LIFE AND TIMES IN NEW FRANCE.
By Pam Hobbs
Louisbourg, Nova Scotia: When I was stopped for questioning at the Dauphin Gate, my French
was a little lacking. Worse than that, I spoke English with an accent akin to that of a dastardly
Briton. At first I was promised a spell in the jail, and told I wouldn't be grinning if I knew what it
was like there. But then the soldiers relented, and I was released into the french stronghold of the
Fortress of Louisbourg for an interesting day in one of Canada's finest re-created townsites.
Louisbourg was founded in 1713 as a maritime stronghold for the French after the
Treaty of Utrecht which saw Newfoundland and Acadia ceded to the British. It was demolished
in 1760 at the end of France's military power in North America, and reconstruction by Parks
Canada started in 1961 based upon archeological investigation and extensive records. The re-creation illustrates life in the town during summer of 1744. Although only a third of the original
community has been rebuilt, it leaves you with a lasting impression of those times.
Military and government officials set the tone of everday life in what was originally a
very busy town. Nearby fishing banks and an ice-free harbor were inducements for settlers. It was
a major port of call on the sea lanes between France, Canada, New England and the West Indies.
Ambitious merchants used the advantageous location to develop a trading centre which ranked
third in North America - after Boston and Philadelphia. Currencies of many nations changted
hands in well-tocked shops; along the quay the inns resounded with voices of sailors from many
Now employees dressed as townspeople and soldiers represent those who actually lived
here in 1744, the only noticeable differences being that today's "residents" are bilingual. Visitors
are encouraged to talk to them and learn about their day-to-day lives. Officers and men of the
French army, colonial officials, sailors, clerks, merchants and fishermen from Newfoundland
made up most of the population. Tradespeople and innkeepers found a ready market for their
services. By the 1740s some 2,000 people lived at Louisbourg, with more in adjoining outports.
Every spring, fleets of Basques, Bretons and Normans came to join the fishermen. One
of the first houses we enter belongs to the enterprising fisherman-owner George Des Roches. His
house and garden, and fish flakes for holding drying cod, are typical of their time. Not so typical
is George, who at 28 married a 69 year old widow in order to get her house. When she died he
turned part of it into a tavern. George tells me his boat is an open shallop capable of holding
3,000 pounds of codfish. And that 30 million pounds of salted cod are exported annually from
Louisbourg, its value being two or three times that of Quebec's fur trade.
Some of the fort's citizens are as entertaining as they are informative. In the Royal
Storehouse a rueful Basque fisherman is doing a few odd jobs. Looking down on his luck, he
explains in french how his boss had sent him out to fish and it was a little boring jigging the line,
oui? He happened to have a bottle of rum with him, so went on a "merrigot" with his friends. His
story that the fish weren't biting didn't hold water, because other boats returned with a better-than-usual catch. Now he has no credit, no place to live and his belongings have been
confiscated. His only hope is to make a deal with a ship's captain to work his passage back to
France. Meantime, he works in the storehouse to pay for some food.
There are several such characters in town. One disreputable man, missing his front
teeth, tries to sell me his bread ration so he can buy rum. Then there is the elegantly coiffeured
merchant in his office-living room enjoying a glass of wine. A little plaintive in his views of life
in Louisbourg, he complains there is nothing to do in the evenings other than play cards or
cribbage. He wants me to know that he does not drink the common man's spruce beer, inasmuch
as he imports brandy and wine from France.
Watching the comings and goings from the merchant's front porch, a sea captain
comments that he is very proud of the town's importance as a seaport. Although he is originally
from France, he regards Louisbourg as his home. His ship takes codfish to Guadaloupe and
Martinique, returning with sugar, cocoa, rum, cotton and coffee. It is a good life, he says, even
though he is nowhere near as wealthy as the town merchants.
Clothes are key to the social scale at Louisbourg. Merchants and their families are
decked out in beautiful brocade and silk and fine lace, enhanced by epensive European
accessories. Property owners are well dressed, too. Servants and tradespeople who would have
made their own clothing in the original fortress are dressed in coarse durable clothes. A lot of
skills go into the dressing of its citizens.
The Citadel, once seat of government, is in a walled compound. Here both civilians
and soldiers worshiped in the rather spartan military chapel. Several officers and two governors
were buried beneath the floorboards. The body of Governor Duquesnel, who died here in 1744,
was exhumed more than 200 years later showing he had suffered from abscessed teeth, arthritis,
arteriosclerosis and other miseries.
Taverns serve traditional dinners and snacks. My hefty meal of sausage, carrots,
cabbage and bread pudding with custard came to around $20. One large spoon is the only cutlery
provided. If you want a knife you must bring your own, as did the soldiers and other patrons of
taverns in the 18th century Fortress of Louisbourg.
If You Go: Allow several hours so you can stop and talk to residents who are very convincing in
the roles they play. Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Park, Louisbourg, Cape Breton,
Nova Scotia, is 290 miles ( 470km) from Halifax and 22 miles ( 35km) south of Sydney on
Highway 22. Hours of operation are from l0 a.m. to 6 p.m., June and September, 9 - 7 in July and
August. There is a modest admission charge. For more information, go to www.louisbourg.ca/fort