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The Jost House, 54 Charlotte Street, Sydney, Nova Scotia




On May 29, 1784, Governor Parr was notified by Lord Sydney that a 'Lieutenant-Governor with a suitable civil establishment would be placed upon the island of Cape Breton,' and on July 7 following, that Major Frederic Wallet. Desbarres had been appointed by His Majesty to that office. The sum of 1,750l. was also voted by Parliament on August 5 of the same year, for 'defraying the charges of the Civil Establishment of His Majesty's island of Cape Breton.' Desbarres sailed from Portsmouth in September, in the ship 'Blenheim,' which had been chartered to carry out provisions, and stores to Halifax, where he arrived on November 16, and immediately proceeded to Cape Breton. As Major Desbarre was the first civil governor of the island under the new regime, you will no doubt be glad to hear what were his claims to such a responsible situation. He has himself furnished us with a detailed account of his services, in a work which he published after his removal from Cape Breton, from which I have gleaned the following particulars:-

 Mr. Desbarres first embarked for America in 1756, being then a lieutenant in the 60th Regiment, and was for some time employed in raising recruits in Pennsylvania and Maryland, and in disciplining a corps of field artillery. In 1757, with a small detachment of volunteers he was sent in pursuit of a band of Indians which had plundered the village of Schenectady, on the frontier of New York, and scalped several of the inhabitants. Overtaking and coming upon them by surprise, in the night, he routed the Indians and made prisoners of some of their chiefs. He then established a post in the heart of the forest, where he remained three months, and kept the savages in subjection. During the remainder of the campaign of that year, he served under Lord Howe near Lake George, and was employed to reconnoitre and report upon the state of the French Works at Ticonderoga. In 1758 he distinguished himself at Louisbourg by seizing an entrenchment of the enemy, which greatly facilitated the debarkation of the army, and towards the close of the siege opened a sap at the foot of the glacis, with such judgment and promptitude that General Wolfe brought his conduct under the notice of the King, who ordered him to attend Wolfe as an engineer in the celebrated expedition against Quebec. On the field of battle, upon the Heights of Abraham, in 1759, Desbarres was in the act of reporting to General Wolfe an order he had just executed, when that gallant hero received his mortal wound. In 1760 and 1761 he served in Canada, and, after its conquest, was sent to Nova Scotia to make plans and estimates of fortifying the .dockyard and harbour of Halifax. In 1762 he served in the capacities of Engineer and Quartermaster-General, in the expedition under Colonel Amherst for the recapture of St. John's, Newfoundland. During a period of ten years, commencing in 1763, Desbarres was employed in making surveys of the coasts and harbours of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, and during the succeeding ten years in preparing and adapting these surveys for publication. As his promotion had been stopped whilst he was engaged upon these surveys, the Government, taking into consideration his long and valuable services, appointed him Lieutenant-Governor of Cape Breton an appointment which in the end proved rather a punishment than reward, as it was intended to be.

The knowledge which Desbarres hail acquired of the geography of Cape Breton, whilst engaged in making his survey of its coasts and harbours, enabled him to fix upon the most suitable place for the site of its future capital, immediately after his arrival there in November 1784. Louisbourg, it is true, possessed the advantage of an open harbour all the year round; but its situation was in other respects so objectionable, that there' could be no question of the superior capabilities of the place chosen by Desbarres - the peninsula at the head of the south arm of Spanish River, one of the safest and most capacious harbours in British America. Here, accordingly, Desbarres determined to establish the seat of government, which he called Sydney, in honour of the. Secretary of State, by whose advice, it was supposed, Cape Breton had been severed from Nova Scotia.

This decision gave the finishing blow to Louisbourg, which had been rapidly declining ever since the garrison was withdrawn, in 1768. The few respectable inhabitants who bad clung to its falling fortunes in the hope of better days soon abandoned it, and Louisbourg dwindled down, in the course of a few years, into a mere fishing village of the smallest dimensions, such as you will find it at the present day. Its present condition has been well described by Montgomery Martin, in his 'History of the British Colonies': - The rains of the once formidable batteries, with wide broken gaps (blown up by gun-powder), present a melancholy picture of past energy. The, strong and capacious magazine, once the deposit of immense quantities of munitions of war, is still nearly entire, but, hidden by the accumulation of earth and turf, now affords a commodious shelter for flocks of peaceful sheep, which feed around the burial ground where the remains of many a gallant French man and patriotic Briton are deposited; while beneath the clear cold wave may be seen the vast sunken ships of war, whose very bulk indicates the power enjoyed by the Gallic nation, ere England became mistress of her colonies on the shores of the Western Atlantic. Desolation now sits with a ghastly smile around the once formidable bastion--all is silent except the loud reverberating ocean, as it rolls its tremendous surges along the rocky beach, or the bleating of the scattered sheep, as with tinkling bells they return in the dusky solitude of eve to their singular folds; while the descendant of some heroic Gaul, whose ancestors fought and bled in endeavouring to prevent the noble fortress of his sovereign being laid prostrate before the prowess of mightier Albion, may be observed wandering among these time-honoured ruins, and mentally exclaiming, in the language of the Bard of Erin:-

On Louisbourg's heights where the fisherman strays,
When the clear cold eve's declining,
He sees the war ships of other days
In the wave, beneath him, shining;
Thus shall memory often in dreams sublime,
Catch a glimpse of the days that are over,
And sighing look back through the vista of time,
For the long faded glories they cover!

As soon as it became known that a Lieutenant-Governor was to be sent to Cape Breton, and that grants of land would be issued, as in the other provinces, many persons directed their attention towards the island. One of the first was Abraham Cuyler, Esq., formerly Mayor of Albany, then residing in London, who laid before the King a memorial dated February 21, 1784, in which he stated that he himself and many other persons who had been deprived of their property on account of their loyalty, had removed to Canada in 1782, and were desirous of obtaining grants of land in Cape Breton, with the intention of settling there. This memorial having been favourably received, a number of persons, styling themselves the 'Associated Loyalists,' sailed in three vessels for Cape Breton, under the charge of Colonel Peters, Captain Jonathan Jones, and Mr. Robertson, late officers in the corps of Royal Rangers, and associates of Mr. Cuyler, where they arrived about October 28. About one hundred and forty persons came to Cape Breton by these vessels, furnished with clothing and provisions by the British Government, under the charge of Captain Jones and Mr. Alexander Haire. Some of these persons settled near St. Peter's, others at Baddeck and the rest, who lead gone direct to Louisbourg, were there met by Mr. Cuyler, lately arrived from England. As Liutenant-Governor Desbarres had not then reached Cape Breton, these last1 were obliged to remain all winter at Louisbourg. The houses were in such a ruinous condition that Mr. Cuyler was obliged to send a vessel to Mirá to obtain wood to repair them, which was unfortunately lost in a snow-storm, when all on board perished. Some few of these immigrants settled at Louisbourg, but the greater part went with the Governor in the following spring to Sydney, where they were employed for some time in clearing the woods and erecting houses for themselves and the Government. As soon as the woods were cut down and burnt, the town was marked out by Mr. Tait, and barracks were commenced for the reception of six companies of the 33rd Regiment, which had arrived from Halifax under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Yorke. The military star comprised a Town Adjutant, Barrack Master, Commissary of Stores and Provisions, Chaplain, Surgeon, Assistant Surgeon, and Commissary of Musters, all of whom, together with the troops, had to camp out until winter. Houses were also begun for the officers of Government, but these, as well as the Governor himself, had long to reside in shanties of the meanest description.

1. Amongst them was the ancestor of the Lorways, a family well and favourably known in Cape Breton. Mr. Cuyler says, in a letter addressed from Louisbourg to the Under Secretary of state, that 'Lorway and Grant, two Loyalists, refused to admit Richard Mandeville into their quarters, and that he consequently stopped their rations.' He adds, as there was no custom-house officer there, some of the inhabitants retailed spirituous liquors and caused disturbances.

About eight hundred persons arrived, and settled in various parts of the island in the early part of the summer. It is stated by Desbarres that an accession of 3,397 speedily followed the publication of his proclamation on September 1, describing the natural advantages of the island, and offering a liberal supply of provisions for three years to immigrants, with clothing for themselves and their families, lumber and materials for farm buildings, and tools and implements for clearing land. Many valuable settlers were induced in consequence to come to Cape Breton; but it is to be feared the very liberal terms offered in the proclamation also brought in a number of dissolute, idle characters, well satisfied to live upon the bounty of the Government so long as they were not obliged to make any exertions for their own support.

The great rush of immigrants, and the bustling scene presented by so many people busily engaged in erecting barracks; storehouses and dwellings, seem quite to have turned the head of the Governor, and made him fancy that Cape Breton would soon eclipse all the neighbouring colonies. From the very first he appears to have imbibed an idea that the people of Nova Scotia were jealous of Cape Breton, and looked with dissatisfaction at its rising importance. Writing on August 17 to the Under Secretary of State he says, 'New settlers are coming in fast; the New England people do not like the settling of the island of Cape Breton at all; they know it will be the loss of every advantage they derive from the fishery. Nova Scotia is jealous, and don't wish with thorough sincerity the success of this Government, lest its growing, importance and value should raise it to the first rink amongst His Majesty's and the national favourites.' Desbarres seems to have imagined that he possessed vice-regal powers, as he instructed Lieutenant Graham to hoist a pennant upon the armed brig 'St. Peter's,' employed in carrying coals to Halifax. This notion was, however, soon dispelled by Commodore Sawyer, who wrote to Desbarres on July 13, informing him that Captain Stanhope of H. M. S. 'Mercury' had seized the 'St. Peters,' and that he (Commodore Sawyer) being by virtue of his commission Chief Commander of H. M.'s ships in British America, could not permit any other person to commission vessels and appoint commanders. .

Being required to appoint a Council to advise him on all important matters, the Lieutenant-Governor in the first instance named the following gentlemen, who were duly sworn in:-Richard Gibbons, Chief Justice, President; David Mathews, Attorney-General; William Smith, Military Surgeon; Thomas Moncreiff, Fort Adjutant; J. E. Boisseau, Deputy Commissary of Musters; Rev. Benjamin Lovell, Military Chaplain. Having subsequently quarrelled with Lieutenant Colonel Yorke, the Commandant of the garrison, Desbarres then discovered that it was incompatible with the service of the Crown for military officers to hold seats in the Council, and suggested that they had better resign. Only two of the officers acted upon this suggestion Moncreiff and Lovell-whose places were filled up on December 20, by the appointment of Alexander Hairs and George Rogers. At the same time, Thomas Uncle, William Brown, and John Wilkinson were sworn in councillors, which made the Council complete in number, according to the Royal instructions.

The officers of the civil establishment, all paid by the British Government, were Richard Gibbons, Chief Justice, late Attorney-General of Nova Scotia; David Mathews, AttorneyGeneral ; Abraham Cuyler, Clerk of Council, Provincial Secretary and Registrar of Grants, &c. ; Thomas Hurd, Surveyor-General; William Brown, Comptroller of Customs ; George Moore, Naval Officer; Thomas Uncle, Postmaster; Provost-Marshal. The coal mines on Spanish River were reopened under the directions of the Lieutenant-Governor, and worked on Government account. Nearly all the new settlers were of course employed chiefly in providing shelter against the coming winter; but, nevertheless, some enterprising individuals prosecuted the fisheries with success. The value of the exports from the ports of Sydney, Mainadieu, Louisbourg, St. Peter's, and Arichat, in the year 1785 exceeded 40,000l. sterling, the principal articles being

30,680 Quintals of Fish
174     Barrels           „
304        „               Oil.
1,190 Chaldrons of Coal.
        266 Moose and Caribon Skins.
87 Beaver and Otter          „
163 Martin and Mink        „
38 Faun and Wild Cat      „

In addition to these, considerable quantities of fish were exported from L'Indienne (Lingan), St. Ann's, Port Hood, Gabarus, and L'Ardois, of which no returns were sent in.

The young colony was reduced to great straits during the first winter, for want of provisions. Finding that there was not a sufficient stock on hand, Desbarres says he applied to the Governor of Nova Scotia for a supply, and was refused, because the latter 'had an aversion to the measure of erecting Cape Breton, formerly included within the jurisdiction of his province, into a separate government, and, together with some of the officers of his civil establishment and mercantile men long used to enjoy a monopoly of trade in Nova Scotia, seemed hurt by its dismemberment, expecting that their perquisites and exclusive profits would be reduced. Accordingly, in order to frustrate the measure, they depreciated the natural advantages of the island, discouraged the accession of settlers, intercepted the supplies for its support, and predicted that the infant colony would be broken up the first winter.' He then goes on to say that it had been preconcerted at Halifax that Colonel Yorke, the Commandant at Sydney, should take possession of the supplies sent out from England in the ship 'President,' specially for the relief of the settlers in the autumn of 1785, and that Colonel Yorke had accordingly refused to allow the provisions to be taken out of the military storehouse, where they bad been put for safe keeping.1 Whoever was to blame, it is quite certain the colonists were reduced to such straits in the winter of 1785-86, that the Governor, with the advice of his Council, decided upon sending a party to seize a cargo of provisions on board a vessel from Quebec, ice-bound in Arichat harbour. Instructions were given to the party 'to obtain the cargo by purchase, impress, or any means possible ;' but the master having agreed to sell both cargo and vessel, she was cut out of the ice and taken round to Louisbourg, from whence the provisions were carried on sledges to Sydney. This seasonable acquisition relieved the settlers for the winter, but did not allay the feud between the Governor and Commandant. A long correspondence ensued between the Governor and the authorities in England, and the bills drawn by the former for provisions were dishonoured, because it was alleged that he had given a large quantity of provisions to persons who were not entitled to them. The Governor therefore determined to send the Chief Justice - Mr. Gibbons - to England in the following spring, to rebut the charges brought against him. On August 2, Mr. Gibbons addressed the Under-Secretary of State, asking for an interview for the purpose of showing that 'unparalleled oppositions, contempts, and violence had been given by the officers of His Majesty's 33rd Regiment to the laws of the land, the King's courts of justice, the magistracy and executive civil officers in the island of Cape Breton.' The mission of the Chief Justice was not successful ; for we learn by a letter addressed by Lord Sydney to Desbarres, on November 30, 1786, that he had laid the despatches received by the Chief Justice before the King, and that 'His Majesty had in various instances observed a disposition in you to encourage a disunion of affection between his subjects residing on the island of Cape Breton and those in the province of Nova Scotia. From whatever your suspicion of the jealousy of the latter of the increasing importance of Cape Breton may have been entertained, your proceedings upon these occasions appear to me injudicious, and likely in their consequences to be productive of very mischievous effects.' Referring to the constant disputes with the military, and the complaints in consequence made against him, he says, 'Many doubts have been entertained of the rectitude of your conduct, or at least of your prudence and discretion, which neither the reasoning contained in your despatches, nor the information given by the Chief Justice, are sufficient to remove. Upon these accounts His Majesty has thought it fit that I should signify to you his Royal commands for your return to England as soon as possible, to give an account of your proceedings . . . leaving the island in the charge of the senior councillor until such time as you may return thither, or that His Majesty may determine upon naming a successor to you.' With respect to his accounts, he adds, 'that charges were inserted of a nature which, consistently with your duty to the public, you ought to have discountenanced instead of promoting, and that purchases of provisions and other supplies were made by you for the use of persons whose situations did not entitle them to such an indulgence, whereby a considerable expense has been unnecessarily incurred.'

1 Lieutenant-Colonel Yorke acted upon orders received from Major-General Campbell at Halifax, who instructed him on November 17 to give no provisions out of the military stores, except to the troops, or such loyalists and disbanded soldiers as should have orders to receive them from him (Major-General Campbell). In consequence, the 40,000 rations sent out in the ' President,' and reshipped to Sydney by the brigantine 'Brandywine,' were taken possession of by Colonel Yorlce. -Records.

Governor Desbarres, seeing clearly that his reign in Cape Breton would soon terminate, made good use of his time until his successor arrived in October 1787. His liberal gifts of rations to all comers, whether entitled or not to that indulgence, having made him popular with the people generally, an address dated March 1, 1786, signed by 140 inhabitants of Sydney, was presented to him, approving highly of his conduct and complaining of the treatment he had received from the military; and on the 8th of the same month seventy-eight Acadians, chiefly of the Isle Madame, thanked him , for his attention to their spiritual wants, and asked for the remission of certain taxes upon their shallops, which he graciously conceded. Desirous of gratifying the settlers, a great number of grants, previously promised, were issued in various parts of the island to Loyalists, disbanded soldiers, and many other applicants, and one tract of 100,000 acres to Jotham White and 120 families of Loyalists from New Hampshire. As the greatest part of this grant, commonly known as the 'Mirá' Grant,' was never settled, it was subsequently escheated.

The only incidents worthy of mention during the years 1786 and 1787, previous to Desbarres's departure from Cape Breton, were - the arrival of the 42nd Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Graham, in 1786, to replace the 33rd, removed to Halifax; the appointment of Archibald C. Dodd (who afterwards became Chief Justice) to the Clerkship of the Council; of Alexander Haire to the office of Surveyor-General, in the place of Thomas Hurd, suspended; of Patrick Rooney Nugent to be Deputy-Surveyor of the island; of Abraham Cuyler to be Comptroller of Customs, vice William Brown, deceased; and of the Reverend Ranna Cossit to the incumbency of St. George's Church, for the erection of which Parliament granted 500l. in addition to the sum of 2,050l. for the charges of the Civil Establishment of the island in 1786. Jonathan Jones, John Ley, Ferrers, and Hugh Watts, were appointed magistrates for the District of Louisbourg (which included Sydney and Baddeck) ; and Niel Robertson, Francis Murphy, and John Higgins, for the District of St. Peter's. Several ordinances were passed by the Govemor and Council, of which the most important was that for establishing a militia in the island. Some changes also were made in the composition of the Council from time to time, but it would occupy too much space to give them in detail.

Nothing of importance occurred during the remainder of Desbarres's adminstration [sic] until October 11, 1787, when Lieutenant-Colonel Macormick, who had been appointed to succeed him, arrived at Sydney. Desbarres immediately proceeded to England and demanded an investigation into his conduct, but this was never granted, though supported by Sir Herbert Mackworth and other influential persons. The Ministry having refused to pay the bills which he had drawn, he was obliged to retire for a time to Jersey to avoid being arrested by the parties who had furnished supplies of provisions ordered by him for the starving settlers. In wading through the voluminous documents relating to the transactions of many years subsequent to his removal from Cape Breton, I repeatedly came across letters from Desbarres to the Ministry, demanding redress for his losses, but I could not ascertain that his claims were ever satisfied. I cannot but think that Governor Desbarres received scant justice from the British Government of that day; he was wrong, perhaps, in giving rations indiscriminately to all the settlers, but surely he would have been much more blameable had he refused to supply them in their urgent necessity; if he erred at all, he erred in the cause of humanity. Colonel Desbarres subsequently removed to Halifax, where he died on October 27, 1824, in the 103rd year of his age.

[Source: Richard Brown, A history of the island of Cape Breton with some account of the discovery and settlement of Canada, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland  (S. Low, son, and Marston, 1869), pp. 388-398]