Rural Protest on Prince Edward Island: From British Colonization to the Escheat Movement.
Contains Maps, Bibliography, Index
Randall White is the author of Voice of Region: On the Long Journey to
Senate Reform in Canada, Too Good to Be True: Toronto in the 1920s, and
Global Spin: Probing the Globalization Debate.
An expanded doctoral thesis, Bittermann’s Rural Protest on Prince Edward Island is too detailed and too densely written to make the bestseller list, but it will probably be the definitive work on the early history of settlement on Prince Edward Island. The adversaries were similar to those struggling in the other British American colonies: on one side mostly absentee landlords and their political supporters in the local government and at the Colonial Office, and on the other tenant farmers or aspiring or actual settlers plus squatters striving to gain legal entitlement to the land they occupied or worked. Throughout this period, the big landowners who were given large swaths of land (up to 20,000 acres each) on two conditions: that they establish settlers and pay a quit rent, an annual fee to the Crown. Their settlement efforts were spotty, although there were exceptions, but from the beginning most objected to the quit rent and refused to pay it. At the same time, the specific goal of the prolonged protests was to get the Crown to escheat or revoke proprietary grants and redistribute the land to settlers “in fee simple grants.” Such sentiments were widely shared across British North America, so much so that it became known as the Escheat movement.
Although the P.E.I. version did not produce the open rebellions that erupted in Lower and Upper Canada in 1937–38, at times it got very close with armed clashes and countless charges resulting from the actions of bailiffs. In one celebrated case in 1834, a bailiff tried to serve warrants of distress on several residents. The author used the legal term distraining, which sent me to the dictionary to learn that it meant “to seize and detain (personal property) as security for a debt.” As Bittermann describes it, “having successfully distrained on a stack of their hay—which probably entailed posting a notice defining it as [the proprietor] Flora Townshend’s property he attempted to make good his escape.…” He didn’t succeed any more than the Escheat movement in P.E.I. did although it greatly furthered the cause of democracy and strengthened the fledgling Assembly.
Incidents like this enlivened the story, but at other times it was heavy going.