In May 2011, after four years of life on McNutt's Island, we moved to Montreal. This blog remains, though, as a (sort of) daily record of our time on the island, and a winding path for anyone who would like to meander about among its magical places. For additional perspectives and insights I recommend Greg's book, Island Year: Finding Nova Scotia (2010), and my Bowl of Light (2012). I'll continue to post once in a while. If you do want to read this blog, one option would be to begin at the beginning of it (which is, as we all know, in blog-world, at the end), and read forward, concluding with the most recent entry. It's a journal, really, so it does makes more sense if you read it that way. But, you know, read it any way you like.

Monday, July 12, 2010

the lightkeeper's tale, introduction

In the year 1860, Cape Roseway's aged lightkeeper sat down at his wooden desk by the sea and began to write a letter.* Over three pages long, it was a letter of great potential consequence to him, and it was addressed to an important person. Indeed, some would say the intended recipient was the single most important person in all of Nova Scotia. I imagine the lightkeeper revised his letter several times before he was satisfied enough to make the final copy, the one in his beautiful handwriting, bearing a few inkblots but no mistakes, that's now kept in the Nova Scotia Archives.

His letter had a clear purpose. Alexander Hood Cocken wished to retire from his lightkeeping duties, and he wished to be given a sufficient pension upon his retirement. After all, he had been keeping the light on McNutt's Island for the past forty-eight years, since the death of his father (the former lightkeeper) in 1812. Cocken also wanted to explain why, from his annual lightkeeper's salary, he had not been able to save enough money to provide for himself and his wife in their old age, and why the province might feel obliged to make up the gap. The case needed to be argued with some care not to alienate the powers that be. Details must be supplied.

You can read this letter in different ways, from different angles, asking different questions of it and learning different things. Since it is such a rich letter, I'll look at it in four parts -- a mini-series -- over the next few weeks.

The first will be Alexander Hood Cocken's own story as he chooses to tell it within his letter. I have come across a few other fragments that shed light on him, and I'll be sharing them later. But for now we will focus on what he tells us about himself here.

The second perspective will be the early history of Nova Scotia lighthouses. The letter offers a fascinating account of how the earliest lighthouses were managed and supplied by the province in the years before Confederation. Since Alexander Hood Cocken's father was the first keeper of the Shelburne light, and since the Shelburne light was one of Nova Scotia's first lighthouses, his brief review of provincial policies, laws, and practices runs all the way back to the beginning.

The third angle is what the letter tells us about the island's agriculture and community during the early part of the nineteenth century.

Finally, I'll write about what happened as a result of the lightkeeper's letter. Was he allowed to retire, and did he receive a pension? None of that was automatic in those days. And the light could not be simply abandoned, not even for one night. Even at his ripe old age, Alexander Hood Cocken could not leave his post until a new man was brought on. But who want to take up such an arduous position? How was the next lightkeeper appointed? And who was it who made these decisions?

* Letter from Alexander Hood Cocken to Joseph Howe, 1 June 1860, NSARM, RG 7, Vol. 43.


Piecefulafternoon said...

I'm looking forward to the story - you have caught my interest.

Real Live Preacher said...

Comments! Yay. I'm really looking forward to the lighthouse saga.

Janet said...

Anne: Thank you once again for bringing forward Nova Scotia's rich history. As to lighthouses - how far have we come with the federal government now ready to set these historic icons loose to whatever fate awaits them?