The following may prove useful to those interested in researching the military careers and activities of William Bontein and William Cowley while serving in Nova Scotia, the information therein having been obtained from archival sources at the Corps of Royal Engineers, the British Library and the National Archives, London. The opportunity has been taken to include some details on John Henry Bastide, who was their immediate engineering superior. These extracts have been taken from The Oak Island Treasure: The Military Cover-up 1752-54, which was produced to support my address at the Oak Island Days weekend (August 2007). Some of this may have been included in previous postings. Any new information would be warmly welcomed.
(1) The War in Flanders and Nova Scotia
Bontein served with distinction in Flanders during hostilities in what is now known as the War of the Austrian Succession (1744-48). In one of the actions he was responsible for mining the defences of a British position, and accomplished this with devastating results. Two reports are available. These are:
(a) Gentleman's Magazine, Vol. XVII, 1747 - “.... the [French] besiegers attacked the lunette of Zealand, but had 200 men blown up, and great part of their works ruined by a mine, they advanced however to the assault, but were repulsed, and also a second time; the action lasted two hours, with a continual fire from the cannon and musketry.”
(b) London Gazette, August 17, 1747 - “Bergen-op-Zoom. On Monday between 11 and 12 at night enemy made an assault upon the lunette of Zealand ....... Captain Bouquoin [Bontein] took their measures so well that they sprang a mine situated in the French works on the side of the covered way ....... [the enemy] lost above 200 men and a great part of their works was raised”.
In the course of the action Bontein was wounded in the shoulder.
The order of June 12, 1752, for Bontein to proceed to Annapolis via Camborne suggests the likely purpose of his trip was to recruit or pick up a group of previously selected miners. It also raises the question of ongoing transportation. An immigrant ship, the Gale (90 tons - master Thomas Casson), departed Rotterdam early June 1752, and arrived at Falmouth, the nearest port to Camborne, on June 28th. The sixteen day period between receiving his orders in London and the arrival of the Gale at Falmouth, would have been sufficient for Bontein to travel to Cornwall and prepare men and equipment for the ongoing voyage. The Gale sailed four days later on July 2nd, 1752 bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia where it arrived on September 15th. The voyage took 110 days, a lot longer than usual, with 29 deaths during the passage.
Immigrant ships were far from commodious, space being always at a premium as the ship owner made his money by transporting as many souls as could be crammed aboard. The settlers were allocated space according to sex and age, and the records indicate no space left unoccupied on previous or subsequent sailings of the Gale. However, for the June sailing of 1752 it is estimated 16 adult berths remained vacant on departure from Rotterdam. All immigrant ships had to clear formalities at Portsmouth before proceeding to Nova Scotia, and it may be presumed the Gale did this before entering Falmouth. There is no record of who took passage from Falmouth, but it may be assumed that William Bontein and his Cornish miners were the group involved, and this accounts for the 16 vacant berths.
In 1752, Halifax was being actively settled with a view to establishing it as a centre of British military power. It would be reasonable to expect that Bontein, with his tunnelling expertise and skilled miners would be directed there, instead of to Annapolis, whose days were numbered as a centre of colonial administration. However, at Annapolis there was another engineer, older and more senior to Bontein. His name was William Cowley, the chief engineer. Cowley was a stone mason by profession, but had gained the confidence of his superiors in constructing wharves and maritime defence works during a prior assignment at Minorca in the Mediterranean. He had been sent to Annapolis in 1743, and arrived in time to help bolster the fort’s defences from French and Indian attack.
(2) The Arrest of William Bontein, His Marriage and Death
One incident in the military career of William Bontein is of above-average interest - his arrest in November 1754, following which he was kept in close confinement for at least the next seven months. He was threatened with a court martial, but for whatever reason remains unknown. There are two letters relating to the incident. These are:-
(a) Letter dated November 19th from Captain John Handfield at Annapolis Royal to Lt-Colonel Charles Lawrence, Acting Governor, to the effect that Bontein had been confined awaiting court martial, because “he was an engineer who did not consider himself under tight military discipline and denied his subserviency to Captain Handfield”.
(b) Letter dated November 26th replying to the above requesting that Bontein be permitted to “walk about”.
The threatened court martial had not taken place by the following May (1755)and, it is doubted whether it took place at all. What was it all about? William Cowley died about the same time as Bontein was placed under close arrest, and it is not unlikely the two incidents were related. Bontein was later to marry Cowley’s widow and have at least one child by her. This act suggests a close degree of companionship existed between the two men. Cowley was 63 years of age at his death and had served the army as an engineer for forty-eight of those years. Bontein emerges as a strong minded individual of independent thought and action, traits of character well suited to a mining engineer toiling away in dark and dismal places far underground, but such traits are little respected by military disciplinarians. It is, therefore, highly likely that Bontein, a man unprepared to tolerate fools gladly, allowed his mouth to get ahead of his brain when dealing with Captain Handfield, a man whose official rank would have been most important. Perhaps Handfield, sensing something going on behind his back (namely Oak Island), was trying to worm information out of Bontein, information that Bontein had sworn to keep secret. As will be argued later it is difficult to believe that Handfield, or any of the 40th Foot, would have been involved on Oak Island.
It is ironic that in marrying Cowley’s widow, Susannah Winniett, Bontein became related by marriage to his nemesis, Captain John Handfield, who had married Elizabeth Winniett, an older sister. Bontein was under close arrest in May 1755 when preparations were underway to mount the attack on Fort Beausejour, but he did participate in the Battle of Louisburg in 1758 when he suffered the ignominy of being captured and temporarily held prisoner-of-war. Preparatory to taking ship back to England in the fall of 1760 Bontein and his wife stayed with Governor Charles Lawrence at his house in Halifax, where she gave birth. The voyage back to England was tragic as the ship they were on was taken by French privateers. The following comment is found in Connolly’s notes:-
Engineer Extraordinary in our service in North America, on his passage to England with his wife and 4 small children, taken by a French privateer and being obliged to go on board the said enemy's ship was, in a violent storm, before he could reach it, overset and drowned, leaving his wife and children to be carried prisoners to Spain, having been plundered of all their effects and reduced to extreme want. Widow to be allowed £20 a year from January 1, 1762.
(3) The Corps of Sappers and Miners
Prior to its full integration into the British Army in 1757, the Corps adopted the following designations, regardless of whether its members also possessed officer rank. The figures in brackets indicate the number of members in that specific category as of 1748:- Chief Engineer (1); Directors (2); Sub-Directors (2); Engineers-in-Ordinary (6); Engineers-Extraordinary (6); Sub-Engineers (6); Practitioner-Engineers (6). As may be seen the Corps was very small, possessing a total of 29 members.
Where military rank was held by those included in this appendix, the rank given is that held during the period of interest.
The service of army officers to their regiments was often lifelong, Bastide’s service being a case in point. A regimental return for 1767 was found listing some of the more ancient officers, who were all between 71 and 82 years of age, two of whom were described as ‘stone blind’, with the added phrase ‘if they cannot march then they are to be put in carts’.
(4) Captain John Henry Bastide
John Bastide was born about 1698, the son of a French military officer. His father, Colonel Armand de la Bastide, had sought refuge in Britain from religious persecution, and was given command of Count Nassau’s Regiment. Colonel Armand de la Bastide later became Governor of the Isle of Wight.
John Bastide joined the army as a boy in 1711, a notation in George I’s Army Lists describes him as a ‘child’. He attained the rank of Lieutenant-General shortly before his death in 1770 following almost sixty years of uninterrupted service. He was appointed Director of the Corps of Sappers and Miners in 1748, being third in overall seniority, as well as being Chief Engineer for North America. After the death of Colonel Thomas Lascelles, Bastide assumed direct command of the Corps’ activities in North America during Anglo-French hostilities related to The Seven Years War (1756-63).
During the period 1718-20 Bastide was in Scotland, being a participant in the Battle of Genshiels (June 1719), and during 1726-41 was stationed in the Channel Islands where he undertook numerous engineering surveys, designs and constructions. In 1741 he was transferred to Annapolis Royal as Chief Engineer, and thereon commenced a long, virtually unbroken, relationship with British military interests in North America. In 1745 he participated in the capture of Louisburg, and was appointed resident engineer for its subsequent reconstruction, following which he was appointed Chief Engineer for Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Between 1751 and 1754 he is reported to have been ‘on vacation’, a period identified as being contemporary with the construction of the Flood Tunnel, and its ancillary works, upon Oak Island.
Between 1754 and 1756 Bastide was at Minorca, but returned to Nova Scotia to be Chief Engineer at the Siege of Louisburg (June 1758), on this occasion he was more intent on demolition than reconstruction. Following this he played a prominent role in the construction of Halifax Citadel and the defences to Halifax Harbour.
(5) William Bontein (1726-c60)
William Bontein was born at Killearn, Stirlingshire, Scotland. There is a suggestion his family owned interests in a coal mine, and his exposure to mining is likely to have begun at a very early age. His elder brother, Archibald (1709-73), was already a military engineer, and it is possible this influenced his joining the army in 1745/46 as a ‘cadet gunner’ in the War in Flanders. In 1747 he took charge of mining the defences of the lunette of Zealand with devastating consequences to the enemy, as has been related, and during this fierce action he was seriously wounded.
In 1748 Bontein was appointed a ‘practitioner engineer’ (the lowest rank in the corps), presumably as a result of the proficiency he had demonstrated in tunnelling and placing mines on the battlefield. In 1752 he was given his ‘marching orders’ to proceed to Annapolis Royal under unusual circumstances as has been described. The excavation of the Flood Tunnel upon Oak Island must be considered the highlight of Bontein’s career. In 1753, at a time when Flood Tunnel excavation was likely well underway he received promotion to ‘sub-engineer’.
But for being under close arrest at the time of William Cowley’s death, it is virtually certain Bontein would have succeeded him as chief engineer at Annapolis Royal in 1754. In 1757, when military officer rank was conferred upon civilian engineers in the corps, Bontein was appointed to the rank of lieutenant, and a year later promoted to captain-lieutenant.
Bontein spent his entire career in North America associated with the military establishment at Annapolis Royal. He participated in only one military action as far as is known, and that was the assault on Louisburg in 1748, during which he was captured and, for a short time, languished as a prisoner-of-war. His early death by drowning (c1760) was a tragic event by any yardstick of comparison, when it left his widow and four children to suffer the discomforts of imprisonment in a Spanish jail. Tragically lost in the same incident were his personal effects which, no doubt, would have included his personal diaries and records of the excavation of the Flood Tunnel.
(6) William Cowley (1691-1754)
William Cowley was born at Wingerworth, Derbyshire. In 1743 he is described as being a ‘master-mason’. From this it may be assumed he had some early acquaintance with quarrying and stone-working as his birth-place is in a part of Derbyshire where quarrying was a major occupation. In 1706 he joined the army and sailed to Gibraltar and Minorca, as these had fallen as spoils to the British following hostilities with Spain.
In Minorca, where he spent upwards of 20 years, he was involved in sea wall construction. In 1743 he was recommended to be appointed to the position of ‘practitioner engineer’, his work being praised by Colonel Thomas Lascelles, recently appointed Chief Engineer of Great Britain. It does not appear Cowley ever held military rank during his 48 years of being associated with the army. But for his early death he would certainly have been appointed to the military rank of captain, or possibly higher, when officer status was eventually conferred upon engineers in the British army in 1757.
In 1743 Cowley was transferred to Annapolis Royal in time to help bolster the defences against a combined French-Indian assault, being promoted to ‘engineer extraordinary’ in 1744. In 1745 he accompanied Bastide to Louisburg, returning to Annapolis Royal as chief engineer while Bastide remained at Louisburg supervising its reconstruction. In 1748/49 Cowley was promoted to ‘engineer ordinary’ on 10/- per day, his rate being increased to 15/- per day the following year. In 1751, immediately prior to when work is anticipated as having begun in earnest upon the Oak Island Flood Tunnel, Cowley was promoted to ‘engineer-in-ordinary’.
Though Cowley’s military records are fairly well documented there is a twelve month gap prior to his death in November 1754.