This attractive and finely engraved large-format map depicts the legendary fortress and harbour of Louisbourg, situated on the northeastern coast of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The map assumes and eastward orientation, with the citadel situated on a peninsula in the upper left, while the harbour extends down to the lower right. The topography is expressed with great care, noting hills, morasses, roads, wharfs and homesteads; while the seas feature copious bathymetric soudings rendering the work a fine practical sea chart.
The ‘Renvoi’, or key, in the lower-left corner, identifies the major defensive works of the Louisbourg Citadel: A. Bastion du Roy ; B. Demi bastion de Dauphin; C. Bastion de la Reine; D. Demi Bastion Princesse; E. Bastion Maurepas; F. Bastion Brouillant; G. Bastion de la Grave; H. Bastion Royale; I. Bastion de l’Île de l’Entrée; and K. Magazin de Roi.
The present map is the finest French plan of Louisbourg to be issued during the American Revolutionary War (1775-83), being engraved on the orders of the Dépôt des Cartes et Plans de la Marine (commonly known as the Dépôt Général de la Marine), the chart-publishing arm of France’s Marine Royale (navy), which maintained considerable interest in potentially using Lousisbourg’s excellent natural harbour as a staging area for a larger attack upon Canada.
The map was direclty based upon a French manuscript chart drafted in 1756, which remained in the possession of the Dépôt. The present printed work is dedicated Antione de Sartine, Comte d’Alby, who served as the French Navy Minsiter from 1774 to 1780. The map was published separately, and also within the Neptune Americo-Septentrional contenant les côtes, les et bancs, iles baies, ports, et mouillages, et les sondes des mers de cette-partie du monde… (Paris, 1780), a fine sea atlas of 26 charts of North American harbours, especially commissioned by the Dépôt for use during the war. The present example of the map represents the 2nd state of 3 states of chart.
The Fortress of Louisbourg & the Siege of 1758
Louisbourg is perhaps the most fabled fortress in North American history, even though it existed for barely 40 years and proved to be anything but invincible. Following the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), France’s territorial loses ensued the east coast of Cape Breton Island (called Ile Royale by the French) was her only territory located directly on the Atlantic seaboard of North America. The island guarded the maritime approaches to New France (Quebec) and provided a base for accessing the Grand Banks (the Cod Fishery was then big money, being the second largest industry in North America, after Virginia’s tobacco crop).
In 1719, the French engineer Jean-Francois du Vergery de Verville selected a fine natural ice-free harbour along the east Coast of Cape Breton as the site for a great fortress that would shore up French interests in the Americas. Construction commenced in 1720 and lasted over twenty years, with massive cost overruns bring the expense of the endeavour over 30 million Livres (well over U.S. $ 10 billion in modern terms)! King Louis XV joked that for that money he expected to be able to see the tops of Louisbourg’s bastions from Versailles!
The city was surrounded by massive walls 30 feet high and 36 feet thick, protected by deep trenches. The defences were anchored by massive bastions, of which the Bastion du Roy was the largest building constructed in North America up to time. Supposedly, the boggy and craggy landscape around the fortress made it difficult to attack by land, while the harbour could only be accessed by a narrow channel, making attacking ships easy prey for shore batteries.
For some years Louisbourg prospered a major trading centre, and an entrepôt between the French Caribbean, Canada and France. By 1752, it had a population of 4,200 and was the third busiest port in North America, after only Boston and Philadelphia.
However, Louisburg proved to be ill-starred. While its isolated location made it difficult to attack, this cut both ways, as it proved to be very difficult to reinforce and resupply. Apart from codfish and masonry, the region’s forbidding climate ensured that virtually everything needed to be imported, which was often challenging. Most ominous, while the fortress’s defences were impressive, they were overly exposed on their landward side.
In 1745, during the War of the Austrian Succession, Louisbourg fell quite easily to a relatively small and poorly trained British colonial force. While this was largely due the French government’s foolish decision not to reinforce the fortress, Louisbourg’s landward exposure was acknowledged as serious weakness. In 1748, Britain traded Louisbourg back to France in return for Madras, India (which the French had captured in 1746).
During the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), everyone on both sides knew from the outset that Louisbourg would play a major role in the conflict. By 1757, the British high command become convinced that they only way to win the war in the Americas would be to seize Quebec City, the capital of New France. This would only be possible if Louisbourg were to be taken out. An initial British attempt to attack the city was prevented by the forceful actions of the French Navy.
Early in 1758, William Pitt, the British Colonial and War minister, was frustrated by the both the failure of the first design to take Louisbourg and the overall progress of the war. He decided to ‘through the kitchen sink’ at Louisbourg and in the spring of that year dispatched an awesome force of 26,000 men, 40 men o’ war and 150 transport vessels to invest the town. This juggernaut was to be led by Major General Jeffery Amherst, one of Britain’s most ambitious and ruthless commanders.
The French garrison at Louisburg consisted of only 7,000 men, with the harbour defended by only 5 ships of the line. Critically, the large relief convoy that France had dispatched from Toulon to strengthen the town was stopped cold by the British navy in the Mediterranean.
The British force arrived off of Louisbourg on June 8, 1758, but their landing was hindered by inclement weather. They were finally able to disembark troops, and after many days of hard fighting took control of the land to the aft of the fortress. Louisbourg was now a sitting duck, subject to heavy artillery fire from virtually all angles.
For the French, by mid-July matters went from bad-to-worse. On July 21, the British scored a direct hit on the 74-gun French ship, L’Entreprenant, and on July 23 a ‘hot shot’ struck the Bastion du Roy, causing it to implode. These events greatly demoralized the French. After the British started to cut into the Harbour creating carnage to the remaining French shipping and homesteads, the fortress’s governor, the Chevalier Drucour, surrendered Louisbourg on July 26, 1758.
The fall of Louisbourg proved to be the turning point of the entire war. It allowed the British to sail up the St. Lawrence and to capture Quebec City, following the Battle of the Plains of Abraham (1759).
Fearing that Cape Breton Island would be returned to France following the war, in 1760, Pitt ordered Louisbourg to be levelled to the ground. This was largely carried out, although Cape Breton, along with the rest of Canada, would be ceded to Britain in 1763, becoming part of the province of Nova Scotia.
In the succeeding years Louisbourg was a sleepy fishing town and regional administrative centre, employing the former French Intendent’s Building (which was spared from levelling) as the main government office.
Louisbourg returned to prominence during the American Revolutionary War, and especially from 1778 onwards, whereupon France joined the war on the American side. During this time, the Marine Royale seriously considered capturing the harbour and using it as a base for a larger attack upon Canada. While this design never transpired, it was a major concern, and thus the present chart, issued in 1779, would have been imbued with considerable value.
Travelling forward, in the 1960s, Louisbourg was partially and skilfully rebuilt to period style, and is today a major tourist attraction.
References: Kershaw, Early Printed Maps of Canada, vol. 3, no. 937 (specifically citing the present 2nd state).