VERVILLE, JEAN-FRANÇOIS DE, engineer, knight of the order of Saint-Louis; b. in France, probably after 1680; m. Madeleine-Angélique Trégu de Langon; father of Louis, Chevalier de Verville (1704–84) and Guillaume (1707–51), distinguished members of the corps of engineers; d. 1729 at Valenciennes, France; his widow was still living in 1751.
Accepted into the corps of engineers in 1704, Verville served in Spain and Germany during the War of the Spanish Succession, being wounded at the siege of Landau in 1713. In 1714 he was appointed assistant chief engineer at Douai in Flanders. After taking part, the following year, in a reconnaissance of the island of Majorca, he accepted a North American assignment as an alternative to remaining in the Spanish theatre. Apparently upon the recommendation of the Marquis d’Asfeld, director-general of fortifications and a member of the council of Marine under the regency, Verville was named director of fortifications for Île Royale (Cape Breton Island).
Following a reconnaissance of the island in 1716, Verville recommended Louisbourg as the capital and main fortress of the colony. In 1717 he directed the preparation of plans for its fortifications, and (on a smaller scale) those of Port Dauphin (Englishtown, N.S.) and Port Toulouse (St Peters). From 1719 (when the construction contract was awarded to Michel-Philippe Isabeau) until 1724, Verville directed the work during the summer months, leaving the assistant-engineers Jean-Baptiste de Couagne and Pierre-Jérôme Boucher* in charge while he wintered in France. In 1724, Étienne Verrier* was appointed resident chief engineer. He worked under Verville’s direction until the following year, when the latter was transferred to the fortress of Valenciennes in northern France. Verville died there in 1729.
Verville’s responsibility from 1716 to 1725 was to fortify the new headquarters of the French North American fishery, having due regard to the requirements of trade and strategy. Permanent fortifications, not necessarily on the European scale, were to be built in proportion to the relatively small garrison provided. Hindsight allows us to criticize Verville for not building, at low cost, well-revetted earthworks on the landward side, combined with masonry batteries for seaward defence. Such a system might well have proved effective. His enceinte, based on the first and simplest of the three systems of fortification developed by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, the director-general of fortifications in the armies of Louis XIV, proved extremely costly because of the climate and the need to transport suitable materials, labour, and beasts of burden from France. Winter frosts and thaws hindered the setting of the mortar. Verville anticipated events in giving priority to the landward defences and in designing an excellent battery at the entrance to the harbour, but there is evidence to suggest that structural faults in the citadel barracks and the Royal Battery were attributable in part to his design.
It was primarily economic and political factors which made it so difficult to construct a great masonry fortress at Louisbourg. Workers had to earn enough during the short construction season (90 to 100 days, according to Verville) to subsist for the rest of the year. The wages of skilled craftsmen were already high because of their scarcity. Even where local building materials were suitable, a mishap at what was usually the only source of supply (such as the destruction by fire of the brick-kiln at Port Toulouse in 1723) could cause prices to rise sharply. The special fortifications budget, which the financial commissary was expected to control separately from general funds, ranged from 80,000 to 150,000 livres a year (1718–23, and 1724 respectively), but there was no provision for those years (e.g., 1722) when the contractor had spent all the funds before the end of good weather. Attempts to continue working on private credit, which drew attention to the fiscal weakness of the colony, were not approved at Versailles. The situation was further aggravated by illegal borrowings from the fortifications account for the purpose of paying other public bills. Verville’s proposed solution was to make the local treasurer of fortifications responsible directly to the corresponding treasurer-general in France. The council of Marine, however, insisted on retaining control through its own financial commissary, at the same time warning the financial commissary, Le Normant* de Mézy, of disciplinary action if he continued to break its rules.
The court did give to the construction of fortifications and public buildings priority over all other military activity until the work was finished. Skilled miners and industrious Swiss mercenaries were sent in 1723 to help. Verville’s opinions as a specialist were almost always accepted over those of his critics, particularly of Saint-Ovide [Monbeton*], the governor, with whom his differences were frequent and varied. Verville, who reputedly was quick-tempered, condoned no interference with his direction of the construction (which he considered his private preserve), and on many issues ignored the governor’s authority. For example, he failed to inform him that he was building small casemates (as powder magazines) in the right face of the King’s Bastion although he had not included them in the original cost estimates (devis). For his part, the governor, who was no engineer, criticized Verville for what he considered to be fortifications far too grand for their intended purpose and unsuited to an inevitable attack from the sea. He also accused him of favouring the contractor (implying collusion for personal gain), and, after Verville’s departure in the autumn, gave orders to the assistant-engineers contrary to the latter’s (particularly to build houses with funds from the fortifications account).
Saint-Ovide and Mézy held, with some justification, that a resident engineer was required whether Verville, as director, visited the site every summer or not. Verville’s long absences were inconvenient to the orderly administration of the colony, but they also put him in closer and more frequent touch with the court than that enjoyed by the administrators of the colony themselves. The latter proposed Dubois* Berthelot de Beaucours as the resident engineer, praising his knowledge of colonial fortifications; but when Maurepas finally approved the post, a member of the corps of engineers, Verrier, was chosen over Beaucours.
Saint-Ovide and Mézy also pressed the case for a builder with colonial experience when bids were being invited in 1723 for the contract to construct the Royal Battery and the Island Battery. They asked Bégon*, intendant of New France, to encourage bidders from Quebec. Verville, for his part, insisted on the need for someone with European experience in constructing masonry fortifications. So he supported Isabeau and belittled the claims of the Canadians. After Isabeau’s death, Verville exerted influence in the selection of François Ganet*, who had done similar work in France.
A significant area of neglect on Verville’s part may have been his failure to provide an annual definitive account (toisé définitif) of all construction work done, which was supposed to be the legal basis for payments to the contractor. Verville – not his assistants – was responsible for these, but he regularly left the colony on one of the last ships for France before the work was ready for the necessary measurements to be made and the costs calculated. Meanwhile, the contractors were paid on the basis of vouchers submitted by the engineers – although only preliminary measurements had been taken – leaving the final settling of the definitive account between the king and the contractor. Not only was this delayed, to the possible detriment of the public interest, but also financial settlements between contractors (e.g., Isabeau’s heirs and Ganet) were unduly protracted. A heavy burden was bequeathed to Verrier, who had to prepare final accounts on work done before his time.
The quiet transfer of Verville to Valenciennes in 1725 indicates Maurepas’s belief that the objectives could be met by leaving the more conciliatory Verrier in charge of the work. On the other hand, the minister of Marine was not prepared to condone outright condemnation by the governor of an engineer who had earned his laurels on European battlefields, and whose prestige was apparently high in the élite unit to which he belonged.
In Canada, Verville’s reputation has suffered because of the difficulties which ensued from building an elaborate European fortress on a bleak North American shore. Perhaps, not being able to predict the effects of the climate and local materials on orthodox masonry structures (as Verrier suggested in 1727), it was inevitable that he should make errors from which his successors could, to some degree, benefit. On the other hand, the prestige of the corps of engineers was so high in France that policy-makers could see little need for colonial experience in selecting engineers for the colonies. For Louisbourg in particular, they felt they had only to send out a veteran of the corps in order to have policy implemented. All this considered, Verville remains the original architect of a fortress and townsite which greatly impressed its contemporaries and which may claim, with Quebec and Montreal, to be foremost among historical sites of the French régime.
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Cite This Article
F. J. Thorpe, “VERVILLE, JEAN-FRANÇOIS DE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 2, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 22, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/verville_jean_francois_de_2E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||F. J. Thorpe|
|Title of Article:||VERVILLE, JEAN-FRANÇOIS DE|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 2|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1969|
|Year of revision:||1982|
|Access Date:||March 22, 2023|