France Armada To Halifax
Halifax June 22, 1746
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 and recapture Louisburg. Then they were to 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 is unprecedented to this time,” his father had commented as his son's vessel left the harbour.
His father and a number of other French merchants had invested large sums for the future trade rites of the mission. His mother was standing proudly by her husband. She had spent months making sure his father"s tailors had created her son's bold uniform, and his other clothing needs. As she stood there, she secretly smiled at herself. She was thinking of the special surprises she had tucked into her son's personal trunk.
But the expedition ended in a complete disaster. “They put together an expedition the scale of which they had never, ever done before. It failed in such a spectacular disaster.” reported a participant upon returning to France, “There were problems right from the start. It was a Navel Disaster. The departure had started with a delay. Once the ships had got underway, the passage was excruciatingly slow.”
D’Anville finally limped to the shores of Chebucto, where Halifax is now, on September 10, 1748. Few of his ships had made it. Soon after, on September 16, he died. 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 D’Anville. The doctor conducted an autopsy and said: “The cause of death was a stroke.” D’Anville was buried on Île Raquette. The island was later renamed by the British as Georges Island.
Just 12 hours later after the French landed the surviving stragglers forty four ships arrived. They had been separated from the rest of the fleet by a storm off Sable Island. Many of the men were sick with scurvy, typhus, and typhoid. Unsurprising, considering their provisions included delights such as worm-filled moldy biscuits.
Two frigates had been sent ahead to rendezvous with d’Anville at Chebucto. They had long since given up waiting for the Armada. They returned to France. Navigator Chabert de Cogolin took advantage of the wait to create the first detailed charts of the Halifax harbour. The first surviving ships anchored along the western shore of the Bedford Basin at an area that came to be known as French Landing. The men set up an encampment of 230 tents for the sick and dying.
Mi’kmaq from all over the province had been waiting for them to arrive in the summer. The waiting was taking so long many had gone back to their homes. They learned later from the local Mi’kmaq that some of the fleet had finally arrived. Many Mi’kmaq came back to help the survivors. That decision would lead to yet another disaster, this one for the native population.
As it turned out the Mi’kmaq had no immunity to the diseases that the French had brought to their homelands. Many Mi’kmaq died while helping, and many who went home took the diseases with them to their villages. About 1,100 of d’Anville’s men succumbed to illness. The toll for the Mi’kmaq was far worse.
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 British during the crossing. Massachusetts Governor William Shirley was worried. The British knew about Chebucto. It was the largest harbour on mainland North America. They had never really considered it that important an area. This expedition lead by the French drew their attention to it as a really good location for a settlement.
Two years later, when Louisburg was handed back to the French, the British decided they either had to give up on this area or build something else as a counterbalance. So they lead their own expedition into the harbour to create Halifax in 1749. 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 Mi’kmaq from their traditional camps.
Mi’kmaq natives remained living on the Dartmouth shores at the Halifax Harbour Narrows. They had camps in Tufts Cove, Norris Cove and surrounding areas reaching into the Bedford Basin towards their Sackville River camps, where they had been driven out by the British. Their hunting grounds ranged miles both inland and along the Bedford Basin coastal shores. They fished, hunted and used the natural elements of their homelands.
England and France fought from 1793–1815 with brief intermissions. The Royal Navy’s size and aggressiveness meant that it frequently captured foreign seaman far from home waters and needed to deposit them ashore quickly. Halifax required a prisoner of war camp. Melville Island located on the Arm was secured for this purpose. It was located on the back side of the Halifax Harbour. Officers and the infirm slept ashore but the majority of the prisoners were housed in La Felix, a hulk moored offshore.
Growing numbers of French prisoners, joined by Americans after 1812, necessitated construction of a large two-story prison barrack. With peace in 1815 prisoners of war were exchanged and they disappeared from Melville Island. Not before, however, almost 200 American POWs had died and been buried on Deadman’s Island. It was next to Mellville Island.
Immediately, the facilities were re-purposed and the convicts replaced with immigrants. Approximately 1,000 freed slaves arrived. During the War of 1812 the British offered liberty to any slave who fled to the islands they controlled along the Eastern Seaboard, particularly in the Chesapeake Bay area. Mellville Island provided a way station in British North America for these new arrivals. Deadman’s Island is estimated to have become the final stop for approximately 100 of these transients before the remaining 900 dispersed throughout the Maritimes.
Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century every summer brought rumours of plagues of smallpox, cholera or typhus. As early as 1818 Melville Island was used as a quarantine station, proximate to Halifax yet safely two miles distant. In the summer of 1847 when 1,200 Irish immigrants fleeing the Potato Famine arrived in Halifax they were quarantined en masse on Melville Island. Remarkably, this episode only recorded 30 deaths.
The island’s strangest role was yet to come. Future politician and freedom-of-the-press champion Joseph Howe became involved in a scheme to recruit American men to fight in the Crimea against the Czar’s anti-republican government. They were briefly quartered on Melville Island before the scheme became public and promptly collapsed in the fall of 1855.
The island returned to its original purpose from 1914 to 1918, when it was used to hold a handful of interred German and Austro-Hungarian nationals — “enemy aliens.”