Sunday, 24 July 2016

The History of the Fortress of Louisbourg

Louisbourg, Nova Scotia

If you are up to it, here is the long version …. I’m not sure how accurate it is, but it makes a good story.

In 1715 the French lose their fishing bases in Newfoundland and Acadia (Nova Scotia) with the war that ends the Spanish secession. They receive two islands – Île Saint John (Prince Edward Island) and Île Royale (Cape Breton Island) as compensation. Prince Edward Island was to be the bread basket for Louisbourg but they got there too late in the season and it would take a good 3-4 years before any food would be available to feed the new town. They needed a capital town for their new colony and the French decide on Louisbourg, so it became a planned, walled, fortified town. The French military told them it wasn’t a good idea as the hills were as high or higher than the walls they would be building, but the decision makers didn’t listen. The military wanted to use Baddeck, which had nice high cliffs, and was easy to defend. Louisbourg was a direct route from back home which was important for the civilians coming here and it was also close to the Louisbourg fishing banks. The fishermen who were living here had their land expropriated and they were given land outside the city walls. It was very cosmopolitan town, with the French, the Basque, Portuguese, Mik'maw, Celtic, Scotts, Irish, and Germans. As a mercantile trading colony, they were only allowed to trade with their mother country and other French colonies. But if they did that they would have to wait 6-8 weeks for the round trip to get their supplies from France, the West Indies or Quebec. Whereas if they traded with the British along the coastline, who shouldn’t have be trading with the French either, it was only 4-6 weeks. A blind eye was turned and the British and French were trading back and forth. This is why the British knew so much about Louisbourg. They had sailed in the harbour and they walked the streets. They knew that Louisbourg was protected at the harbour side but not so well on the landward side. At the mouth of the harbour was an island that was fortified, and there was also a royal battery on the other side of the harbour. On the landward side, there were a few small fortifications, but not major ones.

The barracks and other military offices

There were two sieges in Louisbourg’s history, one in 1745, the other in 1758. The 1745 war was over the Austrian secession. The simplified version of the war was that there was a female on the throne and they didn’t want a female on the throne. Louisbourg then received a letter telling them that they were at war with the British. So they send an expedition up to Grassy Island and took the British as prisoners and brought them back to the fort at Louisbourg. In the C18th, Officers were not kept in prison during daylight hours. Which meant the British Officers were allowed to roam around town with the stipulation that they were not to be making plans of the town or going near the fortifications. They had given their word as they are on parole. The lowly British soldiers that were captured were kept in prison. By that time, the British in Boston received their letter to say that they were at war with the French. They knew Louisbourg, as they traded with them. They knew that it had a beautiful harbour that didn’t freeze over in winter but that 3-4 months of the year, the ice flows came in, so no supplies could get in and they were not self sufficient, so would be desperate without those supplies. The only commodity they had to export was fish, everything else they needed had to be imported by ship. So the British decided to make things a little more difficult for them. The French had 200-300 prisoners and 3000-4000 citizens. So they decided to do a little privateering. Which is really Government sanctioned piracy. You get a letter from your government to say that you can capture a particular vessel, you keep part of the booty and the Government gets the rest. So with privateering going on, their supplies were not getting through and winter would soon be there. So they worked out an exchange. French prisoners in Boston for British prisoners in Louisbourg. So the British Officers go home to Governor Shirley in Boston and tell him that Louisbourg is strong by harbour and weak by land, so if you are going to attack, land is the way to go.

The British New Englander’s then come by sea, but go onto the land 6-7 miles down from the town, and set their cannons up on the hills and bombard the town. They outnumber the French by three to one and within seven weeks the French surrender. It’s only supposed to last seven weeks, then you get reinforcements and move on. But their reinforcements didn’t arrive, so the French leave with dignity and go home to France. So the British take over Louisbourg and all the French territory becomes theirs – Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton Island and they settle in quite nicely as the won’t be attacked.

After four years a peace treaty is signed and all the French territory that was ceded to the British is ceded back to the French. It’s the way the military chess game was played in the 18th Century. We’ll have this and you can have that. So the British moved from Louisbourg, Cape Breton Island to Nova Scotia and founded Halifax in 1749.

The French families came back to Louisbourg, as this was their home. They came from Newfoundland in the 1600’s, so therefore they had no connection to France. The Military said there needed to be a navy in the harbour to protect the fishery but also to protect the gulf. They also needed to secure Quebec, the seat of government for New France. There wasn’t always a navy here as the French navy had gone down in strength and they needed to keep the main navy closer to home as there was always a war going on in Europe and the West Indies. Louis XIV was building Versailles at the time so was using up all the money, neglecting his military. Louis XV then tried to build up the navy but he was playing catch up. He who had the biggest navy in the C18th ruled the world.

Then the 7 years war began also known as the French/Indian war. Which was at the same time as the expulsion of the Acadians in 1755/56.

Louisbourg was attacked in 1758 by land and sea at the same time in a more formalized attack. There was a breach in the wall and they were outnumbered 4 to 1. They didn’t get their reinforcements, so they had to surrender and were sent back to France again. The British didn’t want the fort at Louisbourg getting back into French hands again as a fortress. So after the fall of Quebec and Montreal 1760, they sent engineers over and mined under the walls and systematically destroyed all the walls using exploding mortar. In 1763 The Treaty of Paris was signed and all of New France fell into British hands.

In 1768 the last British military man left Louisbourg. They now had Halifax, which was a much better naval port.

Related Posts:
The History of Louisbourg
The Life of a Soldier


  1. This is a fascinating fortress and you even have a sunny day to enjoy it.

  2. yes, even though it started out cold and foggy, it turned into a glorious day and we got sunburnt!