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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


Louisbourg: A Focus of Conflict 

H E 13


Peter Bower

March 1970

Fortress of Louisbourg

Chapter X: Epilogue

The inconclusive war ostensibly brought about a return to the status quo ante bellum. Apparently much contemporary opinion held that the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle accomplished little beyond bringing about a temporary suspension of hostilities. The articles of the peace had not really settled any of the outstanding issues which had precipitated the war. In fact, the tortuous route of the hostilities and the peace negotiations had underlined the division of interest and ambition not only between belligerents, but also between allies. The basic contradictions inherent in Newcastle's precious "old system" of alliances had been rather fully exposed to and exploited by England's arch-rival, France. All the Duke's efforts to preserve the decrepit system of alliances during the next seven years failed to prevent the dramatic regrouping of allies in 1756, which came as a prelude to the bloody struggle of the Seven Years' War. [1]

The war had elicited in England, France, and in their colonies, a remarkable number of pamphlets, reports and recommendations concerning the confrontation in North America. The most dire predictions were nurtured in this literature. For example, one French official in 1747 warned that Britain would, if unimpeded, rule the seas with its fleets and the land by virtue of its wealth, and that America would furnish the means for dictating to Europe. " [2] France alone," he wrote, "is in a position to prevent this catastrophe, and France must do so, for her own sake and that of all Europe." An English pamphleteer claimed that it was evident France was committed to continuing its encroachments in America "till they have accomplished their long concerted design of swallowing up the whole. In that case, what a most formidable power would France arrive at! Claiming to quote a French memorialist,, the anonymous author continued:

For when [France] become masters of all our American trade, our sugars, tobacco, rice, timber, and naval stores, they would soon ... be an overmatch in naval strength to the rest of Europe, and so in condition to give laws to the whole. [3]

During the armed truce in America before the Seven Years' War, British and French activities illustrated clearly that both countries were assuming less flexible positions and fatalistic attitudes wherein compromise became increasingly difficult, and finally impossible. The undeclared war matured earliest in Nova Scotia and Acadia. To facilitate the peace settlement at Aix, the contentious issue of the boundary between Nova Scotia and Acadia had been referred to a commission, which failed to resolve [4] the dispute after years of argument. Wring these years, frontier manoeuvres, threats and acts of violence continued sporadically in the territories. British officials, particularly those in America, increasingly viewed the Acadians as an essentially hostile and dangerous element in a region considered pivotal in the developing conflict in America. Now Englanders, who believed that British possession of Louisbourg would have given the northern colonies a large measure of security, interpreted French activity as a deliberate policy of encirclement, ultimately designed to deliver the whole continent to France. Following the news of the restitution of Cape Breton Island, but before the plans for the establishment of Halifax were known in New England, a worried Massachusetts Council and House of Representatives reported in April, 1749, to Shirley:

The danger on the Westward is greater because of our exposed State to the Eastward upon giving up Cape Breton to the French. The whole of Nova Scotia is in the French interest, except A small part of the Garrison of Annapolis. The [the two Houses] wish a strong fort to be also built at Chibucto, or somewhere near Louisbourg [5]

Five years later, the General Court, which in 1745 had supported the Louisbourg expedition by only the narrowest of margins, [6] declared itself "ready to do every Thing that can be expected from Us on the present Emergency." [7] The General Court-stated that the French were committing acts of aggression and were fortifying themselves everywhere. Shirley's forecasts of almost a decade earlier concerning the dangers of France in North America appeared to be coming to pass, The governor's vigourous leadership and compelling arguments for the reduction of the French menace in America, the successful Louisbourg expedition, d'Anville's disastrous attempt to retake the fortress, the inconclusive war and the continuing post-war conflict, the dreadful Indian warfare on the frontiers, and the enticing prospects for commercial expansion and territorial security had brought to New Englanders an awareness and fear of the implications of the Anglo-French competition unparalleled prior to the colonial success at Louisbourg. The Massachusetts Court declared itself fortunate to be led by Shirley,

who is so perfectly acquainted with His Majesty's just Title to the Country encroached upon by the French, who has given such distinguished Proofs of his Zeal for His Majesty's Service, whose & deavours to defend his Territories and enlarge his Dominions in time of War have been attended with such happy Success ... [8] 

The victory at Louisbourg gave colonials a military tradition of which they could be proud. The Duke of Bedford, when planning the Canada Expedition, had expressed his reluctance to permit the colonies to raise and command their own army not because he was contemptuous of their fighting ability or lack of discipline, but because of the independence it may create in those Provinces toward their Mother Country when they shall see within themselves so great an army possessed in their own right by Conquest of so great an extent of Country... " [9] The restitution of the fortress, which inspired a spate of published protest in New England probably not exceeded until the Revolutionary period, [10] contributed to the developing sense of grievance in the colonies against the representatives of British authority. The colonial experience with Louisbourg provided later not only some men with a fairly substantial knowledge of warfare, but also some of the fortitude required to demand independence. 

Generally, New Englanders greeted the news of the restitution of Louisbourg with resigned, but profound, indignation. That public protest was largely confined to the printed word, albeit including some quite vituperative broadsides, testified to the continuing strength of the colonial attachment to England, but is probably more concretely attributable to the announcements that Halifax was to be established as a counterpoise to Louisbourg, that measures were being undertaken to make Nova Scotia a good, secure, protestant settlement, and that early in 1748, Parliament had voted more than £235,000 sterling to reimburse the colonies for their expenditures on the Louisbourg expedition. [11] Nevertheless, while these developments may have mitigated the restitution in the eyes of many colonials, they could not fully compensate, for example, the thousands of men who died and who suffered through the siege and that first cruel winter at the fortress, or those who were angered by the real and imagined displays of contempt by regular British servicemen, or the volunteers who were disillusioned by the lack of eagerly anticipated booty and who were then compelled to remain at the fortress as the garrison after the siege, separated from their families and means of livelihood, contrary to their understanding of the terms of enlistment. The conquest of Ile Royale and its dependencies was their greatest military achievement prior to the Revolutionary war,[12] and it would be difficult to erase the feeling that colonial interests had been sacrificed at the altar of European politics.

New England newspapers had been printing comment for some time concerning the value of Cape Breton Island and the possibility of it being restored to France. In general, restitution was opposed. Even peace, according to one author, was not a fair price for Louisbourg. Britain was accused of doing nothing to protect its North American colonies against French ambitions and encroachments. The conquest of Cape Breton Island was extolled as being a more valuable victory than all those achieved by the exploits of the mighty British fleet during the war. How could Britain, asked a colonial, even consider returning Louisbourg to France, particularly since the French had demonstrated the importance of the fortress by twice trying to regain it by force of arms during the war? England was accused of surrendering Cape Breton simply to save Holland or Madras. Another writer suggested that the return of the island was greater folly than Charles II1s sale of Dunkirk to France. By the restitution, England had besmirched her own glory, but worse. Britain had thrown away New England's honour. reputation and a valuable and meritorious victory. [13] The following excerpt typifies some of the more extravagant articles circulated in Boston:

But what consummates all our Misfortunes is the Restitution of Louisbourg a Place of equal Importance to the Nation with Gibraltar Louisbourg gained at the Expence of New-England Blood. and with the Ruin of half the Estates throughout the Province is again to return to its former Masters as an Equivalent to the Netherlands which is to our Nation NO EQUIVALENT AT ALL; and this without any Consideration to the brave Captors for the Cannon, Stores , or the Town it self --without any Consideration to the Province! It is true, that our Parliament have voted the Reimbursement of the Charge of taking it. which would dutifully acknowledge, but our CONSEQUENT DAMAGES have prodigiously exceeded that Sum.... However this be, the Loss of those Men who inlisted from this Province into that Service [in Pepperrell's and Shirley's American regiments] added to our former [Losses of taking and securing Louisbour], has been an unspeakable Damage to us.... The Men who were pressed to defend our Frontiers, allured into other Services, and fresh and useful members of the Community pressed in their Stead.... But now - CAPE BRETON is lost; our FISHERY in the most imminent Danger -- our Country drained of many of her Inhabitants -- our Debt heavy -- the Ballance of Trade against us -- valuable Lands given away to other Colonies -- unp[ro]tec[te]d and unredressed under the most cruel Impositions -- our remaining Comerce labouring under great Inconveniences -- sunk by our most laudable Atchievements -- whilst every other Province gains the Advantage of our Zeal, and their own Indolence -- Upon the whole, it is impossible for any Man who truly loves his Country, to be unaffected with the present melancholly Situation of its Affairs. To behold the Fruits of all our Labours, Toils and Hazards, given up at once to our proud insulting Enemies!... It is neither possible, nor safe to look into Futurity, and our present Load of Affliction is so great, we need not increase it by raising imaginary Dangers. Yet the Mind opprest with Grief, anxious and fearful, cannot help raising to itself most frightful Prospects. Who can tell what will be the Consequence of this Peace in Times to come? Perhaps this goodly Land itself -- Even this our beloved Country, may share the same Fate with this its Conquest -- may be the Purchase of a future Peace....[14] 

The author of this item went on to draw a vivid and distressing picture of Massachusetts under a French regime, bereft of "Religion and Liberties, is, which animated us with such mighty Resolution ..."[15] Nevertheless, he concluded caustically, while it was indeed not the business of colonies to wake peace or war, but rather to submit patiently to the judgement of those who know better, "even to slaves it is permitted to rejoice and grieve at their own Pleasure and they who hold their Bodies in Subjection, cannot pretend to controul their Affections, I hope it will not be criminal in us to grieve and mourn our Country." [16]

Boston newspapers also published alarming reports soon after the peace of a great revival in French naval power. One author rebuked England not only for having returned Cape Breton Island, but also for not having conquered Canada before signing a peace. [17] Late in 1750, another contributor wrote: "If it be ask'd -- What has Great Britain done, in the mean time, to guard against this alarming [French naval] progress -- must not everyone be obliged to answer Nothing."[18]

Newcastle, oblivious to the sense of victimization being harboured by some New Englanders after the inconclusive war, and of the cruel aftermath of continuing strife in the Acadian homelands, revelled in the feeling of satisfaction and security he enjoyed with the preservation of the "old system". In a nearly unbearable display of egotism, he claimed the principal credit for the peace. The possession of Louisbourg had provided the Duke with a useful means of manipulating the government, and had proven to be a significant factor in securing what he considered a reasonably satisfactory peace despite France's supreme power on the Continent. Although the British government paid almost a quarter of a million pounds sterling to reimburse the colonies for the Louisbourg expedition, Newcastle must have regarded the amount as trifling since the fortress played a decisive role in redressing France's military superiority, in preserving England's status at the peace negotiations, and in maintaining the traditional alliance with Austria and Holland, at least for the immediate moment. The Duke apparently believed genuinely that the peace had restored the balance of power alleged to have been established at Utrecht. He seemed curiously blind to the fact that things were not as they had been, and that although Cape Breton had helped England at the peace, it had also contributed to the erosion of the anti-Bourbon coalition. [19] Furthermore, Louisbourg had been instrumental in drawing attention to the New World, where the peace had settled nothing, but which was now a powder keg alight. On the other hand, Pitt had learned his lessons adequately during the war, and did not have long to wait before applying his new knowledge of North American matters and strategy in the belief that France was England's natural enemy "by system and Interest" [20] and was "chiefly if not solely to be dreaded as a maritime and commercial power." [21]

In the meantime, there was a return to some normalcy of life at Louisbourg. As had been the case before the war, trade prohibitions failed utterly to arrest a flourishing commerce between New England and Ile Royale. New England merchants, some of whom had not been displeased by the restitution, envisaging a return to the valuable pre-war trade, began again to carry provisions, lumber and wood products to Ile Royale in exchange for rum, molasses, brandy, wines, sugar and coffee. In fact, trade between Ile Royale and Cape Breton increased enormously in the years after the peace compared to the commerce immediately before the war. [22] This exploitation of the difficulties of enforcing trade restrictions undermined the vigour of the French empire and the unity of the British as the New England colonies were enabled to strengthen and diversify their own economies while increasing their contempt for British authority. As we have seen, [23] while this trade was a major, though debilitating, support of the French island and a significant vent for the products of New England as well as an important source of rum and molasses, Louisbourg was also regarded by the British colonials as a dreadful threat to their general
security, and even survival. If New France had been a simple, self-supporting agricultural community, with limited fishing opportunities for France, Britain and her colonies might have been able to tolerate what would have amounted to an economic satellite. However, both the French and British colonies had developed societies dependent on expanding industries and commerce, within a mercantilistic framework, wherein national power and authority were linked to the development of exclusive spheres of trade and influence. [24] The only resolution of these dynamic conflicts of interest and ambition seemed to be war.

Yet this confrontation between great empires was not simply a monolithic struggle between titans for trade and power. While the course of events was more or less guided by influential and sometimes visionary leaders, there were also the humbler and lesser people, French and English, relatively powerless, who were led by promises and coercion, and who were generally the means and often the victims of the implementation of the grand schemes and ideas. This is not to suggest that the mass of common persons did not seek or derive some benefits from the imperial competition, but rather that, as a whole, they always seemed to pay the highest price, either in success or failure.

Governor Shirley, who promoted an exalted vision of an entirely British North America, succeeded in rallying to his scheme to capture Louisbourg a variety of colonial interest groups and a sufficient number of the general public. Various colonial officials, merchants, politicians, land speculators, and fishing interests grasped the opportunity for profit, position and the means of extending their own spheres of activity. The ordinary man was excited by the opportunities for plunder, military title, adventure, the soldier's pay, enlistment bounties, and the chance to strike a blow at the papists. There were leaders whom they respected, lands to be won perhaps for a new start in life, and prospoects for the achievement of glory. A victory on Cape Breton might open the path for all to New France and her touted riches. A weakening of France in America would reduce the frontier menace posed by her Indian allies, and provide a new security for the trade lanes by land and sea. For some men, the Louisbourg expedition appealed mostly to their patriotic feelings. In short, the expedition' elicited a complex mixture of aspirations, humble and elevated, which Shirley exploited successfully, but which all too frequently remained unfulfilled during or immediately after the war. The end of the war saw France's authority apparently undiminished, if somewhat tarnished, in North America. For Shirley, the ending of the war saw not only the loss of Louisbourg and the recession of his dream of a British North America, but also the loss of wartime patronage, which contributed to the dissolution and realignment of his political alliances and a return to a higher level of acrimonious factionalism, compounded by the effects of wartime disagreements and disappointments. [25]

Louisbourg was a great victory, for Britain and her colonies in 1745, but it was also a terrible torture and graveyard for thousands of men. The common volunteers at Louisbourg generally found the experience a cruel and frustrating test of their stamina and patience. While slightly more than a hundred Now Englanders died during the siege, more than a thousand perished in the wretched remains of the buildings within the fortress during their winter of enforced garrison duty. There could be no adequate compensation for these men, many of  whom lie in unmarked graves today on the desolate, windswept peninsula of Point Rochefort. The success at Louisbourg inspired Shirley to press for a Canada expedition, which the ministry undertook half-heartedly in 1746 and 1747. The expedition proved to be a fiasco, but it was E useful tool for Newcastle in manipulating his colleagues. It was also a source of grievance for the thousands of colonials who enlisted, an acute embarrassment for Shirley, and a misery for the British sailors and seamen who waited aboard the foul ships for the departure which never came. As influential and powerful men in Europe tinkered with the balance of power, scores of common men froze, sickened and died garrisoning what Knowles described as this "bewitching Idol". The war, conducted by a ministry divided by fear and conflicting principles, and Parked by hesitant and half-pursued measures, cost a great deal of blood and taxpayers' money, yet resolved little and failed utterly to evince an acceptable accommodation between France and England for such issues as the Acadian question. The Acadians, a simple folk mostly concerned with their farms and faith, were now inextricably involved in the imperial duel, being seen by Britain as an increasingly serious menace, and by France as agents at first, and then active allies, for the maintenance and extension of French authority, which was once again anchored in North America by the great fortress at Louisbourg. The establishment of Halifax as a counter to French ambitions, and as an expression of British intentions, together with the reoccupation of Louisbourg by France, would force the development of a firm policy to deal with the neutral French, victims of an inconclusive war and the deluded, fatalistic concept of the wellspring of national security and authority.

As France reassembled the stones of their isolated and shattered sentinel, Louisbourg regained much of its former reputation as a great and awesome fortress, protector of the land and sea trades of the French empire. There was even a belated attempt to revitalize the French navy, the success of which could have provided the vital lines of communication for the fortress. Without reasonably secure sea channels, the fortress would remain an inappropriate application of Continental concepts of warfare to the New World, incapable of offsetting the enormous advantages of trade, population and location of the British colonies. As it happened, the French navy failed to provide a real challenge to the Royal Navy, and the fortress fell a second time in 1758, during the war which finally decided many of the issues left outstanding in 1748. Yet, as a fortress, Louisbourg was not unsuccessful. Its reputation and the military
theories of the day provided considerable support and security for the fishery and New France,
and deterred Britain from bypassing the fortress in any attempt on Canada. Although the fortress fell both times that it was attacked by Britain and her colonies, the stronghold always retarded attempts on New France. The capacities to provide some security for hinterlands and to delay and disrupt the enemy were among the fundamental functions of fortresses in the l7th and 18th centuries.


[1] Brebner, New England's Outpost, p. 193; Graham, North Atlantic, p. 143; Lodge, Diplomacy,  pp. 410-411.

[2] Wolfgang, Michael, "Great Britain". The Cambridge Modern History: the Eighteenth Century, VI, A.W. Ward and G.W. Prothero, eds. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1909), pp. 411-412. No reference is given for this quotation, translated by Michael.

[3] State of the British and French Colonies in North America, anonymous (London: A. Millar, 1755), p. 14.

[4] Governor Shirley was a member of this commission until 1752. He returned to Boston in 1753, after an absence of four years. The period which he spent in Paris and London convinced him that the peace had been a serious mistake, and reinforced his opinion that France must be eliminated from North America. Schutz, Shirley, pp. 149-168. passim.

[5] Correspondence of Shirley, Lincoln, ed., P. 481, Massachusetts General Court, Report on French Encroachments, April 18, 1749.

[6] See above, pp. 46-51.

[7] Correspondence of Shirley, II, Lincoln, ed., p. 49,General Court to Shirley, April 9 and 10, 1754.

[8] Ibid.

[9] P.R.O., CO42, vol. 13, fols. 124v-125, Bedford to Newcastle, March 24, 1746. See above, pp. 309-310.

[10] For example, see The Independent Advertiser, The Boston Weekly News-Letter, The Boston Evening-Post, The Boston Weekly Post Boy.

[11] The exact reimbursement figures were. Massachusetts, L183,64,9/2/7 1/2; New Hampshire, £16,355/13/4; Connecticut, £28,2863/19/1; Rhode Island, £6,332/12/10. The Boston Weekly Post Boy, June 20, 1748. This item is apparently the vote of the House of Commons tabled in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. See also The Parliamentary History of England, XIV, p. 149.

[12] Louisbourg Journals, de Forest, ed., introduction pp. xv-xvi. 

[13] The Boston Weekly News-Letter, December 18, 1746; July 16, 1747; September 3, 1747; The Boston Weekly Post Boy, August 29, 1748; The Boston Evening-Post, September 12, 174d; November 2d, 1749; January 16, 1749.

[14] P.R.O., Adm. 1, vol. 306, n.p., in Admiral Henry Osborne's papers" copy of The Independent Advertiser, Boston, no. 46, November 14, 1748.

[15] As George Rawlyk points out, the victory at Louisbourg and the fate of d 'Anville 's expedition helped confirm many New Englanders that they were favoured and protected by Divine Providence. Yankees, pp. 153-154, 158. See also Guy Frégault, Canada: the war of the Conquest, Margaret Cameron, trans. (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1969), part 1, for an interesting discussion and comparison of contemporary concepts of religion and liberty in the French and English milieus. Gerald Graham writes in North Atlantic, p. 142, that "enraged New Englanders might have been somewhat appeased had they knovn that Britain would probably have been willing to surrender Madras as well as Louisbourg in order to dislodge the hereditary enemy from the Low Countries."

[16] P.R.O., Adm. 1, vol. 306, n.p., in Admiral Henry Osborne's papers, copy of The Independent Advertiser, Boston, no. 46, November 14, 1748.

[17] The Boston Evening-Post, September 11, 1749.

[18] The Boston Weekly News-Letter, September 27, 1750.

[19] Lodge, Diplomacy, pp. 406-409; Dorn, Empire, pp. 174-175.

[20] Nottingham, The University, Newcastle Mss., Nec 447, n.p., Pitt to Pelham, August 17, 1746.

[21] Pitt, quoted in Hotblack, Chatham, p. 49, no reference given.

[22] Clark, Early Nova Scotia, pp. 315-329 passim ; McLennan, Louisbourg, Appendix V, trade tables, pp. 362-396; Rawlyk, Yankees , p. 159.

[23] See above, pp. 9-30 passim.

[24] See Frégault, War of the Conquest, chapters one and two, passim; Canadian Society in the French Regime, W.M. Conacher, trans. (Ottawa, Canadian Historical Association Booklet no. 3, 1964), pp. 6-12 passim

[25] A detailed discussion of the problems Shirley faced in the last year of the war, and the post-war period, may be found in Schutz, Shirley, pp. 120-148 passim