The Land

Fortress Louisbourg

This morning we went east from Sydney to Fortress Louisbourg. In the early 1700s, the French found an ice free harbor and set about fortifying a port that would preserve their access to the rich fishing waters of the Grand Banks, and help them stay in the game navigationally on the east coast of North America.  Great Britain had sort of sewn things up from the middle of the east coast north to New Foundland.  France got to hold on to Louisbourg as a result of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 — which, if you are into that sort of thing — is among the wildest pieces of European history out there, and very consequential.  Despite its larger ramifications, the treaty preserved a little piece of Cape Breton as a French port.  The French went about immediately making a stronghold. Walls and moats and all sorts of garrisons were thrown up between 1720 and 1740, and Louisbourg became one of the most extensive and expensive European forts ever put up in North America.

All the cod they could catch and salt and barrel and ship out helped the French make and maintain the impressive fort.  All the people doing the catching and salting and barreling and shipping, remained, however, under the watchful eye of the crown.  No one in Louisbourg could make anything for sale — if you built a table, you could barter it for corn or something, but you couldn’t sell it for money.  Everything belonged to the King.  This meant that the crown needed an extensive inventory of everything in the colony so the king would know what the king owned.  Every house, every piece of furniture, every dish, every cup and every spoon.  What was important for the king back then, became essential for the historians today, as those very descriptive inventories allowed for a near perfect recreation of what the colony was like.

Recreation was necessary because for all the money spent on it, Louisbourg had some issues militarily speaking.  Basically all of its capabilities were aimed at the sea — protect the port, defend the harbor.  So, within 20 years of wall construction, the English walked up on the land and besieged the fort and moved in. In 1748, they gave it back to the French so they could keep something they wanted India, and somebody could do something very specific with territory in Netherland. The treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle, if you are curious, which the people who bled a little to take over Louisbourg were not.  They were pissed.  Forced to give back the fort, they left in a huff and took the cross from the church with them.  This was a bridge too far for the French, who swore a hatred right then and there for all things British which persists still today. Somehow the cross ended up at Harvard University, which is probably a great story in itself, but the good university folks generously agreed to “loan” it to Canada when the fort was being recreated.

Having lost the fort to what they thought was a dumb treaty, the British went south down the coast and built their own.  It took a bunch of money, and archeology, and lists of French furniture, and 200 years time for us to know much about the French fort of Louisbourg — the English fort is a little more enduring and familiar, Halifax.

But where did the largest European fort in North America go, you may be wondering.  Well, the English walked up the road and took it again, just like before, only this time it was during the French and Indian (Seven Years) War, and contributed to British victories throughout the area.  In a lesson still apparently not fully learned by great military minds, the French garrison guarding the harbor was abandoned when the attack came, so the soldiers could help defend the town from the attacking ground forces.  So the British sent a group around the fort to the garrison, moved the guns and sat there for 6 weeks using French weapons and shot to pummel the great Louisbourg.  Re-won and very useful to them, the British made sure this particular part of Cape Breton would not become an issue anymore when, in the early 1760s, the British destroyed, very systematically and completely, the fortifications at Louisbourg.  The cheeky bastards even took much of the finely cut stonework, shipped it south, and used it in their fort at Halifax.

Control of the seas, and navigational knowledge were critical elements in the development of North America, but the development of North America was important because of the land. More of it, with more resources, than anybody had ever seen.  Except, of course, for the First Nations people, or Native American Indians, depending on your vernacular, who were already here and living on the land.  Problem is, they picked the French as allies. 

Regardless of nationality or claim or treaty, it isn’t hard to see why anyone would fight for this land.  As we wandered aimlessly down the south east of Cape Breton, it never got less compelling — as a thing created, a thing to look at, or a thing to provide you with sustenance.  Re-crossing the causeway to leave Cape Breton and return to Nova Scotia proper, I think I understood the continued recognition of the French, the Mi’ kmaq, the Scots — all of them gave and are still giving something to this little top knot of an island here wedged between the North Atlantic and the Bay of St. Lawrence.  Tomorrow we will explore the hat itself and see what the rest of Nova Scotia has to offer.

That process started when the travel genie bailed us out of a particularly Canadian problem. Unbeknownst to us, October 11 is Thanksgiving in Canada.  In addition to the other stuff, its also the end of the “season” for outdoor activities that don’t involve sno mobiles and skis and tiny little fishing poles inside heated huts.  Camping becomes very very hard to come by.  You can camp anywhere on the crown’s land, but it is damn hard to figure out where the crown ownership starts and the timber company or local resident’s land ends.  With fading daylight we had not yet succeeded in figuring it out anywhere we looked. And then, in a tiny spot called Port Dufferin, between Quoddy Harbor and Beaver Harbor, a little 9 room row of an establishment called The Marmalade Motel swung into view.  Staring out at the Atlantic, a slanting southwest sun dropping low, and seals and dolphins playing in the sea, we stopped and were hosted by a delightful couple who’ve transformed this place into a gem.  Every room is meticulously renovated and beautifully furnished.  But more importantly, every room faces this view.  They let us go down to the shore and cook our dinner — steak and potatoes and green beans — over our little camp grill, and it really felt like a reward for a day well spent.  If you are ever in the neighborhood, do not miss the Marmalade.

The Marmalade Hotel view

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