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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



From the spring of 1744, Isle Royale suffered from a shortage of supplies. Harvests were poor in Canada where much of the colony's food was grown and in France, another major supplier, merchants hesitated to send ships across the Atlantic where they could easily be lost, now that war had been declared, to New England privateers. The situation was not improved in the summer and autumn when Louisbourg had to feed some 300-500 English prisoners captured during the Canso raid and by the privateers. [Note 1] More than most other groups however the soldiers of the garrison, both French and Swiss, were sheltered from the effects of shortages of this kind. In return for a constant deduction from their pay that was unaffected by market fluctuations, the men received rations from the large stocks of flour, salt pork and other staples that the government maintained for their consumption. Occasionally, in times of food shortages, they would be given reduced rations or biscuit instead of bread, so that the authorities could distribute supplies from the king's storehouse to needy civilians. Often, the problem was one of food quality rather than quantity and soldiers frequently complained when their bread was made of rotten flour mixed with good. [Note 2] It was not an unprecedented development therefore, when, late in 1744, the commissaire-ordonnateur François Bigot ordered the sale of foodstuffs from the government storehouse and the soldiers, whose rations were still not reduced, found themselves issued inferior provisions.

The event that pushed the garrison to revolt was the fortnightly issue of "vegetables" (the dried peas and beans which constituted the major element of the soup that was the soldiers' evening meal) that was distributed about a week before Christmas and was so rotten as to be completely inedible. Some men apparently became ill from eating them but those who simply did without and ate only their bread ration hand their spruce beer were in no danger of starving. [Note 3] What infuriated the troops was the knowledge that there were good vegetables in the storehouse but these were being sold to the townspeople; meanwhile, they received swills which they were obliged to pay for through wage deductions. A deputation of Swiss soldiers therefore attempted to return the bad vegetables in exchange for good ones but was rebuffed by the keeper of the royal storehouse. [Note 4]Complaints were made to the commanding officer of the Karrer detachment, Gabriel Schonherr, but they had no effect. [Note 5]

About 22 or 23 December, a petition addressed to Louis Dupont Duchambon, the acting garrison commander was drawn up. Some Swiss soldiers visited the barracks-rooms of the Compagnies Franches and secured support of some of the French troops. [Note 6] Thus the petition read, "Un grand nombre de soldats françois et suisses vous supplient tres respectueusement...," although it seems that only the Swiss, and especially Abraham Dupaquier, Joseph Renard and Laurent Soly, played an active role at this stage. Soly, of unknown nationality, had previously served in the Spanish army and elsewhere. He was killed or captured early in the siege of 1745 and therefore was never brought to trial.[Note 7] Renard was 33 years old, a catholic and was born in German Lorraine. [Note 8] Most active of the three, it seems, was Dupaquier, a 25 year old native of Neuchatel. His family background was not of the most humble and his father had been lieutenant-colonel in a Swiss regiment in the service of the king of Sardinia. [Note 9] Two years before the mutiny, Dupaquier had abjured calvinism under the influence of one of the recollets who cared for him in the Louisbourg hospital. [Note 10] It was apparently he who was chiefly responsible for composing the petition. Fortunately a copy has been preserved and a reading of it makes it evident that rotten vegetables were not the only issue that annoyed the soldiers. In a deferential yet somewhat menacing tone, this document begins with complaints about the vegetables then proceeds to allude to a number of other grievances after the general observation, "... vous sçavez Monsieur que l'Injustice regne a touttes mains en ce pays ..." [Note 11]

This petition was not handed over to the commandant immediately, no doubt because the soldiers did not expect it would have any more effect than had the complaints to Schonherr if it were submitted in the regular way. Instead, plans were made for a peaceful assembly where it would be presented and the authorities would be forced to take notice. Joseph Renard testified at his court-martial that there was no question of assembling at the time the petition was drawn up and he and Dupaquier insisted that the idea of bringing the troops out in a mass only occurred to them on the evening before the mutiny. Their testimony seems suspect however. They had every reason for portraying their actions as a relatively sudden outburst (all the less culpable since they had been drinking the night of 26 December) rather than as a premeditated plot, and yet the Swiss sergeant Christophe Jout admitted that Soly and Renard had spoken the day before Christmas of plans for a peaceful protest gathering.[Note 12] The judges who later tried these men did not consider it necessary to establish the existence of a plot before the twenty-sixth in order to convict them and showed no interest in pursuing this matter. Thus the sources leave us free to speculate idly as to how elaborate the plot was in the day or two before and after Christmas, how many soldiers were privy to it, whether the French were involved and whether a decision was made to bear arms at the projected assembly. In view of subsequent events and in the light of the meagre testimony, it seems probable that there was little contact with the French and that few Swiss besides the three principal conspirators knew what was planned until the night before the uprising.

Whenever the plot was hatched, it was during the evening of 26 December that Soly, Renard and Dupaquier went from room to room in the Swiss section of the barracks asking the men to join them, "pour s'assembler le landemain afin de demander a leurs de leur procurer Justice sur les Vivres qui leurs Etoient dus ..." [Note 13] Some of the men were sleeping but Renard made a list of the names of those who agreed to participate. (Naturally, the list was subsequently lost.) Afterwards, Renard and Dupaquier were nominated to go to speak with the French soldiers who occupied adjoining rooms. [Note 14] Dupaquier admitted to having communicated only with a few men in two of the eight French companies and he claims that he merely informed them of the Swiss plans for an assembly. The three leaders then returned to their room and remained awake for the rest of the night.

Next morning (the twenty-seventh), at about six o'clock, the Swiss began assembling behind the barracks building in the courtyard enclosed by the King's Bastion. The sergeants did not appear (most of them had their own dwellings in the town), but a corporal named du Croix, who had apparently not been involved in the plans, took charge and arranged the men in their ranks, ordered the drummers to beat out the signal for the assembly and returned to the barracks to order those who had not yet appeared to fall in. [Note 15] Normal military procedures and discipline were maintained at this stage. Du Croix even overruled one of the leading organizers, Joseph Renard, and ordered him to return to his place when the latter began to take some initiative. Dupaquier and Renard later declared at the court-martial that they had not intended to carry arms but had changed their minds when all the others went for their guns after a voice in the crowd had urged them to "give more weight to their just demands." They may well have been lying. In any case, the officer who was eventually fetched by the first sergeant found himself facing almost the entire Karrer detachment armed and in battle formation.

Schonherr was sick at the time and it was Ensign Rasser, the second Swiss officer, who first met the rebellious troops. [Note 16] When the drumming ceased Rasser asked for an explanation and was handed a note which outlined the men's grievances. [Note 17] He examined this then spoke with a few individual soldiers, one by one, about their complaints. When the ensign recalled the scene eight months later, he remembered the troops' orderly and respectful behavior and their assurances that they had no intention of committing violent actions or of neglecting their duties to their superiors; they wished only "de Reclamer leur Justice des Vexations qu'on leur Faisoit Journellement ..." [Note 18] Rasser mentioned three specific grievances in his affidavit and prominent among them was the problem of the rotten vegetables. There was also a complaint about work the soldiers were forced to perform without wages for the king's service and for private individuals. Lastly, the men asked for compensation for work they had done on an expedition against Canso earlier in the year and for the pillage they had been promised but never received. [Note 19]

The complaint about unpaid labour was not a new one for the Swiss who were even more attached than were the French to the notion that a soldier should not be given any tasks outside his strictly military duties (duties such as mounting guard) unless he is given extra pay. In 1727 they had contested the custom of "piquoit" duty by which the état-major made soldiers coming off guard duty spend a few hours cleaning the barracks or at chores in the government storehouse. [Note 20] The practice persisted however and Joseph Renard complained of having to fetch wood and clean the governor's latrine. [Note 21] Men were often obliged to work without remuneration for their own officers as well. [Note 22] Both Renard and Dupaquier declared at their court-martials that such "ouvrages extraordinaires" were a major source of dissatisfaction.

The treatment of the soldiers who took part in the Canso raid was a specific case of flagrant injustice that aroused the anger of both French and Swiss troops. Soon after war broke out between England and France in the spring of 1744, plans were made to capture this nearby English fishing post. In its aims and its organization, the Canso expedition bore more resemblance to a privateering venture than to a military campaign. [Note 23] It was largely financed by merchants and government officials and was composed of soldiers from the Louisbourg garrison as well as over 200 sailors, all under the command of the opportunist Duvivier, an influential officer in the Compagnies Franches. Duquesnel, the colony's governor, convinced 80 French soldiers and 37 Swiss to volunteer for the mission with the promise that they would have a share of the booty. [Note 24] A small fleet left Louisbourg 20 May and quickly captured Canso and a British naval sloop after a short exchange of cannon fire. [Note 25] The soldiers saw no action until they landed and were ordered to load quantities of codfish, government stores and the private effects of the British inhabitants into the boats. When some hesitated they were roughly treated by their officers: "Le moindre des Miserables seroit mieux traitté parmi des barbares," according to the men who served on board one of the boats. [Note 26] As soon as the victorious party returned to Louisbourg, the ships' officers and sailors and the garrison officers who had accompanied them made off with most of the plunder before anything was turned over to the courts to be distributed as lawful prize. In the end, the soldiers received nothing for their trouble. Governor Duquesnel, who had promised them a share of the spoils, died on 9 October and, although one group of soldiers addressed a petition to the ordonnateur in November, they received no satisfaction. [Note 27]

Rasser listened to all these grievances in the courtyard of the citadel. He promised no more than to communicate them to his superior, Schonherr. Then, warning the men not to repeat their demonstration, he made them present arms, before ordering them to return to the barracks and stay there. This done, the ensign rushed to Schonherr's bedside and reported the disturbance. The senior officer ordered Rasser to ask de la Perelle, the town major, to order the bad vegetables replaced. But already it was too late. As he emerged from Schonherr's house, the drums were again beating. This time it was the French sounding the general alarm. After their officer had left, it seems, some Swiss soldiers had gone to the other side of the barracks and reproached the French as cowards for not joining in the demonstration. The men of the Compagnies Franches may have been slow to act but once they took up the challenge they were far less restrained than the others. With their intervention the relatively mild protest was transformed into a serious revolt.

Soldiers, both French and Swiss, poured out into the courtyard equipped for battle. The drummers continued to beat the "générale" and, as their comrades assembled, they marched out of the citade1 [Note 28] surrounded by an escort with bayonettes fixed. As this body passed through the streets of the town, the garrison officers, who for the most part lived in private houses, were roused by what must have sounded like a signal that the fortress was under attack. Coming to the citadel to investigate, they found themselves facing the muskets of men who threatened to "blow their heads off" if they entered the enclosure. [Note 29] These were the ten soldiers who had spent the night on routine guard duty at the entrance to the fort under the command of Christophe Jout, the Swiss sergeant. Soly and Renard had spoken with him three days earlier about their plans for a demonstration and, the morning of the mutiny, Jout ordered his sentries not to allow any officers or civilians to pass. As the party of drummers marched by the guard post, he was heard to say, "Les françois commencent a s animer et ils font mieux les choses que les notres Etant armés Bayonette aà Bout fusil." [Note 30]

Eventually a number of officers managed to elude the sentries and gain entrance to the courtyard. Among them was Ensign Rasser who described the scene inside as one of tumult and disorder. The soldiers talked openly of killing all the officers and burning the town. The officers present tried desperately with bravado and cajoling to regain control of their companies. According to Rasser, he brought the Karrer contingent to obedience first, while the French were still pointing guns at their officers and threatening to shoot if their demands were not met. [Note 31] Meanwhile, Major de la Perelle was following the drummers and their escort through the town vainly ordering them to halt. At one point, he attempted to stand in their path but he was picked up roughly and carried 30 paces. [Note 32] Giving up at length, he went to the citadel where by now the atmosphere had cooled somewhat. The officers had apparently agreed to accept all the rebels' demands and the men showed their willingness to recognize de la Perelle's authority by following, more or less, his parade-ground commands.

Before the major's arrival it seems, acting Governor Duchambon, the supreme military authority in the colony, had appeared at the fort and surrendered to the troops' demands. Duchambon had no alternative but complete capitulation. His garrison, almost to a man, was in open revolt. [Note 33] At the best of times, help from France or Canada would take months to arrive but, given the war and British command of the seas, the colony was particularly isolated in 1744. Moreover, there was no alternative force within the colony - The Isle Royale militia, unlike its Canadian counterpart, was small and ineffective - that could dream of opposing the rebels. The promise to redress all grievances quelled the violence, but the soldiers remained uneasy. Duchambon and Bigot, writing to the Minister of Marine four days later, declared that the complaints of the French and the Swiss were identical but the specific demands they mentioned as having come from the French troops were not the same as those presented to Rasser by the Swiss. The situation was confused and a great variety of demands were apparently put forward. The governor and ordonnateur recorded three of them: (1) an increase in the issue of firewood and the return to the soldiers of five cords of wood confiscated for theft; (2) the immediate distribution of the rations that some of the men had missed because they were away participating in the Canso attack and in a later expedition against Port Royal, and (3) the reimbursement of the clothing deduction that had been taken from the wages of more than 100 French recruits who had arrived in 1741 but never received the uniforms it was supposed to pay for. [Note 34]

The second demand in Duchambon's and Bigot's list was not repeated in any other document. It is possible that, in reporting to the minister, they may have misinterpreted or misrepresented much more serious complaints about the treatment of volunteers during and after the Canso raid. At any rate, the only contemporary account of the mutiny not written by an observer directly involved, considered injustices committed against the Canso volonteers to be the major grievance of all the soldiers. [Note 35] The complaint about the missing uniforms was a uniquely French affair but it had much in common with the rotten vegetables problem which aroused the anger of both French and Swiss troops. The soldiers had often endured with patience delays and shortages in the issue of military rations and allowances, but they became irritated when wage deductions that supposedly paid for these supplies were not adjusted accordingly.

The demand for more firewood has an interesting background. In the early years of the colony's history, the soldiers had to obtain all their own fuel. By the 1720s, the scrubby spruce forest had been stripped from all the country within three miles of Louisbourg. It was reported that each winter several men contracted frostbite and injured themselves stumbling over the brush and stumps in order to fetch a few logs of what was in fact a poor quality of firewood. [Note 36] The authorities in France were eventually persuaded to allow wood to be purchased for the garrison, but only at the rate of one half cord per man even though about twice that quantity was required to last through the long Cape Breton winter. [Note 37] Thus the men were still obliged to cut and transport half their wood and this apparently constituted a severe hardship, particularly for the many who did not have adequate clothing. The exceptionally cold winter that had arrived earlier than usual in 1744 must have made the mutineers' demand for an adequate fuel supply especially emphatic. [Note 38] As for the confiscation before Christmas of five cords of "stolen" wood, the soldiers' petition to Duchambon alluded to this event in rather different terms. It seems that a group of soldiers returning to the town with a load of firewood were met by some officers claiming to own the land where it had been cut. The officers ordered them to turn over the wood then broke the sledge they had used to carry it. [Note 39]

All the recorded grievances that were brought up by both the French and the Swiss soldiers can be seen as essentially complaints about losses they had suffered at the hands of cheating officers and colonial officials. Consequently, the redress the men sought was in the form of material compensation. One of the rebels' first acts was to make use of the established sentry posts in the town to secure control of the government storehouses and the house of François Bigot, the ranking civilian administrator and guardian of the colonial treasury. [Note 40] They were never so bold as simply to seize what they wanted however, in spite of their repeated threats to do so. Instead, after the officers had promised to meet all demands and partial calm had been restored during the morning of 27 December, a deputation, apparently led by Dupaquier, went to call on Bigot to arrange for the fulfillment of this promise. From this point on, most of the documentary sources dry up leaving Bigot himself as almost our only informant. Representatives of the soldiers met with him several times on the twenty-seventh, on the next day and on several occasions throughout the five months that followed. They presented him with accounts of the sums they felt were due to the men for injustices committed over the past few years, and Bigot did all he could to avoid paying. Alternately flattering the deputies, exercising his moral authority and "les amusant de belles promesses", he stalled and prevaricated until frightened by veiled threats against his life into giving the deputies partial satisfaction. [Note 41] His tactics must have been successful as the official accounts for 1744 indicate that only 3000 livres (out of a total budget of 547,436 livres) were given to the rebels to be distributed among almost 500 men. [Note 42]

As a violent confrontation and complete defiance of authority the soldiers' revolt apparently lasted no more than an hour or two. During the days that followed however, the atmosphere was extremely tense. There were apparently incidents of "taxation populaire" at this time as soldier threatened merchants with their swords and forced them to sell goods at what they considered a "just price." [Note 43] The civilian population was terrified and the officers did not dare oppose their men. The soldiers had no intention of destroying the established hierarchy. They nevertheless knew they would have to exploit their advantage in order to secure the limited concessions they had been promised, and so they kept a close watch on the military and civilian administrators reinforcing the latters' fears by periodically threatening massacres. When Bigot and Duchambon wrote to the Minister four days after the initial outburst, the situation was anything but peaceful. In fact, their letter had a tone of urgency verging on panic: "Nous sommes icy leurs Esclaves ..." [Note 44] Bigot later described the elaborate precautions he took to keep this letter and its destination a secret, precautions he felt necessary since he was convinced that the troops would sack the town and turn it over to the English if they knew he was requesting that an armed force be sent from France to punish the rebels. [Note 45]

Years later when François Bigot was outlining his past services to the state in order to obtain a promotion and later to defend himself against charges of corruption, he described the period that extended for five months until the appearance of the English invaders in May, 1745 as a time of smoldering rebellion during which his life was frequently in danger.46 In the absence of any corroborating testimony and in view of Bigot's obvious interest in over-dramatizing the mutiny and his own role in handling it, some historians have concluded that the revolt was completely terminated by the end of December. [Note 47] The evidence will not sustain any certain conclusion on this point, but it seems unlikely that military life in Louisbourg could have returned to normal by the spring of 1745. After the open threats of massacre and destruction in December, the officers and men could only have viewed one another with intense mutual hostility and suspicion. Bigot was probably not exaggerating when he suggested that those in positions of authority treated the soldiers with great care and refrained from employing "le ton de leurs places." [Note 48]

When the New Englanders landed to lay siege to Louisbourg 11 May, 1745, Duchambon assembled the garrison and urged the troops to forget the past and unite with the officers and townspeople in facing the enemy. The men demurred at first and asked for a guarantee that no one would be punished for taking part in the mutiny. Naturally the governor consented and, together with Bigot, he solemnly promised a complete pardon in the name of the king. [Note 49] In the subsequent 50-day siege the troops acquitted themselves well according to all reports. [Note 50] At no time had they ever questioned or attempted to evade what they considered to be their duty as soldiers. Still, when they were called upon to repair the fortifications that were damaged by enemy canon fire, they would only work for double the normal labourer's wages and with immediate payment in cash. [Note 51] Perhaps 20 or 30 soldiers were killed before the town surrendered at the end of June, [Note 52] and, among the first casualties was Laurent Soly, one of the principle Swiss instigators of the mutiny.

After the surrender of Louisbourg, the garrison was evacuated and most of its members arrived at the French port of Rochefort in August, 1745. The French companies were later. sent back to Isle Royale in 1749 when the colony returned to French rule. Probably no more than half the French soldiers who had experienced the mutiny and the siege returned to Louisbourg, however. In the confused situation that followed the garrison's arrival at Rochefort, 159 men deserted from the Compagnies Franches and a large number of those who remained fell ill and died. [Note 53] No detachment from the Karrer regiment ever went back to Isle Royale as Duchambon and Bigot were successful in convincing Maurepas, the Minister of Marine, that it was the Swiss who had not only initiated the mutiny but also led the French soldiers in the days that followed the first outbreak. [Note 54]

Although aware that the garrison had fought well, Maurepas was convinced that news of the soldiers' discontent had induced the English to attack Louisbourg and he tended to blame the mutiny for the fall of the fortress. [Note 55] Perhaps a certain desire to identify a scapegoat for the loss of Isle Royale accounts for the minister's insistence on the need for severe punishment in order to restore discipline among the colonial troops. In August, 1745, he instructed de Barrailh, the governor of Rochefort, to make discreet inquiries on the subject of the Louisbourg mutiny and to arrest those identified as ring-leaders by the colonial commander and ordonnateur. When court-martials were organized late in the fall, Maurepas ordered them to look into the soldiers' complaints against their'officers. [Note 56] There was no excuse for open rebellion but Maurepas, who was well aware that irregularities had long been common in the Isle Royale garrison, apparently intended to take some disciplinary action against those officers whose unfair treatment of the men had been particularly flagrant. The documents give no indication that any officers were ever actually punished. In fact, de Gannes and Duhaget, probably two of the garrison's most grasping captains, were quickly promoted to the position of town major in the early 1750s.

Because of the special status of the Karrer regiment, the Swiss mutineers could only be tried by a court-martial composed of their own officers. These were held in the second half of November, 1745. A number of those accused were released but five men were convicted and sentenced to death. [Note 57] Of these, one died in prison and another, Abraham Dupaquier, escaped. Francois Bigot was furious when he learned that this "premier chef" of the rebels had escaped the noose. "Si celuy de qui dependoit sa sûreté eut été pendant six mois à la discrétion de ce misérable, comme je l'ay été," he wrote, "il seroit encore en prison." [Note 58] Maurepas was also displeased, all the more so as there were hints that Colonel Karrer and his officers may have intentionally presented Dupaquier with an opportunity to flee. [Note 59] Some of Dupaquier's comrades were not so fortunate. Joseph Renard and Corporal du Croix were hanged on 7 December and their bodies were left on the gallows at Rochefort all day, "afin de servir d'exemple a un chacun." [Note 60] Two days later, Christophe Jout was decapitated hours after appearing before the court-martial where he expressed the hope that he too would be an example to others .

... il savoit bien qu'il alloit perdre la Vie ... mais que son Exemple devoit apprendre aux [officiers] [commandants] pour le Roy de tenir la main a ce que le soldat ne fut point Vexé et que Luy fut distribué bons [conformement] a l'intention de sa majesté les Vivres payés sur leur solde ...[Note 61]

The court-martials of the French mutineers were delayed for a time when the accused brought up the pardon they had been promised by Duchambon and Bigot. Maurepas quickly intervened however, declaring that the king could not be bound by the promise since he had had no knowledge of it and insisting that examples be made of some of the men of the Compagnies Franches. We have no accounts of the French court-martials but other records indicate that at least eight men were condemned. Five of these were hanged, one died in prison and two were sentenced to life terms as galley slaves. [Note 62] In all, eight men were executed as a result of the Louisbourg mutiny.