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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: 

May 1744

One imagines that after the initial excitement of the war news had passed, the inhabitants of Louisbourg turned their attention back to the concerns of their normal daily lives. Duquesnel and Bigot were not so fortunate; the many difficulties they faced in governing the colony in peacetime were now made much worse by war.[5]

To begin with, there was the immediate problem of the food shortage. A few days after the arrival of the news of war, the colonial officials learned that the fishermen of La Baleine and Lorembec who had come into the capital were threatening to seize the available provisions by force. They were being supported in this talk by at least some of the fishermen and poor of Louisbourg. Duquesnel was able to prevent open insurrection by distributing a limited quantity of food and placing additional guards on the storehouses.[6] The commandant realized the crisis would be over as soon as a supply ship from France arrived in port, but he also recognized that henceforth the provisioning of Louisbourg would become much more difficult. Indeed, the current shortage would have been worse had not François du Pont Duvivier been sent to Canso in August 1743 to arrange, for the purchase of 80 000 livres' worth of New England foodstuffs.[7] With war declared, such emergency purchases from New England obviously became impossible. Once the hostilities began in earnest, especially privateering raids on French shipping, even the routine arrival of supplies from France, Canada or the Acadians on the Nova Scotian mainland would become uncertain.

Provisioning problems facing the colony in the spring of 1744 became further complicated for Bigot when a confidential despatch from Maurepas informed him that valuable cargo-laden ships from the East Indies would be sailing into Louisbourg harbour in June or early July. Bigot was instructed to supply these ships, belonging to the Compagnie des Indes, with fresh meat and other provisions necessary for their voyage home to France. [8] By elimination, the only possible source for the needed supplies in sufficient quantities lay with the Acadians in Nova Scotia. The obvious problem with that source was that the British had shown their determination in 1743 to curtail the illicit trade between the Acadians and Isle Royale through the patrols of armed vessels based at Canso and the patrols would only become more vigilant with the outbreak of war. Therefore the solution to the colony's provisioning difficulties for 1744, and subsequent years, necessarily involved military action.

Questions of food supply aside, other compelling factors in May 1744 argued the need for prompt and decisive military action. Foremost among these factors were Maurepas's instructions to Duquesnel and Bigot on the course they were to follow in the war. First, the minister stressed the need to have armed privateers out to sea as quickly as possible, capitalizing on the unpreparedness of the enemy: "the first moments of the hostilities will be the most valuable for the success of these ventures." Maurepas enclosed blank commissions for anyone who could be encouraged to take up privateering. Second, the colonial officials were directed to do everything in their power to protect the valuable fishery and commerce of Isle Royale. Two ships would be sent to the island sometime later to assist in the defence of French interests, but for the time being Duquesnel and Bigot were to use whatever resources were available to them. [9]

Maurepas made no mention of launching an attack against the British settlements in Nova Scotia, but he did not have to. Expeditions against Nova Scotia had been discussed on a number of occasions in the past, both with the current colonial officials and with their predecessors. To Duquesnel and to the senior officers in the garrison at Louisbourg whose advice he sought, the timing for striking at Nova Scotia, particularly Canso, would probably never be better than it was in May 1744. Not only would it satisfy Maurepas's instructions to wage an aggressive offensive, but, if they acted quickly enough, they were likely to catch the small garrison at Canso totally unprepared. Once Canso was captured, the British would be without a shore base near Isle Royale from which privateers or warships could operate against vessels heading for the French colony. The shipping lane from the Acadians to Louisbourg would be safe at least temporarily, thereby alleviating short- term worries about provisions. An added benefit of a successful expedition against Canso would be the psychological lift it would give to the inhabitants of Isle Royale who had suffered through an anxious spring and to their Micmac allies on the mainland who, seeing the French initiative, might be especially responsive to later French requests for assistance in a campaign against Annapolis Royal.

The arguments in favor of a military expedition to Canso were overwhelming. Probably within a week or ten days of the first news of war arriving in Louisbourg the decision to attack was reached and the town bustled with activity as the expedition was hastily organized so that it could make the most of the element of surprise. Men had to be recruited to accompany the professional soldiers; firearms and small cannons prepared; vessels rented and outfitted; supplies purchased, stockpiled and loaded aboard the rented vessels, and dozens of other small tasks accomplished. Twenty days after the arrival of the ship from Saint-Malo, the expedition was ready, at a cost to the king's treasury of slightly over 126 000 livres. [10] The tiny armada consisted of 17 vessels (two privateers, a supply sloop and 14 fishing boats) and carried a toad of 351 men (22 officers, 117 soldiers, and 212 men recruited principally from fishermen). François du Pont Duvivier, captain of one of the Compagnies franches in Louisbourg, was chosen to command the expedition.

On Saturday, 23 May, likely following a public blessing from the quay by the Recollet curé of Louisbourg, Athanase Guégot, the flotilla sailed out of the harbour bound for Canso. That very day a merchant vessel out of Glasgow arrived in Boston carrying the first news of the war to the American colonists. As the French had hoped, they would be attacking a settlement that was weakly defended at the best of times and that was still unaware that war had been declared.

While it was still dark on the morning of 24 May, the force from Louisbourg anchored off Canso and prepared for the assault. Ashore were a few fishermen, a detachment of soldiers of the Phillipps Regiment, and a number of women and children. The only fortification was a timber blockhouse. Around dawn the French began their attack. As the cannons aboard the two privateers bombarded the blockhouse, the men in the fishing vessels readied themselves to land. The Canso detachment commander, Captain Patrick Heron, quickly surrendered, realizing resistance was hopeless. Lieutenant George Ryall, in an armed sloop, held out briefly but capitulated after losing one man and having three or four others injured. The terms of surrender were soon agreed upon: the soldiers of the Phillipps Regiment were to be held prisoner in Louisbourg until May 1745 and the women and children sent to Boston as soon as possible. "After loading the not inconsiderable booty on to the ships, together with the prisoners, the French put to the torch all the buildings at Canso harbour." [11]

The arrival back in Louisbourg must have been tremendously exciting. As soon as the sails of the vessels were spotted, the senior officers in the garrison and the commandant would have been notified. Soon after, the entire town would have been aware of the approaching fleet. The increased size of the fleet - several British vessels were now included - indicated that the expedition had been a success. As the vessels slowly made their way into the harbour, hundreds of people undoubtedly crowded along the quay. By the time the leaders of the French expedition disembarked, Duquesnel and his staff officers must have been there to greet them and receive a quick briefing on the expedition.

Pleased as the French officials were with the success of the colony's first military action, they now faced the immediate problem of housing and feeding the prisoners for the next year. There were far too many - over 100 - for them to be accommodated in the military prisons. Some might be detained aboard small boats moored in the harbour, but for the majority Duquesnel and Bigot decided to rent several buildings in town and convert them into prisons. As for feeding the English, the memory of the severe food shortage in the spring was still fresh in everyone's mind. The situation had improved with the recent arrival of ships from France, the capture of foodstuffs at Canso and the opening of the trading lane to the Acadians, but there was certainly no over-abundance of provisions.

As a result, Bigot set the daily rations of the prisoners at a modest pound of bread, four ounces of cod and four ounces of pork. [12] The prisoners soon found the fare unsatisfactory but that was hardly a concern for the French officials. However, sensibility for the rights of the British was shown to the officers of the Phillipps Regiment. As was appropriate in an age ever mindful of the needs and prerogatives of the upper strata of society - any society - the officers were given a degree of freedom and allowed to make their own arrangements for better meals. According to a subsequent report in a Boston newspaper, "It cost the Officers who were at Liberty about seven pounds a Week, for which they had good Ragoo and Soup, but cannot boast much about their Roast Beef. " [13]

May probably drew to a close with celebrations of Duvivier's success at Canso. It had been a remarkable month, as the mood of the town shifted from anxiety and uncertainty at its beginning to joy and relief at its end. Everyone wondered what June would bring.