay’s essay, “History of the county of Lunenburg,” placed second in the Akins competition for 1868; the manuscript is preserved in the Akins Hist. Prize Essays collection at the Univ. of King’s College Library (Halifax). The 1895 edition has been reprinted (Belleville, Ont., 1980).
PANS, MG 100, 115, no.20. N.S., House of Assembly, Debates and proc., 1869–72; Journal and proc., 1874–75. Acadian Recorder, 9–10 April 1900. Morning Chronicle (Halifax), 1868, 1872. Canadian biog. dict. Legislative Assembly of N.S. (Elliott). W. P. Bell, The ‘foreign Protestants” and the settlement of Nova Scotia . . . (Toronto, 1961). K. G. Pryke, Nova Scotia and confederation, 1864–74 (Toronto, 1979). M. B. Taylor, “Nova Scotia’s nineteenth-century county histories,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 10 (1980–81), no.2: 159–67.