The Armdale Yacht Club provided a convenient backdrop for many video reports on Tropical Storm Arthur earlier this year. Few realize the truly tortured past of this small feature known for most of the past two centuries as Melville Island. Prisoners of war and privateers languished, immigrants have been quarantined there, even mercenaries trained on Mellville Island.
It’s seen death from misadventure, violence, illness and natural causes. The smaller island to the south was known as Target Hill until its frequent use as a burial site earned it another function and another name, Deadman’s Island. Many of the burials were swift and incautiously shallow. A longtime member of the yacht club recently recalled that during the early years of the club, “In the winter an arm might stick out of the bank until spring when the rest could be dug out.” This malevolent tale long precedes the arrival of a yacht club on Melville Island.
England and France fought from 1793–1815 with brief intermissions. The Royal Navy’s size and aggressiveness meant that it frequently captured foreign seaman far from home waters and needed to deposit them ashore quickly. Halifax required a prisoner of war camp. Melville Island (at the time known still as Kavanagh’s Island) was secured for this purpose. Officers and the infirm slept ashore but the majority of the prisoners were housed in La Felix, a hulk moored offshore. Growing numbers of French prisoners, joined by Americans after 1812, necessitated construction of a large two-storey prison barrack. With peace in 1815 prisoners of war were exchanged and they disappeared from Melville Island. Not before, however, almost 200 American POWs had died and been buried on Deadman’s Island
Immediately, the facilities were repurposed and the convicts replaced with immigrants. Approximately 1,000 freed slaves arrived. During the War of 1812 the British offered liberty to any slave who fled to the islands they controlled along the Eastern Seaboard, particularly in the Chesapeake Bay area. Mellville Island provided a way station in British North America for these new arrivals. Deadman’s Island is estimated to have become the final stop for approximately 100 of these transients before the remaining 900 dispersed throughout the Maritimes.
Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century every summer brought rumours of plagues of smallpox, cholera or typhus. As early as 1818 Melville Island was used as a quarantine station, proximate to Halifax yet safely two miles distant. In the summer of 1847 when 1,200 Irish immigrants fleeing the Potato Famine arrived in Halifax they were quarantined en masse on Melville Island. Remarkably, this episode only recorded 30 deaths.
The island’s strangest role was yet to come. Future politician and freedom-of-the-press champion Joseph Howe became involved in a scheme to recruit American men to fight in the Crimea against the Czar’s anti-republican government. They were briefly quartered on Melville Island before the scheme became public and promptly collapsed in the fall of 1855. The island returned to its original purpose from 1914 to 1918, when it was used to hold a handful of interred German and Austro-Hungarian nationals—“enemy aliens.”
The facilities deteriorated after the First World War. In 1935 the main prisoner barrack was destroyed in a fire. The government leased the island to the Armdale Yacht Club in 1947 amidst post-Second World War downsizing.
CORRECTION: Due to a fact-checking error, the print edition of this story, published in the September 2014 issue of Halifax Magazine, mistakenly misidentified Joseph Howe as a “Father of Confederation.” Howe was, in fact, opposed to Confederation. Halifax Magazine regrets the error.