This past weekend, Everett and I and my parents visited Louisbourg, a restored 18th century French fortress and town on Cape Breton Island. Once France’s main outpost in Atlantic Canada, the site is now one of the best historic restorations in North America. I hadn’t seen it since childhood.
We arrived Saturday afternoon, checked into our housekeeping cabin and explored the present-day town, a few miles from the fortress, under glorious blue skies. It’s a typical small Nova Scotia town, a little faded, more rooted in its memories than in its present, but for me, that’s part of its charm.
We had supper at a restaurant on the waterfront, with a view of the fortress across the harbour. I imagine it looked much the same at this distance almost three hundred years ago, before it was captured by General Wolfe and destroyed. A short bridge tourney (results to remain unrecorded) and we settled in for an early night.
Sunday morning dawned with a downpour, but it had subsided to fog and mist by the time we arrived at the fort. The weather added an air of mystery to the place, as if we’d truly gone back in time. We entered the village through the Dauphin’s Gate, shown below.
In its heyday, Louisbourg was not only a military outpost, but a commercial centre with one main industry – catching, drying and salting cod to be shipped to Montreal and back to the mother country. It surprised me to learn that the place was far from self-sufficient. Butter, cheese, molasses and other foodstuffs, rum, wine, fabric for clothing, weapons and ammunition, even the salt they used to cure fish was imported from France or the French West Indies. The village catered to immediate needs of the garrison with market gardens, taverns and workshops and housed the craftsmen, clerks and officials needed to keep everything running, while the fortress watched the sea for possible threats – a short-sightedness that proved to be Louisbourg’s downfall, as the invasion that led to its final capture in 1758 came overland.
We visited the smithy and found the smith making a decorative iron leaf, instructing his apprentice in the finer points of delicate metalwork. The French taste for wrought iron shows everywhere, including this well. Display cases show the remnants of intricate hinges, door handles, locks and keys that once added elegance to this colony so far from home.
But elegance was reserved for high-ranking officials and, of course, the colony’s governor, who lived in the lovely apartments below.
These were the times of gentlemen’s agreements in the military. Higher-ranking prisoners were sometimes granted the freedom to move about the village during the day if they pledged on their honour to behave. So, when I eventually write a story set here, it will be possible to bring together an English prisoner and a village girl, if that’s what I decide to do. Louisbourg certainly lends itself to romance. Is this a possible hero standing on the ramparts? Is my heroine about to sit here to write him a letter? Possibilities abound.