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the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
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More Religion Questions
What illuminates the Sanctuary Lamp, whale oil or candles?
The sanctuary lamp hanging in front of the altar in the chapel in the King’s Bastion is a feature that was traditionally seen in churches during our period and they were kept burning to signify the presence of the Host. Our chapel was initially intended for use of the garrison. If this had remained the case, it may not have been provided the full range of furnishings of an established parish church. But, as we know, this chapel became the main place of worship in the community and was attended by all, including the most noteworthy citizens of the town. As such, it was well furnished and very likely featured a sanctuary lamp in the custom of the period.
In the reconstructed site, our chapel is not used for religious ceremonies, it is not consecrated and the Host is not present so our lamp is not lit.
The sanctuary lamp in the chapel is an antique oil-burning fixture. It has a silver plated brass bowl with three large and three small brass fittings of cherub design with three suspension chains of copper alloy with silver plate. The cherub fittings appear to have once been gilded. At least one visiting expert considered it somewhat late for our period.
We are uncertain of the specific type of oil likely to have been used in Louisbourg’s sanctuary lamp. We do know that both animal and vegetable oils were used in domestic lighting devices in Europe. For example, in areas where olive oil was abundantly available, it was used to fuel lamps; in coastal communities, fish oils were commonly used. These oils, used in crude devices like cruise lamps provided dim light, required some attention and produced a lot of smoke and dirt. Fish oil also produced a nauseating and pervasive odour. In spite of this, it is likely that most liquid fuelled lighting devices in Louisbourg burned the commonly available and least expensive fuel, cod liver oil. No one can now be certain what oil was burned in the sanctuary lamp at Louisbourg.
While an enclosed candle-burning device is called a lantern, a lamp is an oilburning unit. Louisbourg’s commodity import documents list iron lamps from France and tin lamps from New England. Wicks, likely for lamps were also imported from the same sources. Those from France were of cotton; those from New England were identified simply as wicks.
Whale oil, a relatively clean burning alternative with a brighter flame, only became generally available in Europe in the last quarter of the 18th century with expansion of the whaling industry. The only evidence in the commodity lists of whaling at Louisbourg is the export of spermaceti in 1755 and 1756. The record does not show any imports of whale oil. (Spermaceti is a white waxy substance separated from the oil found in the head and blubber cavities of the sperm whale used for making candles.)
Among the commodity imports are listed many candles, 13,848 livres arrived from France in 1737. The record does not indicate the type of candles imported but given the relative costliness of bees’ wax; most would have been made of tallow from the farms and slaughterhouses of France. Tallow candles burned quickly, offered little light but much smoke and an unpleasant greasy odour.
In 18th century Louisbourg, it seems that candles were used more frequently than oil burning lamps. Of the seventeen inventories analysed by Blaine Adams in his, “Domestic Furnishings at Louisbourg”, only four lamps are listed while the same inventories list numerous candlesticks.
After sundown in colonial Louisbourg, the brightest light came not from smoky, foul smelling candles and oil lamps but from the fireplace since it provided the largest flame. Reading, writing, needlework and other activities that require good visibility were done in daylight and the rhythm of life was organized around this simple fact.