In the Early Years
Located on Mount Pleasant, Vieux Fort or “Old Fort” was built by France in 1662 to help fortify the colony in Plaisance or Placentia. The colony was one of the steps France had taken to establish itself as a player in pursuit of resource riches in the New World.
The above map was an indication of these initiatives. While giving a general estimation of the fort’s location, the map below may be more a toast to the cartographer’s creativity and artistic license than anything akin to reality.
Early map of Vieux Fort
Across the Cultures
Although the French staked their claim to Plaisance in 1662, there were fishermen arriving on the shores long before. Snippets of a burgeoning cod fishery emerged as early as 1508 and so, the French were already making fishing forays in the 16th century to places like Plaisance (Crompton 2012, 59).
The Basque were also major players in Plaisance at the time. In 1562, a Domingo de Luca had arrived in Plaisance on a ship from the Basque country. It was his misfortune to lose his life. In his Last Will and Testament, he requested he be buried in Plaisance, the indication being there was no doubt a place of worship there in addition to a burial site.
So, clearly Vieux Fort overlooked the busy work of fisherman processing their prior to it being shipped to market. Its location established a reminder of presence and control to the settlers on the beach below.
Life in Plaisance
The people of Plaisance lived a life controlled by the daily challenges of the fishery and its ups and downs. The complex web of commerce with Europe also shaped their lives. They would trade for goods of all sorts, including ceramics and other wares.
Much of what occurred at Vieux Fort has relied on archaeology to piece it together. The life of soldiers were the least documented historically. Thus, it was left to archaeology to construct the life they led. Judging from the finds in the barracks, by the time Vieux Fort was abandoned, the officers had already living in accommodations outside the fort.
It was a hard life, though, for your average soldier. Faced with below par food supplies, not to mention everything else, they were forced to hire themselves out as fishing servants. Based on shipping quantities identified from documentary sources, much of their foods arrived in barrells, the evidence of which hand sine long disappeared.
Materials Used By Soldiers
Most of the artefacts are to be expected, such as components of their weoponry such as gunflints.1Other items revolved around food and beverages with various sherds of ceramic bowls, plates and pots (cooking vessels) (Crompton 2012, 345). Many of the French coarse earthenwares were referred to as Saintonge. One such find from Vieux Fort was four-handed large cruche or jug. Others included Portuguese Redware, North Devon gravel-tempered coarse earthenware, Normandy stoneware, Rhenish Brown stonewares (Crompton 2012, 409-19).
Then as now, there was some indication of individuals seeking to identify their status. They did this using items of a more expensive variety. Several of these were unearthed at Vieux Fort (Crompton 2012, 356-8). These would’ve included tin-glazed earthenware (faïence), Chinese export porcelain and a decorative polychrome vessel. The porcelain is particularly indicative of an individual of high rank.
Beverage containers stood as the most prevalent in Vieux Fort. There were drinking jars, jugs, bottles, goblets and mugs. They drank a lot. Alcohol consumption was commonplace and one can only imagine a welcome pastime on cold winter’s nights or after a hard day of work. Alcohol helped to soothe spirits and enhance camaraderie. It likely also helped ensure the conviviality of a situation—grown men sharing a restricted space—that often held the tinder for lost tempers and irritation.
Both wine and brandy were on the list as purchases in Plaisance with wine arriving in large bulk containers and the brandy in smaller ones. The latter was sold in smaller quantities. Stemmed glasses were also recovered at Vieux Fort, evidence that the officers most likely continued to enjoy the pleasantries of the good life.
Relaxing and Recreating
There were also locales where individuals could gather to enjoy a shared tipple. Referred to as cabarets or tippling houses, they welcomed fishing servants and soldiers alike (Crompton 2012, 366).
Along with cabarets, people could also take advantage of a cantine. These locales were places that could provide an assortment of supplies with alcohol being one of them. As a result, the cantines naturally offered officers an opportunity to leverage some control over the soldiers. Who could say no to a promise of liquor?
Much like alcohol, smoking also acted as means by which the men could maintain a sense of peace in circumstances that could no doubt be trying. The archaeologists recovered a host of pipe fragments which would amount to 53 tobacco pipes. And that’s just the ones surviving the test of time.
Keen to ensure the life of their pipes, some sported signs of maintenance—whittling marks indicating the stems had been replaced. Smoking, much like drinking, was a relatively inexpensive pastime that brought comfort in sometimes frigid conditions. No doubt, it also helped to alleviate any sentiments of agitation or irritation that might arise amongst the soldiers. Generally, smoking also provided a source of cohesion that could only help to strengthen the bonds amongst the men (Crompton 2012, 368-72).
Plight of Vieux Fort
Regardless of the apparent lives being led at Vieux Fort, by 1685, it seemed to be in a rather dilapidated state (Everts 2016, 48). In this same year, the settlers of Plaisance were also expected to restore the cabins of the fort which suggests they were in poor condition (Crompton 2012, 215). Another comment stated how in 1688 and 1689, buildings at the fort required repair.
But the fortunes of Vieux Fort were destined to still deteriorate further. On the 25th February, 1690, attackers from Ferryland, on behalf of the English, stole into the colony unawares. They certainly meant business. After killing two soldiers, wounding Governor Costebelle, and then locking everyone else in the church, they set about their destruction.
They either damaged the four cannons or threw them into the sea. In any case, it was job done. While no known record exists stating when Vieux Fort was abandoned, it’s likely this occurred in 1690. As would be expected, the English would wish to ensure there was very little of nothing left and been thorough in their destruction of the fort.
In fact, later archaeological work by Amanda Crompton, suggested the English intentionally destroyed at least one of the main buildings (Crompton 2012, 232).
Taking It All Into Account
Vieux Fort experienced a relatively short, but colourful life. Built with intention of securing the French hold in Newfoundland, time would show it to be dreadfully inadequate. Following its fateful end, the French were forced to meet the challenges of the English by building several fortifications. These would play a significant role in the years to come.
Vieux Fort is yet another structure that helps to animate the history of the Placentia area. Moreover, it cements in our minds the role that Placentia played in the world. It was a world characterised by powers who sought control over the assets of what eventually became Newfoundland and Labrador.
Crompton, Amanda 2012 “The Historical Archaeology of a French Fortification in the Colony of Plaisance” Unpublished Dissertation Memorial University, Department of Anthropology https://research.library.mun.ca/9656/1/Crompton_AmandaJ2.pdf
Everts, Lee 2016 The Placentia Area—A Cultural Mosaic (n.p.)
1The piece of flint used to strike the igniting spark in a flintlock that is a part of the firearm.