Louisbourg | North America’s Largest Historic Reconstruction

The Fortress of Louisbourg would ultimately be the key to New France, but not in the way it was originally intended. While, on the surface it looked to be just the stronghold needed for France to maintain its final grasp on the continent, its nearly effortless fall would ultimately lead to total British conquest of what would become known as Canada. And, though its final demise would see the complete destruction of this iconic fort, it would be brought back to life, reconstructed, as an example of French colonial life. Today, this reconstruction stands as the largest historical reconstruction in North America, welcoming visitors from across the globe to engage – to live as a French colonist and understand more deeply what goes into a reconstruction of this magnitude. While its popularity is unquestionable, I wonder, would (or should) a reconstruction of this kind and scale be built in Canada, or anywhere else for that matter, ever again?

History of Louisbourg

The Fortress of Louisbourg was built by the French on traditional Mi’kmaq territory, on the northeastern corner of what we now know of as Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. It was built to be a strategic capital, guarding the gateway to New France, constructed with great fanfare and much promise. But such an endeavour would not come without a high cost, estimates suggesting that it may have cost more than 30 million livres. With sources saying that King Louis XV remarked that based on the amount of gold he invested in the project, that he expected to see its walls rise above the horizon from Versailles, in France. The town and settlement would thrive on trade and the fishery (thanks to cod), ultimately being described as a fishing port, military base and commercial centre for the French. Strategically this specific location was chosen for its defensible features including a vast, deep harbour, with a narrow entrance. But this fortress would have a short and turbulent history, ultimately failing its very purpose.

The French began setting up camp at Louisbourg in 1713, in order to secure their control over the cod fishery in these waters. Despite this early start, the Fortress of Louisbourg was actually built between 1719 and 1745, as the first line of defence for what was left of New France. Under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), the French had been forced to surrender Acadia and Newfoundland to the British. With the loss of Acadia, the Gulf of St. Lawrence now lay largely unprotected, and that meant that Quebec was now vulnerable. So, with their dwindling foothold in North America, they decided to build a walled town that would hold the heart of New France and what was left of their colonies. Louisbourg acted as a base of operations throughout the colonies, offering refuge to Indigenous allies who raided English settlements, a safe harbour for French privateers who harassed New England, even sending soldiers from the fortress to attack the English in nearby Canso (which would ultimately lead to Louisbourg’s very first siege).

Following a declaration of war between Britain and France, in the very same year that the construction of Louisbourg would be completed (1745), the Fortress would fall to a small cohort of New Englanders. This failure the result of a series of magnificent mistakes. Soon it became clear that the cracks (figuratively and literally) within the walls of this town were showing. While Louisbourg was described as impregnable, by most accounts it was strategically ill-conceived (being dangerously close to low lying hills, giving attackers on land an upper hand), rundown, poorly maintained and dismally under protected by mutinous ranks (a symptom of the harsh environment and being ill-equipped). This was how a small militia of New Englanders ever stood a chance of taking such a monumental fortress in the first place and then holding it for over a year. Three years after this first siege, thanks to the terms of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748), France was given back Louisbourg. But, not long after, the Fortress of Louisbourg would fall for its second and final time to the British in 1758. By 1760, instead of letting the fort stand, the British completely demolished it so that it could never become a French base ever again. This fall would pave the way for the capture of Quebec and the end of the French regime in North America.

The Reconstruction

This site would be left as rubble (which would be looted throughout time), with a few iterations of memorials, commemorating the history here, before it was finally reconstructed. Interestingly, unlike other colonial towns, Louisbourg is considered to be the only one without a modern city built on top of it. The 1960s would bring with it archaeological excavations and extensive examinations of historical records that would ultimately spark the reconstruction of Louisbourg. These excavations uncovered millions of artifacts, ruined fortifications and buildings. But this was truly an interdisciplinary research project, including 750,000 pages of documents and 500 maps and plans from archives in France, England, Scotland, the United States and Canada. This combination of research techniques would answer many questions about the French, as well as British, in North America.

The Government of Canada would foot the hefty price tag of at least $25 million to reconstruct about a quarter of the original town and fortifications (which would of course grow in cost and physical size over time). The specialists involved in this project worked to reconstruct this site, as it was following its first siege in the 1740s, but it is more broadly meant to represent French colonial life from 1713-1758.

Today, the Fortress of Louisbourg is considered the largest historical reconstruction in North America. And, while this site is reconstructed as it looked historically, some ruins have been left visible, in situ (where they originally lay), to give a feel for what remained of this site after it was destroyed. Actors (who are called animators or re-enactors) mull about, pretending to be 18th century townsfolk, workers or soldiers, offering guided tours and demonstrations of music, dancing, cooking, military drills, trades and more, while trails with placards that talk about the history of this site. This all-encompassing immersion is an experience in and of itself, taking you to a place you’ve never been before.

Does it have to be a Reconstruction?

But now the question remains, what do we personally think of North America’s largest historical reconstruction? And would a site of this magnitude and subject matter ever be reconstructed in Canada, let alone anywhere else ever again? I think the answers to these questions are surprisingly complicated and perhaps not what you might expect…

As far as the Fortress of Louisbourg is concerned, nothing remained of this historical site, besides artifacts and ruins, so the reconstruction was really all encompassing. Everything built, was built in modern times (besides some re-used foundations), based on historical techniques. I kept asking myself whether it actually mattered how much is real and how much is rebuilt/fake for the purposes of public engagement and my answer is really dependent on what the park and public hope to get from the experience – education, entertainment or a combination of the two. For me, I’d be very happy with a less built-up version of this site (or any site really), because I like to use my imagination, placing myself back in time based on what remains of a site and the information available to me. But I also know that not everyone is like me, many people are more visual and really need to see how something would have looked to get the full affect. And, in this regard, Louisbourg is entirely effective. It works as an immense tool for education, what has been left as rubble and what has been built up.

Adolphe Napoléon Didron

This questioning of historical reconstructions is not a new thought by any stretch of the imagination. In a historical sense, opposition to reconstructing became mainstream in the 19th century with French historian and archaeologist, Adolphe Napoléon Didron, who famously stated, “for ancient monuments, it is better to consolidate than repair, better to repair than to restore, better to restore than to reconstruct.” Today mixed feelings remain in the conservation community about the practice of reconstructing sites – whether it is actually good practice at all. And, while reconstructions represent an immersive public engagement experience, they also present a number of complications.

Reconstructions can actually, perhaps unwittingly, cause an erasure of history. In the very most basic sense of this, the Fortress of Louisbourg was destroyed by the British in an act of war in the mid-1700s (so this was a historical event) and this is a key part of this site, and country’s, history. Ultimately, this led the way to Britain’s total control over what would become Canada. The reconstruction takes us back to a time before its final destruction, to show us a snapshot in time, which makes sense for this type of site, and while it does a pretty good job of discussing the full history of what happened to Louisbourg, just by standing, as it did before its destruction, in a sense, it wipes away one of the most defining moments of its history. And, this is true of sites destroyed by time, war, climate change, development, terrorism, etc…Today in particular, climate change is one of the greatest forces destroying heritage globally and terrorism (a means of cultural cleansing) have complicated policies further.

In another sense, reconstructions can create a fictional or quasi-fictional place. This is particularly pertinent, if assumptions are made about the site or history, due to lack of information, during its construction. And, while Louisbourg was very carefully reconstructed, I’m certain that aspects of it may not be quite accurately portrayed, just because of gaps in information and logistics (think building codes, etc.). On a more surface level, a quasi-fictional place can be created when a Disneyfication of the site has occurred. While the actors at this site are ready to talk to you about the hardships of living in this Fortress during its history, the whole experience can be rather exciting. Guests are swept up in the hubbub and pageantry of it all. I know I did, even knowing the history. I found myself experiencing the same sort of energy felt at Disney World.

Because of these concerns, cultural value has been the measuring stick by which much of modern reconstruction has been assessed. This being a complicated way forward as our cultural values shift. Even still, caution has been advised, even when cultural value would improve with reconstruction. Interestingly, as a rule, UNESCO does not support reconstructions in most cases, though of course exceptions have been made with particular concern given to projects that may involve the lose of traditional skills and sacred spaces that are still in use. They will also not move forward unless there is detailed documentation to accomplish the reconstruction absolutely accurately. But, even still, there is concern that reconstructions may erase memory over time and deprive people in the long run of the opportunity of reflecting on the past. Moving forward, a need for new guidelines has been discussed by UNESCO, suggesting that a people centred approach where the community is engaged, enabling people to connect with their heritage, identity and history is the best way forward. Leaning towards reconstructions/recovery that focus on social justice, property titles and rights-based approaches. Today, in Canada, that would mean an emphasis on marginalized communities, particularly Indigenous led and centred historical programming. Stepping away from a focus on French and British colonial history.  

Of course, you’d always rather the original, but in many cases that is simply impossible. It is a part of the passage of time and the reality of our ideals of progress, that history is so often covered over or destroyed, but the Fortress of Louisbourg is an instance where all the right factors came together. Unlike so many historical sites, nothing had been built over Louisbourg’s remains, so it was able to be reconstructed on its actual site. At this time, reconstructing historic sites was also very popular (thanks to policies from the US), not to mention there had been a huge boom in historic specialists (archaeologists, conservators, historians, etc.), so funding and experts were readily available to encourage these types of projects. It was immensely costly to build in the ‘60s (listed at its minimum as costing $25 million), which if we convert that to equivalent cash today, that would come in around $230 million. The 1960s was also a time of inexpensive labour (hello, worker exploitation!), so the figure listed above would likely greatly increase if equivalent experts were hired today. So, I don’t imagine that something of this scale would be done today, even if costs were the main concern.

Taking all of these factors into account, I don’t think another project the size or subject matter of the Fortress of Louisbourg would be supported today. Not, just because Louisbourg already exists, but because I think that we have a whole host of new ways of accomplishing what Louisbourg does achieve today, especially technologically. The options available to us are nearly limitless, including 3D printing and records (3D digital models and walkthroughs), not to mention, virtual reality, which has become quite a popular feature of Museums across the globe. And this is only skimming the surface of creative exhibits/cultural preservation methods utilized today.

The reconstruction of the Fortress of Louisbourg emerges above the horizon along a picturesque bay on the northeastern corner of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. A monument to what was, in more than one way. A French fort destroyed by the British, ultimately leading to Britain taking what was left of New France and what we now know of as Canada, for themselves. And, as a reconstruction, memorializing a time when grand displays of colonialism in its many forms was prized across North America. I believe that another reconstruction project the magnitude (cost included) or subject matter of Louisbourg would not be built in Canada, not just because of the cost, but because of our changed values and technological advancements.

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