CAPE BRETON, the north-east portion of Nova Scotia, Canada, separated from the mainland by a narrow strait, known as the Gut of Canceau or Canso. Its extreme length from north to south is about 110 m., greatest breadth about 87 m., and area 3120 sq. m. It juts out so far into the Atlantic that it has been called “the long wharf of Canada,” the distance to the west coast of Ireland being less by a thousand miles than from New York. A headland on the east coast is also known as Cape Breton, and is said by some to be the first land made by Cabot on his voyage in 1497–1498. The large, irregularly-shaped, salt-water lakes of Bras d’Or communicate with the sea by two channels on the north-east; a short ship canal connects them with St Peter’s bay on the south, thus dividing the island into two parts. Except on the north-west, the coast-line is very irregular, and indented with numerous bays, several of which form excellent harbours. The most important are Aspy, St Ann’s, Sydney, Mira, Louisburg, Gabarus, St Peter’s and Mabou; of these, Sydney Harbour, on which are situated the towns of Sydney and North Sydney, is one of the finest in North America. There are numerous rivers, chiefly rapid hill streams not navigable for any distance; the largest are the Denys, the Margaree, the Baddeck and the Mira. Lake Ainslie in the west is the most extensive of several fresh-water lakes. The surface of the island is broken in several places by ranges of hills of moderate elevation, well wooded, and containing numerous picturesque glens and gorges; the northern promontory consists of a plateau, rising at Cape North to a height of 1800 ft. This northern projection is formed of Laurentian gneiss, the only instance in Nova Scotia of this formation, and is fringed by a narrow border of carboniferous rocks. South of this extends a Cambrian belt, a continuation of the same formation on the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia. On various portions of the west coast, and on the south side of the island at Seacoal Bay and Little River (Richmond county), valuable seams of coal are worked. Still more important is the Sydney coal-field, which occupies the east coast from Mira Bay to St Ann’s. The outcrop is plainly visible at various points along the coast, and coal has been mined in the neighbourhood from a very early period. Since 1893 the operations have been greatly extended, and over 3,000,000 tons a year are now shipped, chiefly to Montreal and Boston. The coal is bituminous, of good quality and easily worked, most of the seams dipping at a low angle. Several have been mined for some distance beneath the ocean. Slate, marble, gypsum and limestone are quarried, the latter, which is found in unlimited quantities, being of great value as a flux in the blast-furnaces of Sydney. Copper and iron are also found, though not in large quantities.
Its lumber, agricultural products and fisheries are also important. Nearly covered with forest at the time of its discovery, it still exports pine, oak, beech, maple and ash. Oats, wheat, turnips and potatoes are cultivated, chiefly for home consumption; horses, cattle and sheep are reared in considerable numbers; butter and cheese are exported. The Bras d’Or lakes and the neighbouring seas supply an abundance of cod, mackerel, herring and whitefish, and the fisheries employ over 7000 men. Salmon are caught in several of the rivers, and trout in almost every stream, so that it is visited by large numbers of tourists and sportsmen from the other provinces and from the United States. The Intercolonial railway has been extended to Sydney, and crosses the Gut of Canso on a powerful ferry. From the same strait a railway runs up the west coast, and several shorter lines are controlled by the mining companies. Of these the most important is that connecting Sydney and Louisburg. Numerous steamers, with Sydney as their headquarters, ply upon the Bras d’Or lakes. The inhabitants are mainly of Highland Scottish descent, and Gaelic is largely spoken in the country districts. On the south and west coasts are found a number of descendants of the original French settlers and of the Acadian exiles (see Nova Scotia), and in the mining towns numbers of Irish are employed. Several hundred Mic Mac Indians, for the most part of mixed blood, are principally employed in making baskets, fish-barrels and butter-firkins. Nearly the whole population is divided between the Roman and Presbyterian creeds, and the utmost cordiality marks the relations between the two faiths. The population is steadily increasing, having risen from 27,580 in 1851 to over 100,000 in 1906.
There is some evidence in favour of early Norse and Icelandic voyages to Cape Breton, but they left no trace. It was probably visited by the Cabots in 1497–1498, and its name may either have been bestowed in remembrance of Cap Breton near Bayonne, by the Basque sailors who early frequented the coast, or may commemorate the hardy mariners of Brittany and Normandy.
In 1629 James Stewart, fourth Lord Ochiltree, settled a small colony at Baleine, on the east side of the island; but he was soon after taken prisoner with all his party by Captain Daniell of the French Company, who caused a fort to be erected at Great Cibou (now St Ann’s Harbour). By the peace of St Germain in 1632, Cape Breton was formally assigned to France; and in 1654 it formed part of the territory granted by patent to Nicholas Denys, Sieur de Fronsac, who made several small settlements on the island, which, however, had only a very temporary success. When by the treaty of Utrecht (1713) the French were deprived of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, they were still left in possession of Cape Breton, and their right to erect fortifications for its defence was formally acknowledged. They accordingly transferred the inhabitants of Plaisance in Newfoundland to the settlement of Havre à l’Anglois, which soon after, under the name of Louisburg, became the capital of Cape Breton (or Ile Royale, as it was then called), and an important military post.
Cod-fishing formed the staple industry, and a large contraband trade in French wines, brandy and sugar, was carried on with the English colonies to the south. In 1745 it was captured by a force of volunteers from New England, under Sir William Pepperell (1696–1759) aided by a British fleet under Commodore Warren (1703–1752). By the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, the town was restored to France; but in 1758 was again captured by a British force under General Sir Jeffrey Amherst and Admiral Boscawen. On the conclusion of hostilities the island was ceded to England by the treaty of Paris; and on the 7th of October 1763 it was united by royal proclamation to the government of Nova Scotia. In 1784 it was separated from Nova Scotia, and a new capital founded at the mouth of the Spanish river by Governor Desbarres, which received the name of Sydney in honour of Lord Sydney (Sir Thomas Townshend), then secretary of state for the colonies. There was immediately a considerable influx of settlers to the island, which received another important accession by the immigration of Scottish Highlanders from 1800 to 1828. In 1820, in spite of strong opposition, it was again annexed to Nova Scotia. Since then, its history has been uneventful, chiefly centring in the development of the mining industry.
Bibliography.—Historical: Richard Brown, A History of the Island of Cape Breton (1869), and Sir John Bourinot, Historical and Descriptive Account of Cape Breton (1892), are both excellent. See also Denys, Description géogr. et hist. des côtes de l’Amérique septentrionale (1672); Pichon, Lettres et mémoires du Cap Bréton (1760). General: Reports of Geological Survey, 1872 to 1882–1886, and 1895 to 1899 (by Robb, H. Fletcher and Faribault); H. Fletcher, The Sydney Coal Fields, Cape Breton, N.S. (1900); Richard Brown, The Coal Fields of Cape Breton (1871; reprinted, 1899).