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History of Inverness County, Nova Scotia
Chapter II - Some Outlines of Cape Breton History


The source of any history is a difficult thing to fix. The history of Cape Breton is no exception. We believe the original inhabitants of the Island were the Micmac Indians, of whom we know nothing anterior to the coming of the white man. The origin, the settlements, the wanderings, the ways of living and the wars, of that untutored tribe are practically a sealed book to us. And even the first white man who actually did discover Cape Breton would seem to be a tormentingly elusive personality.

Some honest and painstaking students have satisfied themselves that our shores were visited, more than once, by Norse Voyagers as early as the tenth century. Names and dates are given as to the arrival here, at different times, of those intrepid sailors. All this may be true; not knowing, we cannot say. We do know that these fearless Norsemen have made a lot of history, and are far from being unknown to the Anglo-Saxon world. They were brave men, who dearly loved the blue sea, and the free air.

It is written, also, that, some venturesome Basque and Breton fishermen had found their way to Cape Breton Island. There seems to be some circumstantial evidence in support of this claim. It is certain the Island was once called "The Isle of Baccalaos," for, in the grant of James I to Sir William Alexander in 1621, the territory granted is described as "all the vacant territory from Cape Sable northward, including the `Isle of Baccalaos, or Cape Breton." Baccalaos is the Basque word for cod. The name Cape Breton, is, we are told, a grateful memorial of the daring Breton and Norman fishermen who had been the first to engage in the noble harvest of our seas.

Now came the Cabots, father and son. Their discovery is real, intended and indisputable, and on this discovery the claims of England to North America were subsequently based. We wish to make fast to some post that will hold and endure. Therefore, we make this achievement of the Cabots in 1497-1498 the historical starting point of our Island career. "The prima Terra Vista" of the Cabots has been claimed by Labrador, Bonavista (Newfoundland), and Cape North (Cape Breton.) We shall add but one remark to the already lengthy controversy on this subject; and that remark is not our own, but "a recorded remark" of the Cabots. Here it is:

The Mappe Monde of Sebastian Cabot was discovered in Germany in 1843 and dated 1544. On this map the Northeast point of the mainland of North America, which coincided with Cape North is designated "prima terra vista," the first land seen. The map describes it as follows:- "This land was discovered by John Cabot, a Venetian, and Sebastian Cabot, his son, in the year of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ MCCCCXCIIII, on the 24th of June in the morning, which country they called "prima terra vista," and a large Island over against the said land they named the Island of St. John, because they discovered it on the same day. The inhabitants wear skins of animals, use in their battles bows, arrows, lances, darts, wooden clubs and slings. The soil is very barren, and there are many white bears and stags as large as horses, and many other beasts; likewise great quantities of fish, pike, salmon, soles as long as a yard, and many other sorts, besides a great abundance of the kind called baccalaos. There are, also, in the same land hawks as black as ravens, eagles, partridges, redpoles, and many other birds of various descriptions."

If that does not describe the region of Cape North, at that time, nothing could describe it. Where else could they see the "large Island over against the said land which they discovered the same day and named the Island of St. John?"

Not very long after the discovery of the Cabots the admirable fishing grounds surrounding Cape Breton attracted many bold Europeans. Naturally they came to the side of the Island having the best harbours. Those fishing grounds had been discovered and described by English navigators; but it was not English fishermen who first exploited them. The courageous fishermen of Portugal, Spain, France, and Britain made a gallant dash for them.

The Portuguese found the climate and conditions uncomfortably vigorous, and their sojourn here was brief. It is certain they spent one winter and had one settlement here. There appears to be some conjecture as to where that settlement was. Popular opinion places it at Ingonish, although a most respectable authority- the Reverend Doctor Patterson - contends, with much force, that it was at St. Peters. But, as the men of Portugal did not stay long, nor exercise any perceptible influence on Island affairs, it is not so necessary to discuss their place of settlement in a work such as ours.

The Spanish tarried longer. They foregathered around Baie des Espagnols, now Sydney Harbour. The French at that time made their headquarters at St. Ann's, and the British near Louisburg, then called English Harbour. All those fishermen at that time seemed to regard the Island as neutral ground. Probably they saw in such an attitude some mutual advantages which do not show on the surface. In a few years, however, the Spanish and the Portuguese arose and went back to their fathers. The British and the French remained; and thereby hangs a tale.

All Canadians are familiar with the history of the long, varying and irregular, struggle between the French and British for supremacy in North America. We must not weary our readers with a narrative of that tedious contest, except where it affects Cape Breton.

By the treaty of Utrecht in 1713, it was agreed and decided "That all Nova Scotia, or Acadie, the Island of Newfoundland, with the adjacent islands the town and fortress of Placentia, shall from this time forth belong of right to Great Britain. But the Island of Cape Breton shall hereafter belong of right to the King of France, who shall have liberty to fortify any place or places there."

In 1720 the French began the work of fortification at Louisburg. That work was carried on under plans prepared by the eminent French engineer, Vauban. The fortress cost more than $6,000,000, and took twenty years to complete. The natural position for such a stronghold was an ideal one. When finished, it was supposed to have no duplicate in the New World. For that reason, it was called "the Dunkirk of America." Things were literally booming then at Louisburg. In fact, during the whole of the French regime in Cape Breton, the history of Louisburg was the history of the whole Island.

In 1745 this fine French fortress at Louisburg was captured-the first time- by the British. This capture was effected by a fleet sent out by Governor Shirley of Massachusetts, under the command of Colonel William Pepperell. Massachusetts, being then a loyal British province, naturally sympathized with its English brethren in Acadia, or Nova Scotia, and believed the Acadians were being assisted, at least morally and materially, from Louisburg. Hence, the dispatch of the above noted fleet- and its fell consequences to Louisburg.

In 1748, by the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, Cape Breton and Louisburg were again restored to France.

In 1756, the wonderful William Pitt, seeing the peculiar importance of Cape Breton as the key to Canada, resolved to take Louisburg a second time. For this purpose a strong fleet was ordered out under the command of Admiral Boscawen, assisted by a military force under General Amherst. The first objective in America was the reduction of Louisburg, which took place on July 27th, 1758. This time Louisburg was not only captured, but was, also, like Jerusalem of old, utterly destroyed.

In 1763, and after Quebec had been taken by General Wolfe, this seven years war was ended, and with it ended, once for all, the sovereignty of France in Canada.

We cannot help alluding to one pathetic and outstanding incident which marked the closing of this protracted and international struggle. We see the two grand and loyal leaders, Wolfe and Montcalm, dedicating their labors and their lives to their respective nations,- on the same day, in the same field, within easy sight of each other, in the fierce and final clash. Such is the fiat of Destiny!

The island of Cape Breton now became annexed to the Province of Nova Scotia. In 1784 it was erected and constituted a separate British province. Its first Governor was Major Frederick Wallet Des Barres. The following gentlemen comprised the first council:- President, Richard Gibbons, Chief Justice; David Mathews, AttorneyGeneral; William Smith, Military Surgeon; Thomas Moncrief, Fort Adjutant; J. E. Boisseau, Deputy Commissary of Musters; Rev. Benjamin Lovell, Military Chaplain. The civil establishment consisted of the following gentlemen, all of them paid by the British Government; Chief Justice Richard Gibbons; Attorney General, David Matthews; Clerk of Council, Provincial Secretary and Registrar of Deeds, Abraham Cuyler; Surveyor-General, Thomas Hurd; Comptroller of Customs, William Brown; Naval Officer, George Moore, Postmaster, Thomas Uncle.

In 1786 Archibald Dodd, who afterwards became Chief Justice was appointed Clerk of the Council. It is interesting to note that a younger scion of the Dodd family, the late Honorable Edmund Murray Dodd, was the last Judge of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia that was appointed by the Imperial Government. In later times we all remember another genial member of that family - the capable Murray Dodd - as the County Court Judge for the Counties of Cape Breton, Richmond and Victoria.

In 1787 Governor Des Barres was recalled, and succeeded by Lt. Colonel Maccarmick who held office for seven years. In the course of Governor Macarmick's administration quite a number of grants of land were made around Sydney, Little Bras D'Or, Baddeck, Cheticamp, Margaree, Port Hood, River Inhabitants and Arichat. The other English Governors of our Island were the following:-BrigadierGeneral Ogilvie, who had been Commander at Halifax; BrigadierGeneral Murray; Major General Despard; Brigadier-General Nepean; Brigadier-General Swayne; and General Ainslie. Our own beautiful Lake Ainslie is named after this last Governor of Cape Breton.

In 1820 Cape Breton was re-annexed to Nova Scotia. It came about in this way:

In 1816 Messrs. Leaver and Ritchie, the lessees of the Mines, refused to pay a duty of a shilling per gallon on rum, imposed for revenue purposes. The grounds of their refusal were, that the King relinquished his prerogative of making laws to tax the people by the proclamation of 1763, when Cape Breton was first joined to Nova Scotia, and again by his instructions to Governor Parr, when the Island was made a separate province. An action was brought against Leaver and Ritchie to recover the amount of this duty and was tried before Chief Justice Dodd, and Judgment went to the defendants. The legal advisers of the Crown, on appeal, concurred in this decision. All duty imposed on rum in the past was illegal, and none could be levied in future. The revenue was indispensable. Only two courses were open, either to convene an Assembly or to annex the Province to Nova Scotia. The Imperial ministry chose the latter.

Sir James Kempt, the then Governor of Nova Scotia, proceeded to give effect to the Union. He required the election of two members for the County of Cape Breton, at that time the only organized County on the Island, to serve in the Assembly at Halifax. Two very excellent men, Richard John Uniacke, Jr., and Lawrence Kavanagh, were returned at that election. When they got to Halifax Mr. Kavanagh, who was a Catholic, found that he could not take his seat without subscribing to "a declaration against popery and transubstantiation." This Mr. Kavanagh declined to do. Sir James Kempt interceded with the Home authorities asking that Mr. Kavanagh be permitted to take his seat upon taking the customary oath, omitting the offensive declaration. On April 13th, 1822 the House of Assembly at Halifax passed the following important resolution.

"Resolved that, His Majesty having been graciously pleased to give his consent that Lawrence Kavanagh, Esquire, elected to represent the County of Cape Breton, a gentleman professing Roman Catholic religion should be permitted to take his seat in the House without making "the declaration against popery and transubstantiation," that this House grateful to His Majesty for releasing His Roman Catholic subjects from the disability they were heretofore under from sitting in the House, do admit the said Lawrence Kavanagh to take his seat, and will in future admit Roman Catholics, who may be duly elected, and shall be qualified to hold a seat in the House, to take such a seat without making the declaration against popery and transubstantiation, and that a committee be appointed to wait upon His Excellency the Lieutenant Governor and Communicate to him the determination of the House."

Plain honest, Lawrence Kavanagh did a service for us all. The Assembly of Nova Scotia did itself everlasting honour, in being the first British legislative body in which that arbitrary and discriminating declaration was repealed in silence.

It may be noted that the people of Cape Breton were not satisfied with the re-annexation of the Island to the province of Nova Scotia. Many of them opposed the Union vehemently. They petitioned to the Imperial authorities claiming that the annexation was illegal, and that they were entitled to the Constitution and status granted them in 1784.

The following is the report thereon made by the Lords of the Committee of the Privy Council.

In re the Island of Cape Breton, 5 Moore's P.C.C., p. 259.

"This was a petition from certain inhabitants of the Island of Cape Breton against the annexation of that Island to Nova Scotia. The object of the petition was to obtain restoration of the Constitution alleged to have been granted by His Majesty King George III, in 1784 and for the convening of a Local Legislature, under a Lieutenant-Governor, Council and Assembly, conformably to such grant, and that the laws of Nova Scotia, and the authority of its Legislature might no longer be enforced over the Island of Cape Breton."

This petition prayed, amongst other things, that the Constitution of 1784 should be restored to them, and for the convening of their Local Legislature, under a Lieutenant-Governor, Council and Assembly but that, if there should possibly exist any doubt of the petitioners' strict legal and constitutional rights they further prayed that, as a matter of expediency, and to protect the interests of the inhabitants of the Island, and in consideration of the injuries inflicted upon them by the annexation His Majesty would be pleased, in the exercise of his prerogative, to grant as an act of great favor, the separation of Cape Breton from Nova Scotia, and to permit the Island to enjoy a similar constitution to that of Us sister Island of Prince Edward, etc.

The petition was referred by Her Majesty to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, with directions that the petitioners should be confined in their argument before that tribunal to the bare question raised by them, and were not to be permitted to enter into any question of public convenience or policy. Notice was required to be given, of the petition having been so referred, to the Legislative Council and House of Assembly of Nova Scotia, who on their behalf and oppose thought fit, to appoint Counsel to oppose the claim of the petitioners.

The Legislature of Nova Scotia, having been specially summoned by the Lieutenant-Governor in consequence of such notice having been given, declined to appoint an Agent or to instruct Counsel to represent them at the Bar of the Judicial Committee, expressing their confidence in the learning and ability of the Officers of the Crown, and the integrity and wisdom of the eminent tribunal, before whom these Officers were to vindicate the legality of the annexation. They accordingly put in no case, nor did they appear by Counsel.

The petitioners having been so directed, lodged a case in which they set forth the facts, as stated at length in the Report, 5 Moore, together with a summary of the constitution of the Colony, and referred to a variety of precedents and authorities from which they contended that the annexation in 1820 of Cape Breton to Nova Scotia and the Legislative authority of that Province over the Island ought to be adjudged illegal for reasons set forth in their case as stated in the Report in re Moore.

A case was also put in on the part of the Crown, wherein it was submitted that the re-annexation of the Island to Nova Scotia, was, in the circumstances, strictly legal, for reasons also therein set forth.

Counsel was then heard before the Judicial Committee on behalf of the Petitioners, and also on the part of the Crown.

No judgment was delivered on the petition, but the Report of their Lordships, which was afterwards confirmed by Her Majesty in Council, was as follows:-

"The Lords of the Committee, in obedience to Your Majesty's said order of reference, have taken the said petition into consideration and have heard Counsel on behalf of the said Petitioners, and have likewise heard Your Majesty's Attorney General on behalf of Your Majesty's Crown, and their Lordships understanding it to be Your Majesty's pleasure that their Lordship's consideration of the matter referred to them, by Your Majesty's said order of reference, should be confined to the question whether the inhabitants of Cape Breton are by law entitled, to the Constitution purporting to be granted to them by the Letters Patent of 1784, mentioned in the said Petition do agree humbly to report their opinion to Your Majesty, that the inhabitants of Cape Breton are not so entitled."


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