Justice Website Design, Content and the Reports April 2, 2002 by Eric Krause, Krause House Info-Research Solutions ( 1996)
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The Administration Of Justice At The Fortress Of Louisbourg (1713-1758)

Admiralty Court 

Admiralty courts in France had long regulated maritime commerce and provided a judicial structure for settling civil and criminal matters arising from maritime activities. When these courts were extended to the French colonies, seats were created at Louisbourg and Quebec. Because Louisbourg's economy was tied to trade and fishing, the new Admiralty court came to be one of the colony's busiest institutions. As a court, it heard suits relating to contracts and wage settlements, crimes committed on the seas, and infractions of royal and local regulations that ranged from smuggling to orderly conduct within the port. As a regulatory agency of the French government, the court licensed ships, inspected vessels entering and leaving Louisbourg, and examined pilots and captains for official certification.

Unlike the Superior Council and the baillage, the Admiralty court was not a royal jurisdiction but subordinate to the Admiral of France. All justice was rendered in his name and, upon recommendation of the colonial governor and ordonnateur, he nominated individuals to be his officers before they were commissioned by the king. All fines, one-tenth the value of prizes captured by French privateers, and other charges imposed by'the court were attributed to him. As the Admiral of France was a prince of the blood who could hardly be expected to direct routine administration, such matters were conducted by the Secretary-General of Admiralty and his. two clerks. The Admiralty officers in the ports corresponded directly with the Secretary-General concerning the particulars of their jurisdiction, and with the Minister of Marine when problems arose involving the royal administration. Each year the king's proctor of the Louisbourg court was required to submit a report to the Admiral reviewing the year's events and including a list of ships that visited the port with the dates of their arrival and departure.

Although the presiding judge of this court was called the lieutenant general, the remaining personnel were the same as the other judicial bodies: king's proctor, clerk, and usher. Because the Admiralty handled large sums of money and frequently dealt with English merchants, a receiver of dues and interpreter were also employees. All officers were required to be at least 25 years old (except the receiver and interpreter) and present their certificates of baptism, sound morals, and religion to the Superior Council. Before they were installed in their office, they swore an oath to observe Marine regulations.

In France, the presiding judge-and king's proctor were chosen from among the judges of the bar, but in the colonies this qualification was dropped because men trained in the legal profession were scarce. As the receiver served as the court's treasurer, he was required to fulfill some additional qualifications.

French maritime law of the ancien regime was codified in the royal ordinance of August, 1681. This comprehensive regulation was the maritime counterpart of the 1670 ordinance for criminal procedure, or that of 1689 for the administration of marine arsenals. Not only did it outline the composition, procedure, and jurisdiction of the Admiralty, but it was also a legal code intended to govern the merchant marine and fishing industry. Included were long sections of regulations concerning insurance, requirements for ocean-going vessels, contracts between proprietors and crews, and even how a merchant captain-was to proceed when he encountered a severe storm or pirates. Subsequent royal regulations modified this comprehensive decree, but it remained the fundamental law of the Admiralty officers. When the Admiralty sat as a court on Tuesdays and Saturdays, local custom was also taken into account as much of the fishing industry was conducted on this basis.

The Admiralty was much more than a court of justice. It regulated a variety of laws pertaining to trade and fishing. It also registered the commissions of its own officers, passports, royal ordinances, ships built or sold in the colony, and contracts. Much of its time was consumed settling salary disputes between captains and crews. All fishing and trading vessels were required to obtain a permit from the court for which they were charged amounts varying from 12 livres to half that sum. There were five types of permits. Those needed for trips to Europe, the West Indies, or Quebec were the most expensive and they were issued for each sailing. Less costly were one-year licenses for trading in the colony and for fishing vessels outfitted at Ile Royale. Permits were controls on shipping since merchant captains had to present them at the port of their destination, and secure new ones before returning to Louisbourg.

The court also inspected all vessels (except for local fishing craft) on their arrival and before their departure from Louisbourg. When ships weighed anchor in the harbour the Admiralty officers went aboard to prepare a report on the cargo, passengers, and origin of the crew. If the vessel came from a foreign country, a corporal and four soldiers stood guard until the governor and ordonnateur granted permission for it to trade. After this preliminary inspection, captains proceeded to the clerk of Admiralty where they stated the purpose of their voyage, the size of their ship, the nature of their cargo, and particulars about the captain, owner, and crew. When the cargo was unloaded, the officers made a second tour, accompanied by a carpenter, to certify that the ship was seaworthy and sufficiently provisioned for the return trip. The clerk received another sworn declaration before a return permit was issued. If smuggling were suspected, the king's proctor could institute proceedings which, if successful, led to confiscation of the boat and cargo as well as a fine of 1,000 livres.

The Admiralty supervised orderly conduct within the port of Louisbourg and promoted the development of navigational skills at Ile Royale. The movement, loading, and wintering of ships in the harbour was regulated by royal ordinance of 1733. The port captain regularly supervised these activities, but infractions were tried-in the Admiralty court. Nautical pilots and merchant captains were certified by the court. Candidates were required to have sailed for five years, including two campaigns of three months in the navy, and be at least 25 years old. They were examined about navigational skills, ship maneouvering, and mathematics by a board consisting of Admiralty officers, two merchant captains, and a master hydrographer. Log books were examined, and the presiding judge questioned applicants on Marine regulations, which they then had to swear to obey. If they were successful, they were issued papers and their names were inscribed on the list of pilots and captains.

Like the ordonnateur, the Admiralty employed sub-delegates, but only at Port Dauphin in the north and Port Toulouse in the south. Their duties were more circumscribed than those of the court at Louisbourg. Although all ships were required to report to an Admiralty officer at one of the colony's three ports, only at Louisbourg were ships inspected. Elsewhere the sub-delegates simply issued a return permit to merchant captains, and thereafter the ship did not have to go back to port. The sub-delegates were also permitted to take inventories of property left by men who died at sea, but this report and the belongings were forwarded to Louisbourg for sale.

There can be little doubt that positions on the Admiralty court were among the most lucrative in the administrations. For each of its judicial and regulatory services the Admiralty officers charged fees that were higher than those imposed at Quebec. An official listing of revenues for the first ten months of 1738 found in the Marine dossier of the court's presiding judge, Louis Levasseur, showed that the court collected 5,723 livres in fees that were divided among the officers as follows:


  • Judge            



  • King's proctor   


  • Clerk


  • Usher 


  • Carpenter 


  • Drummer


Louis Levasseur also drew pay as a scrivener in the civil administration for many years, and after 1734, received a pension of 300 livres. The king's proctor, La Forest, was also a scrivener and then was placed on half-pay until his death. The significance of these incomes is more apparent when placed in comparative perspective: soldiers received a livre a day when they worked; the controller was paid 1,800 livres; the ordonnateur, 3,000. Well could Levasseur afford to invest in his own commercial activities. For the sale of a prize amounting to 7,644 livres the Admiralty's fees were 1,378 livres.

[Source: Ken Donovan, Clerks, Notaries and Support Staff in Ile Royale: A Manual for Interpreters, Unpublished Report O C 62 (Fortress of Louisbourg, May, 1986), pp. 16-20]

Admiralty Court