Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
August 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Louisbourg: An Outpost of Empire

The Founding of Louisbourg


[This text was written by J. S. McLennan and was published in 1914. For the precise citation, see the end of the document.]




THE War of the Spanish Succession closed adversely   for France ; but Louis XIV attained his main object, and his grandson ascended the throne of Spain. Part of the price Louis had to pay was the surrender of colonial possessions, and the principal sacrifices he made were in North America. He gave up Newfoundland, retaining, however, certain fishing rights, which have been a source of irritation down to our own day. He also gave up Acadia, but without exactly determining its boundaries, and this caused friction between French and English in America during the whole of the succeeding period of nominal peace between the two powers. He likewise surrendered the Hudson Bay region, which had been won from the English largely by the daring and the military and naval skill of d'Iberville. It was finally decided that France should retain the islands in the Gulf of St Lawrence, and her sovereignty over them was fully discussed, and her right to fortify them acknowledged, by the plenipotentiaries of England. This arrangement was embodied in the Treaty of Utrecht, signed March 31, 1713, and by it was ushered in the longest peace, with one exception, which had existed between England and France for two hundred years.


A new problem now faced the French minister of the navy, in whose department were the French colonies - to repair the loss of the establishments ceded to the English.


The trade of France suffered but slightly by the cession of Acadia , for its simple inhabitants were self-sustaining; but, without a foothold near the Banks from which to protect and prosecute the fisheries, her commercial prosperity and her naval effectiveness would be vitally injured. The fisheries had become of the first importance, not only for her commerce, but also for the maintenance of her sea power. The fisherman in time of peace was self-supporting, and, as no vessel of any size went unarmed, he was familiar with the use of artillery, and, therefore, in time of war could be immediately used to man the ships of his sovereign. The importance of the trade more than kept pace with the development of the countries. New England , without banks of importance on its own coasts, laid the foundation of its maritime trade largely with fish caught off the French shores of Acadia and Cape Breton. Its adventurous traders exchanged this fish, together with the products of its fields and its simple manufactures, not only with the English in Newfoundland , but with the French there and in Acadia , with the southern British colonies, with the West India Islands and with all the European powers. The greater part of this trade was illegal, for the current theory of colonies was that they existed entirely for the benefit of the parent country, and trade with foreigners was strictly forbidden. But the necessities of the case and the predominant desire of the man of affairs for expansion overrode enactments. There was no colony in America - French, British or Spanish - in which smuggling was not carried on with the connivance of its officials. The commercial conditions, which we shall have to describe in our account of Louisbourg, were not sporadic, but typical of all colonial establishments of the eighteenth century.


If France had not retained possession of the islands of the Gulf of St Lawrence, the principal of which were Cape Breton and Isle St Jean (Prince Edward Island), not only would she have had no foothold from which to prosecute her fisheries, but her establishments in Canada would have lain open to attack by way of the St Lawrence River, as well as those vast backlands of the continent, extending westward from the Alleghanies and the Great Lakes, over which she had established her influence.


The idea of founding an establishment for trade and defence on Cape Breton had already engaged the attention of the French. A century before the Treaty of Utrecht it had been proposed, and, for ten years or more preceding this peace, memorials had been presented to the minister of the navy, then in charge of the colonies, calling attention to its advisability. The many advantages of such an establishment had been pointed out; it would protect the St Lawrence ; it would become an entrepôt for the exchange of the products of the West Indies, Canada and Acadia ; and it would afford a safe shelter in which vessels might refit for the Atlantic voyage. Raudot, the intendant of Canada, with a remarkable anticipation of the views of Adam Smith, held that such an establishment would only truly flourish if freedom of trade were permitted, not only with France and its colonies, but with Spain , the Levant and the New England colonies. The minister was interested in the matter, but deferred action until the war was ended. Then action became imperative, for it was necessary to remove the garrison and the inhabitants from Placentia, the chief French settlement in Newfoundland, arid provide for the troops and officials from Acadia, who had returned to France.


An expedition took possession of the Island of Cape Breton in September 1713. Its commander returned to France and made his report, and - to mark the importance of the new establishment - the ancient name of Cape Breton was changed to Isle Royale ; and the name of the harbour, where the seven score settlers established themselves, and which had long been the resort of English fishermen, was changed from Hâvre à l'Anglois to Louisbourg. As the new establishment was to combine the purposes of the two which had been abandoned, its personnel consisted of both the military and civil officials who had been employed in Newfoundland and Acadia. Its governor was Costebelle, transferred from Newfoundland. His lieutenant was St Ovide de Brouillan, nephew of the former governor of Acadia, and the engineer was L'Hermitte. Among the officers of the little garrison was Denys, whose grandfather had established the first settlement in Cape Breton. Du Vivier, La Perelle, Bonaventure, and La Vallière had also served in Acadia . The merchants who established fishing industries at Louisbourg and its outports were those of Acadia and Placentia. The site of French enterprise had been changed, but the men who were to carry it on remained the same.


The new settlement was hampered by many adverse conditions. The first winter was a hard and trying one. There was great uncertainty as to which of the three places where settlements had begun would be made the chief place. This was finally determined, after an interval of several years, in favour of Louisbourg. Worst of all, there was the deplorable condition in which France found herself at the death, in 1715, of Louis XIV, when the exhaustion, not only of revenues, but of national credit, was complete. These untoward conditions produced their effect on the new settlement, and more than once it was on the verge of starvation. Indeed, in the autumn of 1717, over half the garrison was sent to Quebec, in order to reduce the number of persons who would have to be fed through the winter. However, although it looked at one time as if the colony would have to be abandoned, while the fisheries of the North Atlantic, through the impotence of France, would fall into the hands of the English, it still survived. Its economic advantages produced their effect, and it struggled through the depression of its earlier years.




The fortifications of Louisbourg were put in charge of Verville, an eminent engineer, and the site of the town placed on the tongue of land between the harbour and Gabarus Bay. Along the northern shore of that bay there rises from the water a stretch of moor and marsh, in places open, in others covered with scrubby trees ; and this ends in a low point, which forms the south-west side of Louisbourg Harbour. Inland from these slopes are higher hills, which follow, at a short distance from the shore, the windings of the sea coast and of the port. As the land falls from them to the shore, it is broken in several places by hillocks which command the uniformly level point. The French military engineers took advantage of three of these hillocks, the middle one being the highest, and utilized them in laying out their work. They extended from the harbour to the sea a line of works, crowning the highest hill with the citadel, or King's bastion, which contained the governor's house, the chapel and the barracks. The principal gate of the town was close by the waters of the harbour, and was defended by a spur and demi-bastion, the former of which had guns which swept the harbour. These were known as Dauphin gate and Dauphin bastion. Beyond the citadel, on the sea side, was the Queen's bastion, an important work which was strengthened by a demi-lune after the restoration of the place to France in 1749 ; and, at the seashore, the Princess demi-bastion, from which a wall extended along the inaccessible shore to the eastward works, which consisted of two derni-bastions. A battery was placed on the shore of the harbour, and from it extended a wall which shut in the harbour side of the town. These works, encircling the town, were built' on the approved system of Vauban. The outermost was the smooth turf of the glacis, which rose from the moor to the edge of the parapet, four feet above the narrow banquette, on which infantry could stand in shelter, and sweep with musketry the slopes of the glacis and the ground beyond. Below the banquette was the covered way, twenty feet in width, on which troops could assemble and manoeuvre, and on the inner side of this was a ditch eighty feet wide. From the ditch rose a wall from thirty to sixty feet high, crowned with a rampart, within which were a banquette and open space for the cannon, which were fired through embrasures in the parapet.


When these works were completed the fortress had embrasures for one hundred and forty-eight cannon, but not more than half that number were in place during the siege of 1745. But Louisbourg did not depend entirely on the artillery within its walls. On the island commanding the narrow entrance to the harbour was a battery of thirty-six guns, and facing the entrance was the Royal battery. This latter battery, according to the Letter of an Inhabitant of Louisburg 'had at first forty pieces of artillery, but the embrasures being too near to one another du Quesnel [the governor] very wisely had it rebuilt, and the number of pieces reduced to thirty.' The length of the western fortifications was about one thousand yards, and from their interior to the eastern bastions about a quarter of a mile, which was the length of the longest streets.


The public buildings were vastly more extensive and architecturally more imposing than anything in Boston or Philadelphia, the chief places of comparatively rich and populous provinces. The King's Hospital, in this little French town, which never had more than five thousand inhabitants, was more imposing than any similar building in America.


Nothing illustrates better the difference between French and English methods than the scale on which Louisbourg was planned. England excited the astonishment of Europe by the fact that so small a country could maintain so many colonies. She accomplished this largely by letting the colonies look after themselves. The consequence was that the expansion of these colonies was solid. They rarely undertook anything not within their powers, and therefore uniformly succeeded in what they undertook. On the other hand, the French in America attempted, with a small military force and a few thousand inhabitants, to hem in these self-reliant, turbulent, and relatively populous colonies, which needed no garrisons of regulars, and were defended by insignificant forts.


The organization, which, under the French system of colonial administration, took charge of Louisbourg and its dependencies, consisted of a governor, a king's lieutenant, a commissaire-ordonnateur, a Superior Council-dealing with legal matters, the registration of laws, or their equivalents, and grants of land - a treasurer, a king's clerk, and minor officials. Then there was an Admiralty Court, which consisted of a lieutenant, the attorney-general, a clerk and a tipstaff. 'Its principal duties were the prevention of illicit commerce, the entry and clearance of merchandise, and visiting and examining cargoes that arrived from foreign parts.' This was substantially the same organization as existed in all French colonies. Roughly speaking, the governor had charge of all military matters, the commissaire-ordonnateur, or intendant, of civil affairs. Conflicts of jurisdiction were common between these two superior officials. To add to the discord at Louisbourg, the engineer in charge of the fortifications was practically the head of a third department. The first of these engineers, Verville, and his successor Verrier, complained at one time of the governor, at another of the commissaire-ordonnateur, at other times of both.


The garrison consisted, during the first period of Louisbourg's existence, of six companies of soldiers, to which were added two half companies of the Swiss regiment of Karrer, formed about 1720, and shortly afterwards placed at the disposal of the minister of the navy, to serve in the colonial garrisons. These companies were apparently a colonial branch of the Compagnies detachées de la Marine, which were formed about 16go. They are differently described in various documents, but they seem to have been governed by the same regulations. Their efficiency was minimized by the conditions under which they performed their services. There was little exchange between their officers and those of other colonies, and, as for a generation there had been no warfare in which the troops of Louisbourg took part, they had seen no active service. Neither exploration nor diplomatic dealings with the Indians, which gave some training to the officers of Canada , were open to them. Grandfather, father and son held commissions in the same company without having had any experience of fighting. The position of captain of a company was profitable, for he made money by hiring out his soldiers as labourers. Discipline in the companies was therefore lax. Louisbourg was a fortified town, depending solely for defence on its artillery. Yet, from the time of its foundation until 1739, the officers of the garrison and their men had had no practice in serving the guns which were mounted on its walls, and when war broke out in 1744, although it was supposed by the English to be garrisoned by trained troops, there was not a single officer in its establishment who had ever been in action.


While the French administrators held at a low valuation the fighting power of the English colonists, their attitude towards England in regard to Louisbourg was consistently pacific. Letter after letter might be quoted, in which Costebelle, the first governor, and his successor St Ovide, were instructed to take certain courses to avoid giving umbrage to England.


Two officers were sent from Louisbourg to the French settlements in Acadia - Annapolis River , Minas Basin and Beaubassin - and obtained from the people, about two thousand four hundred in number, an almost unanimous promise to come to Cape Breton. The promises made by these envoys to send vessels for them were not carried out. The representatives of the settlers who visited Isle Royale were dissatisfied with its heavily wooded lands. The result was that only a few farmers, a good many idlers, some longshoremen and fishermen came to it. The majority of the Acadians remained on their fertile lands about the Bay of Fundy, holding to them with dogged tenacity, until dispossessed by force of arms. It was soon recognized that they were more useful to Isle Royale in Acadia than they would have been as pioneers in the island, for a very considerable portion of the supplies which sustained its establishment came from their farms.


The system of administering the affairs of the colonies. was a mixed one. Colbert's principles were to expel all foreigners, to leave all Frenchmen free, and to maintain justice and good order. The colonial theory prevented any intercourse with foreigners, except through the mother country. This restriction as regards direct intercourse with foreigners was relaxed officially for Louisbourg, because the colony would otherwise have starved, and it would have been impossible to build its fortifications without supplies drawn from New England brickyards and forests. But the freedom Colbert advocated was not given to the inhabitants of Isle Royale, who were overwhelmed with various edicts and regulations. The price at which fish should be sold, and the wages which fishermen should pay their men, were regulated by the authorities.




Isle Royale carried out to a great extent the anticipations of the memorialists who had urged its establishment. Trade grew with the West Indies as well as with Quebec and France, but there was no solid basis of prosperity. Quebec and its own comparatively few inhabitants could not consume the West India products sent to it. It was then impossible for the trade of Louisbourg to grow without some other outlet. Costebelle, after a short experience at Isle Royale, saw the necessity of trade with New England, and urged on the regent to make it legal. The merchants of France threatened to send no vessels to Isle Royale if it were allowed, but the necessity of commerce proved stronger than enactments, and this trade was carried on freely to the great advantage of the merchants of Louisbourg and those of New England. British officials reported its existence to the home government ; the French minister was also aware of it, but its economic necessity was so great that it continued to flourish. At Canso the New Englander could sell his fish, less well cured, than that of the French, at a price at which the merchants of Louisbourg could afford to buy them.


The growth of the colony was not unsatisfactory. St Ovide had with him about 140 settlers when he took possession in 1713. In 1715 by the accession of the inhabitants of Placentia, the population was 720 ; when he retired from the government in 1738, although the colony twice came near famine, its population was over 3,800. In the latter year 73 vessels came from France, 42 from New England and Acadia, and 29 from Canada and the West Indies. The inhabitants had over 100 schooners engaged in fishing and trading, and over 100 boats in the shore fisheries. The value of this industry was about 3,000,000 livres. The annual cost of the establishment to the government of France was about 140,000 livres, including the garrison. There seems no doubt that the administration was extravagant, but the above figures show that the cost was about five per cent of its export trade, which would seem a not unsatisfactory proportion from the standpoint of a private company.


Louisbourg made satisfactory progress compared with the British colonies. Marblehead, the principal port of the New England cod fishery, had, in its palmiest days during this period, about 160 fishing schooners, which fell away to about 60 in 1748. Georgia, England's latest colony on the continent, which was established as a buffer state next to the Spaniards in Florida, had during twenty years, in spite of a vastly greater proportional expenditure, a much less satisfactory growth. There is something to support the view of those English writers who felt that they were being beaten in competition by the French.


In eventually dismissing St Ovide, whose administration had been lax, Maurepas, the minister of the navy, displayed a firmness rarely found in his long administration. Meanwhile de Mézy, the commissaire-ordonnateur, had been promoted, and in consequence of this, new officials were sent to Isle Royale. The new governor was Forant, while the new commissaire-ordonnateur was Bigot, whose name is a synonym for all that is corrupt in Canadian administration, but who at Louisbourg proved himself able and conciliatory. Reforms were instituted in the civil administration, trade was fostered, while Forant also carried out many reforms in the military establishment. Forant's administration, which promised to do so much for the colony, was cut short by his death in 1741. He was succeeded by another captain in the navy, du Quesnel, evidently old in the service, as he had lost a leg in battle thirty-six years before.

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Source: J. S. McLENNAN, "Louisbourg: An Outpost of Empire: The Founding of Louisbourg", in Adam SHORTT and Arthur DOUGHTY, eds., Canada and Its Provinces, Vol. I, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914, 312p., pp. 201-210.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College