Double Disaster in Halifax!

From Quebec we set out for a rather pretty ride along the southern shore of the mighty St Lawrence River, one of the world’s great maritime thoroughfares.  The Tourist information services in Canada provide excellent local maps and Quebec Province was exceptional in that it had special itineraries for motorcyclists with recommended places to visit and stay along the way.  The roads we followed today were part of the Route des Navigateursand the pretty villages harked back to Northern France with a distinct Breton / Norman feel and charm, as that was where the original settlers in these parts mostly came from.

Soon we were passing into the Maritimes; the Canadian Provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.  When North America was colonised by the Europeans, this part was mainly settled by the French and was known as Acadia.  When France surrendered her North American colonies to Britain (see last post) the inhabitants suddenly found themselves subjects of the King of England.  A few years later when war once again broke out between France and England the British authorities, anxious about so many Acadians living in their colony, imposed an oath of allegiance to the crown.  The Acadians refused, whereupon the decision was made to evict them by force if necessary and a new wave of immigrants arrived from Scotland, England and Ireland.  The Acadians were subsequently uprooted and either sent home to France or shipped off to French possessions in the Caribbean and Louisiana, this latter displacement giving rise to the term ‘Cajun’ – a local corruption of ‘Acadian’.  The move proved not to be permanent and when a few years later peace was resumed between France and England, many families returned to the Maritimes and their descendants live there today.

Our introduction to the Maritimes was the coast road through New Brunswick to reach Nova Scotia, known as the Route des Acadians.  There was little to detain us here and we were keen to get up to explore Cape Breton Island, home to a famous route known as the Cabot Trail.  As a change from camping we booked a one-night stop at an Air B&B at a small place called ‘Great Village’ near Truro where our hostess Martina, a lovely lady and fellow traveller, gave us free rein over kitchen and house.  With fellow guests, Christin and Martin from Berlin and gorgeous Labrador doggies Kiwi and Mango, we spent a memorable evening sat in the garden talking about respective travels and life on the road. Martina’s place proved to be a great little traveller’s nook and a place we vowed to return.

Cape Breton Island marks the northernmost extremities of Nova Scotia and two things drew us there…  First was Louisbourg, site of a vast French fortification that in its day defended the approaches to the St Lawrence and access to the colonial hub of Quebec. Then there was that Cabot Trail – a couple of hundred miles circuit around the northern headlands of these beautiful islands that promised some great motorcycling in the sunshine.  We crossed to Cape Breton from the mainland via the Canso Causeway and set up a base camp at Bras d’Or riding part of the beautiful Cabot Trail to get there.  A short ride next day took us to see Louisbourg…

In the early 1700’s, the British held Newfoundland to the north of the St. Lawrence and New England to the south like two gigantic pincers poised to cut the lifeline between New France and the mother country. In between the French held Cape Breton Island where they built an enormous fortress at Louisbourg to guard the seaward approach to the St Lawrence. The new fortress was named in honor of Louis XIV, who was determined to expand the settlements in Acadia and was built in the classical ‘star-shape’ design by Vauban, the most famous military designer and engineer of the age.  Comprising stone walls ten-feet thick and thirty-feet high the impregnable fortification was surrounded by a moat eighty-feet wide with embrasures for nearly 150 cannons.  In its day it was the mightiest fortification in all of North America and believed to be impregnable.

The site was impressive; a spit of land guarding a vast natural anchorage that could shelter the largest of fleets in the world at that time making a perfect base for any French foray against the British New World colonies.  By the 1740s, Louisbourg was a garrison town of some 4,000 inhabitants yet, for all its imposing bulk and enormous cost, the French lost interest in cultivating or developing the area. The population consisted largely of fishermen, garrison soldiers and their families, and smugglers who preyed on New England shipping making it a bit of a pirate haven.  In 1744 Britain and France were once again at war and the governor of Louisbourg, Jean-Baptiste-Louis Duquesnel, launched pre-emptive strikes against British settlements in Nova Scotia.  In response, a rag-tag army of New England colonists set forth from Boston to confront the mighty fortress.  Like Singapore in the twentieth century, the defenders expected an assault to come from the sea and were somewhat alarmed when the colonists failed to oblige, instead landing along the coast and soon commanding higher ground that overlooked the fortress.  Having captured outlying batteries, they turned these fearsome weapons against their previous owners who were by now besieged.  In a short time the French struck their colours, surrendering the fortress.  They did gain terms agreed to march out with arms intact but regardless, this was a disaster for France and a spectacular triumph for the new American colonies.

Then in 1748 a European peace accord gave the fortress back to France in exchange for Madras in India!  A few years later it was back to war and Louisbourg was an obvious key target in British strategy.  This time it was British regulars led by a cautious but brilliant general named Amherst.  Tactics employed were a repeat of the American success and were executed by a striking young officer named Wolfe who would later take Quebec to end for all time French ambitions in the far north.  The strike was bold and audacious but once the British were ashore there was only one outcome – another inglorious, but this time final, surrender. It was a tremendous victory in its day. Captured French flags were taken to London and hung in St. Paul’s Cathedral and Prime Minister Pitt had a special Louisbourg medal struck for the victorious soldiers.  In America the colonies celebrated with firework displays and celebrations on the streets.  Following this second defeat, the fortifications were systematically destroyed by British engineers in 1760 to prevent the town and port from being used in the future by the French, should any peace process return Cape Breton Island to France.

In the early 1960’s the Canadian Government undertook a reconstruction of one quarter of the town and fortifications to recreate 1740s Louisbourg. As with Fort William in my previous blog, visiting Louisbourg is a step back in history brought to life by re-enactors in period dress representing everything from ordinary townsfolk to garrison marines with vivid displays relating the story of life in the fortress all those years ago and also the story of its reconstruction.  We spent a beautiful day wandering the streets within the fortress walls, watching demonstrations of musketry and artillery shoots by the re-enactors.  A ‘thief’ was brought forth and taken to the town stocks for ridicule and public punishment and it all made for great entertainment.

We learned how life in the army at that time was harsh and severe. Tempted by the promise of guaranteed salary and gain in the New World, recruits soon learned upon arrival that from these salaries they had to pay for their food and upkeep so the only way to live was to borrow from their officers, a regime that was nothing short of slavery.  Small wonder that morale was low and, when the time came to fight, these men were not so keen to give up their lives.  We had a fabulous day here but I felt that the museum, such as it is, was missing one vital piece; there was absolutely nothing about the decline and fall of the fortress, merely a one-line mention that it succumbed to two sieges.  The stories of these battles make for tremendous reading for anyone with any sort of interest in military history, yet it was all simply ignored.  Political correctness? I don’t know, but the story is a vital piece of North American history showing how not only how the French lost North America but also highlighting the increasing independence and prowess of the British colonists there.

In the last post I mentioned how a motorcycle breakdown gained us a recommendation to visit a place called Meat Cove up north on the Cabot Trail and this was our next destination.  Yet another tale of misfortune on the road leading to treasured recommendation and insight into one of the most beautiful places in all of Canada.  A short slalom of a gravel road led us along cliff tops offering dramatic panoramas out over the sea, before dropping us into the cove and out again climbing to the campsite where we pitched our tent right on the cliff edge to look back on that most beautiful scenery.  Meat Cove was named by early European settlers who found a plentiful abundance of moose, bear and deer in the area, yet they came primarily for the animal hides and antlers rather than the meat, which was discarded to give the cove its name.  Our neighbours were a friendly entourage of Quebecois 4WD owners who, after we had a curious mooch around their rigs, were soon sharing wine and campfires for a cosy evening in this wild and rugged place.  Thanks to Frank, Max, Pierre and their friends and families for a memorable evening.

We rode the Cabot Trail south now, down to Cheticamp, the local Acadian pronunciation ‘shittycamp’ raising a schoolboy snigger or two.  It was a glorious diddly-dee dragon’s tail of a road that zigzagged left and right, up and down, roller-coastering alongside a jeweled sea that stretched off to someplace over the horizon.  One of those roads to slap a grin on your chops especially as this beautiful weather continued. These Cape Breton Islands are deeply infused with Celtic tradition be it Breton or Scots-Irish and we continued on down the St Lawrence coast following the Ceilidh Trail.  Back over that Canso Causeway and then chasing Nova Scotia’s wild Atlantic coast all the way to Halifax and one of the worlds great ports.

Halifax was famous during the two world wars as the North American point of departure for the many convoys that kept Britain alive during dark times and a walk along the waterfront allowed us to visit memorials to the fallen in both the Canadian Navy and Merchant Navy from those times. It was also the scene of two famous maritime disasters, happening within a few years of each other in the early twentieth century.  First was the loss of the Titanic, built in our hometown of Belfast.  The ship sank a few hundred miles off the Newfoundland coast and once the magnitude of the disaster became known a small fleet of vessels set sail from Halifax to help recover any possible survivors.  From the two and a half thousand souls who set sail, over 1500 would perish and when the ships from arrived the survivors had already been picked up by the Carpathia who was in the vicinity when Titanic sank.  All that was left was to collect the bodies floating in their life jackets in that cold, cold sea.  The ships knew this and carried a consignment of coffins and pig iron to weigh down some who would be buried at sea in a canvas shroud.

Standing on the waterfront one could imagine the awful scene in 1912 as the Halifax ships returned to port to discharged this dreadful cargo of corpses. The bodies were taken to the local ice-rink, which was used as a morgue.  The Coroner John Henry Barnstead, implemented a system for each body allocating a unique number, an ID card that noted any distinguishing marks and finally a little cotton bag to contain any personal effects found on the bodies. Over the years this system has been used to identify victims from these remnants.  The dead are all buried in Halifax and we visited two of the cemeteries Mount Olivet, were Catholics were interred and Fairview Lawn where the Protestants lie.  It was a moving experience and we spent a few hours reading some of the stories of the dead. Like Body number 12 – unknown female. A box of pills were found on her body, traced to a pharmacy in Ireland and so the identity of Margaret Rice was revealed.  She was a widow returning to the US with her 5 sons aged two to ten years old.  All of the children perished.  Most harrowing was the story of a two-year-old boy, who for years was simply unknown.  When no one came forward to claim the little body, the crew of the ship that found him, the Mackay-Bennett, took care of the funeral arrangements and paid for a tombstone.  Initially it was believed that the child was possibly of Swedish descent but in 2010, 95 years after the disaster, DNA testing was able to identify the child as Sidney Goodwin from Wiltshire.

A few years later in 1917, Halifax was scene of another disaster when a seemingly innocuous collision between two merchant ships in the harbour resulted in the largest man-made explosion on the planet up until the dropping of the Atomic bombs in 1945.  Early on the morning of 6thDecember the Norwegian vessel SS Imo, a charity ship carrying relief supplies for Belgian refugees collided a French cargo ship SS Mont-Blanc, an old ship loaded to the gunwales with high explosives, in an area known as ‘the Narrows’, a strait connecting the upper Halifax Harbour to Bedford Basin.  The collision wasn’t that remarkable until a consequent fire on board the French ship ignited her cargo, causing a large explosion that devastated Halifax. Over 1600 buildings were destroyed and approximately 2,000 people were killed with an estimated 9,000 others injured by the blast, which contained the equivalent energy of roughly 2.9 kilotons of TNT.  And so Halifax faced yet another massive morbid clean up operation with the coroner Arthur S. Barnstead employing the same system used by his father to identify the victims on Titanic.  A visit to the Maritime Museum was well worthwhile as it contains the stories of this double disaster and many artifacts from those terrible times including some of the little cotton bags with body ID cards and personal effects from the victims.

From our base at the campsite in Dartmouth, across the river from Halifax, we explored more of this beautiful coastline including a day out to the spectacular Peggy’s Cove and one of the most picturesque villages in all of Canada. Sited amongst a huge glacial boulder field that runs off into the ocean the little fishing village has a smattering of quaint fishermen’s dwellings that run down to the sea where there is an equally pretty lighthouse standing guardian over the rocky shores.  We sampled lobster rolls and scrambled along the rocky shoreline before retuning to our mounts to be chased home by a wicked (but thankfully rare) rainstorm.

Nova Scotia has been magnificent but the grains that run through the sandglass of our days on the road are now down to a fine trickle, as our September finale looms ever nearer.  There is a little more of Nova Scotia to see and then Prince Edward Island before we really do head for home, but there are still one or two marvels to enjoy before that sad time comes…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Nova Scotia