The Island of Seven Cities
Where The Chinese Settled When They Discovered America
By Paul Chiasson
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2006 Island of Seven Cities Inc.
All rights reserved.
CUT STONES IN THE WILDERNESS
From my chair in the front row, I looked around the Mumford Room of the Library of Congress in Washington at an assembly of people who were about to sit in judgment of me. It was May 16, 2005, and the library was hosting an international symposium on the early naval voyages of the Chinese, with a special emphasis on China's mapping of the globe before the European age of discovery had even begun. This notion had once seemed extremely controversial, but throughout the morning one speaker after another drew on genetic profiles, methods for determining latitude, original documents and centuries-old maps to present ideas that clearly had the power to reconfigure our history of the New World. The atmosphere was electric, as if all of us could see a window opening on the past and begin to make out something astonishing on the horizon.
Unlike the men and women around me, I was neither an archaeologist nor a historian. I was an architect from Toronto and had never imagined myself in this context — an accidental discoverer at best. But two years earlier I had stumbled on previously uninvestigated — and long-forgotten — ruins on a mountaintop on a small island in the North Atlantic, an island that happened to be the place where I was born and raised.
Waiting for my introduction, and a little anxious about speaking in front of such an audience, I cast my mind back to the stillness of the ruins, isolated on their abandoned mountaintop. I was only too aware that as soon as my presentation was over the arguments would begin about the various elements of this once vast settlement, the reasons for its construction and its demise, and the consequences of its forgotten history. For a last moment, I concentrated on the cut stones I'd discovered in the wilderness, the magnificence and the mystery of a site that until I stood to speak had been mine alone to experience.
At the end of my very first climb to the ruins, I'd sat gazing down over the open Atlantic, a vista that stretched farther and wider than my eye could take in. The ruined site below me, gently sloping towards the sea, held the marks of an ancient design. Its rectangular geometry had been cut sharply into the hillside, but was now softened on its edges by dense spruce forest. The ruined terraces and stone platforms stepping down the mountainside had been conceived and built with this panorama in mind. The stones had been untouched for centuries, and were covered in layers of lichen and mosses that still held the morning dew. Faint traces of mist lay in the hollows amid the ruins. It was a place of great beauty, approached by a long difficult road, and it struck me that it had been designed to ease the frightened spirits of people a long way from home.
Even in those first moments, I had known that these were not the remnants of a humble fishing outpost or farm or fortification, but of a lost settlement that had been inhabited by hundreds or thousands of people for decades — long before Columbus ever dreamed of sailing. After two years of historical investigation I had concluded that the settlement was Chinese. I was here to announce and describe this discovery for the first time in public. If the academics in this room believed me — if my years of intense work proved sound — then the vision we had been glimpsing on the horizon all day would suddenly come into view.
The session moderator called my name. The elderly couple who sat next to me leaned over and wished me good luck. I clutched my notes and walked to the podium.
* * *
The path that led me to that mountaintop began in 1993, when I discovered I was HIV-positive. At the time I believed I could lick the disease. I sat my family down and told them what it meant, but I told myself that I come from tenacious Acadian and Scots stock, pioneer blood that had helped build the communities of Cape Breton Island. I had moved from Washington two years earlier — giving up my teaching position at the Catholic University there — to Toronto. When I tested positive I met Dr. Anne Philips, an HIV specialist. She was the mother of three daughters and was married to another doctor, and her kindness and intelligence won my trust. In the mid-nineties, when drugs were just becoming an option and I was debating their pros and cons, she told me I would be dead in six months if I didn't start them immediately. I did and, as a result, was able to settle into a fulfilling career in Toronto as an architect and designer. I didn't look sick, after all. Someday, I believed, I would get better; someday this affliction would just go away.
By the end of the decade that sense of invincibility had dissipated. The virus had mutated to meet the onslaught of medications, and my strength was in decline. Yet perhaps as a consequence of HIV — and though I was not prone to romantic notions of death — I developed an increasing passion for the architecture of the past. Architecture was the discipline in which I had been trained, but now I found comfort in the evidence that ruins provided: nature will destroy even the most magnificent of human plans. I had limited time left to me, but there were still places that fascinated me and buildings I had never seen. I was hungry for ruins. I knew the architecture of the West: I'd taught it to university freshmen in one form or another for years, and I'd lived and studied in France and Italy. But the Middle East — Egypt's pyramids and the markets and mosques of Damascus — were still foreign to me. In the early spring of 2000 I'd persuaded my friend Beth to drive a rented car with me through the back roads of the region. With a suitcase full of guidebooks, we travelled from the Krak des Chavaliers in northern Syria to Petra in southern Jordan, then on to Egypt, the Sinai Desert, the Nile temples and the monuments of Karnak. We billed it as my last great adventure.
By the end of that year I found myself drawn to Cape Breton Island, the land of my birth. I had spent many childhood afternoons in the back seat of my grandparents' car as we toured rural roads and solitary graveyards in search of the island's history. My grandfather had retired, and the couple had the luxury of time and a grandson possessed of huge curiosity. We clambered together over the ruins of the French buildings of Île Royale — the Royal Island — which the English had destroyed in 1763. We read gravestones, hiked into high meadows, and ate ice cream as we drove home at night.
To play among the crumbled remains of ancient brick and stone walls built on a wild, rocky shoreline covered in thick fog was the definition of childhood wonder to me. Uniformed soldiers parading, cannons firing on pirate ships trapped in the fierce smoke of battle: it was all quite real, and I needed it again.
* * *
In the summer of 2001, while visiting my parents in Sydney, Cape Breton's largest town, I'd gone to inspect an old lighthouse on Boularderie Island, named after the Acadian family that once farmed the land. Here the eastern coast of Cape Breton juts out into the Atlantic Ocean at about the same angle your thumb makes when you stretch it out from your left hand. Where the first finger and the thumb might be imagined to meet, I stood looking across the Great Bras d'Or straits to the wild shore opposite, a vast hill of rock in dramatic silhouette called Cape Dauphin. It was a part of the island I'd never encountered in any of my childhood explorations.
Back at my parents' house that day, I checked the bookshelves for whatever I could find on Cape Breton's history. I went to the Sydney library, where I had spent almost every Saturday morning as a child, to read histories of Cape Breton Island and check the indexes for anything that might have been written about that rock hill called Cape Dauphin. The story of the French — the Acadians as they came to be called — who pioneered the New World was the story of my own family. The tides and turns of the Americas during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the same currents that had swept my family from their homes. For me, history had never been a story told by scholars: it was my story.
* * *
In 1524 the Italian explorer Giovanni Da Verrazano sailed up the Atlantic coast of North America in a French ship and, somewhere along that coast — possibly present-day North Carolina — named it Acadia, after the mythical Arcady. The Roman poet Virgil imagined Arcady to be a region of rustic beauty, cool springs and soft meadows, inhabited by a noble people living together in simple goodness. A sixteenth-century prose poem, "Arcadia," helped popularize the pastoral image, and to a Europe plagued by generations of war, it seemed that the romantic dream of peace might be found in this wilderness, a land where the old continent could begin anew.
In 1604 the young French explorer Samuel de Champlain attempted to establish a permanent colony in l'Acadie. He tried first on the coast of what is now Maine and then on the western shore of Nova Scotia. During these settlement attempts, the French came into contact with the Mi'kmaq, the local aboriginal nation, and began to trade for furs. L'Acadie became known as a place that might offer settlers a better life. Soon young men and women were arriving from France, mostly from the area around the port city of La Rochelle on the northwest coast. They made the journey in small ships in the early spring, and the crews and passengers hoped to see the New World by July. My family arrived in the 1650s in the person of Guyon Chiasson dit LaVallée, an unmarried farmer of twenty. In 1666 he married Jeanne Bernard, the second of his three wives, and one of the many children she bore was Sébastien Chiasson, my ancestor.
The Bay of Fundy has some of the highest tides in the world, which trap the ocean in the funnel-like bay and cover acres of land with the nutrients of the Gulf Stream. Using dykes and sluice gates to direct the flooding, the Acadians allowed these lands along the bay and the rivers to lie fallow for several years while rains and snow leached away the salt. The result was rich, flat soil perfect for agriculture, and the Acadian colonies grew and prospered.
As several generations passed, the Acadians' connection to France became tenuous. They were expert farmers now, and their wives gifted tenders of apple orchards. The Mi'kmaq people taught them hunting, fishing and the use of a local tree bark that could prevent and cure scurvy. Surviving the long, harsh winters became, with time, an Acadian skill, and the Acadians and the Mi'kmaq called each other brothers. Families intermarried and trust grew.
The emerging New England colonies of Britain had traded with the Acadians since the earliest years, and ships from Boston regularly sailed to Port Royal. As British relations with the native groups deteriorated, they resented the Acadians' friendship with the aboriginals and began to covet the rich Acadian farms. The Acadian homeland became a pawn in the imperial game being played out between France and England.
By the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, France gave Acadia to the British. But the Acadians, who had lived in the area for more than three generations, considered themselves beyond the laws enacted in Europe. They were a peaceful people who called the British "nos amis les ennemis," our friends the enemies. Officially termed French Neutrals, they signed promises of neutrality with the new British commanders.
Such pledges were not enough to prevent the British from carrying out what is regarded as North America's first ethnic cleansing. By the middle of the eighteenth century they had deprived the French-speaking farmers of their rights and, in August 1755, they began to expel the Acadians from their land, using transports hired out of Boston. The new harvest and the fattened cattle were sold to pay for the deportations. The farms were then burnt. Over the next eight years, of eighteen thousand Acadians, some ten thousand lost their lives from shipwrecks, disease on board and smallpox epidemics after resettlement. When the French government complained of the high mortality rate, the British responded that it was not their fault but a consequence of the Acadians' "long voyage, their change of climate, their habits of body, their other disorders, and their irregularity and obstinacy."
In 1750, when the British plan of deportation started to become clear, my ancestor Jacques Chiasson was fifty-six years old. Jacques was the grandson of Guyon and the son of Sébastien, a member of the third generation of Chiassons to live in Acadia and the second generation to have known the shores of the New World as their only home. Together with his wife and eleven children, he escaped to Île St. Jean, which we now call Prince Edward Island. The family pioneered on the banks of a small coastal river, at a place called L'Étang des Berges. The soil was too sandy for farming, and Chiasson and his Acadian neighbours resorted to fishing. The 1755 purges passed them by.
Then, in the 1760s, the British took over their land there too. In 1763 Paul Chiasson, the thirty-six-year-old son of Jacques, with thirteen other Acadian families, made a bid to remove themselves from the English. They established Chéticamp on the western coast of what is now Cape Breton Island. On this barren shore, these pioneers — "Les Vieux Quatorze" — were left in peace. I was born on Cape Breton almost two centuries later.
* * *
My parents met at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. My father, Alfred, was the star of the football and the hockey teams, and my mother, Joan, was the new beauty on campus. Their marriage in 1952 was a union in modern times of two cultures that had remained separate until the middle of the twentieth century.
My father is a twelfth-generation Acadian, born in Chéticamp. There were so many Chiassons in his village by then that individuals were known not only by their own first name but by their father's name and their father's father's name. My father was Alfred à Thomas à Charles. I would be called Paul à Alfred à Thomas.
My mother's family were Scottish pioneers on Cape Breton Island, and English is my mother tongue. It seemed normal to me that we had both a French-speaking and an English-speaking family. My mother learned to cook Acadian food, and we lived not far from Chéticamp, a place where old wharves were always alive with big wooden crates of lobsters. My sister, four brothers and I were raised with one foot in each of the two cultures that form the European roots of the island. The Scots came later than the Acadians but are so deeply grounded on the island that Cape Breton was known until a generation or two ago as one of the largest Gaelic-speaking communities in the world. At times the place seems saturated in tartans.
That summer day in 2001, after my visit to the lighthouse on Boularderie Island, my mother stopped to look through my pile of books and maps on the dining-room table. It was my habit to arrive at my parents' house for visits with a collection of books under my arm, mostly architecture and history.
"Why are you looking in these Cape Breton histories all of a sudden?" my mother asked.
"Just poking around. I think there's something over there, around St. Anns — a hill of rock called Cape Dauphin, right at the mouth of the bay on the southeast side."
"Of course. Cape Dauphin. The first Jesuit mission was at St. Anns, right there on that cape. The French were there really early, you know. They built a fort in — I think it was 1629, even before Louisbourg. It must have been small. They're always finding old things over there near Englishtown."
"Anybody write anything about that area around Englishtown?"
"Just a minute."
She went off, probably to the bookshelf in the study, and came back with a little clothbound book published in 1975 by James Lamb, and I settled down with Lamb's book in my favourite chair in the corner of the living room, next to a window.
Lamb's history concentrates on the south shore of the inner harbour and the area along the eastern shore of the bay, now a small town called Englishtown. But when discussing historical sites, he mentions the land at the opening of the bay: Cape Dauphin.
Yet far and away the most intriguing and puzzling remains are those that abound in the wooded hills to the south ... an ancient overgrown roadway, well ramped and graded, leading into the woods from the banks of the creek.
A built puzzle — just the sort of thing that attracts an architect with a weakness for the historical. Lamb mentions the ruins a second time. (Continues...)
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