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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





Report H E 08

Fortress of Louisbourg



In theory, soldiers of the Isle Royale Compagnies Franches were paid nine livres per month to serve the king. [Note 1]However, it is important to bear in mind that 18th century military pay was largely an accounting abstraction. The greatest part of this wage was retained to cover the cost of food, clothing and a few necessary articles such as needles and combs that were issued to each man. Only 1 1/2 livres per soldier per month was transferred to the colony's military treasury but it is unlikely that very much of this net pay ever reached the soldier in the form of cash. Additional deductions at Louisbourg, for example, three livres per year taken from each man's wages for the support of the surgeon's assistant [Note 2], consumed part of this meagre sum while the balance generally went straight into the pockets of the captains to repay the debts of the men in their companies. [Note 3] Wage rates in the Karrer regiment were apparently somewhat higher than in the Compagnies Franches, but it seems safe to assume that they also bore little relation to any actual money payments to the Swiss soldiers. [Note 4]

Taken together, the military pay, rations and allowances which the French soldiers actually received would be enough for a bare subsistence at best. [Note 5] However, most of the men, French and Swiss, were able to supplement their soldier's wages. Those who simply did guard duty in the summer received 27 to 30 livres a season from a fund created by a five per cent tax on the earnings of working soldiers who were exempted from guard duty. [Note 6] Many men found employment in Louisbourg, building houses for private parties, exercising a specialized craft or performing odd jobs, [Note 7] but by far the most important employer of military labour was the construction of Louisbourg's fortifications. Building a European style fortress in a sparsely populated colony was an ambitious undertaking and one of the greatest problems facing the Marine Ministry was in securing an adequate labour supply. [Note 8] Since civilian artisans and labourers were reluctant to come to Isle Royale most of the work fell to the troops. In fact, throughout most of our period and until shortly before the first siege, the authorities in France apparently felt that one of the primary purposes of maintaining a garrison in the colony was to provide workers for the construction project. The season or "campaign" lasted about six months from May to October and, in 1724 when there were less than 430 soldiers in the colony, 236 (together with 17 civilians) were employed full-time working on the fortifications. [Note 9]

The construction of Louisbourg's fortifications was not administered directly by the crown but rather farmed out to a private contractor who was responsible, among other things, for paying the soldier-workers. The state nevertheless took an active role in the project, partly through the chief engineer, a military officer independent of the colony's military command, who superintended the works and was in charge of the discipline of the work force. The engineer and the contractor usually cooperated closely but the governor also had some authority over the works and he and the other staff and company officers also exercised authority over the men. Thus the administration was complicated and, in the 1720s when the soldier-workers still received their wages directly from the contractor, they were often able to take advantage of the fact that the engineer together with the contractor was often at odds with the governor and the officers and neither party was able to claim their undivided obedience.

Although theoretically free agents in the labour market, physically fit soldiers who were not required for duty in the outposts and guardrooms were often obliged to work. One of their primary tasks was excavating and moving earth for the massive ramparts and ditches and they worked as day labourers or, more frequently, on a piece work basis in gangs led by a "chef d'attelier" who was apparently himself a soldier. [Note 10] The workers were allowed to negotiate pay scales collectively with the contractors and, in the early years, they occasionally staged demonstrations and refused to work in order to force their employer to raise the rates. [Note 11] The governor could intervene in case of deadlock and, since he was not directly interested in keeping down construction costs but was concerned about morale and about the difficulties of keeping the soldiers At the fortifications at a time when a boom in private construction provided them with a lucrative alternative source of employment, he often settled the issue in favour of the men. [Note 12] As the only substantial work force in the 1720s when public works in the colony were particularly extensive, the soldiers were in a relatively strong position and one that was in some ways strengthened by their military status, which meant that their subsistence was secure and their physical welfare the responsibility of their company captains. It is difficult to determine how much money the soldier-workers earned as a result but the Minister of Marine concluded from the reports of "strikes" and "émeutes" that they were becoming rich and consequently insubordinate. [Note 13]

It was one thing to establish pay rates however, and another to collect the actual wages. Because of delays in forwarding funds, the contractor frequently found himself unable to pay the men in cash and resorted to the expedients of distributing notes which could only be redeemed at a discount, or paying in goods, especially wine. When funds were available, the workers were paid every two weeks, after which the majority went straight to the taverns and did not reappear for several days. [Note 14]

The soldier-worker's position as a wage earner may have been a good one but, as a consumer, he was extremely vulnerable. Since soldiers were not allowed to buy from merchants on credit, the custom was established from the earliest years of the colony's existence of giving each captain a monopoly on sales to the men of his company. [Note 15] This commerce was considered a duty as well as a privilege as it consisted mainly of essential items such as shoes and stockings (the standard military issues of these articles were never sufficient) as well as tobacco, liquor and extra food. [Note 16] The officers provided these "fournitures" at greatly inflated prices and, in order to collect their debts, simply had the 30 sols per month that remained of their men's military wages after deductions paid directly into their hands. This monopoly was not complete however, and in the 1720s the captains frequently complained of the contractor's practice of increasing his profits by advancing goods to the workers in lieu of wages. [Note 17] Furthermore, these officers claimed, the soldier-workers consumed much more merchandise than their military pay would afford and, although they had to be given clothing to protect them from the winter, they quickly squandered any cash they received from the contractor in the summer and neglected to repay their officers. [Note 18] Thus, captains and contractors struggled for a greater share of the soldier-worker's earnings through catering to his wants and needs.

In the early years, the contractor had the advantage of being supported by the Marine Ministry but the captains had the backing of the colonial governor. The officers scored their first victory in 1721 when they obtained permission for a sergeant to be present at paydays in order to compel workers in need of new clothing to purchase it on the spot. [Note 19] The contractor successfully resisted these pretentions however, and in 1727 the French officers complained that their men were being paid mostly in merchandise and in advance. They asked that the wages soldiers earned working on the fortifications, like their military wages, be turned over from the contractor to the company captains who could deduct the value of each man's debts and pay him the balance in cash. [Note 20] This was apparently already the practice in the Swiss contingent but it was not until some time in the 1730-35 period that the officers of the Compagnies Franches gained such complete control over the fruits of their men's labour. How or why they defeated their opponent is not clear but it is certain that, from that time until 1744, the captains derived a substantial portion of their total incomes from the profits they made from their soldier-workers and they were not negligent in searching for ways to increase these.

The administration of the Isle Royale garrison was never very orderly before 1745 and there is no indication that the captains were obliged to keep close accounts or to report to anyone on how they disposed of the workers' wages with which they were entrusted. They soon began paying the men their cash balances only once a year at the end of the construction season, thereby all but eliminating the possibility that any of them could stay out of debt. [Note 21] In view of the limited demand for shirts and shoes they apparently expanded their merchandising facilities, concentrating on an institution called the canteen. In the 1730s and forties, each captain operated a canteen where his men could drink wine and spirits on credit and at exorbitant prices. Complaints about the canteens and their effects on drunkenness and absenteeism multiplied around 1740 when there were even allegations that officers forced working soldiers to spend their earnings on drink. [Note 22] When the newly appointed governor Duquesnel arrived in the colony, he reported that the soldier-workers generally received no money whatsoever and he identified this situation as "un viel mal".

I1 faut attaquer les fournitures qu'on fait aux soldats et les Cantines, qui font que quelque travail que fasse un travailleur, il ne voit jamais un sol on luy fait tout Consommer, de la livrongnerie et le degout pour le travail, auquel ils ne vont de forcés. [Note 23]

In the late 1730s and early forties, the Minister of Marine in France manifested a concern over "abuses" in the Louisbourg garrison that indicates he thought matters were more serious there than in Canada where the officers' routine appropriation of the military pay of working soldiers had been tolerated for years. [Note 24] He had received reports about the confiscation of soldier-workers' pay and about other forms of exploitation, such as the captains' practice of taking the uniforms from the bodies of dead soldiers and "selling" them to new recruits. [Note 25] Two new governors were appointed from outside the colony, de Forant in 1739 and Duquesnel in 1740, and instructed to remedy the situation. The officers were threatened with exemplary punishment unless they began treating their men more fairly and the Minister actually went so far as to suspend the awarding of the "Croix de St. Louis" in the garrison in 1742. [Note 26] Neither the minister nor the governors however could effectively oppose the firmly entrenched interests of the officers who convinced them that their salaries were not sufficient to support a family in a difficult and expensive environment like that of Isle Royale. Thus no fundamental change was made in the system of exploitation which left a captain free to dispose of his men and their income as he saw fit. [Note 27] Still, the governors apparently exercised some restraining influence over the officers and when Duquesnel died in October, 1744 and the command was assumed by Duchambon, a veteran of the Isle Royale officer corps, the latter's former colleagues seem to have abandoned any inhibitions that limited their profiteering at the soldiers' expense.