Don’t forget Louisbourg rum’s history of slavery


Canada’s Fortress of Louisbourg and Authentic Seacoast has launched Fortress Rum, Andrew Carnaby of The Chronicle Herald reports.

Part of a broader rethinking of the visitor experience at the fortress, the product embodies a new spirit of entrepreneurialism at Parks Canada which has produced other initiatives like the popular LouisRocks! concerts and Culture Fete multicultural festival. With any luck, all of these things will boost attendance at the reconstructed site. That a local business, Authentic Seacoast of Guysborough, is involved makes the new venture that much better.

Yet for a national historic site — reconstructed and animated in the spirit of 1745 — the sale of rum raises some thorny questions. At the product launch, a Parks Canada representative noted correctly that rum was traded at the Fortress and “enjoyed by all levels of society.”

Indeed it was. But rum in the mid-18th century was also derived from slavery.

From its founding in 1713 to its fall in 1758, Fortress Louisbourg was a fortified town and entrepot. Fish from Louisbourg ended up in New England, Quebec, Acadia, and France in exchange for everything the town could not produce on its own — meat, flour, wood, clothing and luxuries. The fortress’s fish also found a ready market in the French colonies of Martinique, Saint-Domingue, and Guadeloupe – cheap nourishment for the estimated 300,000 enslaved men, women, and children that powered the islands’ sugar plantations in the mid-1700s. From slave-made sugar cane came sugar-cane juice, the base ingredient in the making of rum.

It is estimated that one million slaves arrived in France’s New World possessions over the entire 18th century. Slave life was controlled by many things, not least being the Code Noir; created by the French Crown in 1685, it defined slaves as “movable property” and allowed runaway slaves to be branded with the fleur-de-lis. By the time of the Haitian Revolution in 1801, Saint-Domingue had become the largest, most lucrative, and one of the most brutal slave societies in the Caribbean.

Fish from Louisbourg helped make that success possible. In return, rum (and molasses) flowed northward.

In the new world, as in the old, rum was consumed by nearly everyone in the mid-1700s. So much so that the value of the trade between Louisbourg and the French slave islands soon eclipsed the exchange between the fortress and the mother country itself. Some of that rum was consumed by fortress dwellers; a lot of it satisfied the thirst of New Englanders. In the heat of the campaigns to abolish slavery in the 1800s, slave-made goods like rum would become the target of widespread boycotts and moral condemnation.

Will consumers of Fortress Rum be taught such important history lessons? Not by Authentic Seacoast — that’s not their responsibility. And it would be weird if they tried.

What about the responsibility of a national historic site? Will visitors who consume period-style rum during their lantern and ghost tours be introduced to the sordid side of their beverage? Could Parks Canada apply the lessons it has learned from animating the life of Marie Marguerite Rose — a slave who lived at the Fortress from 1736 to 1757 — to this new commercial venture? Should it?

It’s exciting to see the visitor experience at Fortress Louisbourg change. And the launch event for Louisbourg Rum looked wonderful. But let’s hope that the site’s founding educational mission is not lost when visitors gather to enjoy a dram of 18th-century rum.

For the original report go to

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