The Price and Profits of Accommodation: Massachusetts—Louisbourg Trade, 1713–1744

WAR ravaged much of New England in the last decade of the seventeenth and the first decade of the eighteenth centuries. Northern areas were particularly hard hit: Maine was so badly ravaged that its population in 1717 was still less than it had been in 1660. In the 1690s, residents of some frontier towns were forbidden to flee their homes because of the need for a buffer against French and Indian attackers and because Bostonians resented the presence of penniless refugees on their doorsteps. When a second conflict broke out with the French in 1702, many of the same problems recurred. By 1706, some Bostonians felt very threatened. Samuel Sewall, prominent Boston merchant, experienced nightmares about the situation:

Last night I dreamed I saw a vast number of French coming towards us, for multitude and Huddle like a great Flock of Sheep. It put me into a great consternation, and made me think of hiding in some Thicket. The impression remain’d upon me after my Waking. GOD Defend.1

Sewall had good reasons to fear the French. In 1707 Boston’s trade declined drastically because of the activities of French privateers. One observer reported that “Boston hath been a place of great trade, but the warr have extremely impoverished them, so that the trade is not now one-third of what it was.”2 Port Royal, then capital of Acadia and refuge for a number of the privateers harassing New England, fell to the English in October 1710, but not before a fierce assault on New England shipping by French marauders. In the last year in which the French controlled Port Royal, privateers from there seized some thirty-five English vessels, including nine within five days no more than fifteen leagues from Boston.

It is little wonder, then, that when the War of the Spanish Succession ended in 1713 there was fear in North America that New England would enjoy little relief from French rivalry. Samuel Vetch, first English governor of Nova Scotia, and a leading advocate of English expansion in North America, warned the Board of Trade that France might apply to Cape Breton Island all the money formerly devoted to Acadia and Newfoundland, and that Louisbourg would become a major privateering center. Vetch’s fears appeared to have been realized when Nova Scotia Indians, allied to the French authorities on Cape Breton Island, prevented Massachusetts fishermen from establishing themselves anywhere in Nova Scotia except at Canso, across the strait from Cape Breton Island. The situation worsened until 1715, when Indians forced Cyprian Southack of Boston to abandon his fishing establishment on Nova Scotia’s south shore. Indians seized some twenty-seven New England fishing vessels in the course of the year, and Massachusetts had to send two commissioners to Nova Scotia to negotiate a release of the vessels.

French occupation of Cape Breton Island, and influence in Nova Scotia worried some New Englanders, but to others it spelled opportunity. Massachusetts’ merchants quickly grasped the potential of trade with lie Royale, as the French named their colony, and they pursued that trade avidly until the beginning of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1744.

In accommodating themselves to the French, Massachusetts merchants had to cope with a series of obstacles. This was the main price of accommodation. There were three main threats to accommodation between 1713 and 1744, the first of which came in 1718 when fishing interests precipitated a confrontation with the French over control of Canso. French mercantilist policy posed the second major threat to accommodation and trade and was most serious in the late 1720s when metropolitan French officials attempted to reduce drastically, if not eliminate, trade between English colonies and He Royale. The third challenge came from British mercantilist policies and was of greatest concern to New Englanders in the early 1730s.

Although the price of accommodation, in terms of wrangling with opponents of trade, was considerable, it was clearly outweighed by the profits. For over thirty years, New England merchants traded with their counterparts at Louisbourg. Some of the Massachusetts merchant kings of the period were involved in the trade: men such as the Pepperrells (father and son), and Peter Faneuil. By the last decade before war disrupted trade, forty to fifty New England vessels visited He Royale each year. The English sold a wide assortment of goods to the French, but foodstuffs, building materials, and ships dominated the list. At Louisbourg, New Englanders obtained large quantities of molasses to fuel Boston’s rum distilleries. They also secured rum itself, indigo, coal, and French manufactured goods.

Trade with He Royale began within a year of the founding of Louisbourg in 1713 and was based on the inability of the French empire to supply the colony of He Royale as capably as could New England merchants. French settlers began to arrive at Louisbourg in the summer of 1713. That winter they suffered greatly from inadequate provisioning. They began slaughtering their cattle in December, and by spring only two of the original twenty-one cattle were still alive. Some settlers developed scurvy that winter. Relief from France was slow in reaching the island in 1714. Drift ice remained off the coast until the end of May, making it impossible for French supply vessels to get to Louisbourg until then. The first French vessel to arrive in 1714 was in the ice fields for twenty days. Another vessel, carrying provisions to the outlying settlements of Mire (Mira), was wrecked in passage. Unexplained delays in the departure of vessels from France further exacerbated the situation.

Whether or not they recognized that a French colony dependent on them for supplies was less of a long-term threat than a colony which could be sustained by the French empire, Massachusetts’ merchants moved quickly to secure a portion of the Louisbourg market. Acadians who visited He Royale in 1714 reported seeing New England vessels at Louisbourg and elsewhere. One of the vessels was from Boston; another was from Casco Bay. Both ships carried boards, salt, cattle and other goods. Among the customers for the cargoes was Joseph Monbeton de Brouillon (called Saint-Ovide), then king’s lieutenant and from 1717 to 1739 Governor of the colony. Saint-Ovide purchased for himself the entire contents of four Boston merchantmen in 1714.3

As soon as the trade began, some British officials in North America sought to halt it. Samuel Vetch’s successor as Governor of Nova Scotia, Francis Nicholson, mentioned the trade to Governor Joseph Dudley of Massachusetts several times in 1714 and expressed apprehension that New Englanders would send more vessels in the spring of 1715. Nicholson also expressed a belief that the French would have to draw on New England for supplies if they were to develop a sizeable establishment on Cape Breton Island. To forestall this eventuality, Nicholson advised New England governors and customs agents to use “all lawfull ways and means” to prevent French development of Cape Breton. Anticipating the methods by which some of the trade would be conducted, Nicholson said that he supposed that vessels bound for the island would enter for “Newfoundland or some place here abouts.…”4

Nicholson’s complaints met with a prompt response in Massachusetts. The Council read his letter two days after it was written and then launched an investigation into the matter. It ordered the examination of three French officers then in Boston to determine the nature of their business in the city. The French apparently satisfied the Council that their presence did not constitute a threat to the interests of Massachusetts or the British empire generally. Nevertheless, on 3 January 1715 the Massachusetts Council drew up a proclamation forbidding any correspondence, trade, commerce, or any other dealings with the French of Canada, Cape Breton or any other French colony. The proclamation specifically prohibited the shipping of provisions, lumber or any other supplies to the French. This action would at first seem to indicate a determination of the Massachusetts government to give Nicholson its wholehearted support. But, on closer scrutiny, it appears that the Council had reservations about placing overly strict or lengthy restrictions on trade with the French. The proclamation was to be in effect only “until His Majesty’s Pleasure be known therein.” In March 1715, the Council advised customs collectors in Massachusetts to use all possible methods to discover any vessels whatsoever trading to Cape Breton, Canada, or any other place inhabited by subjects of the French king, but to judge from the rarity of seizures, the customs officials could not have had the means to carry out their instructions.

At Louisbourg, trade was accepted and encouraged. Major Jacques L’Hermitte, engineer at Louisbourg in 1714 and 1715, reported at the end of 1714 that trade with Boston had been open all summer and that Governor Costebelle had accepted it. French records for this period, although fragmentary in dealing with Louisbourg shipping, suggest that Massachusetts regulations had no effect on trade between the two colonies. L’Hermitte suggested that New Englanders sold goods at Louisbourg at lower prices than could French merchants, which gave Louisbourg merchants a considerable incentive to trade with the New Englanders.

Although they wanted trade with Massachusetts and the other New England colonies, the French authorities at Louisbourg wanted the trade confined within certain limits. By 1716, Louisbourg authorities had imposed controls on New England vessels calling at that port. When four or five New England vessels put in to Louisbourg because of bad weather and a need for food and water, a sergeant and two soldiers boarded each ship, and obliged each vessel to leave within twenty-four hours.

Contacts and trade elsewhere were more difficult to police. One French official complained of a “liaison trop grande” between fishermen of the two nations. The situation was particularly troublesome at Port Toulouse, because of the lack of conscientious enforcement of trade regulations there and because of the settlement’s proximity to Canso.

Louisbourg officials could not find an easy solution to the problems of the Port Toulouse-Canso area. A report of early 1717 indicated that both French and English lived at Canso, and there were suggestions that Governor Costebelle tolerated the situation. To these allegations Costebelle replied that toleration of the situation was necessary to keep the strait between Cape Breton Island and Nova Scotia open to the French. As for trade in the area, he suggested that it was necessary because of problems in receiving supplies from merchants in French ports such as Bayonne, Nantes, and St. Jean de Luz. The Council of Marine in France was apparently unsatisfied with such explanations. The Council, noting in a memoir of September 1717 that trade was easily and commonly conducted at Port Toulouse, proceeded to forbid all commerce with the English by inhabitants of the village. Issuing decrees was easier than enforcing them. The Louisbourg authorities probably could not rely on the garrison at Port Toulouse to regulate trade. The soldiers there were reportedly so undisciplined that they passed much of their time in taverns and worked only when it pleased them to do so. It was said to be impossible to get them to perform even the most pressing tasks. Only the suppression of the taverns, one report advised, would bring about a restoration of order.5

While Louisbourg officials brooded about English-French contacts, Massachusetts officials and entrepreneurs took steps to protect their interests. Their actions threatened the Anglo-French entente which had developed after the Treaty of Utrecht, but New Englanders were prepared to take the risk despite the implications for trade. In 1718 some Massachusetts residents with fishing interests at Canso began to agitate for the eviction of the French from the area and for a forceful assertion of Britain’s claim to jurisdiction over Canso as a territory dependent on Nova Scotia.

Cyprian Southack, former commander of Province Galley of Massachusetts, operator of a fishing station at Canso, and the sponsor of the abortive enterprise at Port Roseway, played a key role in the affair. In registering the first known complaint about French activity in the Canso area, Southack declared that “a great many French commanders of ships with their men,” had come from Cape Breton to fish at Canso and to the west. Southack also charged that one particular Frenchman from Cape Breton had built a house and stages at Canso, and “makes all the mischief he can…against the English interest.”6 Other complaints followed. In June 1718, Governor Shute of Massachusetts received a memorial declaring that about 300 Frenchmen had taken possession of the area and erected houses in it. “There is a ship from France in the harbour and more dayly expected, they have seized the best places for making fish, and threaten the English with a removal, pretending that they act by the advice and direction of the Governor of Cape Breton.”7 A memorandum by Cyprian Southack supported the complaint.

Prompted by the spate of complaints about French encroachments, and French-encouraged Indian hostility, Governor Shute dispatched H.M.S. Squirrel to Canso and Louisbourg in August 1718 to investigate the matter. Captain Thomas Smart commanded the vessel, accompanied by Cyprian Southack. The investigation resulted in the seizure of French property at Canso and the eviction of French residents, after a protest was lodged with Louisbourg authorities.

Protests by individual French merchants and the French government, discussion of the affair by an Anglo-French boundary commission, and reprisals by Indians and French inhabitants of He Royale all ensued from Massachusetts’ action in 1718. But the Massachusetts government had made its point. In light of the Anglo-French entente it dared not attempt the destruction of He Royale, but it was determined to establish firm control over Canso. The price Massachusetts paid, in terms of raids on the establishment at Canso, did not shake English control of the area, and by 1720 the Louisbourg trade was once more of sufficient volume to worry Massachusetts’ Governor Shute.

In early 1720, Shute asked his legislature to ban trade with He Royale. In a message to the Council, Shute claimed that Massachusetts and New Hampshire “constantly supplied the French of Cape Breton with provisions and other stores,” and suggested that a French and Indian raid on Canso in August might not have been possible if goods had not reached He Royale from New England. Some three weeks after Shute’s statement, three members of the Council formed a committee with members of the House of Representatives to consider the Governor’s request. They subsequently drew up a bill to effect a ban, but the House of Representatives refused its assent. In March 1721 Shute renewed his appeal for a ban: “I must again recommend it, hoping it will have a better fare this session, lest otherwise it should be thought by the Government at Home that we have more regard for some private man’s interest than to his Majesties Treaties or the Public Good.”8 Once more Shute’s arguments fell on deaf ears. The Council passed legislation “to prevent Carrying on an illegal Trade to Cape Breton alias Louisbourg,” and when the bill was sent to the House a message was attached to impress that body with the need for passage of the bill. The message noted that Governor Phillips of Nova Scotia had complained to Governor Shute about supplies going to Cape Breton from New England. Phillips warned that he would be obliged to represent the state of affairs to the authorities in Britain. Moreover, the message to the House alleged that an unidentified French officer from Cape Breton had admitted that except for supplies received from New England, the French would have had to abandon the colony. Such information failed to sway the House, which rejected the bill, declaring “We then did not, neither do we now know, or are informed of any within this Government, that do Trade there.…”9

Although the volume and the value of New England’s trade with Louisbourg in the early 1720s is difficult to determine with precision, it was of sufficient importance to attract several prominent Massachusetts merchants. This fact may explain, at least in part, the reluctance of the Massachusetts House of Representatives to ban the trade. For instance, one of the Bowdoins, possibly James Bowdoin, was involved in trade with He Royale in 1720. That year, Bowdoin consigned a cargo of pork to William Pickering of Salem. Pickering, one of the first New Englanders to do business at Canso after the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, conveyed the pork to Cape Breton.1 Pickering later disappeared with his vessel, and it is not known if anyone else maintained the trade for Bowdoin. The fact of Bowdoin’s involvement in the Cape Breton trade is significant. Not only does it prove an interest in the Cape Breton trade by prominent Massachusetts merchants, but it also anticipated the entrance of Peter Faneuil in the trade later in the 1720s, in which trade Faneuil became extensively involved.

Massachusetts’ trade with He Royale was also extensive enough that it involved merchants of the other New England colonies, as the case of Joshua Peirce illustrates. Peirce, a native of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, had five or six schooners fishing at Canso by 1723. By 1726, he was selling livestock and lumber at Louisbourg, and by 1728 he was engaged in cooperative ventures to the West Indies with a Louisbourg merchant named Dolebra. In the autumn of 1728, Peirce arranged to send his partner a brigantine loaded with items such as boards, bricks, sheep, and cattle. Peirce instructed Dolebra to sell the cargo at Louisbourg and then to send the vessel to Martinique under a French master. From there, the vessel was to return to Boston, where the English captain would assume command again.2 The arrangements were sophisticated and somewhat clandestine, prompted no doubt by French edicts of 1717 and 1728 which excluded all foreign commerce from French islands in the West Indies in order to make both imports and exports of the islands the monopoly of the French empire. It is clear from Peirce’s activities that Boston merchants sometimes used merchants of other colonies to facilitate their trade with He Royale, and through He Royale with the French West Indies.

On occasion, Peirce used Canso to mask the nature of his activities. In 1733 one of Peirce’s vessels, carrying goods from Louisbourg to Boston, entered Canso to disguise the origin of its cargo of molasses and other French goods. Peirce explained to his Boston buyer that there would now be no danger of the goods being seized at either Portsmouth or Boston.3 Such precautions may not really have been necessary, as Boston merchants enjoyed a special relationship with the customs collector there. On the death of John Jekyll the elder, who held the customs collector’s post from 1717 to 1733, the Boston Weekly Newsletter reported that by his “courteous Behaviour to the Merchant, he became the Darling of all fair Traders…with much humanity [he] took pleasure in directing Masters of Vessels how they ought to avoid the Breach of the Acts of Trade.”4

On the whole, French imperial trade regulations posed a greater nuisance to Massachusetts merchants than did British regulations. In 1722 the King of France decreed that trade with the English for “Livestock and lumber” was permissible when there was need for these items at Louisbourg, but at the same time he declared that trade in other items was forbidden except under “the most pressing and indispensable need.”5 Regulations such as those of 1722 (and the earlier edicts of 1717), appear to have been more honored in the breach than in the observance, to judge from the complaints of inhabitants and officials alike at He Royale, and from the occasional reiteration of trade regulations by authorities in France. In 1724, for instance, a number of inhabitants of He Royale complained to the Minister of the Marine that a great number of English (New England) ships came to He Royale and, under the pretext of bringing permitted goods, brought prohibited materials such as tar, pitch, salt, lard, tobacco, and even cloth. In 1726, authorities in France repeated their orders to Louisbourg officials on trade with foreign vessels. The entry of any merchandise from foreign colonies was forbidden except for livestock, provisions, building materials, and, in case of need, flour. Guards were to be placed on all foreign ships to ensure that they complied with these regulations.

Despite these oft-repeated instructions, St. Malo merchants complained in 1727 that Governor Saint-Ovide allowed foreigners to trade in prohibited goods. They also claimed that New Englanders received gold and silver when there was any at Louisbourg, and fish when there was not. One St. Malo merchant charged that Saint-Ovide maltreated and imprisoned him and the crew of his ship Prudent for having brought about the arrest of a New England ship trading at Louisbourg. In his defense, Saint-Ovide claimed that the merchant had boarded the ship in question with fifteen to twenty armed men and had maltreated the captain.6

According to Louisbourg Admiralty officials, Saint-Ovide also interfered with their activities. In April 1727, Admiralty officials seized the brigantine Travellor, whose captain admitted making a false declaration of goods landed, having neglected to declare £243 worth of tobacco and other unspecified items. Saint-Ovide had intervened and returned the confiscated goods. Not long after this, the Minister of the Marine warned Saint-Ovide that “It is to your interest that there should be no more complaints on this score.”7 Saint-Ovide defended his actions by asserting that everything he had done had been for the good of the community and had not benefited any individual.

In 1727 new regulations, precipitated in part perhaps by the difficulties early in the year, heralded a stiff challenge by authorities in France to Massachusetts-lie Royale trade. Maurepas, Minister of the Marine from 1724 to 1749, and a mercantilist of considerable conviction, decided to ban all trade between the French and English colonies in North America. His edict of November 1727 was, however, not registered at Louisbourg until October 1730, until which time trade continued. Within a few months of imposition of the ban some merchants were complaining about it. St. Jean de Luz merchants declared in December 1730 that they needed English ships to carry on the fishery and that the ban deprived them of the vessels.8

Louisbourg officials soon began using loopholes in French trade regulations in order to guarantee access to the colony’s New England suppliers. In 1731, Governor Saint-Ovide allowed four New England ships to trade at He Royale on the grounds that the contractor working on the fortifications was in great need of bricks and planks. The Governor also acknowledged having permitted New Englanders to sell cattle, sheep, poultry, Indian wheat, apples, and onions, because the colony allegedly suffered shortages of food. Louisbourg authorities also permitted New Englanders to sell five ships there in 1731, and thirteen in 1732.9

In 1733, Louisbourg officials continued to sanction trade with New England on the grounds that there were shortages in the colony. In the first eight months of 1733 some thirty-two English ships, mostly from Massachusetts, arrived at Louisbourg. Trade continued at this level for the next ten years. From 1733 to 1743, an average of fifty ships a year reached Louisbourg from Acadia and New England. The average tonnage of the New England vessels at Louisbourg in 1742, one of the few years for which figures are available, was 40.5 tons.

Throughout the period, Massachusetts merchants traded at Louisbourg confidently. The merchant community did not reflect the concern Boston newspapers expressed at the continued erection of fortifications on Cape Breton Island. In September 1733, the Boston Gazette published a report that the French were still adding to Louisbourg’s defenses although they allegedly already had nearly 200 guns mounted on the batteries there. The French were also said to have started fortifications at Port Toulouse. The newspaper expressed concern about the works in case of war between France and Britain. It noted that “poor Canso…lies neglected, without so much as one gun for its defence, and in the neighbourhood of so powerful a rival in the fishery.”1

Boston merchants doing business at Canso took a rather different view of the military establishment at Canso, as is apparent from a 1732 memorial of Massachusetts and New Hampshire merchants to the Governor of Nova Scotia. The merchants complained that the Canso garrison committed depredations on the fishing establishment and on warehouses there. Among the signers of the petition were such prominent merchants as Peter and Andrew Faneuil, Stephen Botineau, Charles Apthorp, Jacob Wendall, and Joshua and Nathaniel Peirce. Governor Phillips responded to their complaints by establishing a court of sessions at Canso, composed of justices of the peace authorized to meet weekly. Several of those who had complained of the disorderly garrison, such as Joshua Peirce and Thomas Kilby, received appointments as justices.

Just as New England merchants were sensitive to anything at Canso or Cape Breton which might have interrupted or otherwise impeded trade with the French, their representatives in the Massachusetts government demonstrated a like determination to silence or counteract publicity about illegal trade. Thus, they showed great concern at statements Jeremiah Dunbar made before a committee of the House of Commons in 1730, to the effect that New England timber reserved for the Crown was being cut by private individuals who then exported it from Boston to the French colonies. Dunbar reportedly charged that “most of the principal people in that country were involved,” and that “some of the richest men in Boston got their estates by exporting timber and importing French sugar, rum, and silks.” Cape Breton was not mentioned in the report, but Dunbar had reportedly said that there were merchants in Boston who were factors for the French and, in that capacity, had ships built and registered in their own names. Afterwards they transferred the ships to masters sent to Boston by the French to bring the vessels to the French colonies.2 This was basically the same technique Joshua Peirce used in his dealings with his partner at Louisbourg.

An anxious Massachusetts House of Representatives set up a committee to investigate the report, because they felt that it contained “sundry injurious restrictions and false insinuations of the people of this Province their trade and Business.…” Dunbar, then residing in Boston, was summoned before the committee, where he declared that parts of the statements attributed to him were false, that he had said nothing about illegal imports of French silks. The committee then called on Samuel Waldo and Joshua Winslow, who had been present at the Commons hearings at which Dunbar had testified. They stated that the report in the possession of the Representatives contained the substance of what Dunbar had said, including the comment about silks. Dunbar again denied the charge, but the committee concluded that he had misrepresented “His Majesty’s good subjects of New-England to the Honourable the Commons of Great Britain.”

No doubt Dunbar’s charges had embarrassed the Massachusetts government, despite their denials of his charges. Governor Belcher subsequently took a strong stand against illegal trade. In 1731, Belcher reiterated the provisions of the Treaty of Neutrality of 1686, which authorized the confiscation of any French or English vessel caught fishing or trading in the territorial waters of the other sovereign’s colonies. His action suggests that some Massachusetts authorities wanted to give the appearance of opposition to illicit trade, but the proclamations were at the same time an admission that such trade took place. Belcher noted that “divers French Vessels have entered the Ports of this Province under Pretence of being disabled and hindered from proceeding on their voyages.”3 The real purpose of the calls, Belcher suggested, was to carry on illegal trade. Belcher also reminded the colony of an act passed in 1701 entitled “an act for the preventing of Danger by the French residing within this Province.” According to the terms of this act, French residents of Massachusetts were not permitted to live in seaports or on the frontier without a license from the governor and council.4 Belcher’s move can only have been directed against the Huguenot community in Massachusetts, members of which had traded with the French in Acadia during the War of the League of Augsburg in the 1690s, and traded with the French at Louisbourg in Belcher’s own day.

Curbs on Huguenot contacts with the French would not, however, have stopped trade with He Royale, because there were also prominent non-Huguenot merchants such as the Messrs. William Pepperrell trading there along with a host of less well known individuals. The Pepperrells traded with He Royale for more than a decade, despite some losses, such as the wrecking at Port Toulouse of a vessel in which they had an interest, in 1721. The master of the vessel, a sloop called Prosperous, saved only the clothes on his back.5

This voyage to Cape Breton by Pepperrell interests was not an isolated venture. The same year in which Prosperous was lost, Pepperrell sent John and Mary to the same area. He instructed the captain, John More, to dispose of his cargo to either the French or the English. The cargo was typical of those destined for the Canso-Port Toulouse area. It consisted of 2,500 feet of boards and planks, 5,500 staves, four calves, some cows, twenty-four sheep, one hogshead of rum, and two hogsheads of tobacco. Pepperrell specifically directed More to call at Port Toulouse and “See and bring home what our Vessels have got to send home.” Moreover, Pepperrell instructed More to sell the vessel if he could get £200 sterling or goods of that value for it.6

In 1723, the Pepperrell operations in the Canso-Port Toulouse area suffered another loss with the death of Captain John Watkins, son-in-law to the senior Pepperrell. Watkins was killed at Canso by either French or Indians. When he learned of the event, Pepperrell wrote to Major William Cosby, commander of the Canso garrison, to ask his assistance in settling Watkins’ affairs and securing his effects, described as very considerable. In 1726, the Pepperrells still conducted business at Port Toulouse, as is made clear by their correspondence dealing with the disposal of a vessel left at Port Toulouse upon the death of Captain John Dearing, with whom the Pepperrells were joint owners.7

In the 1730s, undaunted by their earlier reverses in dealings in the area, the Pepperrells made use of Louisbourg to facilitate trade with the French West Indies, particularly with Martinique. Details of this trade are sketchy, but the Pepperrells had sent ships to the West Indies via Louisbourg by at least 1729, when Hughes Grangent, a Martinique merchant, wrote Pepperrell that a small boat belonging to the latter had arrived at Martinique from Louisbourg. Grangent, who owed Pepperrell and a third party, Benjamin Clark, over £5,000 Massachusetts currency, indicated that he would remit rum and molasses to Boston in payment. In Grangent’s account of the transaction there are references to four different New England ships taking part in his trade with Pepperrell.8

Doing business with Grangent was sometimes difficult. In January 1731, Grangent complained to Pepperrell of the latter having held up two brigantines, thus making their entry at Louisbourg difficult for some unspecified reason. As an alternative to sending the vessels to Louisbourg, Grangent suggested sending them to St. Lucia. In reply, Pepperrell stated that there had been a delay in fitting out the vessels because of an outbreak of smallpox at Boston. There were other obstacles in the way of the transaction as well. Grangent still owed Pepperrell over £500 “New England money,” and Pepperrell insisted on payment of the debt before he would send the ships: “I shall write to Mr. Daccaratt Junior at Lewisbourg on Cape Brittain and if he will send us effects [I] will dispatch the two brigs. But I shall not advance any more money.” To make sure that the point was clearly understood, Pepperrell remarked that he did not “care to Venture to Send them to St. Lucia or Louisbourg untill the money is Secured in some English place, it is too Great a risque.…”9

Other New England merchants, such as Peter Faneuil of Boston, managed to conduct trade with the French with less apparent difficulty. For Faneuil, the Cape Breton trade may have been only a small part of his overall operations, but he nevertheless pursued it avidly. Faneuil’s first known venture to Louisbourg occurred in 1728 when he received sixty-one barrels of sugar, and over thirty-two tierces of molasses from Louisbourg. In 1729 Faneuil received shipments of rum, sugar, molasses, sweetmeats, cotton wool, cocoa, wine, brandy, and silks from Louisbourg. The goods were sent there by merchants in Guadeloupe and La Rochelle.1

From at least 1729 to 1733, Peter Faneuil did business at Louisbourg with Abraham Tabois. Tabois, otherwise unidentified, was a middleman for Faneuil, forwarding goods to Faneuil on the account of merchants in La Rochelle and possibly for West Indian merchants also. By 1733, Faneuil had developed an arrangement with Joshua Peirce whereby he acted as an intermediary and a shipper of goods from Louisbourg to Boston. Joshua’s brother Nathaniel carried molasses and other goods from Louisbourg to Boston for the Faneuil interests in November 1733.2

Whether or not the Peirces still handled business at Louisbourg for Faneuil in the late 1730s is unclear. The Peirces made voyages to Canso as late as 1737, but by that time Peter Faneuil had appointed Thomas Kilby as his agent at Canso and conducted much of his Louisbourg trade through him. In selecting Kilby as his agent, Faneuil obtained the services of an individual with an intimate knowledge of the Canso area, an individual who, if not then well acquainted with Louisbourg would soon become very familiar with it. After completing his studies at Harvard in 1726, Kilby became a merchant, with interests at Canso, where he was granted land sometime prior to 1729, and named a justice of the peace in 1730.3

Kilby looked after both trade at Louisbourg and fishing matters at Canso. In a letter of June 1737, Peter Faneuil instructed Kilby to supervise the loading with fish of a ship bound for Bilboa, and to secure cargoes for three other ships. In the same letter, Faneuil also instructed Kilby to go to Louisbourg and dispose of a sloop and its cargo there or to send the sloop back to Boston. Faneuil advised Kilby that he would give him credit for a sum of money at Louisbourg, implying that he had maintained contacts there since the earlier ventures under the auspices of Joshua Peirce. In addition to selling the sloop and her cargo, Kilby was instructed to see if any indigo, rum or molasses was available, “or anything ye will turn to account here.…” At the same time, Faneuil requested Kilby to find out what was in demand at Louisbourg, and advise him, so that the appropriate goods might be sent there. Shortly afterwards, Faneuil sent Kilby a cargo of lumber, salt, and other goods, and instructed him to dispose of them and to buy indigo.4

Prices at Louisbourg were not always favorable, but must generally have been good. In July 1737, Faneuil wrote Kilby that “the French were starving for want of provisions they may thank themselves for it for when we used to carry it to ’em they would give nothing for it.…” Although Faneuil grumbled about the prices he received for his goods at Louisbourg previously, that did not stop him from doing business there, nor did it keep other New Englanders away in any great numbers. In 1736, there were thirty-five vessels from New England and Acadia at Louisbourg (most of them New England vessels), and the year before that there were fifty-two English colonial vessels there.5

In the summer of 1737, demand at Louisbourg was good, and prompted the involvement in a trading venture of Peter Warren, who would in 1745 lead the naval squadron which assisted William Pepperrell in seizing the town. A shortage of provisions at Louisbourg in 1737 prompted Governor Saint-Ovide to write to Faneuil and promise that any Englishmen who came with provisions would have his protection.6 Upon receipt of this news, Faneuil and Captain Peter Warren decided to send Kilby a sloop with a cargo of biscuit to sell to the French. In exchange for the food Faneuil wanted rum, molasses, and cash. Faneuil gave Kilby explicit directions to purchase Cape Francois rum, which was available from “Mr. Morpain…and no one else.” Faneuil estimated that he and Warren would clear between £400 and £500 on the voyage, and clearly outweighed any qualms they may have had at dealing with a noted former privateersman.

Faneuil’s correspondence with Kilby reveals several facets of his involvement with Louisbourg. Faneuil’s interests were extensive enough to require his agent’s presence at Louisbourg frequently and facilitated Faneuil’s trade with France. Not content merely with purchasing whatever French goods were available at Louisbourg, Faneuil went beyond that and corresponded with two Bordeaux merchants, Etienne Sigal and P. Griffon. This suggests that although Louisbourg merchants handled some aspects of transactions between New England merchants and their counterparts in France and the French West Indies, there were occasions on which the principals would discuss their transactions directly and eliminate the middleman at Louisbourg or relegate him to a minor role.

Although there is little correspondence by New England merchants trading with Louisbourg in the 1740s, there is evidence that the trade continued to grow then, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, He St. Jean (present-day Prince Edward Island), failed to become a reliable source of foodstuffs for He Royale. In 1741 the continued failure of the French empire to meet all the needs of He Royale is apparent in the fact that fifty New England vessels called at Louisbourg and in 1742 approximately the same number arrived. Severe shortages kept demand for English colonial produce high. In June 1742, Francois Bigot, then a highly placed official at Louisbourg, wrote that misery had grown in the colony and that there was little or no bread and no vegetables whatsoever available. Officials in France made it clear to Bigot that he should send to France for supplies when Canada could not provide them. Bigot agreed to follow the order, but observed that it would be expensive for the colony because goods which came from France were always more expensive than those from New England.7

Again in 1743, shortages at Louisbourg led officials there to seek large amounts of foodstuffs from the English colonies. Not only could the colony of Canada not export food to Louisbourg, but its officials requested Louisbourg officials to obtain supplies from New England for Canada. Gilles Hocquart, intendant of Canada, requested 4,000 or more quarts of flour, because caterpillars threatened the wheat crop in Canada. In August, word reached Louisbourg that the threat was not as severe as at first anticipated. By that time Louisbourg officials had sent to Canso for the flour, 800 to 900 quintals of biscuit, a cargo of corn, vegetables, and 4,000 quintals of cod.8

That the French would turn so quickly to Canso for supplies reveals much about the evolution of trade between He Royale and New England between 1713 and the 1740s. At first, contacts had been somewhat haphazard. There is no evidence of the involvement of Massachusetts merchants of any consequence prior to Bowdoin’s involvement in 1720. By the late 1720s merchants such as the Peirces, Pepperrells, and Peter Faneuil had developed contacts at Louisbourg which enabled them to obtain goods there from France and the French West Indies. Faneuil maintained an agent at Canso to look after his affairs there and at Louisbourg. Both Faneuil and the Pepperrells also corresponded with merchants in the West Indies, and Peter Faneuil corresponded with merchants in France, indicating that while Louisbourg was a useful place through which to obtain the products of other parts of the French empire, by the late 1730s Louisbourg merchants may have played a secondary part in the trade.

French officials at Louisbourg accepted the trade from the very beginning as a necessary means of providing the inhabitants of the colony with provisions and building materials, and in order to guarantee a market for goods coming to Louisbourg from other parts of the French empire. Authorities in France came to accept this state of affairs even though it contradicted the mercantilist precepts on which French imperial trade policy was based.

As for the New Englanders, led by Massachusetts merchants and mariners, they pursued the Louisbourg trade relentlessly until the eve of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1744. They also managed to obtain a near monopoly on the shipping of English colonial goods to Louisbourg. Only two of the English colonial vessels whose visits to Louisbourg were recorded by the French for 1742 and 1743 came from outside New England, and the bulk of the New England vessels came from Massachusetts. At first, New Englanders conducted trade with He Royale openly. Early attempts by governors of Massachusetts and New Hampshire to stop the trade failed, as did efforts to control the trade in the 1730s by such means as the Molasses Act of 1733.

Mercantilist-inspired Navigation Acts, and similarly inspired French trade regulations bowed to colonial realities which dictated that colonists would trade wherever they could do so with profit. Merchants of both Massachusetts and Ile Royale would undoubtedly have subscribed to the words of Joseph Robineau de Villebon, the French governor of Acadia, who immediately on his arrival in the colony in 1691 had to make considerable adjustment to colonial realities. He explained to his superiors that “Without these compromises it would be impossible to exist in this country.…”