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Prince Edward Island is a province of Canada, located east of the mainland in the Gulf of St Lawrence. However up until the mid-1870s, it was a British colony, governed from London. This...
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Early Beginnings: Before 1860
The history of Prince Edward Island is complex. Originally inhabited by the Mi’kmaq people, who named it ‘Epekwitk’ (meaning ‘Island Cradled on the Waves’), it was discovered in 1534 by Jacques Cartier and re-named ‘Ile St Jean’. The region became part of the French colony of Acadia, with a population of around 1000. This number increased significantly in 1755, when the British expelled all Acadians from Nova Scotia, many of whom fled to the island. The British captured Ile St Jean itself in 1758, and in 1763 the Treaty of Paris formally handed it over to Britain as settlement for the Seven Years War. The English translated the name of the region to ‘St John’s Island’.
Through the following decades, St John’s Island endured various turmoil as successive governors tried to develop the region. One famously attempted to rename the island as ‘New Ireland’ and implement a Feudal system of land-development, but this was overturned by London and the governor disgraced. There were also instances of American privateer vessels raiding the coast during the American Revolutionary War in the 1770s-80s.
In 1798, St John’s Island was officially re-named ‘Prince Edward Island’ in order to distinguish the island from other similarly named colonies and also honour the member of the British Royal Family with the same name. The region subsequently became a very popular retreat for eminent British families and members of the British nobility.
British Colony or Canadian Province? 1860-1900
In 1867 the creation of the state of Canada was agreed, under the Articles of Confederation. Despite hosting the conference, Prince Edward Island declined to join, finding the terms of union unfavourable. The region remained a British Colony, although strong calls were being made for a separation from London. Several different proposals were suggested, including joining the United States of America. Following extensive discussions between PEI and US delegates, this too was rejected, influenced no doubt by the aggression against PEI during the Anglo-American conflict one-hundred years earlier.
In 1871, Prince Edward Island commenced the construction of a railway line linking the city of Williamsburg with the growing Atlantic ports on the island’s east coast. Despite the financial backing of major businessmen, the construction of the Williamsburg & Atlantic Coast Railway (W&ACR) was plagued by financial difficulties, and by 1873 was forced to declare itself bankrupt. In an interesting development, London agreed to financially support the company and construction of the railway was completed in 1875. Many believed this was done to enable Britain to tighten its grip on a colony it risked losing several years before. Although politically driven, the island benefited economically because the new railway was completed as an engineering masterpiece.
Following the success of the W&ACR, other railway links were commenced so that by the turn of the 1900s, Prince Edward Island had an extensive railway network, albeit owned and operated by half a dozen private companies.
Separation Complete: 1900-1920
At the beginning of the 20th Century, with economic prosperity growing, fresh calls were again made for PEI to become a nation in its own right. Britain was rapidly losing its place as an empire nation, with public opinion shifting towards self-determination. This time there was no opposing argument of any substance – PEI, with strong trading links to and from the USA, Canada and Europe, and with the economic and political strength this generated, was in a position of power. The colony officially achieved independence in 1904, although in reality had been governing itself for a number of years. The first state elections were held a month later, producing the first President of Prince Edward Island, Abraham Clark. In honour of this, his birthplace Charlottetown was renamed Clarkhead in the same year. The seat of government was changed from Charlottetown to Kingstown, a fast-expanding city across Lawrence Bay (not to be confused with the nearby Gulf of St Lawrence) from Williamsburg. These two cities, separated by only a few kilometres of water, would become the centre of industrial, commercial and political strength in the region.
The Great War of 1914-18 had an effect on the new nation, as it shipped ten thousand troops along with arms and heavy artillery to Europe to fight the Allied cause. The human losses were great, as nearly a third of these men failed to return. Economically, the impact was not so great, as trade with the USA and Canada continued during the years of conflict, and PEI stepped aside somewhat when the USA entered the war in 1917. Economic difficulties would not commence until the American economic powerhouse began to falter a few years later.
Hard Times: 1920-1950
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 severely damaged the previously lucrative trade with the USA. Mass unemployment and hardship led to major borrowing from the European banks, which strengthened ties across the Atlantic whilst those with America were falling apart. In some ways this protected PEI from the deepest ravages of the Great Depression. The closer bond to Europe can be seen today in many aspects of life and culture on Prince Edward Island – whereas before the Twenties the US influence on infrastructure, transportation (other than the railways) and lifestyle was very prominent, since then the island has leaned towards a more European appearance and approach to life. Even today Prince Edward Island is referred to as ‘Little Europe’, a true enclave in every sense of the phrase.
The Europe-driven recovery through the 1930s was abruptly halted by the Second World War, which Prince Edward Island officially joined in 1942 prior to the Normandy Invasion, although strong trade with Britain throughout the war played a major part in maintaining the supply of food and resources to the under-siege country. Among those killed in the merchant navies involved with the Battle of the Atlantic there are many Prince Edward Island family names. PEI played an especially important role, due to the national trademark crop of potatoes. Production of these was greatly intensified and increased, and the shippage of these to Britain went some way towards paying back the debt incurred during the Great Depression. In addition, a 15,000-strong battalion of men made the Normandy crossing on D-Day and played their part in the battle for France.
A memorial for those lost in both world wars is located near the centre of Kingstown.
After the war, PEI relied heavily on Lend-Lease (as did Europe) to restore some semblance of financial order. Infrastructure-wise, the damage was minimal, being nearly out of range of German U-boats and beyond the reach of Japanese air attacks.
Growth, Growth and More Growth: 1950-2000
After WWII, the development of Prince Edward Island was similar in many ways to that of Western European countries such as France, Germany and the UK. Major industrial growth occurred, strengthening the nation financially and politically. This was gradually superceded by financial power, as Kingstown and Williamsburg became a joint commercial capital. Indeed, the cities facing each other across St Lawrence Bay have grown to the point of rivalling New York and London in the world financial markets. This was achieved through excellent transportation links, well-planned and layed out cityscapes and an underlying strength in education, health and wellbeing and an emerging hi-tech industrial research sector. Major airports have sprung up at both ends of the island, and every major centre has its own regional airport. Intercity rail links have been successively rationalised, consolidated and then expanded upon good principles of efficiency, cost-effectiveness and speed. This has not been done at the expense of transport links to regional settlements, which have also flourished in general. There is even discussion at a high level of development of a major new east-west high speed railway, French-style, although this will require a major commitment to long-term investment. In the meantime, the network of trunk roads is being overhauled and inner-city traffic problems are being addressed, using a combination of metro and tram solutions, following the European lead.