A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #1: Acadia.TOC
Part 3, "Annapolis Royal and Louisbourg (1713-45)"TOC
Chapter 1, Louisbourg -- Its Founding.

The war had pitted the "Grand Alliance" of England, Holland and certain of the German states up against France and Spain. It had come about because of the old and modern day concern of European states of seeing too many of their number come under the control of any one of them. In 1702, of course, the concern was centered on the ambitions of Louis XIV of France, of the House of Bourbon. Charles II of Spain, in 1700, died childless. He had, in his last days, in the midst of court intrigue, executed his Last Will and Testament: he devised the Spanish throne to Philip, the Duke of Anjou, and the grandson of Louis XIV. In the days succeeding Charles' death, Louis was to become boastful ("... no longer was there a Pyrenees"): the world waited and wondered.

In those days, though her light was dimmed, the Spanish empire extended beyond the Iberian peninsula, to Italy and to an area that we now know as Belgium, the Spanish Netherlands. Louis XIV felt obliged to make sure that the succession of Philip V went smoothly; and, thus, sent his troops to all the various parts of the Spanish empire; simply on the basis of the request of her "friendly" ally, Spain. By 1702, the French had strategically positioned themselves throughout Europe. Holland was to become upset seeing the French pressing up against her southern borders. England was to become more nervous than normal; mostly because she did not want to lose her access to the Spanish markets. In anticipation, England's fleet was increased to 30,000 men and the army to 10,000.1

I cannot, in the context of this particular history, deal with the war as it unfolded on the European continent2. Suffice to say, that the war raged on through the early part of the century until 1709, when, in May of that year, preliminary peace articles were signed by Austria and Great Britain and presented to France as an ultimatum. Louis could not deliver on article 37 which called for the Bourbon of Spain, Philip, the grandson of Louis, to give up the throne to the nominee of the allies, the Austrian, Charles. The problem, not one that Louis could now cure, was that the Spanish people, while likely at odds with their dead king's wishes at the first of it, now wanted Philip as their king. The belligerents, therefore, in 1709, returned to the field. While France was in no shape to continue with the war: she did. The French people, as has been demonstrated so many times throughout history, proceeded to make the sacrifices needed to save themselves from foreign oppression. The "peasants starved, the rich ate black bread and sold their plate, that the soldiers might live." The French general, Villars, gave rations to a regiment on the days when it marched; on days of repose it fasted. It was in this fashion they weathered that year. Villars was in command of the last army of France and was obliged to face the armies of the allies, 120,000 strong, well equipped and supplied and knowing nothing but victory since the beginning of the war. History shows, however, that Villars and his 90,000 men were to stop the allied advance on Paris. "The French spirit, sometimes so blind and overbearing, now appeared in its pure and legitimate shape." By the end of the fighting season, the valiant French, at Malplaquet, had shown what they were made of. The English were diverted and Paris was saved. With the fighting of 1709 then concluded, France, still holding up, went to the peace negotiation table, once again. Louis XIV would give up Alsace. He would pay a subsidy to help the Allied armies to dethrone his grandson. Further, he demonstrated his good will, by, beforehand, recalling all his regiments from Spain, leaving the Spaniards to their own resources. But one thing he could not do, and that was to undertake to fight Philip and the Spanish people with French troops.3 The allies understood that this was the very best offer they were to get; and, financially exhausted as they were, determined to accept it. On October 8th (September 27th [OS]), 1711, the articles leading to the Treaty of Utrecht was signed at London by the French and the English. It was a good bargain for England: "A monopoly of slave trade to Spanish-America for thirty years; Gibraltar and Minorca; St. Kitts Island and Acadia; Newfoundland and Hudson's Bay; Queen Anne's title and the Protestant Succession under the Act of Settlement acknowledged by Louis. The fact that the Spanish Netherlands, Italy and Sicily all passed out of the power of France was also of immense advantage to the security and the trade of England."4

Thus it was, that by the Treaty of Utrecht, France was to lose much, including, to come to the topic, all of Acadia, with its "ancient boundaries." Gone was this North American territory which the French had fought to hold on to for over one hundred years. The Acadians who occupied these lands were specifically dealt with by the peace makers in London and in Paris: they were to have liberty "to remove themselves within a year to any other place, as they shall think fit, together with all their moveable effects," and those who remained, were "to be subject to the Kingdom of Great Britain" and "to enjoy the free exercise of their religion, according to the usage of the Church of Rome, as far as the laws of Great Britain do allow the same."5 Newfoundland, too, which in part had been occupied since the earliest times, including her base at Placentia, by the terms of this historical treaty, was to be given up and evacuated.6 But, France was to retain the islands of the St. Lawrence and in particular, the island of Cape Breton. Cape Breton was to serve as an outlying eastern sentinel to Canada (Quebec).


The Choice of Louisbourg
Given the restrictions of the Treaty of Utrecht, the island of Cape Breton was the only choice for France's new Atlantic stronghold; but the question arises why Louisbourg, shrouded in fog at times and permanently bound by its granite shores -- was, of all the harbours of Cape Breton, chosen? There were two other harbours which had long been known to the French: Ste. Annes and Ste. Pierre.
7 The soil, certainly at Ste. Annes, was considerably better than that found at Louisbourg; and, at Ste. Annes, the topographics were such that a position might be found that could easily be fortified. However, the harbour at Louisbourg had more to offer. It is about three miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide and has the advantage of open waters, not ordinarily available in these northern parts during the winter months. So too, its nearness to the fishing grounds would allow her fishermen to get out in relatively smaller boats and keep her fishing industry going most all of the year through.

Actually, St. Peter's, or, Port Toulouse8 as it was then named in 1713, came close to being the chief establishment of Isle Royale, and it continued to be in the running even after Louisbourg was established; but, because of the expense of intended fortifications, a choice of one spot had to be made; Louisbourg eventually won out. However, as Louisbourg became more established and increasingly fortified, Port Toulouse grew in importance, and was to be a collection place for French fishermen and French lumbermen. The chief attraction of Port Toulouse was its short land connection between the Bras d'Or Lakes and the Atlantic ocean.

France had no particular root of title to the sheltered harbour we now know as Louisbourg; indeed, up to the arrival of the French settlers in 1713 the place was known as Havre a l'Anglois. While we read in the history books of the first literate explorers such as Cartier and the Cabots, it is now accepted that European fisherman for centuries had fished off the Grand Banks on a seasonal basis and sought refuge in the sheltering harbours to be found at Newfoundland and, of course, at Cape Breton. All three European countries -- France, Spain and England -- had equal claims to the fish of the north Atlantic and to the shores to which their fishermen resorted. When on shore, as might be expected, fellow countrymen congregated with fellow countrymen. At Ste. Annes, where now we find the beginning of the famous Cabot Trail, would be found the French; at Spanish Bay (present day Sydney), the Spanish; and at English Harbour, the English.9


The Founding of Louisbourg
Our scene opens on the wild and wonderful shores on the Atlantic side of Cape Breton Island, much of it now as it was in 1713. Imagine yourself a soaring gull, beginning your flight at the southern corner of this intriguing island, from Red Island to Red Head, along the quiet reaches of the Grand River and out to the Atlantic shores again. See the brilliant waters, the rocks, the sands, the dunes, the bogs and your fellow gulls. See the rugged beauty, the bird islands such as Esprit and Guyon, and the blinding beaches such as may be found along Framboise Cove; see the swelling Atlantic fetch up on Bull Rock with a low rumble, with stunning sprays reaching up and then down into the sea foam; pass with your fellow gulls over the headlands of Bull Hill and Cape Gabarus and descend down along the waters of Gabarus Bay and along into the quiet waters of what was to be Louisbourg Harbour. This long gliding shot of several minutes finishes up with the scene of a band of Indians gazing out over their meager summer settlement, looking somewhat puzzled as a French sailing ship, the Semslack glides into the safety of the harbour.

The Semslack had set out from France early in the season. St. Ovide, in charge of the expedition, was under orders to first call on Placentia and from there to transport the community found at that place -- their personal possessions, furniture, tools and animals -- to Havre à l'Anglois (to be named Louisbourg); and there, on Isle Royale, to establish the French presence at a new spot on the northeastern coast. Of the twenty persons or so10 which had embarked at France, likely most were familiar with the new world11: St. Ovide their leader, certainly was. For, as a military man, in 1691, he had been sent out to Newfoundland and had taken part "in the defences and attacks of the local war until 1710."12 Costebelle, incidently, was named the governor of Isle Royale; he, however, did not arrive at Louisbourg until September of 1714.13

Setting sail from Placentia on July 23, 1713, the Semslack was in company with a supply vessel from Quebec which carried a band of picked men, "40 or 50 of the best workers" under the command of Hertel. The Quebec supply vessel had been chartered from a retired naval officer by the name of Boularderie. And, so, 116 men, 10 women and 23 children stepped ashore with their supplies14 and Louisbourg came into being. The harbour was already occupied and the new arrivals were greeted by "one French inhabitant and twenty-five or thirty families of Indians."

"The year 1716 was spent in feverish activity to get the new colony started: they had to transport cannon, erect forts and dwellings, re-establish the fisheries, parcel out the beaches, build flakes and stages, explore the shores, and mark out the fairways."15 In the earlier years, it was not at all clear that Louisbourg was to be the capital of Isle Royale. Indeed, Governor Costebelle, on his arrival in 1714, first established himself at Port Dauphin (Englishtown these days); Hertel at Port Toulouse.16 There was, you see, "indecision of the court at Versailles as to the site of new colony's chief town; after approving the choice of Louisbourg, a sudden decision was made in 1715 in favour of Port Dauphin, to which the administration, the garrison, and the principal services of the colony had to be transferred. In 1718, however, the order was given to bring the capital back to Louisbourg."


The French that were to locate to Ile Royale made their living by the sea; that was what they had done in Newfoundland from where they initially had come and that was what they were to do at Cape Breton. These simple French folk had built their humble abodes on the shores of the sheltering harbours closest to the fishing banks. On the small stoned beeches would be found their drying flakes; their small sailing vessels, when not at sea, bobbing at their moorings in the background. The Acadians of peninsular Nova Scotia had an entirely different experience and were unwilling, unlike their cousins of Newfoundland, to take up residence on Isle Royale. There are a number of reasons for this, as we will see; but the first and principal reason was that they were farmers, not fishermen. As farmers, the Acadians around the Fundy Basin were less dependent17 on the mother country and were also more skeptical, preferring their farms which were cleared (mostly by nature) and under cultivation rather than the unworked and uncleared land (and as it turned out, not near as fertile) as was to be found on Ile Royale.18


Out On The Mira
One of the first things the first Louisbourg settlers were to do was to cut out a road
19 to the nearby Mira River (to the French known as the Mira). A party might pierce into the interior some distance by going up the Salmon River and then continue west from lake to lake,20 and a party with light weight canoes would soon find themselves on the eastern shores of the Bras d'Or Lakes, and from there in a larger boat all of Cape Breton opens up. (See map.)

The Mira was a source of fresh water, large straight trees and wild game. The banks of the Mira also had something else that is generally scarce in Nova Scotia, particularly in Cape Breton, -- fertile soil. As time went by farms were established on the Mira, owned and operated by the rich and powerful from Louisbourg. The raiders from New England in 1745 found them there.

"We found two fine farms upon a neck of land that extended near seven miles in length. The first we came to was a very handsome house, and had two large barns, well finished, that lay contiguous to it. Here, likewise, were two very large gardens; as also some fields of corn of a considerable height, and other good lands thereto belonging, besides plenty of beach wood and fresh water.... The other house was a fine stone edifice, consisting of six rooms on a floor, all well finished. There was a fine wall before it, and two fine barns contiguous to it, with fine gardens and other appurtenances, besides several fine fields of wheat. In one of the barns there were fifteen loads of hay, and room sufficient for three score horses and other cattle."21
Though Louisbourg had an abundant sea to her front and comparatively good soil of the Mire but twenty-five miles or so away to her back, it was to be the Acadians in peninsular Nova Scotia that supplied most of Louisbourg's fresh meat and grain. These Acadians were but a few days sail away. One need only a seaworthy sailing vessel and then to sail down the Atlantic coast (see map) of Cape Breton (70 miles) and through the Canso Strait (20 miles) and clearing Cape George (25 miles) to travel along the Northumberland Strait (125 miles). (Both these straits, I should note, are waters that separated English territory from French territory, the islands of Isle Royale and Isle St. Jean.) A landing would then be made on the shores of Baie Verte, just at the isthmus which acts as the modern day border between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. From there, the party would go overland. After traveling over the flat marshy land by foot and canoe, the traveling party would, after some fifteen to twenty miles, come out onto the muddy shores of the Baie Française (Bay of Fundy). Once on the bay, then any part of the Acadian farming lands might be reached by sail. This trip, just described, had to be made many times between Louisbourg and the lands of the original Acadians and it surely started in the spring of 1714; it became an established Acadian trade route by which people and goods relocated themselves.22

Some adventurers from Acadia did travel to Louisbourg in order to earn some ready cash, but few Acadians were willing to leave their farmsteads located on peninsular Nova Scotia. The fact is there never was a serious drain of mainland Acadians to the rocky shores around Louisbourg. While the French authorities encouraged the Acadians to leave and to take up their living on Isle Royale, many preferred to stay put and to continue to work their fertile farms located in Acadia, as they had for generations. The Acadians who did go to Louisbourg were not farmers; but rather they were "carpenters, boat-builders, longshoremen, and tavern-keepers, who found in the activities of Louisbourg more profitable employment than Nova Scotia afforded them."23

The strength of Louisbourg, unlike so many new settlements in North America, was, that those who did come to Louisbourg were experienced pioneers. An English governor of the time, Colonel Vetch of Annapolis, made his point with the home office in pointing to the virtues of having a population fitted to the climate and the jobs at hand. Such a population was to be found at Louisbourg, and the resulting development of this French citadel, Vetch was to write, was a danger to the English colonies south of it.

"... it is to be considered that one hundred of the French, who were born upon that continent, and are perfectly known in the woods, can march upon snowshoes, and understand the use of Birch Canoes, are of more value and service than five times their number of raw men, newly come from Europe. So their skill in the Fishery, as well as the cultivating of the soil, must inevitably make that Island, by such an accession of people, and French, at once the most powerful colony the French have in America, and of the greatest danger and damage to all the British Colony's as well as the universal trade of Great Britain."24
Whatever the reasons might be for the impressive growth of Louisbourg, as was observed by Vetch, it did not come about easily. This growth most certainly came about by the industrious Frenchmen at that place, but more critically because high ranking Frenchmen were pleading the cause at the Court of King Louis the XIV: what was needed, to protect the French possessions in America, was fortification funds for Louisbourg.
"The English are well aware of the importance of this post, and are already taking umbrage in the matter. They see that it will be prejudicial to their trade, and that in time of war it will be a menace to their shipping, and on the first outbreak of trouble they will be sure to use every means to get possession of it. It is therefore necessary to fortify it thoroughly. If France were to lose this Island the loss would be an irreparable one, and it would involve the loss of all her [France's] holdings in North America."25 (Pontchartrain to the King's Treasurer.)
We will, in due course, come to a description of the stone fort at Louisbourg. It took time to build, and until built, during these first years, the residents had "miserable quarters" surrounded by upright pickets in the ground and batteries of guns; the population lived in simple huts built on the beaches next to their curing fish.


[NEXT: Pt. 3, Ch. 2 - Louisbourg -- Its Soldiers & Fortifications.]

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