The Island: New Perspectives on Cape Breton History 1713-1990


328 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography
ISBN 0-919107-23-0
DDC 971.6'9





Edited by Kenneth Donovan
Reviewed by Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur is Supervisor of the Legislative Research Service at the
New Brunswick Legislature and author of The Rise of French New


If the four Atlantic provinces were as well served as Cape Breton Island
in terms of written history, the entire region would have a far greater
sense of itself. This collection of 15 articles is proof that a group of
young scholars is skillfully “mining” this historically rich and
largely homogeneous island community.

Too often a reviewer has to skip over the obviously weaker parts of a
multiauthored work, but not with this volume. This entire batch is of
superior stuff. Each article is well written without being too academic,
and all have been extremely well researched—the endnotes take up 50
pages of small type! This is not to say the collection attempts to
provide an even coverage of nearly two centuries of history. The last
half of the nineteenth century is largely ignored, and except for David
Frank’s detailed account of how the socialist J.B. McLachlan was
repeatedly blocked at the polls, there is little on the first half of
the twentieth century. Three maps in Bitterman’s fascinating study of
early nineteenth-century settlement graphically show the rapid reduction
of one Micmac reserve—one of the few references to Cape Breton’s
aboriginal people throughout the entire collection. There is also a wide
gender gap in terms of both authors and subject matter. The lone female
author, Joan Bishop, writes on Sydney Steel, and the only article
specifically concerned with women is a short account of Katharine
McLennan’s nursing career and artistic efforts during World War I. To
be fair, the book’s subtitle, “New Perspectives on Cape Breton
History,” does suggest a different approach, not simply an
all-inclusive one.

The best article is by Alex Storm, a highly skilled sports diver and
material-culture researcher. Storm, who in 1961 discovered the wreckage
of the Chameau (a French naval pay ship that went down off Louisbourg in
1725), gives a fascinating account of how he and a companion found the
gold-coins treasure. Using material researched in Paris, he traces the
vessel’s final days and the attempts by French and Louisbourg
officials to recover its valuable cargo. Among other things, we learn
that this disaster, which claimed 310 lives, led to the establishment of
Canada’s first permanent lighthouse at Louisbourg. It also produced
the largest marine treasure ever recovered off Canadian shores.

Acadiensis Press and the University College of Cape Breton are to be
commended for their initiative in publishing this original collection.
It is a gem.


“The Island: New Perspectives on Cape Breton History 1713-1990,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 21, 2024,