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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
  Recherche sur la Forteresse-de-Louisbourg Lieu historique national du Canada


A.J.B. Johnston, The Summer of 1744: A Portrait of Life in 18th-Century Louisbourg (Ottawa: National Sites, Parks Service, Environment Canada. 1991)


Background to the Summer of 1744: 

The Spring of 1744

Like other springs before it, the spring of 1744 was a season I of hope tinged with some anxiety for the inhabitants of Louisbourg. [1] People scanned the horizon daily looking for the sails of approaching vessels, vessels from France that would end the long months of Isle Royale's isolation from the world overseas. Their immediate concern was food. Food shortages every spring were an accepted aspect of life in Louisbourg, but in 1744 the situation was worse than normal. For reasons unknown to the colonists, the hundreds of Basque fishermen who usually came out early each spring with additional supplies of food had not yet arrived. Supplies were so low in the colonial capital that the poorer residents were reduced in mid-April to surviving on shellfish. In the nearby outports the situation was even worse, with many households facing starvation. By the beginning of May the government storehouse contained only enough provisions for another few weeks and some foresaw violent protest as those stocks were used up.

The people capable of looking beyond immediate worries about food shortages and possible unrest had other problems to consider. For several years the cod fishery, the foundation upon which the colonial economy had been developed, had declined significantly. Fish landings in 1743 were up slightly over those in 1742 but remained well below (roughly 40 per cent) the catches recorded during the 1730s. [2] Every colonist prayed that the reduced landings were no more than a temporary trend, due mostly to the tense international situation.

Since 1739 there had been persistent rumours of an imminent war with Great Britain and the mere possibility of hostilities had deterred many seasonal fishermen from making the transatlantic crossing to Isle Royale, resulting in reduced fish catches. If war were declared, the situation would only worsen. Indeed, during 1743 the fishermen who worked the southern coast of Isle Royale, from Petit de Grat to Fourchu, must almost have felt as if war had already broken out. Throughout the summer fishing season they had been harassed by a British warship, HMS Kinsale, stationed at Canso. The Kinsale patrolled the waters off Canso and southern Isle Royale all that summer and fall trying to intercept vessels transporting contraband livestock or other foodstuffs from the Acadians living under British rule. One of the vessels captured that summer and taken to the British base at Canso belonged to Louis du Pont Duchambon, king's lieutenant for Isle Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island). The vessel was eventually released after a representation was made to the British authorities at Canso, but its capture indicates how strained Anglo-French relations in the colonies had become by 1743.

The parent countries had narrowly avoided going to war with each other in 1739 and ever since then only a tentative peace had existed between the two powers. Never was that peace more fragile than after French and British armies, as allies to other combatants in the continental war over the succession to the Austrian throne, battled each other at Dettingen in June 1743. Aware of the conflict at Dettingen, the inhabitants of Louisbourg must have watched the last ship bound for France sail out of the harbour in 1743 and wondered whether or not the first ship to return the following spring would bring with it news of war.

On 3 May 1744 the sail of a small ship approaching Louisbourg was spotted on the horizon. As the ship drew closer and gradually made its way into the harbour, large numbers of people must have gathered anxiously along the quay. A few would have rowed out in small boats to meet the vessel and shout their questions. Did it carry any surplus food? Had the crew seen a fleet of Basque or French fishing boats? Was there still peace with the British? The answers were not reassuring. France had been at war with Great Britain for a month and a half, because of the war the Basque fishermen were not coming out this season and, yes, the ship carried some surplus food but not in great quantities.

Reactions to the news were undoubtedly varied. Few would have been surprised by the king's declaration of war, but fewer still would have been comforted by it. To those colonists who remembered the defeats and ensuing hardships of the last war (the War of the Spanish Succession, 1701-13, also known as Queen Anne's War), news of another conflict was dismaying. They had witnessed many accomplishments, both public and private, in the three decades of peace that had followed the Treaty of Utrecht. The most noteworthy of these achievements was the transformation of the small fishing settlement at Havre à l'Anglois into the fortified town of Louisbourg, one of the busiest ports on the North Atlantic and home to roughly 2500-3000 merchants, tradesmen, civil servants, soldiers and fishermen. The future of the town, of the colony of Isle Royale of which it was the capital and of the thousands of individuals who lived there was now placed in jeopardy by the outbreak of a new war. Terre Neuve (Newfoundland) and Acadia (Nova Scotia) had been lost to the British in the last war. Who knew what the fate of Isle Royale would be at the end of this new struggle? To be sure, the fortifications at Louisbourg were impressive, but one could never be sure of the future until a war was over and the treaty signed.

Younger inhabitants in the colony, particularly junior officers hopeful of rapid promotion, probably welcomed the news and the opportunities that a war could offer. Similarly, some merchants quickly began to make plans for outfitting privateers, envisioning the tremendous profits that could be gained. In contrast, the many people dependent on the fishery could see little good in the news. They knew immediately that war would mean reduced catches, greater hardships and, for those who went to sea, the possibility of capture or death at the hands of their British enemies. As for the poorest inhabitants, as long as their stomachs were empty, long-range speculation about the future was pointless. If it meant anything, the news meant the probability of increased suffering for them as the colony's supply lines became more vulnerable.

The concerns of the colonists, particularly those dealing with food, which had been so much on the minds of the commandant, Jean-Baptiste-Louis Le Prévost Duquesnel, and the commissaire-ordonnateur, François Bigot, throughout the spring, were temporarily set aside as the two officials read the despatches of the minister of the Marine, the Comte de Maurepas, that the ship from Saint-Malo had brought. Maurepas could only give them general directions on how to proceed; on the specifics Duquesnel and Bigot would have to make their own decisions. The 31 -year-old colony in their care was now facing its first test in wartime. As they looked ahead to the summer of 1744, the colonial officials could foresee many difficult and crucial decisions to be made. It would be a summer of risk and uncertainty, a summer unlike any other thus far in the history of the colony.