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- The Great Fortress - 1/17 -

CHRONICLES OF CANADA Edited by George M. Wrong and H. H. Langton In thirty-two volumes

Volume 8

THE GREAT FORTRESS A Chronicle of Louisbourg 1720-1760



Louisbourg was no mere isolated stronghold which could be lost or won without affecting the wider issues of oversea dominion. On the contrary, it was a necessary link in the chain of waterside posts which connected France with America by way of the Atlantic, the St Lawrence, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi. But since the chain itself and all its other links, and even the peculiar relation of Louisbourg to the Acadians and the Conquest, have been fully described elsewhere in the Chronicles of Canada, the present volume only tries to tell the purely individual tale. Strange to say, this tale seems never to have been told before; at least, not as one continuous whole. Of course, each siege has been described, over and over again, in many special monographs as well as in countless books about Canadian history. But nobody seems to have written any separate work on Louisbourg showing causes, crises, and results, all together, in the light of the complete naval and military proof. So perhaps the following short account may really be the first attempt to tell the tale of Louisbourg from the foundation to the fall.

W. W.

59 GRANDE ALLEE, QUEBEC, 2nd January 1915.



The fortress of Louisbourg arose not from victory but from defeat; not from military strength but from naval weakness; not from a new, adventurous spirit of attack, but from a half-despairing hope of keeping one last foothold by the sea. It was not begun till after the fortunes of Louis XIV had reached their lowest ebb at the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. It lived a precarious life of only forty years, from 1720 to 1760. And nothing but bare ruins were left to mark its grave when it finally passed, unheeded and unnamed, into the vast dominions of the conquering British at the Peace of Paris in 1763.

The Treaty of Utrecht narrowed the whole French sea-coast of America down to the single island of Cape Breton. Here, after seven years of official hesitation and maritime exhaustion, Louisbourg was founded to guard the only harbour the French thought they had a chance of holding. A medal was struck to celebrate this last attempt to keep the one remaining seaway open between Old France and New. Its legend ran thus: Ludovicoburgum Fundatum et Munitum, M.DCC.XX ('Louisbourg Founded and Fortified, 1720'). Its obverse bore the profile of the young Louis XV, whose statesmen hoped they had now established a French Gibraltar in America, where French fleets and forts would command the straits leading into the St Lawrence and threaten the coast of New England, in much the same way as British fleets and forts commanded the entrance to the Mediterranean and threatened the coasts of France and Spain. This hope seemed flattering enough in time of peace; but it vanished at each recurrent shock of war, because the Atlantic then became a hostile desert for the French, while it still remained a friendly highway for the British.

The first French settlers in Louisbourg came over from Newfoundland, which had been given up to the British by the treaty. The fishermen of various nations had frequented different ports all round these shores for centuries; and, by the irony of fate, the new French capital of Cape Breton was founded at the entrance to the bay which had long been known as English Harbour. Everything that rechristening could do, however, was done to make Cape Breton French. Not only was English Harbour now called Louisbourg, but St Peter's became Port Toulouse, St Anne's became Port Dauphin, and the whole island itself was solemnly christened Ile Royale.

The shores of the St Lawrence up to Quebec and Montreal were as entirely French as the islands in the Gulf. But Acadia, which used to form the connection by land between Cape Breton and Canada, had now become a British possession inhabited by the so-called 'neutral French.' These Acadians, few in numbers and quite unorganized, were drawn in opposite directions, on the one hand by their French proclivities, on the other by their rooted affection for their own farms. Unlike the French Newfoundlanders, who came in a body from Plaisance (now Placentia), the Acadians preferred to stay at home. In 1717 an effort was made to bring some of them into Louisbourg. But it only succeeded in attracting the merest handful. On the whole, the French authorities preferred leaving the Acadians as they were, in case a change in the fortunes of war might bring them once more under the fleurs-de-lis, when the connection by land between Quebec and the sea would again be complete. A plan for promoting the immigration of the Irish Roman Catholics living near Cape Breton never got beyond the stage of official memoranda. Thus the population of the new capital consisted only of government employees, French fishermen from Newfoundland and other neighbouring places, waifs and strays from points farther off, bounty-fed engages from France, and a swarm of camp-following traders. The regular garrison was always somewhat of a class apart.

The French in Cape Breton needed all the artificial aid they could get from guns and forts. Even in Canada there was only a handful of French, all told, at the time of the Treaty of Utrecht--twenty-five thousand; while the British colonists in North America numbered fifteen times as many. The respective populations had trebled by the time of the Cession of Canada to the British fifty years later, but with a tendency for the vast British preponderance to increase still more. Canada naturally had neither men nor money to spare for Louisbourg; so the whole cost of building the fortress, thirty million livres, came direct from France. This sum was then the equivalent, in purchasing power, of at least as many dollars now, though the old French livre was only rated at the contemporary value of twenty cents. But the original plans were never carried out; moreover, not half the money that actually was spent ever reached the military chest at all. There were too many thievish fingers by the way.

The French were not a colonizing people, their governing officials hated a tour of duty oversea, and Louisbourg was the most unpopular of all the stations in the service. Those Frenchmen who did care for outlandish places went east to India or west to Canada. Nobody wanted to go to a small, dull, out-of-the-way garrison town like Louisbourg, where there was no social life whatever--nothing but fishermen, smugglers, petty traders, a discontented garrison, generally half composed of foreigners, and a band of dishonest, second-rate officials, whose one idea was how to get rich and get home. The inspectors who were sent out either failed in their duty and joined the official gang of thieves, or else resigned in disgust. Worse still, because this taint was at the very source, the royal government in France was already beset with that entanglement of weakness and corruption which lasted throughout the whole century between the decline of Louis XIV and the meteoric rise of Napoleon.

The founders of Louisbourg took their time to build it. It was so very profitable to spin the work out as long as possible. The plan of the fortress was good. It was modelled after the plans of Vauban, who had been the greatest engineer in the greatest European army of the previous generation. But the actual execution was hampered, at every turn, by want of firmness at headquarters and want of honest labour on the spot. Sea sand was plentiful, worthless, and cheap. So it was used for the mortar, with most disastrous results. The stone was hewn from a quarry of porphyritic trap near by and used for the walls in the rough. Cut stone and good bricks were brought out from France as ballast by the fishing fleet. Some of these finer materials were built into the governor's and the intendant's quarters. Others were sold to New England traders and replaced by inferior substitutes.

Of course, direct trade between the opposing colonies was strictly forbidden by both the French and British navigation acts. But the Louisbourg officials winked at anything that would enrich them quickly, while the New Englanders pushed in eagerly wherever a profit could be made by any means at all. Louisbourg was intended to be the general rendezvous of the transatlantic French fishing vessels; a great port of call between France, Canada, and the French West Indies; and a harbour of refuge in peace and war. But the New England shipping was doing the best trade at Louisbourg, and doing it in double contraband, within five years of the foundation. Cod caught by Frenchmen from Louisbourg itself, French wines

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