Cape Breton Island’s first residents were likely Maritime Archaic natives, ancestors of the Mi’kmaq, the latter of whom inhabited the island at the time of European discovery. Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) reportedly visited the island in 1497 to become the first European explorer to visit present-day Canada. However, historians are unclear as to whether Cabot first visited Newfoundland or Cape Breton Island. This discovery is commemorated by Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail, and by Cabot’s Landing Historic Site & Provincial Park, located near the village of Dingwall.
Known as “Île Royale” to the French, the island also saw settlement by France as part of the colony of Acadia. After the French ceded its colonies on Newfoundland and the Acadian mainland to the British by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the French relocated the population of Plaisance, Newfoundland to Île Royale and the French garrison was established in the central eastern part at Saint Anne. As the harbour experienced icing problems, it was decided to construct a much larger fortification at Louisbourg to improve defences at the entrance to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and defend France’s fishing fleet on the Grand Banks. The French also built the Louisbourg Lighthouse in 1734, the first lighthouse in Canada and one of the first in North America. Louisbourg itself was one of the most important commercial and military centres in New France. Although Louisbourg was captured by New Englanders with British naval assistance in 1745 and by the British again in 1758, Île Royale remained formally part of colonial France until it was ceded to Britain under the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Britain merged the island with its adjacent colony of Nova Scotia (present day peninsular Nova Scotia and New Brunswick).
The first permanently settled Scottish community on Cape Breton Island was Judique, settled in 1775 by Michael Mor MacDonald. He spent his first winter using his upside-down boat for shelter, which is reflected in the architecture of the village’s Community Centre. He composed a song about the area called “O’s alainn an t-aite”, or “Fair is the Place.”
In 1784, Britain split the colony of Nova Scotia into three separate colonies: New Brunswick, Cape Breton Island, and present-day peninsular Nova Scotia, in addition to the adjacent colonies of St. John’s Island (renamed Prince Edward Island in 1798) and Newfoundland. The colony of Cape Breton Island had its capital at Sydney on its namesake harbour fronting on Spanish Bay and the Cabot Strait.
Large scale shipbuilding began in the 1790s, beginning with schooners for local trade moving in the 1820s to larger brigs and brigantines, mostly built for British shipowners. Shipbuilding peaked in the 1850s, marked in 1851 by the full rigged ship Lord Clarendon, the largest wooden ship ever built in Cape Breton.
During the first half of the 19th century, Cape Breton Island experienced an influx of Highland Scots numbering approximately 50,000 as a result of the Highland Clearances. Today, the descendants of the Highland Scots dominate Cape Breton Island’s culture, particularly in rural communities. To this day Gaelic is still the first language of a number of elderly Cape Bretoners. A campaign of violence and intimidation by the provincial school board led to the near extermination of Gaelic culture. The growing influence of English-dominated media from outside the Scottish communities saw the use of this language erode quickly during the 20th century.
Alexander Graham Bell
Following his successful invention of the telephone, Bell acquired land near Baddeck in 1885 and established a summer estate complete with research laboratories, working with deaf people—including Helen Keller—and continued to invent. Baddeck would be the site of his experiments with hydrofoil technologies as well as the Aerial Experiment Association, financed by his wife, which saw the first powered flight in the British Empire when the AEA Silver Dart took off from the ice-covered waters of Bras d’Or Lake.