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Report 1902: A Quick Scamper Round Nova Scotia

By Eleanor from UK, Fall 2010

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Page 5 of 16: History of the Fortress of Louisbourg

photo by Michael

Guard at the Dauphin Gate

The French came to Louisbourg in 1713, at the end of the War of Spanish Succession. Under the Treaty of Utrecht they had to surrender the title to their holdings in Newfoundland and mainland Nova Scotia, just keeping Ile Royale (Cape Breton) and Ile St Jean (PEI). Louisbourg became a prosperous trading centre and the capital in 1720. Soldiers from Quebec and Placentia came to guard the new colony, which developed into one of the most heavily defended settlements in North America. It was the first landfall for ships from France and also controlled the St. Lawrence Seaway. It was an important trans shipment point as the harbour stays ice free in winter.

The Fortress was constructed 1720-40 with a commercial district, residential district, military area, marketplaces, inns, taverns and suburbs. By the 1730s the population was 2500-3000.

A large ditch was excavated on the landward side of the town, with a bank (the glacis) along the town’s edge. Two and a half miles of wall surrounded the entire fort. There were four bastions and two gates allowing entry into the city. On the eastern side, 15 guns pointed out across the harbour. The fort had embrasures to mount 148 guns. The Royal Battery on the north shore guarded the harbour entrance and channel. The Island Battery provided extra protection on the island in the river mouth. The defense strategy was to keep sea based attackers at bay until help arrived in warships from France. This was a key weakness as landward defenses were weak.

The economy was based on fish and the port exported vast quantities of fish and fish products (cod liver oil). It was dependent on supplies of wheat flour and dried vegetables from France. Livestock arrived ‘on the hoof’ from Arcadia or New England. Coffee, sugar and rum came from the French Sugar Islands in the Caribbean. Ships also brought slaves from the Antilles. These were regarded as a commodity and traded in Louisbourg. There were 216 slaves mainly working in domestic service. Status depended on the number slaves owned.

Attempts were made to increase self sufficiency. Enterprising colonists were encouraged to develop hay meadows along the Mira River as fodder for cattle. However, Arcadian farmers were not keen to settle on the poorer land. Increasingly Louisbourg turned to New England farmers for grain in exchange for goods from the Caribbean.

The Fortress was very vulnerable to blockade by New England ships which stopped French supply ships reaching Louisbourg. Louisbourg attacked the British fishing colony at Canso and besieged Annapolis Royal in 1744. This alarmed nearby Massachusetts who attacked in 1745 with the support of neighbouring states. They landed at Gabarus Bay and attacked overland, emerging from the woods behind the Royal Battery. They built a trench to within 250yds of the Dauphin Gate, which was bombarded by cannons from across the harbour. They established a battery near Lighthouse Point which overpowered Island Battery and forced the French to surrender.

The French gave up and abandoned the Royal Battery but made the mistake of not destroying the battery or guns. The New Englanders turned the guns on the town and pounded it. The French surrendered the garrison and the civilian population returned to France.

The New England soldiers lacked clothing and firewood and many died over the winter. Louisbourg became a major bargaining chip in the negotiations leading to the 1748 treaty of Aix-le-Chapelle which ended the War of Austrian Succession and was returned to French control with 3500 soldiers based there.

It was captured again in 1758 by British forces adopting the same tactics as in 1745. They occupied Lighthouse Point and destroyed Island Battery. They established a battery outside the King’s Bastion and cannon balls destroyed the chapel, barracks and many houses in the town. The hospital was hit and the surgeon killed. The cannon was turned on French ships in the harbour, often destroying houses in the town. Ships were burnt, sunk or captured. The French surrendered and British engineers systematically destroyed the Fortress to stop it being used again.

The area was colonised by retired British soldiers and merchants from the British garrison. English-speaking settlers gradually moved into the area, reviving the fishery. Subsequent settlement was to the north of the harbour. The homes, warehouses and streets of the French settlement fell into disrepair, were robbed for bricks and stone and became overgrown by vegetation. Sydney became the new capital.

The present Fortress was reconstructed in the 1960s. The coal mines had closed and there was major unemployment and poverty in the area. The Canadian Government funded restoration as a job creation exercise. Former coal miners trained as stonemasons, bricklayers and carpenters or worked as labourers.

Twenty percent of the fortress has been rebuilt using traditional methods, from fortification walls to waterfront. It represents civilian life with homes, gardens and taverns, official life with quay and government buildings and the military presence with King’s and Dauphin Bastions. The original foundations were used where possible, and all the buildings are on their original site except for the Fishing Property. Sea level has risen 1m since 1745 so no traces are left of the original buildings in the Fauxbourg area outside the Fortress.

1744 was chosen for the date of reconstruction as the fortress was nearly complete and the town had reached its full potential as a fishing and trading centre. Most items on display are reproductions based on original articles. Costumes as accurate as possible and made from natural materials. Food served in the restaurants is cooked to 18th Century recipes.

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