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The disastrous siege of Louisbourg is a historical example of the consequences of neglect and poor workmanship. How hard are you working to build character that will not fail when put to the test?
On the very northern coastline of Nova Scotia, on the Atlantic shore of Cape Breton Island, stands an impressive and unique memorial to the turbulent early years of Canadian history.
It was 1713, before the nations of the United States or Canada had been founded, and France was reeling from defeat in the War of the Spanish Succession, or “Queen Anne’s War” to the English. The Treaty of Utrecht saw France lose claim to Newfoundland and all of Acadia, except for Île St. Jean (Prince Edward Island) and Île Royale (Cape Breton Island). The loss of Newfoundland threatened France with a loss of control over access to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and thus to the inland colonies of New France.
On this stunningly beautiful shoreline, French seamen found an agreeable deep-water harbour. It likely acquired the name Havre-à-l’Anglais, “English Harbour,” because French fishermen saw the English fishing fleet using the harbour for shelter from the gales of the North Atlantic. French fishermen began to use this harbour to resupply and as a base for processing their catches.
During the fishing season, several thousand French fishermen used the Havre-à-l’Anglais, and a prosperous community grew from the profits of the fishing industry. Just how important was the French fishing industry? The value of processed fish exported to France soon exceeded that of Canada’s lucrative fur trade conducted through settlements in Quebec. France was still recovering from crop failures that between 1693 and 1710 had seen more than two million French citizens die of famine-induced starvation. Add to this the Roman Catholic proscription against eating other meat on Fridays, and there was a huge demand for fish. Thus, the fishery was a high priority for government support.
The French government was very interested in this new settlement, as it would provide control over access to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Thus, the new settlement became a military and naval base for the French Empire, named “Louisbourg” in honour of King Louis XIV.
In 1720, Louisbourg was a bustling port, exporting tons of dried and salt fish and importing foodstuffs, clothing, tools, and other commodities for new colonists and local tradesmen. By 1725, ships came not only from France and Quebec, but also from the Caribbean. A vigorous trade was beginning with the English colonies in New England. The small commercial city also served as an administrative hub for the area.
Development focused not only on the commercial center; Louis XV agreed to a plan to build Louisbourg into what would become the largest military fortification in North America. The fortress was 24 years under construction, designed by France’s best military engineers. The walls were 11 metres (33 feet) thick in some places and rose 9 metres (28 feet) above a surrounding entrenchment, facing the sea on three sides. The primary fortress had placements for 148 cannons. There were additional fortifications on the opposite side of Louisbourg harbour and on a nearby island that defended against a seaward approach. On the landward side of the fortress there were stout walls surrounded by marsh, thought to prevent any artillery from being placed within range.
The cost of construction was immense. The French king was rumoured to have commented, upon seeing some of the bills, that he should soon be able to see the walls rising out of his west-facing windows in Paris.
The 2,000 inhabitants of the completed fort undoubtedly felt secure, even while France and England again came into conflict during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748). But that would soon change.
In May 1744, a detachment of French soldiers attacked a small English garrison located about 100 miles south of Louisbourg and brought 50 captured English families to the fort. While the families awaited transfer back to Boston in a prisoner exchange, they were free to move about the town. The repatriated prisoners later reported to the English governor, William Shirley, their observations of low French morale at Louisbourg, poor food, and—most notably—its poorly constructed walls and its vulnerability in that some of the surrounding hills were higher than the fortress.
Though military engineers had designed the fortress, private contractors, in order to enhance their profits, had dangerously cut some corners. They had used sea water to mix mortar, and the English captives had noticed that it was crumbling. Also, the prisoners had noted that the fortress had an inadequate water supply—in terms of both quantity and quality—that could not withstand a siege much longer than 90 days.
Governor Shirley appointed Massachusetts merchant William Pepperell to command an expedition of 4,000 New Englanders, supported by the Royal Navy, which in April 1745 captured the supporting defenses guarding the Louisbourg harbour entrance and blockaded it. The colonial army used wide wooden sledges to drag and float heavy artillery over the marshes. On June 28, with parts of the walls breached, French Governor Louis Duchambon—short of men, water, and supplies—had no choice but to surrender. But in 1748, under the terms of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, the British returned Louisbourg to France, much to the disgust of New Englanders, who considered the fortress a direct threat.
Defenses were repaired, the garrison was strengthened to 3,500 men, and the fortress was stocked to withstand a one-year siege. Some of the key issues, however, were not corrected. The water supply had the same limitations as before, the surrounding hills were not defended, and the weakened mortar was not replaced.
It was not long until France and England were once again at war in the conflict known as The Seven Years’ War (1756–1763). In June 1758, a British fleet appeared near Louisbourg, under the command of Major General Jeffery Amherst. A young Brigadier, James Wolfe, was given responsibility to lead the land assault. On June 8, Wolfe led his troops ashore, and by June 25 he had captured all the strategic positions around the main fortress, repeating the New Englanders’ success 13 years prior. Wolfe moved a huge cannon onto the undefended high ground, and once again, after a siege of the same length as that which had occurred in 1745, Louisbourg capitulated.
French soldiers and officers fought courageously, but they had been let down by those who had failed to prepare for all eventualities, had neglected quality control in construction, and had ignored the need for access to sufficient supplies of clean water.
In 1961, Parks Canada began a multi-million-dollar project to rebuild parts of the Louisburg fortress and about a quarter of the old town as they had existed in 1756. The massive fortress walls had to be fully reconstructed, as the British had completely demolished the town and fortress in 1758 in an attempt to ensure that they could never be occupied again.
The reconstruction affords a rare opportunity to step back in time and envision life in the eighteenth century. As one walks around this site, a few scriptures come to mind: “He who is slothful in his work is a brother to him who is a great destroyer” (Proverbs 18:9) and “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). If those responsible for the quality of Louisbourg’s construction had done their work well, it might well have served to protect its defenders.
The sad story of Louisbourg is an example of what happens when short-term convenience takes precedence over doing what is right. Unlike those who cut corners at Louisbourg and facilitated its demise, we must always be striving to do our best, and in doing so to develop God’s holy and righteous character in our lives.