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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 attempting to explain the Louisbourg mutiny, historians have tended to emphasize two causal factors, the officers' exploitation of the men and the soldiers' miserable living conditions. [Note 1] The preceding account makes it clear that the mutineers certainly did feel that they had been cheated by their officers but nowhere in the documents concerned with the mutiny is there any hint (beyond the reference to a demand for more firewood) that they revolted because they were "disgusted with their living conditions." [Note 2] It is true that the material conditions of life were very hard for the men of the Louisbourg garrison but generally they were no worse, and in many respects they were better, than those to which other 18th century soldiers were subjected. A Louisbourg soldier did not always receive his rations in the prescribed amounts or qualities but he could easily supplement his diet by hunting and scrounging and never went hungry as his counterparts in France often did when they were in the field or in peacetime when sudden rises in food prices would occasionally make them unable to subsist on their fixed money allowance. [Note 3] His annual issue of clothing was often defective and sometimes was not delivered for years in a row. Still, he was no worse off than soldiers in the French infantry and he could consider himself blessed in comparison to the men of the Albany garrison in 1700 who were, according to the governor of New York, in a "shameful and miserable condition for the want of cloaths that the like was never seen in so much that those parts of 'em which modesty forbids me to name, are expos'd to view." [Note 4] He was not given an adequate supply of firewood and, although this did not make him unique among soldiers of the period, he may have suffered more from it than men who served in France because of the severe climate of Isle Royale. As for the "squalid and oppressive barrack conditions" that supposedly "led to the mutiny," [Note 5] the Louisbourg barracks were certainly not luxurious accommodation but they were probably more comfortable than the stuffy and disease-ridden barracks at Aix and less crowded than those in Marseille where 30 or 40 men lived in a room with seven beds, "comme du bétail dans une écurie." [Note 6] In fact, the soldiers' rooms were repaired and the bedding improved in the early 1740s so that they would likely have been more comfortable in 1744 than they had been in earlier periods. [Note 7] In general, the notion that the men of the Louisbourg garrison were particularly wretched by contemporary military standards seems difficult to accept in view of their exceptionally low mortality rate which averaged about 19.6 per thousand for each year from 1730 to 1740 inclusive (see Appendix I), while a typical French infantry regiment had an annual death rate of 80 per thousand (34 per thousand if wartime years are excluded) at about the same time. [Note 8]

Misery and hardship were the common features of the life of all soldiers in the 18th century - and of a great many civilians as well. Their presence does not explain why the Louisbourg soldiers mutinied when others were more miserable, nor does it explain why they waited until 1744 to mutiny when, in some respects, they were better off materially than they had ever been in the past. Rather than dismiss the revolt simply as an émeute de misère therefore, it would seem preferable to attempt to understand it as the reaction of a group of men with a particular outlook to a particular set of circumstances. Explaining the outbreak of the mutiny requires an examination of the soldiers' mentality and the objective situation they encountered at Louisbourg, with a view to determining not only why they undertook aggressive action as a group but also how they were able to do so.

Chapter V describes the system of exploitation through which the officers controlled the wages their men earned as soldiers and as workers. This exploitation seems to have been worse in the Isle Royale garrison than in other military units and it increased in severity in the years that preceded the mutiny, becoming particularly blatant after the death of Governor Duquesnel in October, 1744. The resentment that resulted was, on one level, the cause of the revolt; the mutineers' complaints and their obvious hostility to the officers bear this out. Just as important however was the system of recruitment and discharge outlined in Chapters III and IV.

The prevalence of unlimited engagements in the Compagnies Franches of Isle Royale must have had a negative effect on morale in the garrison, but it also encouraged a collective rather than individualistic response to discontent. More than a continental French soldier who was likely to be on a six-year term and more than a man attached to the Canadian troops who could exchange the military musket for the colonist's axe with relative ease, the Isle Royale soldier had a permanent stake in his position as a soldier. He could not expect to be promoted into the officer corps. [Note 9] Unlike his counterparts in France, he could not desert easily since the nearest haven was the Acadian settlements at Beaubassin which could only be reached by a perilous journey of 250 miles through the wilderness or across the water. [Note 10] There were always a few doors by which soldiers could leave the Louisbourg garrison but they were extremely narrow and, after 1743 when discharges to both French and Swiss were suspended because of the threat of war, the largest exit was completely barred. Since individual evasion of the military was much more difficult here than elsewhere, collective action within the system was more likely.

Several characteristics of military life in Louisbourg encouraged the formation of cooperative habits and a group spirit among the soldiers. To begin with, almost all of them were housed in one large barracks building. In the first half of the century, barracks were still a novelty and, in many French garrison towns and throughout Canada, troops were dispersed and billetted in the homes of civilians. [Note 11] In Louisbourg, by contrast, every man was in close contact with his comrades and especially with the 15 or 20 who shared his room and who together formed a group called a "chambrée." The men of a chambrée were generally of one company and they were under the leadership of a corporal or a sergeant. Besides sharing common living and sleeping quarters, they ate together and cooked common meals in one large pot. They also tended to spend a great deal of their leisure time together and the barracks room was a favorite spot for drinking, conversation and lounging. [Note 12] Not only was the chambrée an important unit in a soldier's life (Renard, Soly and Dupaquier, the three principal instigators of the mutiny incidentally apparently lived in the same room), the barracks environment, where officers seldom entered, was well suited for the discussion of grievances and for conspiracies and plans for concerted action. The frequency of mutinies among naval forges has often been explained in terms of the solidarity bred by life in the fo'c's'le. [Note 13] Similarly, the Louisbourg revolt can be seen partly as a result of the barracks situation which helped to foster a sense of community and also provided an environment favorable to secret organizing. The accounts of the mutiny show that the leaders took good advantage of its potential.

Outside the barracks, the men of the garrison, like soldiers everywhere, were in constant contact with their fellows while engaged in such activities as guard duty and drills. What made the Louisbourg soldiers unique however, was the fact that so many of them spent half of every year as construction workers. Many men who served in the Compagnies Franches in Canada also worked but most of them were employed by private individuals and their work, like the Canadian system of billetting, had the effect of dispersing the colony's soldiers. [Note 14] Some Isle Royale soldiers found employment with civilian parties but generally the massive labour demands of state-financed construction tended to concentrate them at one place under one employer. The physical proximity and the common economic interests of the soldier-workers could only have reinforced their sense of solidarity. Thus, before 1730, the men frequently joined together to "strike" for higher wages or to protest cuts in food rations.. At that time, the soldier-workers had frequently come into conflict with the contractor but, in the decade or so that preceded the mutiny when the officers had control of their wages, the men were much more inhibited about confronting opponents who held positions of such power and prestige.

If there were factors promoting a certain group feeling among Louisbourg's soldiers, there were nevertheless some divisions within the garrison that precluded the formation of a completely unified outlook. First of all, non-commissioned officers wielded considerable authority over the men in their daily affairs and received higher wages. The 30 members of the elite artillery company were also better paid than their former comrades in the Compagnies Franches. Because of their specialized duties, the canoneers did not work on the fortifications and they were further isolated from the others by their special barracks rooms and distinctive uniforms. Most importantly, both the canoneers and the French sergeants owed their special positions to the officers' appreciation of their superior merit. Not surprisingly, they declined to participate in the mutiny.

The most significant complicating factor in the Louisbourg garrison however, was the division between Swiss and French. Language, religion and regimental pride kept the two groups somewhat aloof from one another but, by 1744, they could not have been complete strangers. For over 20 years they had shared a barracks building, served together in guard details and worked together on the fortifications. There is no evidence of quarrels between individual Swiss and French soldiers. The two groups lived separately but apparently without a great deal of mutual suspicion or hostility. Thus, they acted independently in the early stages of the mutiny but their differing tactics were aimed at achieving essentially similar, though not exactly identical, objectives.

Although they did not form a completely cohesive group, the men of the Louisbourg garrison were quite aware of their distinct identity as soldiers, and the judicial records occasionally give indications of the importance they attached to the external signs of the warrior's profession. In one case, two men were convicted of breaking into a house and stealing a few items of little value. One of their prizes was a piece of ribbon which they had a tavern keeper's wife fashion into 15 "cocardes" so that they and their comrades could wear these specifically military adornments in their hats. [Note 16] Another incident resulted from a dispute between a butcher named Dupré and a Swiss soldier who wished to sell some partridges he had shot. At one point, the soldier threatened to hit his opponent with the butt of his musket but the butcher managed to wrestle the weapon away from him. Hurling insults behind him, the vanquished soldier retreated towards the barracks but returned later, accompanied by two Swiss armed with sticks and demanded the return of his gun. When the butcher refused, the three attacked him calling him "bougre" and shouting, "Tu desarme un soldat." They beat him savagely and stabbed him in the chest, and finally left him in the street, unconscious and seriously injured. [Note 17] The accounts of the victim and other witnesses give no hint that any national or religious animosity was involved in this incident. Instead, the brutal actions of the Swiss can best be interpreted as revenge against what they considered to be a serious offense on the part of a civilian who deprived a soldier of his weapon, the distinguishing mark of the military estate. Similarly, anger over the treatment of the volunteers who participated in the Canso expedition - anger which contributed to the violence of December, 1744 -should be seen as stemming from the traditional notion that a victorious warrior ought to receive a share of the fruits of conquest.

The Louisbourg troops were not of a particularly high quality by 18th century standards and it may seem paradoxical that they should have been so proud of their military profession in view of the fact that they devoted so much of their time to working as labourers and so little of it to military training and combat. Nevertheless, the practice of bearing arms -an essential if not an exclusive attribute of the soldier - gave a certain prestige that was derived from the medieval belief that the right to carry warlike weapons properly belonged to the nobility alone. [Note 18] "Depuis qu'il porte le mousquet et l'épée," wrote Albert Babeau of the ancien régime soldier in general, "il se croit bien au-dessus du commun peuple dont il sort."[Note 19] The civilian inhabitants of Louisbourg had little reason to envy the lot of the men of the garrison, but it is quite misleading to speak of "public contempt for their ['the soldiers'] station in life." [Note 20] More likely, the townspeople had a certain respect tinged with fear for the soldier's military bearing and uniform and for his proclivity for violent behavior. The butcher Dupré who dared to display his "contempt" for one soldier must have regretted his impudence later. The officers too failed to handle the men in a way the latter felt soldiers ought to be treated. Of course, the officers enjoyed a great deal of prestige and authority and they had at their disposal the military system of discipline and punishment. Thus, a great deal of provocation was required before the troops overcame their deferential attitudes and took action, and they did so only when the declaration of war and British naval supremacy strengthened their relative position by reducing the officers' chances of calling in outside assistance.

The soldiers rebelled because they felt they were being treated unfairly. Despite the fact that much of their activity was quite unmilitary, they apparently saw themselves as armed men who received the king's money and his bread in order to fight his enemies and protect his possessions. When they were given bad rations without what they considered legitimate reason, they felt not only deprived but insulted. Being made to work at unsoldierlike tasks without extra remuneration was also galling. Work in itself was not unacceptable as long as it was considered quite independent of a man's duties and status as a soldier and was paid for as such. What incensed the mutineers especially, it seems, was having their officers treat them as mere labourers rather than men-at-arms who occasionally worked for extra money. When Joseph Renard was asked at his court-martial if he had any complaints against his officers, he replied:

qu'il avoit grievemt. lieu de se plaindre des Torts a luy arrivés par la mauvaise qualité des Vires qui faisoient partie de sa solde ainsy que de tous les ouvrages qu'on l'avoit forcé de faire a la descente de la garde et cela sans salaire quoique ces ouvrages Etoient Indépendans de son Service et de son devoir ... [Note 21]

What the soldiers sought in 1744 was "justice" and the word itself recurs frequently in the court-martials and other records of the mutiny. On the surface, the injustices they complained of were material and they therefore demanded monetary compensation. On another level however, it seems fair to say, they demanded to be treated with the respect appropriate to a soldier. Their aims were exceedingly limited. They did not ask for higher wage rates or more comfortable barracks; they did not demand that unpopular officers be replaced or that the systems of discipline and punishment be made less severe; certainly they did not suggest that the hierarchical military structure of the garrison be modified. They only insisted that actual procedures be consistent with official policy and that the soldier's rights and duties as a paid warrior be preserved. From the mutineers' point of view, it seems, it was the officers who had subverted the military system over the years and the soldiers who were obliged to restore a proper balance. Since milder measures had no effect, the men resorted to a display of strength. Their procedures, as they assembled behind the barracks to the beat of the drums and under the supervision of the corporals, were eminently soldierlike and consistent with their limited objectives. Nonetheless, if the soldiers' planning and tactics reflect a large measure of dispassionate rationality, their actions during the confrontation with the officers also suggest intense anger and ho'stility; if their behavior was relatively restrained, it could easily have resulted in bloodshed. The mutiny was still a mutiny and the men who participated must have been aware that they were guilty of a crime for which the military ordinances prescribed the death penalty. In its aims if not its means however, the mutiny was fundamentally conservative and can best be interpreted as a soldiers' revolt in defense of the soldier's traditional position in the military system.

Was the mutiny a success? On the short-term the men's limited objectives were apparently achieved. They were given compensation for unfair wage deductions (admittedly, the sources do not make it clear whether the soldiers were ever completely satisfied on this point), and the officers and government officials treated them with respect. Trusting the authorities' promises to amnesty however, they were defeated in the end. With eight executions, the Louisbourg mutiny was more severely punished than any of the revolts André Corvisier mentions in his study of the French army between 1700 and 1763. [Note 22] It is possible that matters might have ended differently had the garrison not had the bad luck to be conquered six months after the first uprising and sent to France where the soldiers' power relation with the officers was reversed. A few men might have been saved from the hangman in this case and the officers might have been more restrained in their profiteering as long as the mutiny lived in their memories, but the economic and power position of the soldiers would not have changed in any fundamental or enduring way. The mutineers did not intend to alter or to "re-form" the system - the sources do not even record any instance of the soldiers challenging the officers' right to control their military and workmen's wages - they simply wished to force a readjustment in the existing power configuration.

The mutiny was not without lasting results, however. The Minister of Marine had attempted to reform the "abuses" in the Isle Royale garrison from as early as 1739 but, when the colony was reestablished as a French possession in 1749, the recollection of the violence of 1744 must have added some urgency to his campaign to reform the military administration. Although nothing was altered in a major way, the result was that the officers' exploitation of the men was controlled and systematized, [Note 23] and no further outbreaks of organized resistance occurred at Louisbourg. Nevertheless, although captains were limited to profits of 25 per cent on purchases made by their men, the engineer Franquet still observed "un Esprit de Sedition et de revolte" among the soldier-workers in 1750. [Note 24]