Louisburg. from its foundation to its fall. 1713-1758

John Stewart McLennan
The Book Room Limited
Halifax Nova Scotia
fourth edition, 1979

J. S. McClennan, 1852 - 1939, was a successful and cosmopolitan businessman in the grain and coal trade. Later he became a Nova Scotia senator and amateur historian. His interest in Louisburg sparked the 20th century rebuilding of the Louisburg Fortress in the 1960s. This was first published in 1918 in London by MacMillan.

Complaints: as usual the maps are completely insufficient, when present at all. Maps are critical to the story, but the ones present are smudgy small reproductions of antiques. Clear modern maps of contemporary French ports, North American ports, Cape Breton/Isle Royal, and Louisburg would have been very useful. Maps referred are either not in the book, or not in the right place. There is an assumption that the readers will know French history and military terms, and be able to read the frequent French quotations - that may work pretty well for modern Canadians, but not for "Americans." And McClennan's style is often simply dense or obscure.

In the early 18th Century, France held most of what is now eastern Canada, except for part of Newfoundland, plus most of the Mississippi valley, and several Carribean islands. Britain held a strip of land to the south which were becoming the "13 Original" colonies, and some other islands. But their control was very weak, and their claims overlapped. They were mostly at war from 1689 - 1713, what we call now the War of the Spanish Succession, with the main action in Europe, and it had left France exhausted.

The war ended with many treaties, but the Treaty of Utrecht had vague or arguable or poorly defined clauses relevant to America. France was required to withdraw quickly from its base at Placentia, Newfoundland, but its settlers in Acadia were given a longer time table to leave. France still held Canada (Quebec to us) and Cape Breton, which was renamed Isle Royal as the French colonials moved in and fortified it. (It seems that Cape Breton was an ancient term for the land, and named after a place in Basque France by or for the Basque fishermen who were frequent travelers there.) The fortification was to protect its interests in the rich fisheries and to guard the seaways to Canada.

Several French officers had competing input into the choice of which harbor to establish as the Isle Royal command center, but it was not decided definitively until much later, so several smallish outposts were set up. Louisburg has a large and safe harbor, it doesn't freeze over (soon or often?), and it is very close to the fishing banks. There is cultivable land (though apparently not nearly as much as the proponents claimed), plenty of beach for the fish flakes, and there seemed to be plenty of firewood. But as a military outpost it was a poor choice, made indefensible by the actual siting of the fortress. (McClennan never uses the "Gibraltar of the West" phrase, and I wonder if that is just PR by the modern tourism promoters, since the fortress at its best was falling apart and severely undermanned.)

The British were not the only enemy. The French got along with the Indians quite well, but piracy was a huge problem. The European governments were gradually extending their naval power, so the Golden Age of Spanish Main piracy was ending, and the pirates had to look farther for plunder. There had been local pirates, European and Indian, but the end of the war freed up thousands more naval sailors and privateers to go "on account". [ my review of Captain Kidd] By the records there were only a handful of Indians in all of what is now Nova Scotia, but that seems silly, because both the British and French saw them as important, and they seem to have been causing problems for the settlers and fishermen all the time.

The French government wanted its colonies to trade only with France, apparently not even wanting them to trade with each other, so all the profits would go thru French hands. The colonists wanted to trade wherever they could make a profit. Since New England was much closer than France, it was a natural trading partner for staples, and it sent ships, cattle, and grain. And the Caribbean islands were also closer to Isle Royal than to France, being a source for sugar and market for dried fish. The British also tried to restrict trading with the French, sometimes at least. But the governments were weak, the officials and military were also trading for profit, so there was an open black market in goods. Being a black market, it seems to have led to extortion and corruption. McClennan makes a small effort to do the math on shipping and tax reports, showing that they don't add up, so there must have been large scale unreported dealing. I wonder whether anyone has done a more detailed analysis since then.

McClennan tries to have it both ways: Louisburg was enormously profitable and always on the edge of extinction. Famines were common - many years the residents were desperately waiting for a supply ship to come in from France (or New England). The fish often failed.
p86 quote on architecture
But in context - Europe was worse than 3rd World countries today. It was a big deal for France to send a few extra troops or a few cannon. Troops were barely paid, exploited by their officers for profit, lived in squalid conditions even for the age. Sailors were treated even worse, and France still had galley slaves. Prisoners were quickly exchanged, because it cost money to feed them.
not finished...

David Kew
October 2002

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