A swarm of Royal Navy ships carrying thousands of British soldiers crept through the black, stormy waters off the coast of Île Royale (present day Cape Breton Island) in the summer of 1758. Their mission: take the French-controlled Fortress of Louisbourg. While the French put up a good fight, they were outnumbered three to one, and Louisbourg fell to the British for a second and final time.
It had taken three decades and tonnes of rock to finish the nine-metre-high stone wall protecting the bustling 18th-century fort but, after that battle, only a few months for British engineers to destroy the defences.
This year marks the 300th anniversary of the fort’s founding. France had established Louisbourg as capital of Île Royale and a key piece of its North American colonies in 1713 after the Treaty of Utrecht. The French ceded most of their land in Atlantic Canada to the British in the pact. Louisbourg was a diamond in the rough, however. With access to prime cod fishing real estate and shipping routes to Europe, it was a last gasp at building an empire in North America.
The fortified city developed quickly. Merchants, traders, civilians and soldiers passed through only a handful of gates and wharves into Louisbourg, all of which were sealed up at night. Four kilometres of imposing walls protected the city, built almost 11 metres thick in some places and capped with an arsenal of cannons ready to thwart assault. The fortifications were so impressive (and costly) that King Louis XV of France joked that he expected to see the walls from his palace.
Strategically, Louisbourg’s position on the southeastern shore of the island was both a blessing and a curse. On land, the town was surrounded by hills, making it almost impossible to see an impending siege — the British first attacked the fort from this approach in 1745. Its harbourfront, while excellent for fishing and trade, was difficult to defend by sea — a weakness the British took advantage of during that final battle in 1758. The British victory not only destroyed the town, but also saw France lose control of Atlantic Canada, then Quebec City and eventually any claims to the rest of the continent save for Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, the tiny islands off the coast of Newfoundland.
And so the rubble sat under a blanket of grass until 1961, when the federal government invested $25 million to begin reconstructing Louisbourg. Archeologists pulled thousands of relics from the ruins, from clothing to cannon balls, and historians and engineers have resurrected more than 24 hectares of the town, which is now a national historic site and the largest historical reconstruction in North America.
Today, thousands of Canadians pass through Louisbourg’s Dauphin Gate each year to get a glimpse of a part of Canada’s tumultuous past. The accompanying images here share a similar look at both the reconstruction and the historical artifacts of Louisbourg — and help share the story of one of the country’s most historically important sites.