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When France lost Halifax

Looking back at a disaster that ended French control of the region and devastated the native population

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It’s a Halifax tragedy that few people know about today.

On June 22, 1746, an inexperienced 37-year-old commander set sail at the head of the largest naval expedition France had ever sent to North America.

He went by the rather magnificent name of Jean-Baptiste-Louis-Frédéric de la Rochefoucauld de Roye, duc d’Anville, more commonly known as Duc d’Anville (or sometimes d’Enville). The goals of his mission were ambitious: to meet up with Mi’kmaq and French Canadian allies, recapture Louisbourg, then move on to take Annapolis Royal and attack shipping headed to and from Boston.

The armada featured 64 vessels (ships of the line, frigates, and merchantmen) and more than 10,000 people. “The scale of this thing was unprecedented at the time,” says historian A.J.B. Johnston, the author of Endgame 1758, a history of Louisbourg’s last decade.

And it was a complete disaster. “The way it played out was discouraging for the French,” says Johnston. “They put together an expedition the scale of which they had never, ever done before. And had it fail in such a spectacular fashion.”

There were problems right from the start, as historian James Pritchard outlines in his book Anatomy of a Naval Disaster. Departure was delayed, and once the ships got underway, passage was excruciatingly slow.

D’Anville finally limped to the shores of Chebucto, where Halifax is now, on September 10. Few of his ships had made it. (Editor’s Note: France and England used different calendars during this era; this story uses the current English calendar.) Soon after, on September 16, he died. Just 12 hours later, the surviving stragglers (44 ships in all, separated from the rest by a storm off Sable Island) washed into the harbour.

Many of the men were sick with scurvy, typhus, and typhoid. Unsurprising, considering their provisions included delights such as worm-filled mouldy biscuits.

Meanwhile, two frigates that had been sent ahead to rendezvous with d’Anville at Chebucto had long since given up and returned to France. (Navigator Chabert de Cogolin took advantage of the wait to create the first detailed chart of the harbour.)

The surviving ships anchored along the western shore of the Bedford Basin (between today’s Birch Cove and Mount St. Vincent—an area that came to be known as French Landing), and the men set up an encampment of 230 tents for the sick and dying.

“Most of the Mi’kmaq who had been waiting for them to arrive in the summer had gone back to their homes but when they heard the fleet had arrived, they came back and wanted to join the battle,” says local historian Sharon Ingalls, co-author of Sweet Suburb: A History of Prince’s Lodge, Birch Cove & Rockingham.

That decision would lead to yet another disaster, this one for the native population.

“The Mi’kmaq had no immunity to these diseases and many died on the harbour.” Ingalls says. “Then, many of those who went home took the diseases with them.” Ultimately, about 1,100 of d’Anville’s men succumbed to illness, but the toll for the Mi’kmaq was far worse. Historians believe somewhere from a third to a half of the native population died.

The British were well aware of d’Anville’s expedition, thanks to their spies and reports of men whose ships had been taken as prizes by the French during the crossing. Massachusetts Governor William Shirley was worried.

While the British knew about Chebucto, the largest harbour on the mainland, they had never really considered it that important. “They knew about the harbour before but this would have drawn their attention to it as a really good location for a settlement,” says Ingalls.

Two years later, when Louisbourg went back to the French, “the British decide they have to either give up on this area or build something else as a counterbalance,” says Johnston. “And that something else is Halifax.”

This would lead to yet another disaster for the Mi’kmaq, who had long been allied with the French. They found that the British had built a fort at the mouth of the Sackville River, blocking them from their traditional camps.

While the impact of the expedition was enormous, few obvious traces remain today.

There is a Duc d’Anville elementary in Clayton Park, a small memorial crammed between the Bedford Highway and railway tracks at Rockingham Centennial Park, and a mural in Birch Cove that commemorates the fleet, painted by Peter Bresnen.

Stories of French sailors’ bodies circulated well into the last century. Writing in the early 1900s, George Mullane, a columnist for the weekly Acadian Recorder describes burial mounds “In the back lands of Birch Cove” and says there is a movement “undertaken by responsible parties in Halifax, to interest the French government in erecting a monument to commemorate the memory of the victims of the duc d’Anville’s ill-starred fleet.”

As late as 1955, people continued to find bodies. Ingalls has a copy of a letter written by a construction worker who says he saw 31 graves while building houses on Grosvenor Road, near Birch Cove.

Ironically, a mission to win Acadia back for the French ultimately resulted in their losing it forever.

“The French were really embarrassed by this disaster. They didn’t succeed in any of the objectives,” says Ingalls. “You remember all the back and forth of the French and English over Acadia: this was the end of it.”


 

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BURIED AGAIN… AND AGAIN… AND AGAIN

D’Anville had never been in particularly robust health, and he suffered on the way to Chebucto. The ship’s doctor, who had drilled holes in the commander’s skull and bled him in an effort to save him, conducted an autopsy and said the cause of death was a stroke.

D’Anville was buried on Île Raquette (renamed Île d’Enville and now Georges Island). After Louisbourg was returned to France, his body was exhumed and reburied in Louisbourg. According to Pritchard, when the transport ship carrying the remains arrived in the harbour, “the naval ships at anchor fired salutes… troops of the garrison were paraded, and with much pomp and ceremony,” d’Anville was buried under the Louisbourg chapel.

When the chapel was restored in 1932, workers dug up d’Anville and reburied him again.

But he was not yet permanently laid to rest.

Historian A.J.B. Johnston says that when fire broke out in the chapel during the 1950s, Halifax doctor Stephen Bedwell “drove immediately to Louisbourg because he wanted access to the remains.” Bedwell confirmed that holes had been drilled in d’Anville’s cranium (possibly to release pressure when he was sick) and discovered that one of d’Anville’s incisors had been replaced with a pig’s tooth.


CORRECTION: Due to a fact-checking error, the version of this story that ran in the January/February 2016 print edition of Halifax Magazine featured two historical images that don’t relate to the story. The images above are correct. We regret the error.

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