View of Louisbourg - From a Sketch in the Paris Archives (c.1912) by unknown / Toronto Public LibraryOriginal Source: Toronto Public Library
Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site
The Fortress of Louisbourg was built by the French in the early 1700s on the northeastern shore of Cape Breton Island, near today's Sydney, Nova Scotia. Today, the national historic site contains the ruins and partial reconstruction of the French colonial town.
Home of the Mi’kmaw
The area is the traditional territory of the Mi'kmaw Nation, called Mi'kma'ki in the Mi'kmaq language. Cape Breton is called Unama’ki, which loosely translates to Land of Fog.
Wide aerial view of the Fortress of Louisbourg (2016) by Derek GallantParks Canada
Struggle for a Foothold
Established in 1713 as part of the French colony of Île Royale, Louisbourg held a strategic defensive location as a deep sea port on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with easy access to the lucrative Atlantic cod fishery.
As France and England fought for control over North America, French military engineers planned and constructed Louisbourg as one of only a handful of garrison towns on the continent.
Modern view of the Dauphin Gate (2022) by Parks CanadaParks Canada
Garrison towns feature a high stone wall and troops permanently stationed to withstand attack. But this wasn't enough to keep Louisbourg in French hands: in its 45-year existence, British forces captured it twice, and after the second siege in 1758, destroyed the fortifications.
The triangular trade of peoples, goods and materials in the 18th century (2022) by Parks CanadaParks Canada
Trade at Louisbourg
Louisbourg's founding and the expansion of the French slave trade went hand in glove. The fishing industry at Île Royale produced a rich harvest of cod. The less desirable cuts of dried, salted fish were shipped south to French Caribbean colonies to feed enslaved people there.
Print showing enslaved people, originally titled "Slaves cutting the sugar cane" (1823) by unknown / British LibraryOriginal Source: British Library
Enslaved people in the Caribbean laboured to produce coffee, sugar, rum and molasses for European and North American markets. Most enslaved people at Louisbourg were born in these Caribbean colonies, and around 3% of Louisbourg’s population was enslaved.
Costumed interpreters dressed as enslaved people reenacting a scene at Louisbourg (2021) by Parks CanadaParks Canada
The Story of Marie Marguerite Rose
One of the enslaved people at Louisbourg was Marie Marguerite Rose. At 19, she was sold into the slave trade in Guinea, West Africa, and forced into the ruthless sea journey known as the Middle Passage, part of the transatlantic trade route between Africa and the Caribbean.
We don't know to which French Caribbean colony she was sold, but shortly after arriving, she was purchased by one of Louisbourg's elite families, that of Jean and Magdeleine Loppinot.
She worked for the family for two decades, raising their 12 children and her own son. Pictured is costumed interpreter Charlene Chasse, who portrays Marie Marguerite Rose at Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site.
Charlene Chasse, a Parks Canada interpreter portraying Marie Marguerite Rose at Louisbourg (2021) by Emily MadinskyParks Canada
Upon her arrival at Louisbourg, the young Guinean woman was baptized as a Catholic and assigned the name Marie Marguerite Rose. Her original name, along with much of her life story, remains lost to history…all part of the dehumanization experienced by enslaved people.
An important glimpse into Marie Marguerite's life comes from a birth record: two years after arriving at Louisbourg, she had a son named Jean-François. The child’s "father" is listed as inconnu (unknown), though he was very likely Marie Marguerite's enslaver.
Loppinot House Ruins
These are the ruins of the house where Marie Marguerite lived with her enslavers. She was likely responsible for domestic tasks like sweeping the floors, cleaning, preparing and serving meals, cutting firewood, keeping the house fire burning, gardening, and providing childcare.
Tea bowl excavated at Loppinot house ruins (2016) by Parks CanadaParks Canada
Traces of the Past
Extensive archaeology was conducted at Louisbourg and many of the finds help interpret the lives of not only the elites, but of the enslaved people who lived there too. This tea bowl was excavated from the Loppinot house. Marie Marguerite may have served tea in this vessel.
For Marie Marguerite, freedom came around the age of 38, after 19 years of forced, unwaged service. We don’t know many details about how she was freed, but she married a Mi'kmaw trader named Jean-Baptiste Laurent shortly after. It's possible that he purchased Marie Marguerite's freedom. She opened an inn and became a part of the business community of Louisbourg, but died two years later.
Charlene Chasse, Parks Canada interpreter, as Marie Marguerite Rose at Louisbourg (2021) by Emily MadinskyParks Canada
Only a fraction of enslaved people who lived in Louisbourg experienced freedom - the vast majority died in enslavement.
Reconstructing the lives of enslaved people is challenging. Most were unable to own property and were illiterate, rarely leaving behind written sources like journals or letters. To understand their lives, researchers have to piece together bits of information from documents such as birth records, baptisms, wills, court records, bills of sale, and newspaper ads for those who escaped their enslavers.
All her Worldly Goods
When Marie Marguerite died, officials completed a probate inventory (a list of possessions found in her home). Pictured here is one page of the original document, now in an archive in France.
Using the inventory, Parks Canada curators created this display at the Bigot House at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site. It includes items similar to those owned by Marie Marguerite at the time of her death.
Dressing the Part
The inventory also detailed clothing items, such as printed cotton, embroidered cotton petticoats, and silk stockings. Textile curators at Parks Canada were able to recreate garments similar to those she may have worn, pictured here.
Battle reenactment at Fortress of Louisbourg (1996) by Wayne BarrettParks Canada
The Fall of Louisbourg
In 1758, a year after Marie Marguerite's death, Louisbourg faced its final battle. British forces, in a pivotal turning point of the Seven Years War, laid siege to the fortress, eventually capturing it and destroying the fortifications.
Only a year later, the decisive battle at the Plains of Abraham near Québec City effectively ended French colonial ambitions in what is now Canada.
For two centuries, little remained of Louisbourg's original structures. During the 1960s, Cape Breton's coal mining industry began to decline. To help the island's economy, the Government of Canada decided to reconstruct the fortress town as a living history museum.
Harbour of Louisbourg (1758) by Cartographer: Holland, Samuel, 1728-1801/Library and Archives CanadaParks Canada
To the Archives!
The reconstruction of Louisbourg was a massive undertaking, spanning over 20 years - but luckily for historians, the French bureaucracy of the 1700s kept detailed plans and maps, such as the one pictured here.
Tour bus parked at the Louisbourg Museum (1965) by Parks CanadaParks Canada
The site opened in stages, beginning in 1968. Today, visitors see a carefully-researched reconstruction of one quarter of the original town. Military, commercial, and domestic buildings line the streets, offering an interpretation of Louisbourg life during its heyday.
Map of the reconstructed site of the Fortress of Louisbourg (2019) by Parks CanadaParks Canada
The reconstruction generally focused on the upper-class sections of town. In the early days, visitors didn't hear much about its history of enslavement. Today, Parks Canada shares the stories of a broader spectrum of Louisbourg society, including enslaved people.
Shown here is the location of the house (26) where Marie Marguerite was enslaved, as well as the place where her inn once stood (37).
Marie Marguerite's Inn
One important stop on any tour of Louisbourg is a plaque commemorating Marie Marguerite Rose in a grassy field. Her inn is no longer there, but thanks to the work of researchers and interpreters, her story lives on.
Unveiling of plaque commemorating Marie Marguerite Rose as a National Historic Person (2008) by Parks CanadaParks Canada
First Black Businesswoman in Canada
In 2008, Marie Marguerite Rose was designated a national historic person, recognized as a key figure of the initial phase of Black slavery in Canada. She's also the first Black businesswoman on record.
Costumed interpreters at Fortress of Louisbourg (2006) by Parks CanadaParks Canada
Visiting the Site
Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site is open to the public year-round, but for the full interpretive experience, it’s best to visit in the summer months. It’s a 5 hour drive from Halifax, or you can fly to nearby Sydney, Nova Scotia.
Visitors can tour the reconstructed fortified town and learn from the costumed interpreters (shown here) who bring the site to life.
Costumed interpreter brings in a boat to shore at the Fortress of Louisbourg (2012) by Adam YoungParks Canada
Dive Deeper into the History
To learn more about the story of Marie Marguerite Rose and the history of the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site be sure to listen to the ReCollections podcast episode: Enslavement and Freedom at the French Fortress.
A big thank you to our consulting producers, Dr. Karolyn Smardz Frost and Dr. Afua Cooper of A Black People's History of Canada project. Thanks as well to retired Parks Canada historian Ken Donovan.