A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #1: Acadia.TOC
Part 3, "Annapolis Royal and Louisbourg (1713-45)"TOC
Chapter 6, The Lead-Up, Canso & War (1740-44)

Canso stands out when viewed by the mariner from sea; its waters are sheltered by the surrounding islands; and, the islands have wide beaches of small stone. It is for these reasons, for more years than have been recorded, that Canso had been a rendezvous point for European fisherman.1 They came in the spring and left in the fall. They all knew it from its Indian name, "Gamsog", and Indians were always there in the spring to greet them and to trade.2

Level beaches were what the fishermen were after and the Canso islands were edged with them. Raw fish had to be immediately preserved, and the two ways to do it were either to pickle it or dry it. (The "green" or "wet" preservation process could be done at sea and consisted of salting the freshly caught fish down into large barrels.) The preferred approach during the time of our story was for the fishermen to dry their catch. They made the fish as thin as they could by gutting and splitting them and then laying them out under the sun on racks built of stripped sapling poles. The poles were spread horizontally on a frame prepared for them, a hand span apart; the resulting structure looked like a large stove rack. The whole was raised off the ground waist level. Running towards the waters edge, the racks were as long as the beach would permit. They were two arm reaches in width and walking isles as wide as the width of man were in between. The men would lay the fish out for the sun and the wind to do their work; flesh side up at first and then within a short time the men would walk the isles turning the fish over, and then over again, and again, until it was hard and could be stacked like kindling wood: cured, preserved and ready for the market. The Canso islands, being so close to the great northwest fishing banks of the Atlantic, were a natural place for this activity and provided the most amount of naturally cleared and leveled areas and simply to be had by stepping off a beached vessel. That these drying beaches were situated on islands was a bonus; wary Europeans preferred islands as they gave a natural protection from animals and Indians, which might, at any time, jump out of the endless woods stretching away from the mainland shores.

By the Treaty of Utrecht, as we have seen, France, in 1713, was to lose Acadia. She was allowed, however, with the exception of Newfoundland, to retain the islands of the St. Lawrence, including the islands of Cape Breton and St Jean (present day Prince Edward Island). There were to be a number of French fishermen, if not French authorities, who were of the view that the islands of the St. Lawrence would include any island north of the peninsular mainland of Acadia. Thus, under this belief, a French fisherman thought he had a continuing right to resort to the small islands of Canso. The fishermen of Massachusetts, on the other hand, were of a differing view -- the terms of the 1713 treaty were plain and to be enforced; let the French stick to Ile Royal (Cape Breton). No matter these nice international distinctions, there were to be French fishermen who continued to use parts of the shores around Canso. Skirmishes would break out. And the native Micmac, in support of their French allies, would make hit and run raids. It became a continuing sore point to the seasonable fishermen of New England: gear and catches were being lost, boats stolen, and blood spilt. Something had to be done! Thus, it is not surprising to see that during the month of August in 1717, Captain Thomas Smart, a British naval officer, in the frigate Squirrel (a sixth-rate frigate of 20-22 guns, carrying 100-115 men), sailed from Massachusetts for Canso. Arriving on September 6th, at Canso, Captain Smart investigated conditions and the next day he sailed off to Louisbourg to confer with Governor St. Ovide. One cannot be sure of what transpired between the two, but by the 14th of September, Smart was back in Canso where he "seized every French vessel and all French property he could find."3 By October 4th, Smart was back at Boston.

The English at Canso were but 10 miles away from the French held island of Cape Breton (Petit-de-Grat); 20 miles from Port Toulouse (St. Peter's) and 70 miles away (a half day's sail with the right wind) from the French capital of Louisbourg. Captain Smart's exercise at Canso is but one of any number of examples which could be given to demonstrate, that, while there was a long 31 year "peace" (1713-44) between England and France, it was an uneasy one for those in command of the North American outposts, French or English. These two nations, no matter that peace had been declared, simply had no love for one another; and, in North America, this lack of love manifested itself into outright hostilities. The native Indians (all of them except for the Iroquois, who a good many times were the friends of no one) -- and this is but a simple and governing fact -- for historical reasons were friends of the French and therefore enemies of the English. Thus, during this 31 year peace, the English had always to be cautious; the Indians, being put up to it by the French, as they were, were ready to raid any undefended English position. For example, the record discloses that on August 8th, 1720, Fishermen from New England were "plundered" by Indians at Canso.4 It was this event that caused the English authorities, in the fall of that year (1720), to send a company of men, headed up by Captain Armstrong, to hold Canso safe for English fishermen. This was the first time that English troops had wintered over at Canso. Canso was thus to be the second English garrison established in Nova Scotia since the capture of Port Royal in 1710.5 The military presence at Canso encouraged the New Englanders to come up and rebuild facilities for the prosecution of the fishery.

It was during this time that the historical presence of Edward How comes into focus. Edward How played a significant role in the early development of Nova Scotia. From New England, How came to Nova Scotia to take advantage of the new opportunities then available to the English at Canso. He brought his family up with him and worked hard not only at catching and processing fish (apparently he ran several vessels) but also as a merchant, running fish down the coast and supplies back up. During the 1720s, Canso was to become a busy place:

"At Canso there were some fifty fishing 'rooms', or shore allotments for the erection of racks for drying fish for Europe. ... At Canso in June, 1729, he [Philipps] found 250 vessels and between 1500 and 2000 men employed in catching and curing fish ..."6
However, as the 1730s arrived, the English traders and fishermen became very conscious of the looming fortifications of Louisbourg, but a short sail away, and investment in Canso dropped off. Edward How, however, could be seen doing his best to strengthen the place (certainly the English put little or no money into the place and in the result the soldiers on garrison duty lived a tough life; the same may be said for the garrison at Annapolis Royal). In 1735, Edward How financed construction of a blockhouse, and, in 1737, he was responsible for the building of two store houses for the king's provisions; and, in 1739, he repaired the barracks.7 But, notwithstanding these private contributions to strengthen the place, the Canso fishery began to decline after 1735; and by 1738 the population had greatly diminished, with fewer than ten families remaining. The English garrison at Canso had, in 1734, amounted to 160 men (this is to be compared with 200 at Annapolis Royal)8, but, by 1744, the Canso garrison consisted of only about 80 British soldiers who then were under the command of Captain Patrick Heron; its defences consisted of a block house made of timber. It could not be expected that these English defences could withstand a concerted French effort mounted at Louisbourg.

As for Louisbourg, in these few years leading up to 1744, we see that, putting aside Quebec, it is, by 1739, the most fortified place in all of America. France had spent great sums of money and continued to do so on Louisbourg, most exclusively on fortifications.9 We have seen that by the autumn of 1738, Governor St Ovide, who had taken Louisbourg through it's first 25 years of growth, was retired in a cloud of suspicion that he had put himself in a conflict of interest position. In 1739, Isaac Louis de Forant had been appointed the new governor of Ile Royale. At that time, too, Louisbourg was to receive a new financial commissary, the infamous Bigot. Before coming out, Forant had been briefed: "The difficulties between Spain and England are becoming more and more grave, and war seems inevitable."10 The royal ministers at Versailles thought that France may be drawn in and instruct Forant to put Louisbourg in a condition to repel an attack. Every indication is that Forant would have carried out his duties enthusiastically, but, unfortunately, he was dead within the year and buried in the military chapel of the citadel. Before 1740 was out, Louisbourg was to have a new governor, Jean-Baptiste-Louis Duquesnel, Le Prevost.

Having just been appointed on September 1st, on the 3rd of November, 1740, Prevost, this one legged naval officer stepped, ashore at Louisbourg. This ailing 55 year old, after a quick appointment and a quick sail, had come to take over the command of Louisbourg. He was in bad spirits, and not much impressed with the officers and men whom he was to command. The appointing authorities did not see fit to name Prevost governor; he was to be but only the "Commander" of Louisbourg. This contemptuous indifference - to be named commander and not governor -- undoubtedly goaded Prevost; this slight was to be just another irritant to effect Prevost's state of mind.

Upon his appointment, Prevost had been given a brief history of Louisbourg: "Work has been done on the fortifications of Louisbourg since 1718. A battery of 31 twenty-four pounders has been set up at Ile de l'Entree. The Royal battery, at the side of the town, 16 twenty-fours. The town must be surrounded by a wall with bastions. (See map) In its present state, it is safe from attack. The primary object of this colony is fishing, and a considerable trade is, in fact, carried on there." It is interesting and germane to the development of the events of 1744 to see that the French express the view that although "the island of Canceau clearly belongs to France by the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht, you [Prevost] are to take no steps to regain possession of it."11

On March 18th, 1744, a state of war was declared to exist between France and England.12 The causes of this war, which historians have labeled The War of The Austrian Succession, may be briefly stated: Emperor Charles VI died and bequeathed his personal dominions of the House of Austria to his daughter, Maria Theresa. Most all of the European rulers, objecting to this bequest, took to the battle field so "to share the spoil, and parcel out the motley heritage of the young queen."

"Frederic of Prussia led the way, invaded her province of Silesia, seized it, and kept it. The Elector of Bavaria and the King of Spain claimed their share, and the Elector of Saxony and the King of Sardinia prepared to follow the example. France took part with Bavaria, and intrigued to set the imperial crown on the head of the Elector, thinking to ruin her old enemy, the House of Austria, and rule Germany through an emperor too weak to dispense with her support. England, jealous of her designs, trembling for the balance of power, and anxious for the Hanoverian possessions of her King, threw herself into the strife on the side of Austria."13
It will be remembered that since 1713, a year that marked the end of the previous war between England and France, the Province of Nova Scotia, as we know it today, was divided in ownership with France possessing Cape Breton Island and England holding the peninsular part. On the peninsula there was, as we have seen, but two raggedy and forgotten garrisons: Canso and Annapolis Royal. Annapolis was then the English capital of Nova Scotia and situated at a well established civilian community of farming inhabitants. However, these civilians, with but just a couple of exceptions, were French Acadians. This pitiful English presence is to be compared to the French presence at Louisbourg with its impressive stone fortifications, complete with a French population.

This new war, as far as the New England colonists were concerned, was one which concerned European interests. They were soon to refer to it as "King George's War." William Shirley, who had become the Royal Governor of Massachusetts in 1741, was to see this new war as a capital opportunity to advance his own personal interests in things military; and was, as we will see, keen on mustering the colonial militias and attacking the French situated to the north, both in Acadia and in Quebec. The other colonial governors and the common man on whom the burdens would fall, however, were not so easily convinced; thus, this new war was also to be known as "Governor's Shirley's War."

We can only imagine what went through Prevost's mind as he greeted the ship captain fresh in from St. Malo on that early May day, in 1744. The news was hastily blurted out: "France and England are at war!" Upon being convinced (maybe because of the short passage time14 the French captain experienced) that the English in America had yet to receive the news, Prevost thought, if he were to act fast he would have an advantage.15 As it was, the French could not afford to mount a large force, however, Prevost calculated that a large force was not needed because he would have the element of surprise on his side, further, the intelligence was that the English at Canso were few and had little in the way of defensive work in place.16

So it was that Le Prevost, the commandant at Louisbourg, felt the need to involve himself and the Louisbourg garrison in a little warfare. Some at Louisbourg thought it to be a "foolish enterprise" and "tried in vain to dissuade him";17 but Prevost had his way and the decision was taken to send an expedition to Canso, but a short sail down the coast. Prevost put a locally born officer in charge, one whose family goes back to the earliest times of Acadia, a 37 year old captain by the name of Joseph Du Pont Duvivier. Thus, in the greening month of May, 1744, Louisbourg was busy with men and supplies spilling down the streets to the docks and out onto the waiting vessels. For the first time since its founding in 1713, Louisbourg was mustering its forces for the real thing; this great defensive fortress was now to involve itself in an offensive effort. Canso was to be French, as it ought to be; and, so too, soon, if these enthusiastic Frenchmen were to have their way -- all of Acadia. Louisbourg, for the most part, was in high spirits as a sizable number of her military men sailed off.

On 13 May 1744, a force of 357 French soldiers18 were carried in a flotilla of small boats to Canso.19 In preparation for the French landing, two Louisbourg privateers began to bombard the English blockhouse with cannon-shot. When the first shot sailed through the thin blockhouse walls, the English commander, Heron, rushed out with a flag of truce, thinking "it advisable to capitulate in time to obtain the better terms." The place was then taken over by the French and they burnt all the wooden works20 to the ground; the English prisoners were brought back to Louisbourg. Correspondence was then carried on between the governors: Prevost at Louisbourg and Shirley at Boston. This correspondence was courteous and was usually accompanied with gifts (for example, a cask of white wine from Prevost and a cask of beer from Shirley). Eventually, it was arranged to send the prisoners21 to Boston with a promise that they would not take up arms again for a period of one year. (It is questionable, as we will see, whether Shirley kept his promise.) It was also agreed that the combatants would not intentionally interfere with one another's fishing activities.

During the course of these discussions, in respect to sending the Canso soldiers to Boston, the French were entertaining thoughts of paying an immediate visit to the only other "stronghold" in English Acadia.

[NEXT: Pt. 3, Ch. 7 - The Attack on Annapolis Royal (1744).]

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