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Port-la-Joye-Fort Amherst National Historic Site of Canada

Fort Amherst

As the soldiers arrived to deport the Acadians from Île Saint-Jean, they also arrived with equipment to construct a new fort. With the transport vessels came 1,000 palisades, boards, spikes, nails and tools, along with 300 men to undertake the work needed.

Lord Rollo commissioned Lieutenant William Spry to build the fort near the site of the French fort at Port-la-Joye. It was reported completed within six weeks, on 10 October 1758 and named Fort Amherst. Fort Amherst remained the administrative capital of the Island for another 10 years.

The fort was small, but yet it would initially be the home of 190 men from Bragg’s 28th Foot. The fort was surrounded by a dry ditch and could be entered through a drawbridge. The foundations of the fort were a porous sandstone, and on top of the fort was a palisade of boards about 2.5 metres high. At its peak, the fort had 18 cannons—four mounted in each corner and one mid-way on two of the walls. The buildings inside the fort included the commanding officer’s headquarters, officers’ quarters, bakehouse, forge, storehouse, and a prison. Through the early years of the fort’s existence, the troops would be replaced with troops from Louisbourg each spring.

Life of a Soldier

Being a soldier in the British army in the 18th century was not often a very pleasant experience. The soldiers got paid very little, lived in poor conditions, and were subjected to very strict discipline.

Soldiers in the army ranged from the age of 17 to 30, or 45 during periods of war. To enlist, they had to measure at least 5 feet, 6 and a half inches, although younger men who were not yet at their full height could also join if they seemed like they would attain it.

The soldiers did not come from the most distinguished parts of society. In fact, some criminals were given the choice between going to prison and enlisting in the army. Soldiers were not well looked upon in British society as a whole.

Soldiers were paid 8 pence a day, of which 25% was requisitioned for clothing, and 5% was paid to the Paymaster-General to cover administrative services.

So if becoming a soldier was to be destined for a wretched few years with little creature comforts and little respect, why go through the trouble? The answer lies in the relative poverty of the day. There was an enlistment bonus of 4 to 5 guineas (a respectable amount), and a man could at least count on being fed relatively regularly.

At Fort Amherst, life must have been fairly boring for any soldier garrisoned there. While the Seven Years’ War had not yet ended, most of North America unofficially belonged to Britain, and there was very little French presence in the area. Indeed, the soldiers there never experienced any battles. Their day-to-day activity would have included parading around the square, and they might have been permitted to fire their muskets once or twice a year.

Mutiny at Fort Amherst

By 1762 the conditions at Fort Amherst had deteriorated and the soldiers began to talk of mutiny. The situation was worsened when some soldiers managed to smuggle in some rum from ships docked nearby. Liquor was strictly forbidden at the fort, and it did not take long before an investigation took place, which revealed not only the smuggled rum but the planned mutiny.

The main people involved with the attempt were charged with attempted treason, and court-martialled to Louisbourg. There, they received rather harsh consequences for their actions. Three men were sentenced to receive 500 lashes from the cat o’ nine tails, while one other was sentenced to 1,000 lashes. The ringleader, John Turner, was sentenced to death.

Cat o’ Nine Tails

Punishment in the British military in the 18th and 19th century often consisted of flogging by the cat o’ nine tails—nine cords attached to a handle. Sometimes each cord would be knotted three times in order to have 27 weights propelled against a man’s back. The amount of lashes depended on the severity of the crime committed, but sentences of several hundred to a thousand lashes were common. The pain was excruciating, and a mere fifty lashes would be enough to do a great deal of damage to a man’s back

When the punishment was either fully received or the man collapsed, he would be taken to the hospital by the surgeon. There, his back would be treated with a diluted solution of sugar of lead—a process nearly as painful as the cat o’ nine tails itself! Recovery would usually take three weeks to a month.

1763: Treaty of Paris

The 1763 Treaty of Paris granted all of France’s holdings in North America east of the Mississippi River to Britain, with the exception of St. Pierre and Miquelon. The importance of Fort Amherst subsequently diminished dramatically, as there was very little French presence to defend against. The garrisons at Fort Amherst decreased in size over the years, and the soldiers were given other tasks as Britain officially sized up its newly earned possessions.

Samuel Holland and the Survey of St. John’s Island

When Samuel Holland was named Surveyor-General of North America in 1764, St. John’s Island was the first stop on his assignment to survey all of British North America. The island population had been greatly decreased after the deportation of the Acadians, and the survey was proposed in order to facilitate immigration and resettlement.

When Holland arrived with his family, he was not sure where they would be living. He had hoped that he could be accommodated at Fort Amherst, but upon arrival he soon realized that the barracks would be unsuitable, as they were in very poor condition. He chose instead to build a lodging a short distance from the Fort, at a location he named Observation Cove.

From there, with the help of deputy surveyor Thomas Wright, engineers, volunteers, and soldiers from Fort Amherst, Holland set out to complete the survey, enduring harsh conditions through the winter. He divided the island into a system of counties, lots, parishes, and townsites—much of which is still present today.

Holland also selected the site of Charlottetown. In 1768 Charles Morris of Nova Scotia surveyed the townsite, again with the help from the soldiers at Fort Amherst.

The Abandonment of Fort Amherst

When Charlottetown was officially named as the capital of St. John’s Island in 1768, the garrison was permanently removed from Fort Amherst to Fort Edward, across the harbour. The Fort had been in a state of disrepair for many years and was not worth salvaging. The fort was demolished in the 1770’s, and by 1779 there was nothing left of the fort but the ditch.

There were several tenants of the fort lot through the rest of the 18th century, though perhaps none as prominent as the first (and only) Governor of the island, Walter Patterson.

Patterson acquired the land through complicated means in 1773. He and his wife, Hester Warren, built an elegant farmhouse and offices on the lot. They named it Warren farm after Patterson’s wife. Patterson was removed from office in 1786, and the lot was left vacant until 1796, when Patterson’s title to the land was nullified. A variety of landowners farmed the land until 1959, when owner John Hyndman sold the land for its creation as a national historic park. The site was officially opened in 1973.