Fort Louisbourg

The Great French Fort of the Atlantic

Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada

August 28th, 2001

The north end of Nova Scotia is an island unto itself. Called Cape Breton, it was one of the last bastions of French expansion in the Maritime Provinces. In 1713, Europe was recovering from one of its many territorial wars. As a result of conflicts between England and France, France abandoned its holdings on Newfoundland which had become difficult to defend. Still France wanted a strong position along the Atlantic coast for these parts were some of the richest fishing banks yet found. The French had acquired a taste for the abundant Cod that were caught in the area. A deep natural harbor on the southeast end of Cape Breton seemed to be the most defendable location and so the French set about building one of the most dynamic forts in the new world. Around this fortification sprang up the city of Louisbourg which started out with those who left Newfoundland when the British arrived. Although the French intended Louisbourg to be a magnificent center, there was never any intention to create an agriculture base, nor to allow Louisbourg to become self-sufficient. Everything needed or wanted by the residents was to be shipped in as trade for the cod, which was then shipped out. Several hundred French soldiers were added to the defense in anticipation of yet unknown future aggressions. By 1740 Louisbourg was a large thriving trading and fishing community which rivaled all ports in the North Atlantic. Two thousand people made a permanent home there. In the summer the number would swell as additional fishing vessels arrived along with goods brought down from Quebec. It was the stopping place for many a ship bound for a variety of ports in Europe. But the great sea powers of Europe were in the throws of expansionism and as such conflict was inevitable. In 1744 England and France went to war again and England sent an expedition force of some 4000 men from the Colonies in New England, to Cape Breton to conquer the Fort at Louisbourg. With the harbor blockaded, Louisbourg found itself cut off and facing a far superior force in number. Many experts believe that given a proper response, France could have probably saved the fort, but such was not to happen. Some 46 days after the opening barrage Louisbourg, while still holding its wall and mote in tact, was running low in supplies and power. The Fort capitulated in June. It occupants were soon exiled back to France. Peace brought about new treaties and, as such, Cape Breton and Louisbourg were returned to French control. The inhabitants returned and it was business as usual, and again Louisbourg's population swelled as the fish and the harbor provided the necessities for a thriving French trade with the new world. This would last for just over a decade before England and France took up arms and Louisbourg once again became a target for British conquest. This time Louisbourg set up far reaching defense positions blocking every approach to the coast. Still in 1758, a large British force waded ashore at Kinnington Cove, and the result was inevitable. There was another siege, another capitulation, and another exile back to France for the inhabitants. This would be the end of Louisbourg and for the most part the end of French rule along the Atlantic coast of the New World. Three years later, the British would raze the fortifications, and the surrounding town began it slow steady disintegration.
The Louisbourg complex covers several acres and good walking shoes are suggested, as well as allotting several hours for the visit. Having acquired the self-guide book at the visitors' center, we hopped on the shuttle for the mile or so ride out to the entrance to the Fort. Our first exposure was to the Des Roches fishing shack where we met our first docent of the day. A delightful girl who was setting the table for the evening meal. This dwelling represented the main reason for the fort and the town. Cod had become the staple for trade. Hundreds of these houses dotted the shores all around the town. Fishermen brought home the catch which was then cleaned, salted and laid out on long wooden racks called "flakes" to dry.

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