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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






© Nimbus Publishing



To a large degree, Louisbourg owed its existence to codfish. Of course, other factors led to the founding of the town, but the most important certainly had to do with the schools of millions of codfish that swam in the waters off 18th-century Île Royale. The fishery was in fact the heart of the Île Royale economy. There were far more people employed in fishery occupations - both in the boats and on shore - than there were in military or domestic positions.



Before the French had arrived at Louisbourg, its anchorage had been known as English Harbour (Havre à l’Anglois). Indeed, since the 1500s the port had been an occasional base for British and other European fishermen. None of those early fishermen, however, had established a permanent settlement.

The French founded Louisbourg in 1713 for two main reasons. First, the Treaty of Utrecht, signed that year to end the War of the Spanish Succession, deprived them of their Placentia, Newfoundland, fishing base. The fishermen, soldiers, and settlers of Placentia had to move somewhere, and Île Royale offered excellent opportunities for continuing the fishery.

Second, Louisbourg was considered the best harbour on Île Royale. It had a large port that did not freeze over in winter; it was easy to enter, exit, and defend; cod were plentiful; and there was ample space on shore for curing the fish.



Although some food was produced locally in 18th-century Louisbourg (kitchen gardens produced vegetables and herbs), most supplies came from France, Canada, New England, Acadia, and the West Indies. The one major exception was fish. There were many species of fish, as well as other kinds of seafood, that could be harvested from the ocean.

Haddock and halibut, salmon and sole, lobsters and oysters - these were some of the species enjoyed by the people of Louisbourg. Yet the undisputed king of the ocean in the 18th century was cod.

Tens of thousands of Europeans came seasonally to the North Atlantic fishing banks in search of cod. Once dried or salted, cod fed millions more in Europe and the West Indies.



People have always needed to preserve food in some way, as fresh food has to be consumed quickly before it decays.

Many centuries ago, people discovered that they could prolong the life of certain foods by drying, smoking, or salting them. This was true for both meat and fish.

One of the most important commodities in the 18th century was dried or salted codfish. The abundant fish offered an excellent source of protein and had good preservative qualities. Dried cod was also easily transported. Moreover, meatless days on the church calendar created a steady demand for the preserved fish.



There were two ways to process and preserve cod. One was known as the wet , or green , fishery; the other as the dry fishery.

In the wet fishery, large ships sailed from France to the vast cod banks off Newfoundland and Île Royale. (The ships and crews went ashore only if necessary, for refit or for supplies.) Soon after the crews hauled the cod on board, they salted it. The salt cod was never taken ashore but was transported directly to France.

The dry fishery, on the other hand, required shore establishments where the drying process could take place. The drying was achieved by splitting the cod, then placing it on wooden flakes, or racks. Through exposure to the sun and wind, and regular turning, the cod gradually lost its moisture. Some salt was also used, though much less than in the wet fishery. Once dried, the cod was ready for shipment to European or West Indian markets.



Fishermen used different types of vessels, depending on the type of fishery in which they were involved.

For the offshore wet fishery, a relatively large ship called a bateau was commonly used. This vessel could hold a large quantity of cod, which was salted and then carried to France, where it was marketed.

Two vessels were commonly used in the dry fishery. One boat was known as a chaloupe (shallop). This small, undecked rowboat was equipped with a short mast. Shallops ranged from 5 to 10 metres in length and carried three-man crews. Used mainly in the inshore fishery, shallops took the cod ashore daily, so these boats did not need a large carrying capacity.

The other vessel used in the dry fishery was the goélette (schooner). Schooners were larger than shallops, ranging from 17 to 25 metres in length. They had a carrying capacity of between 50 and 120 metric tonnes and held 11-man crews. Fishermen used schooners to fish on the banks, 30 kilometres or more offshore. They would stay on the banks for several days, then return to port with their catch.


Louisbourg was once a major centre of trade and commerce in North America. For about half a century, from its founding in 1713 until its fall in 1758, the Île Royale port was one of the busiest along the Atlantic seaboard. Ships from France, the West Indies, New England, Acadia, and other parts of New France called regularly.



Louisbourg’s trade was based on the export of dried cod. The preserved fish was one of the staples of life for many people in Europe and the West Indies. Demand was high and prices were firm.

When merchant ships from France and the West Indies arrived in Louisbourg to purchase cod, they came with cargoes of European and West Indian products. These goods were unloaded at Louisbourg and sold to local merchants. The commodities were then purchased by the people of Louisbourg or resold by merchants and shipped to another market. This practice is known as transshipment. Louisbourg became an important transshipment centre of European and West Indian products. Merchants from New England, Acadia, and Canada came to purchase commodities for resale. This pattern of trade is often referred to as a triangular flow of goods.



Much of the trade in 18th-century North America was carried out by ships. By the 1740s, an average of 130 to 150 ships sailed into Louisbourg every year. These were mostly fishing and trading vessels, along with a few warships. After anchoring, the trading vessels sold their cargoes, exchanged commodities, or delivered civilian or military supplies that had been ordered. Louisbourg had become a major port - a trading centre.

The busiest area at Louisbourg was the waterfront. There were five main wharves in the harbour and many warehouses nearby in the town. A broad expanse of land between the water’s edge and the first houses was known as the quay. (There were many houses and fish flakes on the waterfront outside the fortified town, and property lines were carefully observed.)

Louisbourg’s quay was busy with merchants making deals and people moving goods back and forth.

The coming and going of boats and barges and the hustle and bustle of people made the waterfront exciting. Sometimes auctions were held as well. During the summer shipping season, one could hear many different languages and accents along the quay. Breton, Basque, and Norman fishermen, English traders, West Indian merchants, and Acadian customers all contributed to the cosmopolitan feel of the seaport.

The quay was in many ways the heart of Louisbourg. It was here that goods came ashore, exports were readied for other destinations, and business deals were struck. It was also where wrongdoers were punished, such as in a public flogging or branding.



When the people of Louisbourg spoke of how much something cost, they usually talked in terms of livres. The livre was the basic monetary unit, as the dollar is today.

A pair of shoes may have cost 1 livre, a jacket may have cost 10 livres, a servant may have made 40 or 50 livres for a year’s work.

Although the livre was the basic monetary unit, there was no coin worth exactly one livre. Instead, there were some coins worth several livres and others worth less than one.

The smallest value in the 18th-century French monetary system was the denier. Then came the sol and the livre. Higher-value coins included the écu and the louis d’or. The money was worth the following:

The least-valuable coins were made of copper or copper alloys; the more valuable were made of silver and gold.



When people buy something today, they usually pay cash, write a cheque, or use a credit card. In 18th-century Louisbourg, the methods of payment were slightly different. When people paid cash, they used only coins, as no paper money existed. They also used a barter system in which one good or service was exchanged for another good or service. For instance, a person may have offered a quantity of fish in return for vegetables worth the same amount. Merchants used letters of exchange, similar to cheques or promissory notes, where a buyer put in writing his obligation to pay for certain goods.



In addition to legimate trade, Louisbourg’s merchants sometimes carried on a secret, illegal trade with New England. To understand why such trade was illegal, one must understand how the economy was supposed to work in the 18th century.

Generally, nations in the 18th century did not want their colonies to trade with anyone but themselves. Countries strived to have a more or less self-contained trading system, dominating each of their colonies. This economic theory was known as mercantilism and it was practised by both Great Britain and France.

The colony of Île Royale, therefore, was supposed to trade only with France and other parts of New France. In practice, French colonial officials recognized that Louisbourg sometimes had to buy supplies and provisions from New England. When food supplies ran low, or building materials were required quickly at low cost, some purchases had to be made in New England. As a result, New England cattle, pork, boards, bricks, and shingles regularly made their way to Louisbourg.

The New England trade with the French on Île Royale had strong opponents on the British side. Authorities claimed that it took away business form legitimate British or New England traders.

French merchants, on the other hand, claimed that Louisbourg’s trade with New England was taking away their own chances for profit. Each time a New England ship traded beef, pork, tobacco, tar, or textiles at the fortress town, it meant one less sale for a French merchant. Nevertheless, trade with New England flourished throughout the early 18th century, for Île Royale sometimes had no other source for certain foods and building supplies.



As a port, Louisbourg had many advantages. The harbour was large enough to hold all the ships that needed to anchor there, and its narrow channel opening meant that shore batteries could easily defend it against enemy ships that tried to enter.

At that time, there was no precise way of determining longitude, so ships sailed across the ocean using the line of latitude that led directly from French ports such as Rochefort and La Rochelle to Louisbourg.

Finally, because Louisbourg was located on the eastern tip of Île Royale, which jutted out into the Atlantic, the port was ideally located for triangular trade routes to and from France, the West Indies, and the settlements along the St. Lawrence River.



The size and location of Louisbourg harbour, along with its proximity to the fishing banks, prompted the French to make Louisbourg the major settlement on Île Royale.

Once Louisbourg began to grow and prosper, French officials decided to make it the administrative centre, or capital, of the colony as well. In 1719, work began on the fortifications, which would eventually make the town one of the most formidable fortresses on the continent. Strong defences, together with the excellent harbour, turned Louisbourg into an important naval port.



During the early 18th century, Île Royale commerce suffered pirate attacks. Pirates took anything of value: boats, supplies, fish oil. So serious were these menaces in the 1720s that the Governor feared that the town itself might be attacked. He readied the soldiers and had additional cannons mounted just in case. Luckily, the attack never came.

Most pirates were outlaws from English or French fishing vessels. Some had been dismissed from their ships for insubordination or drunkenness; others had deserted because of low wages and poor food. Often, men stole boats and gear from their masters to begin their career in piracy. In Louisbourg, a boat was taken from immediately below the windows of the financial administrator’s residence, right on the waterfront.

One pirate headquarters was at Cape Ray, Newfoundland. In general, pirates were feared most for their raids on fishing vessels on the Grand Banks or along the Newfoundland coast.


As a busy port, Louisbourg had many onshore facilities. These included wharves and warehouses, inns and cabarets, Canada’s first lighthouse (lit in 1734), a careening wharf to repair ships, and a hospital for sailors. There was even a special court that dealt specifically with maritime laws and regulations. Interestingly enough, all but one of Louisbourg’s governors had been ship captains or naval officers at some time during their careers.

The port required many specialists. In addition to sailors, Louisbourg needed a port captain, pilots, navigators, clerks, and scribes. There was a hydrographer, who drew navigational charts, and even an astronomer for a few years. The astronomer’s study of the stars was part of the worldwide attempt in the mid-18th century to find an accurate way of measuring longitude. In fact, Canada’s first observatory was built at Louisbourg!



All ports need navigational aids. Along Île Royal’s east coast, which could be foggy and stormy, that need was especially strong.

The most important navigational aid at Louisbourg was the lighthouse. Its light was produced by burning fish oil, and under perfect conditions the Louisbourg light could be seen from as far as 3 leagues (12 kilometres) out at sea. In foggy weather, however, the lighthouse was of little use. On foggy days, signal guns were fired on shore to warn ships of the approaching coastline.

Flags were also used as signals. A large white flag indicated that Louisbourg was a French possession. A red flag warned that drift ice was inside the harbour and along the shore. A yellow flag signalled that the town and harbour were under quarantine.

As well, markers, in the shape of crosses, were raised around the harbour mouth to help fishermen and sailors take their bearings.



Life aboard a large 18th-century ship was like that in a small village. Besides sailors, there were blacksmiths, sail-makers, clerks, cooks, a surgeon, coopers, cannoneers, and even soldiers.

As mentioned earlier, the cost of outfitting a large 18th-century warship for a six-month cruise was approximately equal to the annual expenditure on the fortifications of Louisbourg.



When the French engineers designed the defences for Louisbourg, they worried most about an attack from the sea. As a result, the harbour was so well defended that it was practically impenetrable.

The same engineers and other colonial officials believed that the rocky coastline and marshy terrain around Louisbourg would prevent attackers from landing down the coast and coming by land to besiege the town from behind. Just in case, the French built high masonry walls on the landward side but placed very little artillery there.

As it turned out, the New Englanders in 1745 and the British in 1758 did concentrate their assaults on Louisbourg’s weakest front, its landward side. The naval port was so strongly defended that the besiegers knew they could not break through there without first weakening the other defences.



After the 1758 siege, the people of Louisbourg were deported to France. Two years later, British soldiers demolished the fortifications, and by the fall of 1761, only houses remained. Throughout the rest of the 18th century, Louisbourg was home to only a few scattered families of fishermen. It was still a port but no longer a major naval port.

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