Fortress of Louisbourg

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PART 2 – History and Fortress Life

The first sight of Louisbourg across the bay from the town is amazing. Only 20% of the site has been reconstructed which makes you realise just how big and important it must have been. The date chosen for the reconstruction is 1744. The Fortress was nearly complete and the town had reached its full potential as a fishing and trading centre, with an extensive fishing settlement outside the walls. Most of the items on display are reproductions based on original articles.

We spent a whole day visiting and that wasn't really long enough as we didn't do the guided tour, watch the video or look at the exhibition in the Visitor Centre. It was the highlight of our trip to Nova Scotia and a well worth while visit.

There is little detailed information on the web about the Fortress and the Parks Canada website is disappointing, so I have written a detailed report of our visit. As it is very long, I have broken it down into two parts. This, the second part, covers the history and life of the Fortress. The first part covers general information about visiting and information about the site and can be found by doing a search on Fortress of Louisbourg.


The French came to Louisbourg in 1713, at the end of the War of Spanish Succession. Under the Treaty of Utrecht they had to surrender the title to their holdings in Newfoundland and mainland Nova Scotia, just keeping Ile Royale (Cape Breton) and Ile St Jean (Price Edward Island). Louisbourg became a prosperous trading centre and the capital in 1720. Soldiers from Quebec and Placentia came to guard the new colony, which developed into one of the most heavily defended settlements in North America. It was the first landfall for ships from France and also controlled the St. Lawrence Seaway. It was an important trans shipment point as the harbour stays ice free in winter.

The Fortress was constructed 1720-40 with a commercial district, residential district, military area, marketplaces, inns, taverns and suburbs. By the 1730s the population was 2500-3000.

A large ditch was excavated on the landward side of the town, with a bank (the glacis) along the town's edge. Two and a half miles of wall surrounded the entire fort. There were four bastions and two gates allowing entry into the city. On the eastern side, 15 guns pointed out across the harbour. The fort had embrasures to mount 148 guns. The Royal Battery on the north shore guarded the harbour entrance and channel. The Island Battery provided extra protection on the island in the river mouth. The defence strategy was to keep sea based attackers at bay until help arrived in warships from France. This was a key weakness as landward defences were weak.

The economy was based on fish and the port exported vast quantities of fish and fish products (cod liver oil). It was a very busy port with over 150 ships visiting each year. It was dependent on supplies of wheat flour and dried vegetables from France. Livestock arrived 'on the hoof' from Arcadia or New England. Coffee, sugar and rum came from the French Sugar Islands in the Caribbean. Ships also brought slaves from the Antilles. These were regarded as a commodity and traded in Louisbourg. There were 216 slaves mainly working in domestic service. Status depended on the number slaves owned.

Attempts were made to increase self sufficiency. Enterprising colonists were encouraged to develop hay meadows along the Mira River as fodder for cattle. However, Arcadian farmers were not keen to settle on the poorer land. Increasingly Louisbourg turned to New England farmers for grain in exchange for goods from the Caribbean.

The Fortress was very vulnerable to blockade by New England ships which stopped French supply ships reaching Louisbourg. Louisbourg attacked the British fishing colony at Canso and besieged Annapolis Royal in 1744. This alarmed nearby Massachusetts who attacked in 1745 with the support of neighbouring states. They landed at Gabarus Bay and attacked overland, emerging from the woods behind the Royal Battery. They built a trench to within 250yds of the Dauphin Gate, which was bombarded by cannons from across the harbour. They established a battery near Lighthouse Point which overpowered Island Battery and forced the French to surrender.

The French gave up and abandoned the Royal Battery but made the mistake of not destroying the battery or guns. The New Englanders turned the guns on the town and pounded it. The French surrendered the garrison and the civilian population returned to France.

The New England soldiers lacked clothing and firewood and many died over the winter. Louisbourg became a major bargaining chip in the negotiations leading to the 1748 treaty of Aix-le-Chapelle which ended the War of Austrian Succession and was returned to French control with 3500 soldiers based there.

It was captured again in 1758 by British forces adopting the same tactics as in 1745. They occupied Lighthouse Point and destroyed Island Battery. They established a battery outside the King's Bastion and cannon balls destroyed the chapel, barracks and many houses in the town. The hospital was hit and the surgeon killed. The cannon was turned on French ships in the harbour, often destroying houses in the town. Ships were burnt, sunk or captured. The French surrendered and British engineers systematically destroyed the Fortress to stop it being used again.

The area was colonised by retired British soldiers and merchants from the British garrison. English-speaking settlers gradually moved into the area, reviving the fishery. Subsequent settlement was to the north of the harbour. The homes, warehouses and streets of the French settlement fell into disrepair, were robbed for bricks and stone and became overgrown by vegetation. Sydney became the new capital.

The present Fortress was reconstructed in the 1960s. The coal mines had closed and there was major unemployment and poverty in the area. The Canadian Government funded restoration as a job creation exercise. Former coal miners trained as stonemasons, bricklayers and carpenters or worked as labourers.

Twenty percent of the fortress has been rebuilt using traditional methods, from fortification walls to waterfront. It represents civilian life with homes, gardens and taverns, official life with quay and government buildings and the military presence with King's and Dauphin Bastions. The original foundations were used where possible, and all the buildings are on their original site except for the Fishing Property. Sea level has risen 1m since 1745 so no traces are left of the original buildings in the Fauxbourg area outside the Fortress.

1744 was chosen for the date of reconstruction as the fortress was nearly complete and the town had reached its full potential as a fishing and trading centre. Most items on display are reproductions based on original articles. Costumes as accurate as possible and made from natural materials.


There was a large seasonal fishing community with up to 5000 people living outside the Fortress in the area known as the Fauxbourg. Properties had their own wharf, fish flakes and huts for workers. Only resident fishing proprietors could hire migrant workers, who came across each year without their families. The itinerant fishermen lived in small basic huts and ate their meals in the taverns.

If the area was attacked the fishing community were expected to burn their properties to stop them from falling into enemy hands and take shelter within the Fortress.

Fishing was from boats called shallops, which were small wooden boats fitted with oars and mainly used in shallow inshore waters. Wealthier fishermen bought a schooner and collected cod from the outlying settlements which was then sold to merchants in the town. The more successful fishermen became merchants and settled inside the Fortress, selling fishing gear and goods for credit. As their wealth increased so did the size of their house and number of servants or slaves. Many houses had a large warehouse attached.

People owning property along the quay often opened part of their house to paying guests, providing accommodation and food. A spruce bow over the door indicated a place serving alcoholic drinks.

In the Grandchamps House and Inn the owners lived in a small house next door to the inn which was their insurance against old age or death of the husband.

Women were not allowed to set up businesses themselves but could continue to run their husband’s business after his death. Wealthy widows often controlled the family business, holding it in trust to divide between the children. They were free to sign contracts, buy property and negotiate their children’s marriages. Females reached maturity at 25; males at 30.

Military wives were forced to remarry quickly or eke out a living on a small pension.

Widows of labourers took in washing or hired themselves or their children out as servants, who made up 15% of the population. Some children were contracted out as young as seven. Their parent or guardian entered into a contract with an employer setting out wages (if any) and terms of service. Most servants were single and lived with their employer.

Many wealthy people employed slaves who were shipped from the Antilles. They were regarded as a commodity and traded in Louisbourg. There were 216 slaves mainly working in domestic service. There were also a few native slaves. Status depended on the number of slaves kept.


The Governor lived in private apartments in a corner of the Kings Bastion next to the chapel, with his own garden and dove cot. He was the the King’s representative, overseeing the management of the garrison and the condition of the fortifications. He presided over diplomatic relations with New England and the Mi’Kmaq.

The Commissionaire Ordonnateur was the second most important official and lived in a large house near the quay, where he could watch the movement of all shipping. He controlled the treasury, trade and finance and was responsible for all provisioning of the Fortress. He encouraged local food production and the development of coal mining. He also presided over the court of appeal in an ornate room below the Governor’s apartments.

He was a member of the lesser nobility and appointment depended on who you knew. The Commissionaire Ordonnateur in 1744 had arrived with nine servants and several horses. Additional daily staff could be hired on arrival in Louisbourg and many wealthy people employed slaves. He had 29 administrative staff under him and was given a stipend to cover his entertaining.

All goods had to be imported from France and the colony was not allowed to make or produce anything for sale. This was regarded as a treasonable offence (stealing from the King) and offenders could be shot. The Commissionaire Ordonnateur could apply for a dispensation to allow for the import of certain essentials like Boston Boards (hardwood planks needed to protect masonry from the weather).

The Engineer was next in importance. He was a trained architect and responsible for the layout of the Fortress and the defensive tactics to defend it. The Engineer in 1744 had come from a previous posting in Asia and stopped for 20 years. (He preferred being a big fish in little pond). He brought four servants and had two assistant engineers and two copiers (secretaries).

He was responsible for the disastrous decision not to destroy the guns and the Fortress in the 1745 siege when it fell into the hands of the New English attackers.

The soldiers lived in large barrack blocks. Private soldiers were the poorest of the poor and were recruited off the streets of France. Originally they signed on for life but later it was for a period of 6 years. However they could only be discharged if they had no debts. They were paid 9 levres a month but were permanently in debt. Wages were paid directly to the officers and they received the balance of their wage at the year end. 75% of their wage was needed to pay for lodgings and uniform. By the end of the year there was often nothing left.

The ordinary soldiers were not well looked after and had little, if any, respect for the officers. The risk of mutiny was never far off.

Drummers and Pipers had different uniforms. There was a tradition they were never shot at in battle, so it was regarded as a much more desirable job than that of an ordinary soldier. They did a circuit of the town every day to warn of guard change.

600 soldiers were needed to provide labour when building the fortress. They got paid extra for this and could earn more per day than when on guard duty. The able bodied worked as labourers and paid others to do their guard duty for them. Privates couldn't advance through the ranks beyond sergeant.

They spent 24 hours on duty with 48 hours off when they were free to drink, labour, or go fishing and hunting to supplement their rations. They hunted small game (rabbit, squirrel, partridge and other birds) to eke out their rations. They foraged for berries, shellfish and sea bird eggs.

Guard duty was divided into 3x8hr shifts. One was spent on guard, one resting and one on other duties. They lived in barracks sleeping 3 to a bed, although 1 was usually on duty. Beds had a wooden base with straw mattress which was changed every 6-8months.

The daily ration was 4oz salt meat and 4oz vegetables (usually dried peas) with 6lb loaf of bread (rye and wheat) every four days. Meat not eaten on Friday and Saturdays.

Each man got an armful of wood each day. Priority was for cooking. Heating was a bonus.

Rations were pooled and one person did the cooking, usually a thick soup containing everything. They used to share out the bread ration so that they ate fresh bread each day as it didn’t keep well.

Bread was produced in the King's bakery which baked 300 loaves a day and 600 on Saturdays. Wood needed to fire the ovens had to be chosen carefully as leavening agents were unstable and any delay in firing the oven could ruin the bread.

The usual drink was spruce beer, brewed to a native recipe using the tender tips of spruce and the monthly ration of molasses. It had a high ascorbic acid content, so helping to prevent scurvy.

Much of their free time was spent in taverns and there were frequent fights. Soldiers were punished by the military court and sentenced to sit astride a ‘wooden horse’ with their legs weighted down and hands bound. It was a hard life. The damp wet climate caused problems with arthritis for many soldiers.

Parks Canada web site on the Fortress of Louisbourg:

Website of our pictures of Fortress of Louisbourg:



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