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  • Louisbourg (Cape Breton Island)
    – A threat to the Anglo-American colonies

The Fortress of Louisbourg (a fortified town rather than a fort), whose fortification work began in 1719 and ended around 1740, became, at its peak, a formidable trading power on the Atlantic coasts. After Boston and Philadelphia, Louisbourg was the busiest port in North America. Its rise threatened the economic development of New England and, according to the Anglo-American colonists, it had to be conquered or destroyed. Note that Louisbourg’s harbour, known before 1713 as “L’Havre à l’Anglais” or “English Harbour”, was considered one of the best port stations in the world. It had the huge advantage of being free of ice all year round and was well protected by the contours of its geography.

The Dauphine Gate
The Dauphine Gate at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site (photo credit: Bill O’Shea, assembled by Eric Krause)

In the eyes of Versailles, the fortress, which cost more than 30 million French livres in construction costs, had objectives to protect the city of Quebec but above all, the French interests in the cod fishery. France would not have signed the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, nor that of Paris in 1763, without retaining easy access to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Moreover, the French Navy Minister, the Count of Pontchartrain, declared in February 1715: “If France lost this Isle (Isle Royale), that would be irreparable and it would be necessary to abandon the rest of North America”.

The insolent success of Louisbourg

The ramparts and their battery
The ramparts and their battery (Courtesy of CBC/Radio-Canada)

It was in the fall of 1713 that the colonization of the Louisbourg site began with the arrival of some 150 fishermen from the colony of Plaisance in Newfoundland, which France had just ceded to Great Britain under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht. Despite the efforts of the French authorities to encourage the Acadians of Nova Scotia (formerly Acadia) to come and settle at the fortress of Louisbourg, few of them agreed to leave, because the rocky lands of Isle Royale were hardly suitable for agriculture. During the siege of Louisbourg in 1758, less than 100 Acadians remained in the walled city. According to the censuses of 1724, 1726 and 1734, approximately 80% of the inhabitants of Isle Royale were born in France. Most of the French came from the cities of Paris, Saint-Malo, Bordeaux, Nantes, La Rochelle, Rochefort, Limoges and a few others.

A street corner in the city
A street corner in the city (Courtesy of Expedia)

The fortress of Louisbourg was buzzing with activity as early as 1725. Nearly a thousand jobs were related to fishing. Many merchants engaged in international trade. With all of its small businesses, warehouses and repair shops Louisbourg had a highly mercantile character. Its port received annually some 190 vessels from France, Canada, the West Indies, Nova Scotia and especially New England, bringing an average of 7,000 to 8,000 tons of cargo. Wines, linens and fabrics from France were traded for rum, tobacco and sugar from the West Indies, cod remained the main item of trade.

The Place d'Armes and the governor's residence
The Place d’Armes and the governor’s residence (Courtesy of Cape Breton Spectator)

Émile Lauvrière, a seasoned French historian of Acadia, tells us in his book “La tragédie d’un peuple” (The Tragedy of a People) published in 1922 that the success of Louisbourg became its misfortune. He explains that the French fishermen from Isle Royale were increasingly crowding out those from New England. Their boats may come and go three times a season, but French fishermen not only caught more cod than they did, but also exported theirs to Europe, resulting in a double loss for New England. Their fishing and export industries had steadily declined since the founding of Louisbourg. Of the fishery trade that William Shirley (Governor of Massachusetts) estimated at one million pounds per year, New England was only withdrawing 138,000 pounds. Consequently, the Anglo-Americans hated a French colony which was ruining them. They wanted its conquest or its destruction.

Louisbourg was captured for the first time in 1745 by Anglo-American colonists, and a second time by the British in 1758 who deported the inhabitants to France, and the French soldiers (prisoners of war) to Great Britain. Its fortifications were destroyed in 1760 once the conquest of New France was completed with the surrender of Montreal.