History Remembered: Louisbourg, Cape Breton

Famed fortress town celebrates 300th anniversary
By Justina Reichel
Justina Reichel
Justina Reichel
August 7, 2013 Updated: August 8, 2013

Louisbourg, a small fishing port on the east coast of Cape Breton Island, is a sleepy little town with a population of scarcely 1,000 people.

But 300 years ago, when Cape Breton was called Ile Royale, Louisbourg was a thriving French colony that became, over a period of decades, a New World hub for commerce and culture, with trading ships visiting from around the world. 

At the time, France and Britain were competing both for territorial control of Atlantic Canada and domination of the valuable cod fisheries. Louisbourg was the centre of French power in the region and an important military base, with a permanent garrison and a massive stone fort. 

The commanding walls of the fort were 10 metres high and 12 metres thick, and spanned more than four kilometres. The King’s Bastille, which had a chapel in the middle, was just 35 feet shorter than the Parliament buildings in Ottawa are today.

“Louisburg in the 17th century became a strategic positioning port for the conflict going on between the English and the French,” says Lester Marchand, manager of visitor experience for Parks Canada in Cape Breton. 

“So when it was established that it was the capital of the colony of Ile Royale in 1713, the primary reason was because of the rich fishing grounds, but subsequent to that it became a kind of [key] location in trade between the old world and the New World.”

This year, Louisbourg is celebrating its 300th anniversary with a raft of celebrations, including an international gathering of blacksmiths and a performance by 300 fiddlers. The celebrations, dubbed Louisbourg 300, have been ongoing since April, boosted by $1.3 million in funding from the federal government. 

The Fall and Rise of Louisbourg

Construction on the Fortress of Louisbourg lasted nearly 30 years and cost $10 million—a huge sum at the time. After Britain and France declared war in 1745, a New England force, supported by the Royal Navy, attacked and captured the fort. 

However, the colony was restored to the French through treaty. But in 1758, Louisbourg was again besieged and the fortress wall was demolished. Soon after, the town was abandoned and its population exiled to France. 

The fall of Louisbourg, along with Quebec’s capture a year later, marked the end of France’s military and colonial power in North America. Louisbourg was eventually ordered destroyed by the British government.

The fortress became a national historic site in 1928. In 1961, in what became the largest reconstruction project in North America, about one quarter of the town and its fortifications were restored, the aim being to re-create Louisbourg as it would have been at its height in the 1740s. 

The site, which is protected and operated by Parks Canada, became a major tourist attraction and an important contributor to Cape Breton’s economy. It is also the largest employer in the small community.

And although visitor numbers have dropped in recent years, tourism is currently up 40 percent over last year’s numbers as people flock to the site from all over the world for the anniversary celebrations, says Marchand.

“[Louisbourg 300] is an occasion for us to refresh, reboot,” he says. “It’s a new century, and it’s also presenting Louisbourg in a new light to Canadians from across the country.”

Diversity of Cultures Continues Today

Last week, a three-day cultural festival featured a complete recreation of life in the harbourside market as it was in the 18th century. The event brought volunteers, or “re-enactors,” from all over the world to work, play, and live life as it was in the 1700s, creating a vision of old world charm—from peasants and merchants to soldiers and musicians. 

“We had something like 300 families—men, women, and children—come and set up their tents and accommodation, cook their meals, dress in period clothing, and do period activities, whether it’s preparing wood, a meal, or playing an 18th century game,” says Marchand.

Later this month, the town will host its annual Feast of Saint Louis, which celebrates the life of its namesake King Louis of France, the only French king ever to be canonized. The two-day festival will include concerts, a parade through the historic site, and 18th-century music, dance, and military demonstrations. 

Marchand says celebrating Aboriginal Day and honouring First Nations as the original stewards of the land has also been an important part of Louisbourg 300. The diversity of cultures that came to peacefully co-exist in Louisbourg had a lasting effect on Canada’s multicultural identity, he adds. 

“Louisbourg managed to gather people from many different cultures. Many languages were spoken. That speaks to the diversity of the Canada that we know today. That’s really important, because folks learned how to live together, and learned how to find ways to sustain themselves, and to work.”

Continuing until late fall, the Louisbourg 300 celebrations will become a part of the site’s history and legacy, says Marchand. 

“It provides us the opportunity to tell stories, and then in the telling of the story of our history we get to know one another, and we get to share a little bit of who we are, how we came to be. 

“It’s about the storytelling, and it’s about the sharing of spirits.”

Justina Reichel
Justina Reichel