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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


Extracts of Matters of Historical Interest from "The Huissier, News For and About the Fortress of Louisbourg Heritage Presentation Staff" By The Fortress of Louisbourg Heritage Presentation Staff


(June 23, 2005)

Cape Breton after 1758: A Brief Synopsis

A common question by visitors is about what happened after the fall of Louisbourg. Although this is not in our statement of commemorative integrity, it is nice to have a little knowledge on the topic. By Ken Donovan, Staff Historian

After capturing Louisbourg in 1758 the British blew up the fortifications and abandoned the town. Ile Royale, renamed Cape Breton, was mostly depopulated and became a part of Nova Scotia. Some 250 Cape Breton Mi’kmaq, the aboriginal people who had been allies of the French, made peace overtures to the British and signed treaties at Halifax in 1760-61. By 1785 there were some 1,000 Acadians in the Isle Madame area, some of whom had remained on the island since 1713, and500 Loyalists from New England in Sydney and environs. In order to provide positions for the Loyalists, Cape Breton was made a separate colony in 1785 with its own governor and executive council. Cape Breton's status as a crown colony was marked by political infighting among local politicians and these difficulties would lead to the island's annexation to Nova Scotia in 1820.

Cape Breton's population had grown to 55,000 by 1851 with the Scots outnumbering the Acadians, Loyalists and Irish by two to one. In contrast to mainland Nova Scotia, the majority of Cape Breton's people were Roman Catholic and Gaelic speaking. In 1851 there were 31,992 Roman Catholics on Cape Breton, 58 per cent of a total population of 55,000. On mainland Nova Scotia, however, there were only 37,642 Catholics, 15 per cent of total population of 244,125.

By the 1850's Cape Breton's coastal areas had been developed and there was also considerable settlement in the interior. Large areas of forest had been cleared and farming, together with the fishery, were the island's principal economic activities. Cape Breton's resource-based economy, however, failed to provide the necessary employment for its young people. The emigration of young people contributed to the decline of Cape Breton's Scottish culture. There were 75,414 Nova Scotians of Scottish descent in 1931 and some 24,303 spoke Gaelic. Ten years later this figure dropped to 12,065. Today, there are only a few hundred Gaelic-speaking people in Cape Breton.

The rapid industrialization of Cape Breton at the end of the 19th Century helped to stem some of the outward migration. Although small in landward area, Cape Breton's Sydney coal field was Canada's largest producer of coal for over two centuries. Until 1960 it produced approximately one third of Canada's annual production. Coal mining has touched the lives of most Cape Bretoners since there were over 70 mines developed in the Sydney coal field through the years.

Besides providing employment for the miners, the coalmines stimulated the lumbering, shipbuilding and shipping industries. The coalmines also led to the development of a major steel centre in Sydney. Incorporated in 1904, the new city of  Sydney grew up around the older colonial town. Following the establishment of the steel complex in 1900, Sydney's population expanded from 3,659 in 1891 to 17,723 by 1911. The new coal mines and steel plants stimulated large-scale immigration to Cape Breton. Immigrants from Newfoundland and returning Cape Bretoners from the United States were joined by a few thousand people from overseas such as Ukrainians, Poles and Hungarians from Eastern Europe, Italians and Lebanese from the Mediterranean, and people of African origin from the West Indies and the southern United States.

The history of  Cape Breton - and much of the Atlantic Provinces - has been one of underdevelopment. Except for the war years 1914-18 and 1939-45, jobless figures have remained high for Cape Breton through out much of the 20th Century. The post-war depression after World War I resulted in lower production in Cape Breton's steel and coal industries. Coal production from 1919 to 1939 averaged 3.9 million tons per year, down from a high of 5.5 million in 1915.The problems in the coal industry in the 1920's continued apace for the next 40 years. Coal production declined from 5.2 million tons in 1940 to just over one million tons in 1973. The coal miners turned to trade unionism and labour militancy to obtain improved conditions of wages and labour. Cape Breton now has no operating coal mines or steel plant.

Cape Breton is home to 147,000 people, 16 per cent of Nova Scotia’s population of 908,000. Some 6,000 Mi’kmaq, part of the Algonquin-speaking people, live on five reserves throughout the island and the majority still speak their native language. The Mi’kmaq are part of Cape Breton’s new economy. As the world economy enters the post-industrial age, there is an effort to diversify Cape Breton's economy to small-scale enterprise and the new information technology. With its rugged beauty, the world-famous Cabot Trail, and the reconstructed Fortress of Louisbourg, tourism is also one of the leading sectors of the new economy on the island. There is a growing recognition that the more diversified the Cape Breton economy becomes, the stronger it will be. As for Cape Breton’s distinctive culture, here too there is much reason for optimism. Over the past 40 years Cape Breton has experienced a cultural revival, especially in Celtic music. Largely because of its geography and homogenous background, Cape Breton’s revival is more concentrated and focussed than that occurring in other parts of the country. Committed to their sense of place and their personal relationships, Cape Bretoners have grown up knowing the genealogy of their friends and the people around them. Audiences at home have never been better and there is a growing realization across the country and throughout the world that Cape Breton has its own special voice.