On a recent trip to Cape Breton, N.S., my eyes were opened to a key fact that was unknown to me. In the 18th century, Canada had the third busiest seaport in North America – after Boston and Philadelphia. Well, it wasn’t Canada yet, but would be in another 150 years.
Louisbourg, a historic fortified town on the southernmost tip of Cape Breton, was built in 1713 by the French to protect its commercial interest in the lucrative Grand Banks fishery. They weren’t the only ones to covet the area. Over the years, ownership of the fortress bounced back and forth between the French and English.
On my visit to Cape Breton last summer, the fortress’ cobbled streets were alive with costumed historic interpreters acting out their many roles, from soldier, to baker, to lace maker. My first quick learning point had to do with pronunciation. Because of the original French command, I had been calling it “Louie – berg.” Wrong. “We say ‘Louis – berg’ because the English were the last to own it,’” Dan, my guide, explained. Although some French roots remain in the surrounding population the name became firmly Anglo.
My experience there was a blast, but before I describe how Louisbourg made history come alive, it might be good to go over the site’s rather confusing chronology.
The location was first visited in 1597 by the English, but the town was fortified in 1713 by the French to reinforce its strategic maritime location. It was populated by French fishermen and soldiers who had come from Placenta Bay in Newfoundland, originally for the cod. Fish was abundant then and France, a Catholic nation, had a voracious appetite for fish on Fridays. Around 25 million pounds were exported to France yearly.
In 1744 the war in Europe put the fortress on high alert. A siege took place led by the English and New Englanders. They had double the numbers of the French (who were not really soldiers) and in six weeks the French were starved out and went to other parts of the region. The English were not well equipped for the weather and the first winter 900 died. The French had survived due to help from the Mi’kmaw. For instance, the Mi’kmaw’s spruce beer helped prevent scurvy. The British did not have the same relationship with the indigenous people, and in fact foolishly scorned them. This resulted in three years where they barely kept alive. The British left and the fortress went back to the French. In 1758 the British laid siege again and this time sent the occupants back to France or Montreal. History, however, repeated itself and in 1790 the British, who were still having a hard time in the climate, destroyed most of the buildings and left.
The fortress became derelict and much of the stonework went to build the Citadel in Halifax as well as other structures in Sydney. Only in the 1930s did the Canadian government decide to rebuild the community as a National Historic Site (1935-60) and touristic attraction. In the 1960s when the main means of livelihood, coal mining, crashed, miners were brought in and taught heritage building restoration techniques. It took 25 years to complete.
Today, it is open year round and teems with tourists. Dan, our guide, had worked there for three years and was a fountain of knowledge. “When it was rebuilt, they sent teams to France to buy period antiques to furnish the buildings. There is one original piece, an armoire in the Begal home that the family donated. More than 500,000 documents relating to the fortress were found in France and used for reference in the reconstruction. The French company that made the glass windows originally were contracted to do the same. They said they hadn’t had an order this big in 300 years!”
Wandering about, I chatted with many of the costumed interpreters who acted the part of the original homeowners. One young woman told me her character had had 19 children. I could hardly get my head around the number. “Well, in real life my grandmother came from a family of 13. In those days many children did not survive. Plus, they were a farmer’s work team,” she explained. In another house I watched a woman make lace. “We use it to trim our costumes. It can take a couple of months to finish a three-foot strip,” she said.
Louise Johnston, an educational interpreter spoke to me about guns. “In a walled town such as this, there is a history of cannons. Ours were shipped in from France, 16 and 36 pounders. They were a necessity because of their reach. With muskets, in order to hit your target, you need to be able to see the whites of your enemy’s eyes. A cannon can shoot up to a mile and a half away. Cannons were important for protection, because with the breach of a wall, your fortress falls.” She then explained how an exploding mortar, or hollowed out cannon ball, hits a structure and then explodes. “It was very dangerous for the soldiers who shot the cannons. Black powder is really unstable and you can easily lose a limb. When you are shooting a musket you can get burned. Those soldiers needed to know geometry and trigonometry just to target correctly.” The fortress’s cannons were cast in Ontario, according to the original French plans. “In the 1960s they found some of the originals in the harbor,” noted Johnston.
Johnston’s words had fired me up and I signed on for Louisbourg’s cannon shooting experience (much more appealing than being Prisoner of the Day). After donning my own regalia – a tri-corner hat and heavy, brass-buttoned jacket, I followed the other soldiers and marched through the yard towards the big guns. As a cannoneer-in-training, my job was to light the fuse. Hands a little shaky, I managed to bend over the huge iron beast and hit my target. The flame took and then a shattering explosion almost jolted me out of my sneakers. Breathing in the gun powdery air, I took out my ear plugs, a big grin on my face. Talk about bragging rights. What better way to end a trip to a terrific heritage site than with a bang?
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