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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


(September 14, 2005)

Was there homosexuality in the barracks at Louisbourg?
by Anne Marie Lane Jonah, Staff Historian, April 9, 2005

Briefly, we do not have records of anyone being tried for homosexual acts at Louisbourg.

The description of a soldier’s life at Louisbourg, the close quarters of the barracks, and the much higher number of men than women cause some visitors to wonder if homosexual behaviour might have been a concern for the military authorities. The lack of privacy in the 18th century is startling to the modern visitor and might lead them to think that it would result in sexual activity; however, the lack of privacy can also act as a social control. Another important control is the fear of punishment, so it is worthwhile to know how that society reacted to homosexual behaviour, or any sexual behaviour that transgressed the accepted norm.

Sodomy in Ancient Régime France, and therefore New France, was considered a crime against society or against the person and was punishable by death by burning.1 In fact, in French law in the period there was no specific mention of sexual relations between members of the same sex. Condemnation was based on New and Old Testament passages. There was a prohibition against bougres dating from the 13th century Insitut de Saint Louis, Louis IX, which referred to a heresy, a region (Bulgaria), and later persons who had sex with members of their own sex.2 The Code Militaire in force in this period did not refer to bougres or sodomites, the term used by Diderot. This would imply that the pre-existing prohibition and punishment, burning, would be applied in military contexts.

We do have records of relevant trials from New France, specifically Québec. In 1648 a drummer in Québec was convicted of a “crime against nature.” In this case the governor favoured capital punishment but the Jesuits were opposed. His sentence was commuted to galley service in perpetuity, and that he was even able to avoid by accepting the post of executioner, always difficult to fill in the colonies.3 In 1691 a Sulpicien priest charged three men, soldiers in the compagnies franches with sodomy. Two cooperated with the proceedings and were sentenced to two and three years in prison, and ordered not to re-offend. The third, who initially resisted testifying, was charged with debauching the others and ordered to pay a fine of 200 livres and was banished from the colony.4 None of these trials resulted in the prescribed punishment of death.

“By the second half of the eighteenth century, magistrates were less likely to prosecute Although the potential for harsh punishments existed in France, “The vast majority of sodomy cases were handled by the police without recourse to the judicial system.”5 John Johnston noted in his study of military punishments in Louisbourg 1751-1753 a preference for the use of confinements over corporal punishments.a movement away from public punishments still preferred by civil courts.6 His study did not find any references to crimes of sexual misconduct. One reason for the lack of record of this type of “crime” may have been that cases were handled without involving courts. In Louisbourg, because of the need for soldiers and labourers, the authorities might have been more willing to ignore transgressions. Another factor in Louisbourg’s lack of such cases may have been the absence of priests on the Superior Council and their relative lack of power in the community’s hierarchy. The Church played an important role in prosecuting the cases from Quebec. All evidence is that there is a certain level of homosexual behaviour in any society.

Any hesitation to expose and punish should not be interpreted as tolerance or acceptance. Social order was supremely important in the 18th century and the wellfunctioning family was at the centre of that order. In Louisbourg a trial of two men who lived outside the walls of town illustrates the suspicion with which men not conforming to the accepted social structure were treated. Their testimony indicated that they had shared a cabin and had lived by hunting and fishing for a period of at least two years. They had been the subjects of accusations by neighbours before and their cabin had once been burned down. In 1737 they were tried for stealing livestock. They were found innocent, a very rare event in the courts of Louisbourg, but were still ordered to change how they lived. The condemnation was of their life outside the economic order of New France, but the threat that their example posed for the social order was probably the motivation for the suspicion and condemnation.7 Single men were not well regarded by French society in the 18th century; by not having a family they did not build the society. « La classe des célibataires est un poids inutile sur la terre qui les nourrit. »8 Homosexual behaviour may not have been officially tried and punished, but it would not have been accepted.

In the first half of the 18th century in France there were still cases in which the accused « sodomites » were sentenced to execution by burning, but these were rare exceptions and were influenced by circumstances surrounding these cases. Throughout this period Parisian police arrested men lingering in parks notorious as rendezvous and held them in prison for brief periods or exiled repeat offenders from Paris. In some cases in the early 18th century (1706-8) the offenders were released on the condition that they join the military.9

1 Paul-François Slyvestre, Bougrerie en Nouvelle France, Éditions Asticou, Québec. 1983, p.39.
2 Merrick, Jeffrey and Bryant T. Ragan, Homosexuality in Early Modern France, Oxford University Press, New York, 2001, p.1
3 Sylvestre, p. 31
4 Ibid, 39-41. crimes traditionally defined in religious terms and also less likely to impose exemplary penalties that publicized those crimes.”
5 Merrick and Ragan, p. 31.
6 A.J.B. Johnston, “The Men of the Garrison: Soldiers’ Punishments at Louisbourg, 1751- 1753.” Presented at the FCHS Conference 1987, p.15.
7 A.J.B. Johnston, Control and Order in French Colonial Louisbourg 1713-1758, Michigan state University Press, 2001, 142-143, and AFO, G2, vol. 184, folios 401-429, 11 fev 1737.
8 Jacques Gélis, « L’enfant et la Révolution française : image et réalité,» dans De France en Nouvelle-France : Société Fondatrice et Société Nouvelle, Hubert Watelet, ed. Université de Ottawa, 1994, p. 33
9 Merrick and Ragan, Homosexuality in Early Modern France, 47-49.