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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


An Introductory Manual for Staff at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site



Of all the themes in the history of Louisbourg, its role as a naval port is perhaps the most difficult to interpret to visitors. The harbour is still there, of course, but most of the other features which were there in the 18th century (ships riding at anchor, Royal and Island Batteries, lighthouse, careening wharf, navigational aids, etc.) exist today only in the mind's eye. Consequently, the interpretation of this theme calls for a great deal of imagination, both on your part and on the part of visitors.

Louisbourg emerged as the premier establishment on Isle Royale for two related reasons: its proximity to the fisheries and its excellent harbour. What made it such a good harbour?

Here's a short list:

Size - the harbour was large enough to contain all the ships and boats which would ever need to be anchored there. For instance, after the 1758 siege there were 33 vessels of war and between 80 and 90 transports brought into the harbour.

Location - on the same general latitude as the French ports (Rochefort, La Rochelle, etc.) with which the colony dealt. There was no precise way of determining longitude, so ships sailed across to first landfall or port of call (often Louisbourg), and then off to their destination. Perfect location for triangular trade routes with France, Canada and West Indies.

Defensibility - The shape of the harbour (with narrow channel opening) was such that with the erection of shore batteries, it would be very difficult for enemy warships to sail into.

As Louisbourg's importance to France increased, so did the variety of onshore services provided in the town. Those which related directly to Louisbourg in its incarnation as a naval port included:

Navigational aids - to assist ships in making their way in and out of the harbour safely. In addition to the navigational crosses on the headlands, ships also used various features of the town such as the spires of the barracks and hospital for guidance. Within the harbour there seem to have been channel markers. A red flag flying from the Island Battery was used to warn vessels that the harbour was full of pack ice. On foggy days cannon shots were fired to warn approaching ships that they were near land.

Lighthouse(s) - the most sophisticated of navigational aids; under ideal conditions, its beacon could be seen by vessels 6 leagues (18 miles) out to sea.

Harbour Defences - the Royal, Island, Pièce de la Grave and Semi-circular Batteries ensured that the harbour would not fall easily into enemy hands.

Careening wharf - along the Havenside shore, for the repair of ships.

Stores and provisions ashore - King's bakery, King's storehouse, naval stores (canvas, spars, tar, etc.).

King's Hospital - for the sick off visiting vessels as well as for soldiers and inhabitants.

Admiralty Court - to settle disputes involving maritime law.

Capitaine de Port - the harbourmaster, who told ship's captains where they were to moor their vessels - oversaw all salutes to be given to visiting ships, examined and inspected vessels to make sure they were seaworthy, commanded the guards posted on ships while they were anchored in port. During the 1740s, Pierre Morpain occupied this position at Louisbourg.

Maritime Specialists - pilots, hydrographer, clerks.


The economic base of Isle Royale was the cod fishery. Its annual worth to the local economy was, contrary to popular belief, several times that of government expenditure on the fortifications and other royal projects. Indeed, until the early 1740s, the colony's production of dried and salted codfish was worth two to three times the value of Canada's famed fur trade.

At present, the focal point for interpreting the Isle Royale fishery is at the Fauxbourg House. Fishing properties like it lined the shore from near the Dauphin Gate to the far end of the harbour. Numerous wharves received the catch from shallops fishing inshore and schooners from the offshore banks. After cleaning and salting, the catch was dried on flakes and gravel beaches in preparation for export.

Before looking specifically at the Isle Royale situation, it is necessary to sketch the development of the entire northwestern Atlantic cod fishery.

The Importance of Cod

In the 18th century, and in all the centuries preceding it, there was a requirement for preserved foods (generally dried or salted) which is sometimes difficult to appreciate today. Since there was no artificial refrigeration or modern transportation system available, one ate fresh foods only during the season at which they were caught or harvested in one's area. For the rest of the year one ate dried or salted meat, fish, fruit, etc.

In this world of preserved food, codfish held a very important place in people's diets. There were two main reasons for this:

i) cod has good preservative qualities, it is easily transported and there is little wastage of the product during the preservation process

ii) religious obligations (i.e. meatless days) created a steady demand for fish

Because of the importance of fish in the European diet, the search for new cod stocks, as well as the search for gold, inspired exploration. Voyagers to the New World, like John Cabot in 1497, spread word of "new found" cod stocks. The early competitors for this fishery were the English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.

By 1700 Spain and Portugal had been eliminated from the northwestern cod fishery, though they remained important as markets. The situation with the English and French fisheries at that time was roughly as follows:


-Principally produced green cod on the Grand Banks
- with a dry fishery on the south (Placentia) and north (Petit Nord) coasts of Newfoundland, in the Gaspé region and on the shores of Acadia
- mainly migrant fishermen, though at Placentia residents were given special privileges


-principally produced dried cod
- controlled most of the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland
- restrictions on resident participation
- resident fishery in New England used some schooners


Banks - An undersea elevation rising from the continental shelf.

Dry Fishery - Cod that is preserved principally by the air and sun, though some salt is used.

Green Fishery - Cod that is preserved through the use of salt. Also known as the WET FISHERY.

Quintaux - Plural of quintal, a French unit of weight equal to 100 livres or 48.95 kilograms or 100 pounds. The English quintal or hundred weight weighs 112 pounds or 50.97 kilograms.

Schooner - English term for the GOELETTE. A two-masted fore and aft rigged vessel.

Shallop - English term for the CHALOUPE. A fishing boat of several tons burden, usually having a three-man crew.

Its Main Features

The major points to be made are as follows:

the concentration on the fishery during the French regime probably hindered agricultural and other economic development on the island

there was an inshore and an offshore fishery; the former used shallops (chaloupes) and the latter used schooners (goélettes)

the resident fishery was favoured over the migrant fishery in terms of land ownership. Migrants were allowed to fish off the coast but when it came to processing the fish they either had to rent developed shore lots from residents or use unconceded land, which would be in less desirable locations and of poorer quality.

there were two main seasons: May to September (summer fishery, with both shallops and schooners); November to February (winter fishery, shallops only)

French fishermen settled along the Atlantic coast of Cape Breton, from Niganiche (Ingonish) to the Petit de Grat area. The harbours along that coast offered better protection from storms than those on the Cheticamp-Inverness coast.

Louisbourg developed as the marketing centre for the entire cod catch of the colony; fishermen and merchants from outport communities generally brought their dried cod to Louisbourg for it to be exported, though Niganiche and Petit De Grat did have some direct imports and exports.

the major markets for Isle Royale cod were France and France's West Indian colonies (Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint-Dominique). Some of the exports to France were likely re-exported to other European markets, like Spain and Portugal.

Cod exports and Louisbourg's location became the two main reasons why Louisbourg was able to develop into a major centre for international trade


The official starting date for the Isle Royale fishery is 1713, though the fish stocks off its coasts and the harbours along its shores had been exploited by fishermen of different nationalities long before that date. Yet it was only after the Treaty of Utrecht, and the establishment of the colony by France, that the systematic and intensive development of the island fishery began.

The Overall Context

Important as the Isle Royale fishery was to become after 1713, it is important to realize at the outset that it was not the only, nor indeed even the most productive of France's fisheries in the northwest Atlantic, between 1713 and 1758. Here is a summary of the French and English fisheries during that period.


-Banks - green, migrant fishery; produced the bulk of France's salt cod
-Isle Royale - dry, resident and migrant fishery
-Gaspé - dry, resident and migrant fishery
-Labrador - green, migrant fishery
-Petit Nord - green, migrant fishery .


-Newfoundland - dry, migrant and resident fishery (the resident fishery there expanded in spite of legal restrictions)
-New England - dry, resident fishery (use of schooners)
-Nova Scotia - dry, seasonal offshoot of the New England fishery (only schooners used).
-The Mi'qmaq threat along the coastline resulted in a concentration of fishing establishments in one location, Canso.

Note: While production figures for the total French fishery are unavailable, it is estimated that Isle Royale produced from 1/8 to 1/10 of France's total salt cod.

Its Organization and Methodology

This broad subject is most easily understood when it is discussed in terms of its sub-topics. Since the Isle Royale fishery was basically a dry fishery, let's start there

The Dry Fishery

i) Fishing Properties

- to dry the catch fishermen required properties on shore.

- shore properties were generally conceded in small lots. Once they were conceded, the owner was free to sell or rent it, within certain restrictions.

- not all harbours were suitable: some were too far from the fishing grounds (like Port Dauphin), some did not provide enough shelter (like Cheticamp). Other essential requirements were a large amount of useable shoreline and plenty of available wood, water, etc.

ii) Residents and Migrants

- the land policy on Isle Royale favoured married, resident fishing proprietors (habitants pêcheurs). Migrant fishermen were unable to own land, unmarried fishing proprietors were unable to rent their properties.

-though both groups used shallops and schooners, residents favoured shallops (less expensive, two seasons) and migrants preferred schooners (more expensive and summer use only, but greater productivity).

- resident fishery was dependent on seasonal workers from France.

iii) Shallop Fishery

- produced 2/3 to 4/5 of the total catch.

- shallop was approximately 30 feet long, open boat with oars and a sail.

- crew of three; two shallops (6 fishermen) were said to keep 4 shoreworkers busy.

- daily trips to fish

- depart early morning and return in late afternoon.

- fishing grounds were 10 to 15 miles off shore.

- season was May - September and November - February.

iv) Schooner Fishery

- produced 1/5 to 1/3 of the total catch.

- schooners were from 20 to 80 tons; (30 to 40 tons were most common).

- crew of 6 to 11; average was 7, who kept four shoreworkers busy.

- trips of 3 to 4 weeks; catch salted in the hold and then dried on land.

- fishing grounds were the Scotian Shelf, and late in the season, the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

- season was May to September.

v) Fishing Proprietors

- French term was habitants pêcheurs.

- pivotal role; assembled the property, vessels, supplies and labour which were required.

- frequently financed operation through a local merchant (therefore assumed most of the risk if there was a poor season).

- income from fishing, sale of supplies and liquor to fishermen and resale of fishermen's share of catch.

- chance of becoming a merchant (upward mobility) but rish of bankruptcy.

vi) Fishermen

-seasonal nature of their work; many returned to France for the winter.

- contracted for a fishing season for a specific share of the catch (wages varied according to task performed, shares based on an average of 300 quintaux catch per shallop per season).

vii) Merchants

-all major ones based in Louisbourg.

- providing fishing properties with supplies, and sometimes with financial backing.

- arranged for import of supplies and export of goods

- assumed some financial risks.


Louisbourg was one of the major ports on the North Atlantic. Its large and well-protected harbour was among the busiest on the entire seaboard, ranking behind only New York, Boston and Charleston in terms of ship arrivals. Indeed, to truly understand the town in its 18th century context one must picture its harbour full of ships: men-of-war bristling with cannon, merchant vessels from France, the West Indies and New England and fishing boats heading to or from the banks. Ashore, imagine the quay as a place of bustling activity: imported supplies and provisions being carted toward waiting storehouses, vast quantities of dried cod being readied for export and harbourfront inns and cabarets doing a brisk business.

The reasons behind Louisbourg's emergence as a major port are many. Before looking at the specific factors, however, it is necessary to understand the general economic context of the era, which means mercantilism.


The twin principles of 18th century mercantilism were self-sufficiency and national rivalry, with each state attempting to obtain a favourable balance of trade with all other nations. In every major European country laws were passed and regulations issued with an eye to reducing imports while increasing exports and protecting important national industries. Working on the assumption that there was a relatively fixed amount of wealth in the world, mercantilist theorists argued that the more a state could enrich itself, the more it would impoverish (and therefore weaken politically and militarily) all other states. Thus in a very real sense, mercantilism was economic competition akin to warfare.

Oversea colonies were supposed to play a vital role in the mercantilist world, by creating self-sufficiency within an empire. They were to supply materials to be processed or marketed in the mother country, and they were to serve as markets for the exports of the mother country. Some colonies were valued for their sugar or cotton, others for their furs, fish, spices or precious metals.

As one should expect, the basic mercantilist theory could not always be followed. In the case of Isle Royale, for instance, according to mercantile principles, the colony should have had all of its many imports come either from France or from a French colony. In practice, however, that could not be done. Building materials and food supplies were out of necessity regularly purchased in New England. Though not encouraged, French royal officials permitted the "emergency" trade so that construction could continue or that food shortage might be averted. At times, of course, trade with the New Englanders often went beyond the specific goods to be sold or exchanged. There was an active market for contraband.

Louisbourg as a Pivot

In 1706, before either Louisbourg or Isle Royale were founded, the Intendant (Antoine-Dents Randot) of New France foresaw that Cape Breton had the potential to become an important trading and transshipment port for France's overseas colonies. What was a transshipment port? Briefly put, it was a well-located and developed harbour where large ships from France could come to unload their goods (which would ultimately be distributed among the various colonies) and then pick up return cargoes of colonial products. It was this very role which Louisbourg came to fulfill shortly after it was settled in 1713.

Pivot Image

Why Louisbourg?

- large, well-protected, ice-free harbour

-on the same latitude as the French ports of Rochefort and La Rochelle; half-way between La Rochelle and Québec in terms of sailing time - average 6 weeks from France to Louisbourg or Louisbourg to Québec

-major fishing base of Isle Royale; cod exports to France, West Indies, etc.

-administrative centre of the colony

-onshore facilities - warehouses, lighthouse, wharves, quay, inns, taverns, etc.

-defended harbour - batteries and visiting French warships

Admiralty Court (Amirauté) and Harbour master (capitaine du Port) were important in the regulation of maritime law, harbour traffic, mercantilist regulations.

Trading Notes - partners in declining order of importance: France, West Indies, New England, Canada, Acadia. The West Indies trade was considered the most secure and the most profitable.

shipping season determined by the weather. TransAtlantic ships came in the spring (April-May) and left in late fall (November-December); thereafter just coastal voyages. Harbour relatively quiet over the winter.

just as shipping was seasonal, so the prices of goods fluctuated depending on time of year

over 100 trading vessels entered port each year

different size vessels - large to small, ocean voyages/ intercolonial coasting/sailing within a single colony.

payment in specie (French or Spanish coins or those of other nations), with goods or with a letter of credit.


The diversity and scope of Isle Royal's commerce presented a wide variety of business opportunities for local entrepreneurs, from the humblest innkeeper (aubergiste) to the wealthiest financier (negoçiant). In merchant activity, the absence of both modern banking facilities and telecommunications systems gave middlemen an integral role in arranging business transactions. Such transactions necessitated an intimate knowledge of distant markets and of contacts in them. Payment might be made in specie (coins), or more frequently in either goods or letters of exchange (promissory notes drawn against an individual's credit). Whatever the method of payment, accurate records and accounts were essential.

Case Studies

Like any other occupational group, the merchants of Louisbourg were a mixed lot. Some were extremely wealthy, others moderately so and still others barely made ends meet (indeed, a few went bankrupt).

For many of the Louisbourg merchants, the fishery was their base. Starting as fishing proprietors (habitants-pêcheurs), they were often able to expand into trading, wholesaling and perhaps even retailing in a small way (such as in the smaller settlements along the Isle Royale coast). With shrewdness, financial backing and/or good luck one's business could grow and prosper, trading larger and more diversified cargoes and marketing in a wider area.

Let's look at two established merchants who were associated with the reconstructed area of Louisbourg.

Michel Rodrigue

- he and his father, in business together, concentrated initially on the Louisbourg to Québec trade route 34

- carried products from France and the West Indies to Canada, and then brought back flour, grain, peas and biscuits

- in the early years, Michel Rodrigue captained his own ship, some years making two trips

- after 1737 he made the trip less often as he had become a ship owner of some importance and could hire others to make the voyages for him

- eventually expanded into the West Indies trade, sending ships loaded with cod to Martinique and Saint-Dominique; brought back sugar, molasses, coffee, tobacco and sometimes slaves.

The Delorts

- established, wealthy merchant family - Guillaume (father) and Louis (son)

- several of the storehouses in the reconstruction belonged in the 18th century to Guillaume Delort

- dealt in larger quantities, more and larger ships than Rodrigue

- served as financiers for smaller local merchants

- acted as local agents for ship owners and outfitters in France

- to illustrate their wealth - when Louis Delort died in the 1750s his estate was valued at 80,000 livres

- both Guillaume and Louis Delort had social prestige: each became a member of the Conseil Supérieur, Guillaume was also a church warden and a member of the vestry (fabrique).

The Storage of Goods

With the different magasins in the reconstruction there is ample opportunity to discuss this side of 18th century merchant trade. A few of the general points to be made are:

- storehouses ranged from the immense Magasin Général (built and operated R] /4/l 35 out of royal funds) to masonry warehouses of prosperous merchants to piques storehouses of the less well-to-do. All had the same basic purpose: to protect the contents from theft and spoilage .

contents varied according to the business of the owner - cod waiting for export; molasses, sugar or coffee imports; oils; wood; foodstuffs; pottery; furniture; fabric; etc.

security was essential - locked doors, bars on windows, sentries were all possibilities

protection from waste or spillage was essential - some containers in the Magasin Général were lined with lead to protect against rats many barrels and bales would have been marked with symbols; which had indicated ownership or destination during a long voyage.


It is generally accepted that British superiority at sea was one of the most important factors in bringing about France's two defeats at Louisbourg. During each siege the British were able to mount an effective blockade of the port, as well as contribute to the assault in other ways. The French navy, on the other hand, was a negligible factor in both conflicts. In 1745 there was virtually no French naval support; in 1758 what support there was, was poorly used. Depending on one's point of view, the ineffectiveness of the French navy during the sieges can be either suprising or understandable, unfortunate or deplorable. At the very least, as J. S. McLennan put it, it is "striking".

Comparing the Navies

Around 1700 France actually had more ships than Great Britain. However, due to France's increasing concentration on European affairs, and thus on land fortifications, its navy gradually declined in comparison with Britain's. By the mid-1700s the Royal Navy was twice the size of France 's.

Because of the superiority in numbers of the British navy over the French, most of the protection for France's North American colonies came from privateers and small squadrons. Out of necessity they avoided encounters with large British warships, but they were still able to effectively disrupt British and New England commerce. The ability and aggressiveness shown by French privateers and merchantmen has led many authors to suggest that France's handicap at sea was not due to any lack of skill, but rather to a lack of warships. Ship for ship, French men-of-war were considered equal or superior to their English equivalents in terms of design.

Other weaknesses of the French navy, again brought about mostly by a lack of attention to that branch of the service during the first half 81/4/1 37 of the 18th century, seems to have been complacency among the officer corps and an unwillingness to promote to senior positions talented men who were not of high noble birth. In the English navy, by way of contrast, there were numerous examples of resourceful (and successful) men from relatively humble origins rising to become senior commanders.

Naval Action at Louisbourg

When Louisbourg was chosen as the administrative center for Isle Royale, the intention was that the area would receive naval protection. In actual fact, however, the colony received very little support from the navy over the years. To be sure, warships sailed into port from time to time, but not often enough nor in numbers enough to serve as a deterrent to an assualt on the place.

In the spring of 1745 a combined British and New England fleet blockaded Louisbourg harbour. The Vigilant, a 64-gun man-of-war with 500 sailors, stores for the garrison, additional cannon and a good quantity of much-needed powder arrived off the harbour at a time when the blockade was either up or down the coast. Rather than sailing directly into port, as the captain had been directed, the ship engaged a smaller English vessel in battle. While the battle was in progress, additional English ships reached the area and joined the fray. After a long and valiant struggle the Vigilant was finally captured, and her valuable cargo went into English hands instead of French.

When news of the assault on Louisbourg reached France, the authorities there despatched seven men-of-war from Brest to assist in the defence of the town. On their arrival off New England in July, they learned that Louisbourg had already capitulated.

Turning to the second siege, when the English fleet arrived in Gabarus Bay, the estimated French naval force at Louisbourg was 10 warships, which mounted a total of 494 cannons. Three of these ships were deliberately burned and sunk by the French to block the entrance to 38 the port. The other ships remained in the harbour, where they had a safe anchorage within four or five hundred meters of the English shore batteries. In that position, the French ships might have presented a powerful threat to the English, but that was not the case. Only the Aréthuse operated as a floating battery near the Porte Dauphine. It posed such a threat to English activity in the area that a battery was established for the sole purpose of destroying the ship. Forced to withdraw from that area, the Aréthuse eventually ran the blockade and took dispatches to France.

Except for the Aréthuse, the other French ships were largely ineffective in the defence of Louisbourg. They moved gradually closer and closer to the quay, until three of them went aground. The admiral asked for permission to leave port, but was refused, so he ordered the ships evacuated. At this point they were still seaworthy and practically undamaged. One of the ships was finally hit and caught fire, which spread to the two others. The Prudent and Bienfaisant escaped destruction at that time only to be captured later by the English.

In conclusion, in a time of great colonial empire building, it was unfortunate for France that it allowed her naval strength to deteriorate so much. The support and maintenance of overseas colonies depended largely on the sea power of the mother country. The fact that the French concentrated their resources in other areas gave the British a tremendous advantage in the struggle for control over North America.

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