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Nova Scotia: The Province that has been Passed By
Chapter XV. Louisbourg


Louisbourg Fortress

I found it a far different thing arriving at Louisbourg by land from arriving by sea. In the latter case, one enjoys a rapid coup d'ceil from the moment one turns Lighthouse Point, of the harbour, Goat Island, the new village of Louisburg, and the site and ruins of the old town on the left. The first impression is that of a rapid transition from a violent running sea into a spacious harbour strangely quiet, considering what seems to be the exposed state of the entrance. But this exposure is not real, because Louisburg Harbour is protected by a sunken bar, not uncovered even at low tide. After the rugged and precipitous rocks succeed a series of hillocks here and there covered with stunted firs, and the land for a mile inland is poor and barren. An air of desolation broods about the place, which is hardly lessened by the great and grimy scaifiddings which form the wharves of the coal company, or the groups of fishermen’s cottages close to the water’s edge, although the eye catches glimpses of two or three trim white painted churches scattered along the borders of the harbour.

But were the prospect greyer and more morose to the ignorant eye, nothing could destroy the light which the spectacle will ever lend to him who has read Louisbourg’s story, or restrain the thrill it imparts when seen for the first time.

To the visitor by road or rail the surroundings of the modern village of Louisburg are apt to disenchant. Not even the presence of the two French cannon at the railway station, updrawn a few years ago from the depths of the harbour, quite offset the mile long stroll upon a creaking plank side walk through a succession of hideous clap-boarded stores, the bank, the lawyer’s office, the postoffice, and reading-house. The older dwellings of the village are already falling into decay, and one old woman, one of the M‘Alpines, who had seen better days, complained that the walls of her house, her home for forty years, scarce now sufficed to keep out the weather; and she and her faithful companion trembled lest it should not endure as long as their few remaining years. For it was no longer theirs: it had somehow together with most of the others passed out of their hands into those of the coal company, which like most corporations knew no mercy towards poor tenants.

But there is a great ray of light in New Louisburg, and as for me I shall not easily forget the memory of one plucky English clergyman who, amidst poverty and squalor, and social and spiritual dreariness, for twenty-eight years has fought a cheery battle against these forces, and under conditions in many ways far harder than those which face a Houndsditch curate, has not trampled down his flag, or even allowed himself to be discouraged. His name is the Rev. Fraser Draper—(although I have called him, and I believe he calls himself an Englishman, there is a Scottish element in him), and his parish covers, I think, some forty square miles. To this he ministers either on a bicycle or afoot. Far less affluent is he than the Roman Catholic priest, who would seem to have so many votaries hereabouts, or even of the Presbyterian minister; yet this Anglican is the man for his work and his flock, and has strongly stirring within him that cheery manly something which is more the backbone and support of an Englishman's religion than the Thirty-nine Articles, and shines more in a selfish world than all the candles on all the altars. My friend is a great authority on the history and topography of Louisbourg (mark the spelling—Louisburg is the modern town), and has himself quite a collection of objects of interest connected with both sieges. He told me of the visits to him of Lord and Lady Minto, Lord Dundonald and others, and of the pleasure it gave him to show them over the site of the famous town. From his parsonage in the very centre of the harbour’s crescent shore there arises, three miles away to the right, a small upstanding column on the horizon. This was my beacon as I set out for Old Louisbourg—the shaft erected by the men of Massachusetts fifteen years ago to commemorate William Pepperell and the first siege of Louisbourg in 1745.

A French officer reported that Louisbourg was so strong that it might be held against any assault by an army of women. Yet English prisoners who had dwelt in the fortress believed Louisbourg might be taken, and their hopes were eagerly seized upon and shared by Governor Shirley of Massachusetts, a lawyer by profession, full of energy and enterprise, who now resolved upon the capture of Louisbourg. Unless the English had control of the whole coast from Cape Sable to the mouth of the St. Lawrence, the safety, nay, the very existence of New England was in constant jeopardy. The discontent and bad discipline of the Louisbourg garrison which consisted of 1300 men, was a promising factor. The ramparts were, moreover, said to be defective in more than one place, and, besides this, if the French ships which came over sea with provisions and reinforcements could be intercepted, Shirley felt there was no small chance of success. He wrote instantly to London asking the Government to help him with ships. Without waiting for a reply a little fleet was raised, and a land force of 4000 men, chiefly composed of artisans, farmers, fishermen, and labourers, commanded by a merchant named Peppereil, was mustered for the expedition. Although lacking military experience, Peppereil possessed courage and good lodgment, and was anxious to distinguish himself. On the 24th March 1745 the ships left Boston, reaching Canso ten days later. Here they remained three weeks, waiting for the ice to melt in the bays and harbours. Here, too, they were joined by the English commodore, Warren. whom King George had sent to assist in the capture of Louisbourg.

The command of Louisbourg was in the hands of M. Duchambon. One night, just after a public ball, a captain, attired in his night-clothes, came rushing into the Governor’s chamber to report that a strange fleet had been sighted by the sentries entering Gabarus Bay, five miles distant. Soon the cannons were booming loudly from the walls, and a peal of bells rang through the town. Peppereil made a pretence of landing his troops at a certain point so as to deceive the French. A skirmish took place, in which the French were beaten back and some of them taken prisoners. Before nightfall 2000 of the New Englanders had planted foot on the shore, and the next day the siege of Louisbourg was begun. A hard and dangerous task was the landing of the artillery and stores, owing to the rolling surf. There being no wharf, the men had to wade through the sea to bring the guns, ammunition, and provisions on shore. This alone consumed an entire fortnight. Batteries were thrown up, in spite of sallies made from the town by French and Indians to prevent them. An outside battery was captured, mounted with twenty-eight heavy guns, which now belched forth shot and shell amongst the besieged. Warehouses and other places took fire, and great columns of smoke hid the fort from view for days at a time. The walls were at last seen to crumble, and when the guns of the Americans began to close up on the fortress, Duchambon summoned to surrender, replied that he would when forced to do so by the cannon of the foe. Upon the island battery being silenced, the English fleet entered the harbour and turned upon him its 500 guns. Duchambon’s supply of gunpowder being now exhausted, Louisbourg surrendered after a siege lasting forty-nine days.

The fall of Louisbourg, the key to French power in North America, seemed almost incredible to the French. It was resolved at Versailles that an expedition should be sent out to Cape Breton to recapture it at all hazards. One of the finest fleets that ever left the shores of France sailed from Rochelle the following year, commanded by the Due d’Anviile, consisting of thirty-nine ships of war, with orders to recapture Louisbourg and Cape Breton, and to ravage Boston and the New England coasts. But a fierce tempest dispersed the whole squadron. When, at Chebucto, D’Anville arrived with the remnants of his fleet, his mortification was so great as to induce an apoplectic stroke, from which he died, and on an island in what is to-day known as Halifax Harbour, his body was buried. On the afternoon of the very day on which the French commander died, his Vice-admiral, Destournelles, arrived with three more ships. More than 2000 men of the fleet were stricken with fever and perished. Destournelles, seeing no hope for success, proposed that the expedition should be abandoned and that the fleet should return to France, a proposal which most of his officers resisted. They desired to attack Annapolis, which was weak and had a small garrison. Once it was captured, Acadia was regained for France. Admiral Destournelles, thinking his action reflected on his character and honour, retired, and next morning they found him stabbed by his own hand through the breast.

Ere the French fleet could reach Annapolis, another great storm arose, scattering the ships, and after 2500 brave Frenchmen had been lost in this ill-fated expedition, the only course remaining was to return.

In 1748 was signed the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelie, and Louisbourg was handed back to France. Ten years later Pitt resolved upon its final destruction, and the story of the second siege is known to every schoolboy. In the interval between the two sieges the fortress had been considerably strengthened, and its new commandant, M. Drucour, was a man of great ability.

The summer sun battled with sea-fog upon the miles of brown moorland, scrubbed birch, and rocky beach as I set out for Old Louisbourg—the scant ruins of the French fortress—lying some three miles away on a low-lying spit of land, Point Rochefort, on the south-western side of the harbour. This present village—a collection of shops and miners’ and fishermen’s cottages, and the wharves and lofty ruins of the coal company—occupies the site of the old royal battery which Brigadier-General James Wolfe seized and turned on the enemy. A century and a half ago from this distance the eye could have discerned across the harbour the roofs, spires, and stately battlements of a busy town. Now one’s only beacon along the barren shore is that slender shaft the Americans have there erected to commemorate the first siege. I followed the winding, rock-strewn road to this once-famed spot, where stood the “Dunkirk of the North.” A moderate familiarity with the military maps of the period enables one to trace out the chief features of the neighbourhood. To-day it is all a desert. There is no place like it, save Carthage. I crossed the bridge over the land-locked inlet called the Barachois. On my left, before the mouth of the harbour, lay Goat Island, where the French had a strong battery. Immediately in front are the remains of Wolfe’s siege works, when the young warrior knew he had the town in his grasp; and here, a pistol-shot further on, stood the Dauphin’s Gate, where the same leader and his victorious soldiers, “swarthy with wind and sun, and begrimed with smoke and dust,” entered on the morning of the 27th of July 1758. Some ruins of the Dauphin’s Bastion still remain, and a little further on are the relics of the bomb-proof casemates of the King’s Bastion.

I gained the summit of one of the green mounds which once were citadel, bastion, ramparts, and glacis. “Here,” I could say with Parkman, “stood Louisbourg; and not all the efforts of its conquerors, nor all the havoc of succeeding times, have availed to efface it. Men in hundreds toiled for months, toiled with lever, spade, and gunpowder, in the work of destruction, and for more than a century it has served as a stone quarry; but the remains of its vast defences still tell their tale of human valour and human woe.” A cow, a few lean sheep, a little group of fishermen’s children, are all that infest the spot and unwittingly consort with the spirits of the past. Here, at a charge of ten millions sterling, the most celebrated contemporary military engineers of France had reared a fortress without parallel in the New World. Within its ramparts dwelt some 10,000 souls.

On this barren, wind-swept point, nestled a busy town behind sheltering walls, crowned by a citadel and adorned by lofty buildings. Here numerous regiments in the white-coated uniform of France, naval officers, monks, missionaries, mingled with the fisherfolk and the New England traders. To-day all is silence and desolation.

Nearly seven miles in circumference is Louisbourg Harbour, whose mouth is so blocked with reefs and islands that the entrance is hardly above half a mile wide. This was commanded by Goat Island carrying an effective battery. For a distance of several miles westward the shores of the Bay of Gabarus offered a stern and precipitous natural barrier to the foe, broken here and there by entrenched caves or inlets. Breastworks formed of wooden stakes also help to prevent a landing. I strolled over the uneven turf with feelings of deep emotion. It is still easy to trace the lines of the fortifications, to mark the sites of the buildings, and the lines of the chief streets. In the Rue du Roy I picked up a fragment of a French ramrod; and a fisherman offered me a French wine-bottle of curious shape he had found in the cellar of the Governor’s house. Grape-shot and bullets still strew the site. But only too well did the victors do their work of demolition. For six months soldiers and sailors toiled at the task, and the remnants of two bastions, with bombproof casements, a heap of stones here, a pile of bricks there, are all that remain. On the site of the Intendant’s palatial dwelling is the wooden cottage of a fisherman.

In the teeth of a high wind I pushed along the shore west of the King’s Bastion. There I saw and felt the breastworks of spruce still protruding from the surf-swept beach. I saw where Lord Dundonald fell, and where his bones now lie, and gazed across to Coromandiere Cove to the spot where Wolfe landed. The very rock that felt the impact of his boat’s prow is still reverently pointed out.

Should not all this theatre of stirring events be preserved as historic ground? Its former renown was universal; its present oblivion is a national reproach.

I was interested in ascertaining to whom the ground of Louisbourg now belongs. Some years ago a claimant appeared in the person of a Captain Kenelly, who, purchasing the land of certain squatters, proceeded to put his own peculiar ideas concerning the preservation of Louisbourg into execution. But it is to be feared that the worthy captain, besides having no very clear title, was altogether ill-advised in his proceedings. lie even went the length of repointing the French masonry, skirting the site of the town with a barbed-wire fence, and exacting a fee for admission to tourists.

Few are the tourists who penetrate to this spot, and those that come hail chiefly from New England. Fifteen years ago, on the 150th anniversary of the first capture of Louisbourg by Sir William. Peppereil, funds were raised in Boston for a monument to commemorate the event, and a band of pious pilgrims duly established a granite shaft on the site of the Dauphin’s Gate. And again, quite recently, a large party from Halifax, consisting of members of the Halifax Board of Trade (Chamber of Commerce) and their friends, arrived on a holiday excursion, bringing with them a brass band. On that deserted Atlantic shore, near the forgotten cemetery which holds the graves of thousands of French, English, and American dead, there floated out on the air the strains of “The Maple Leaf”— the first martial music to awaken echoes in this spot for a century and a half.

The seafaring Kenedy is dead, his schemes are in abeyance, and his title to the land is vigorously disputed. Indeed, there seems to be little doubt that the whole site of this fortress is Imperial property, and the sooner an arrangement is devised which will give Louisbourg into the charge of the Battlefields Commission or some body appointed to conserve it, the better. It would be an eternal reproach to the Dominion if it allows these sacred vestiges to be swept from the face of the earth, save for the memorial which the piety of Americans have placed on British ground in memory of the exploit of their forebears. Why should we British do less for our victory and our victors? And, may I add, fur the valour of a defeated foe?

There is much agriculture land hereabouts, chiefly cultivated by Highland Scots. “Ouaint, indeed, are the ways of many of them," says one traveller, “amusing their maxims, and droll their wit.” Can it be that this writer forms his notion of Highland drollery from the exhibitions of Mr. Harry Lauder? The truth is being forced upon a reluctant and prejudiced world that the Scots and the Jews are the true humorists of the world, but I do not think that humour is typical of the Gaelic folk. Personally I have seen none of it in them either in Old World or New, and my experience of the “droll Highlanders” of Cape Breton is that their ideas of drollery are rather Lancastrian in their cold-bloodedness. Hospitable these folk are, doubtless, but only upon occasion and when the mood takes them. I have heard of a traveller, a mining engineer, whose buggy broke down, and who sought in vain for refreshment for miles in this part of Cape Breton. “Some bread.” “We’ve nae bread.” “Some cheese.” “We’ve nae cheese.” “Some water." “The well’s dried up; try the store.” This was a colloquy which took place after a half-a-dozen attempts with folk who shook their heads and had “nae English.” At the store, as he enumerated each item of his wants, the storekeeper looked blank and replied, “We’ve nae call for it.”

“Have you no crackers?”

“We’ve nae call for them; there’s some ship’s biscuit and some molasses.”

Ship’s biscuit and molasses! Hurrah! God’s own country! Ship’s biscuit, unless very mouldy, are milk-white; molasses is, in respect of its saccharine quality, something like honey. So we have come to twenty square miles of tillable country not exactly flowing, but in one spot oozing, let us say, something resembling milk and honey. One wonders, casting an eye over the sun-kissed rolling earth, at the quivering pines, birch and beeches, why human beings should for so long be content with so small a measure of material prosperity as this.

“Them,” says a guide in my ear, “why, them fellows is rich. Ain’t they got stockingsful of guineas in their cellars? Don’t you waste any pity on them farmers. When they ain’t farming they’re fishing, and when they ain’t fishing they take a spell o’ mining. They cling to what they get, and, barring a little smuggled gin or rum, get their living cheap, I tell you.”

The country between Glace Bay and Louisbourg ought to be a famous grazing country, especially for sheep. The cattle I saw at Villa Bay looked fat and comely, and in the western parts of Cape Breton a great sheep-raising industry might well be established. When it is understood that the food demands of the mining and manufacturing population are already far greater than the Nova Scotian farmers can supply, it will be seen at once how great is the opportunity here to establish a paying market, especially for mutton, poultry, vegetables, and dairy products.

As for sport hereabouts, besides large and small game in season, the existence of so many small streams ensures an abundance—even a superabundance—of fish. I heard an angler on the Mira River who, two days before my arrival, had caught eighty trout in one day! They were, for the most part, useless to him, and he had to leave them behind. Such “sport” is bound to pall—one takes refuge in the reflection that it cannot last. Cape Breton, like Newfoundland, is being discovered by hunters of moose, snarers of trout and salmon, and seekers of wild-fowl and shore birds from afar, and trains and steamers are pouring their human freight into the solitudes of yesterday.

Than a “Sportsman’s Paradise” I know no phrase so absurdly abused; but if getting what he wants and all he wants in the way of fish and fowl and fauna generally constitutes a sportsman’s idea of happiness, I know of no place where he can be quite so happy.


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