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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)



The War: 

A New Phase

With the victory at Canso behind them, the Isle Royale officials quickly turned their attention to a new phase of the war: preying on the commerce of their enemy. In the minister of the Marine's initial despatch concerning the outbreak of hostilities between France and Great Britain he had stressed the need for Duquesnql and Bigot to do everything they could to encourage this kind of war. [1] For his part Maurepas had supplied the blank commissions that gave legal authorization to privateering. While necessary, such commissions were hardly sufficient. Faced with a shortage of small cannons, pistols, swords and axes, Duquesnel and Bigot found themselves unable to promote privateering to the extent they wished. Initially they even delayed posting the king's ordinance encouraging it, [2] apparently to ensure the success of the Canso expedition. Because of the shortage of light ordnance and small arms, very few vessels could be properly outfitted and those that could be outfitted were first and foremost needed on the expedition to Canso. Once that venture was over, privateering by Louisbourg-based vessels could begin. [3] By the end of May that time had arrived.

The first French privateers in action enjoyed the same advantage that the expedition to Canso had enjoyed: the element of surprise. News of the outbreak of war had not arrived in Boston until 23 May, while the first accounts of the raid on Canso did not reach Boston until around 10 June. [4] Hence, from late May until the middle of June there were many unarmed New England boats working the fishing banks off Nova Scotia and Isle Royale whose crews, even if they were aware that war had been declared, may not have known that hostilities had already begun. A good example of such an unsuspecting attitude is that displayed by the crew of the British brigantine later identified as the Deux Frères. On 12 June the crew of a French privateer or corsaire called the Marie Joseph, whose captain was Pierre Detcheverry, sighted a British vessel fishing on the banks. Having decided among themselves to attempt a capture, Detcheverry and his crew approached the brigantine and asked for some bread. The crew obligingly lowered their sails and allowed a small group of French aboard. The French then overpowered the British crew and took the brigantine and its cargo as a prize. [5]

Even when British vessels were aware of the war they remained extremely vulnerable when compared with the armed French privateers, as is well illustrated by an incident at Canso harbour on 4 June. A French privateer called the Signe sailed into the harbour and spotted a boat flying a French flag. The Signe's captain, François Bauchet de Saint-Martin, asked the crew of the vessel to identify themselves. When they replied that they were British and had come to fish, Saint-Martin asked them to surrender to him, which they did immediately. The fact that the vessel was flying a French flag probably indicates that they were aware of the war but hoped not to be interfered with by French privateers, an ill-founded hope as it turned out.

The capture at Canso on 4 June by Saint-Martin was the first of seven that he and his crew would make over the next nine days. Sailing off the coast from Canso to Sable Island, Saint-Martin enjoyed great success in capturing the small, unarmed, fishing boats working the banks. In most cases Saint-Martin had to chase them and convince them to surrender by firing several musket shots in their general direction. In none of the incidents did the fishermen fire back, presumably because they had no muskets. After each capture except one, Saint-Martin placed several of his armed men aboard the prize to ensure that it made its way to Louisbourg. The exception occurred on 11 June when he decided to transfer the cargo from one prize to the hold of another taken the day before, probably because he was running short of men he could spare to take charge of it. [6]

By the middle of June everyone in Louisbourg was aware of the string of captures enjoyed by Saint-Martin and the Signe. The prizes with their cargoes of cod, salt and fish oil had all arrived in the capital by 14 June. Although Saint-Martin was not the only successful privateer, [7] he was certainly the most successful. His remarkable example encouraged others in Louisbourg to outfit their own privateers in order to take full advantage of the opportunities for profit on the high seas. However, they would have been well advised to guard against overzealousness, considering what happened to Jean Fougères. Fougères, of Port Toulouse, had captured a British schooner near the Canso Islands on 11 June without possessing an authorized commission as a privateer. In its place he had handwritten permission from Pierre Benoist, the commandant at Port Toulouse. When Fougères later brought his prize to Louisbourg, it was confiscated because he had not been properly licensed. [8]

Although optimistic about capturing prizes, the financial backers and crews of the privateers outfitted at Louisbourg after mid- June realized that they could no longer count on the unpreparedness of British vessels. Moreover, they recognized that the next phase of privateering would have to take place many more leagues to the south, farther from Louisbourg and closer to the "busy shipping lanes to and from Boston. [9] Finally, everyone knew that it was only a matter of time before British privateers would be out to sea in search of French prizes.

As a result of the increased dangers, the French privateers that were outfitted in the latter half of June were larger and better armed than those active in the first half of the month. Where Saint- Martin's Signe was armed only with muskets, the later privateers carried artillery. The number of cannons depended principally upon the size of the vessel and the willingness of the investors to buy available ordnance. In the case of the Cantabre, which had taken part in the Canso expedition and was outfitted as a privateer in mid-June at a cost of over 17 500 livres, eight cannons and eight swivel guns were purchased by its backers. In contrast, the St. Charles, outfitted at the same time for over 6300 livres by most of the same investors, carried only two cannons. The men who provided much of the financial backing for these two privateers, and possibly for others that summer, were none other than Bigot, Duquesnel and François Duvivier who. besides being an officer, was well known for his involvement in merchant trade. [10] Doubtless they were open to possible conflict-of-interest charges by investing in privateers, but one suspects that they were prepared to rationalize such investments as one of the best ways in which they could help the colony, and therefore France, in the war effort against the British.

Privateering, incidentally, was not necessarily directed against all British shipping. Two vessels from New England which had brought flour to the colony in the spring of 1744, in accordance with an agreement made in December 1743 and in spite of the war, were given protection from French privateers and king's ships. On 21 June 1744, probably a day or so before the two vessels sailed from Louisbourg, the captains re given handwritten laissez-passer signed by Duquesnel and Bigot. [11]

In addition to encouraging the Louisbourg-based privateers, Duquesnel and Bigot took steps to protect the commercial and fishing interests of Isle Royale from possible British aggression. Commencing on 10 June, a schooner called the Succès was rented at 1400 livres per month from merchant Jean-Baptiste Lannelongue to serve as a coast-guard ship. This same vessel had been used in the expedition against Canso, at which time Lannelongue was paid 1500 livres for its use.[12] Pierre Morpain, port captain at Louisbourg since 1715, was selected to command the Succès. Fifty-eight years old in 1744, Morpain was probably the best person to command the coast guard. During the War of the Spanish Succession he had captured prize after prize in the waters off New England and Acadiq,and his name was still known and feared by New England merchants. [13]

Before Morpain and the 106-man crew of the Succès could begin patrolling the waters off Isle Royale, the schooner had to be outfitted. As with the Canso expedition and the housing and feeding of the British prisoners at Louisbourg, here was an opportunity for additional income for the many retailers and wholesalers in the capital. During the four and one-half months (10 June to 21 October 1744) that the Succès was commissioned as the coast guard of Isle Royale, more than 32 000 livres' worth of goods and services were purchased out of the king's treasury. [14] Among the many supplies purchased were swivel guns, medical supplies obtained from the Brothers of Charity, firewood, hard-tack, wine (3000 livres' worth, mostly red wine from Bordeaux), Holland cheese, and a small quantity of fresh meat for any sailors who might fall ill. [15] The initial provisions and supplies were probably all aboard by the middle of June and sometime thereafter Morpain and the crew of the Succès sailed out of Louisbourg harbour to begin their patrols.

Although most of the French officials' attention was on the war at sea, the possibility of future hostilities on land was not completely overlooked. In early June a vessel was sent to Port Toulouse (St. Peter's) with supplies for the troops garrisoned there. On its return voyage a few days later, the boat brought back to Louisbourg six cannons. (A month later a similar trip was made to Port Dauphin [Englishtown] to bring back to the capital all of the cannons and shot from that post.) In addition to concentrating available ordnance in the stronghold of Isle Royale, the colonial officials took care to cultivate their alliance with the Micmacs. Towards the end of June, supplies of tobacco and other goods were purchased for subsequent distribution to those valuable allies. [16]

By the end of June the military strategists on Isle Royale could look back on another month of definite successes. French privateering had virtually driven all British vessels from nearby waters, although not before more than a dozen prizes had been taken and some considerable profits made. In July the war on British commerce would begin in the waters off Massachusetts, admittedly a more dangerous zone, but one with an even greater potential for profits because of the many merchant vessels sailing to and from Boston. There was also talk of an expedition to Annapolis Royal. Perhaps that plan would be set in action in July.

To date the wartime response of the New Englanders, at least in so far as it affected Isle Royale, was negligible. What preparations and discussions had gone on in the American colonies throughout June were, of course, unknown to the inhabitants of Isle Royale. On 11 June Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts had outlined a policy of defence to the General Court of the colony. Among his recommendations was a proposal to send reinforcements to Annapolis Royal for he believed that the French were likely to strike at the principal British settlement on Nova Scotia before the summer was over. The House of Representatives showed no enthusiasm for his proposal until news of the fall of Canso reached them. Then, on 23 June, the House voted to have two independent 60-man companies of volunteers raised in Massachusetts and sent to Annapolis Royal. Recruiting did not go well as prospective volunteers demanded more bounty money than was offered. Late in June Shirley received a letter from the lieutenant governor of Annapolis Royal, Paul Mascarene, in which the desperate plight of the Nova Scotian capital was outlined. Fearful of an imminent attack by the French and their Indian allies, Mascarene urged that 200 men be sent to Nova Scotia as soon as possible. On the last day of the month Shirlcy again appealed to the House of Representp4ives to do all it could to send the reinforcements needed at Annapolis. [17]