The Island of Seven Cities - A review by someone who was there
One of Father Jimmy Tompkins’ adages was that local folks know where the ice is thin. Paul Chiasson a Cape Breton native who wrote the book The Island of Seven Cities based on his revelation that on the top of Cape Dauphin there is a site “gently sloping towards the sea (which) held the the marks of an ancient design. Its rectangular geometry had been cut sharply into the hillside, but now was softened on its edges by dense spruce forest. The ruined terraces and stone platforms stepping down the mountainside had been conceived and built with this panorama in mind. The stones had been untouched for centuries, and were covered in layers of lichen and mosses that still held the morning dew. Faint traces of mist lay in hollows amid the ruins. It was a place of great beauty, approached by a long and difficult road, and it struck me that it had been designed to ease the frightened spirits of people a long way from home.”
From this passage it is evident that Mr. Chiasson is writer of some skill.
In his eminently readable book Mr. Chiasson discards the notion that the alleged ruins are French, English or Scottish and instead of pursuing possible 20th century origins of his roads, platforms and courtyards, he reverts to pre- Columbus times. An early 15th century map indicates an Island in the North Atlantic, An Island which folklore made inhabited by non native “and apparently permanent settlements” and even discovered by John Cabot and given the same latitude as the Bordeaux River in France (as is Cape Breton Island). But Mr. Chiasson’s architecturally trained eye did not see the remnants of European structures on Cape Dauphin.
With the help of aerial photographs and computer technology he was able to enhance the photos of the area. “Overall,” he concludes, “the evidence pointed to a construction project that would have required government participation on a scale large enough to leave significant documentation. Yet I could find no record that anything had been built on this land. All I knew was what I had learned from the Mi'kmaq legends: I was looking at the home of Kluscap.”
Mr. Chiasson makes the Chinese connection to his perceived ruins by fusing the comments from 16th century French navigator Jean Alfonce who described the territory as the region of the Tartars with Silas Rand who reported the Mi’Kmaq wrote “after the manner of the Chinese” and Father Maillard who suggested that “possibly some light might be got into it, by discovering if there was any affinity or not between their language and that of the Orientalists, as the Chinese or Tartars.”
It was at this point that Mr. Chiasson learns of a British mariner and writer named Gavin Menzies who holds the opinion that eastern North America had been “discovered” by the Chinese in 1421, and had written a book on the topic.
The second half of the Island of Seven Cities tries to find the evidence that can prove the stones which look hand carved and cut , the flattened area s and connected road ways as being of Chinese construction.
Enter the local folks.
Department of Natural Resources Crown Lands Forester, Andrew Hanam, after seeing the aerial photographs realized that what Mr. Chiasson was seeing as ruins and walls were actually fire roads constructed in the 1950s and 1970s.
Lynn Baechler is a hydrogeologist who was hired to monitor ground water on the top of Cape Dauphin. She writes, “In 1989, Kelly Rock Ltd (KRL), the proponent of the aggregate quarry, constructed an access road for heavy equipment on a previously constructed fire road, up the eastern side of Kelly's Mountain to what we generally referred to as the 1st “burn” (alleged town site - page 258). The road continued around the corner to the 2nd “burn” (alleged remains of wall - page 258), and then on a short distance to a small wetland/pond. From this point KRL, forged a new road to the western side of Kelly's Mountain, in order to obtain access to the area for aggregate exploration”. Ms. Baechler goes on to list other errors and inconsistencies with Mr. Chiasson’s research.
The road which Mr. Chiasson believes was built by the Chinese up the side of the mountain was actually the work of Rindress MacKenzie operating a bulldozer to get to a forest fire burning on the top of the mountain in July 1952 An account in Cape Breton Post -Record describes the firefighting effort. "Rindress MacKenzie of Big Bras d'Or performed a titanic task today when he smashed a road to the top of Kelly's mountain with a big Department of Highways bulldozer so that rangers and volunteer firefighters could lug equipment up to battle a fire that has been burning on the table land since Saturday. He began the rugged ascent at 7 o'clock this morning and for a distance of over two miles uprooted trees and pushed aside big boulders. Five hours later he reached the top completing what he termed ‘the toughest job he ever had’". Continuing with the same article, "machines will be used to dig a trench around the fire which will form a fire-break and it is hoped that in this manner its spread will be checked.". Mr. MacKenzie, from Big Bras d’Or told The Victoria Standard, “there was not so much as a trail to follow that I could see,”
“The following are the points I know to be incorrect in the book by Mr. Chiasson:
Page 184 - This photograph belongs in the 1953 series not the 1929 series, therefore it is also misrepresented in the List of Illustrations on page 349.
Page 185 - End of the 3rd paragraph. No the construction wasn't Acadian or Mi'kmaq, it was the Department of Lands and Forests fighting a forest fire in 1952.
Page 186 - Again the 1953 photograph is misrepresented as a 1929 photo. Same comment in the List of Illustrations on page 349.
Page 213 - The title Graveyard of the Atlantic in our local Maritime context refers to Sable Island which lies 160 miles off the Nova Scotia coast. It does not refer to Cape Breton Island.
Page 240 - Bottom of page. The finished edges assumed to be cut by masonry tools can be explained by natural fractures in the rocks.
Page 257 - Paragraph 1- no farms, this place had never been cleared except by the glaciers! Paragraph 3- six roads dead ending in rectangular open spaces. The clearings were made by Kelly Rock Ltd for drill sites and monitoring well installations.
Page 258 - Top photo - faint traces of the perimeter fire break, not the overgrown wall. Lower photo - boxes are drill sites constructed by KRL in 1989, not a Chinese road system and courtyards!
Page 259 - Paragraph 2 and 3 - drill sites, not courtyards
Page 260 - Aerial photos - lighter areas on the photos indicate weathered bedrock not the remains of platforms and courtyards. The straight lines and angles can be explained by weathered fractures in the granite outcrop.
Page 266 - Paragraph 1 - The road is modern, built by KRL in 1989. Tractors, excavators and a drill rig traveled the road. The drillers drove up the mountain daily in their 4 x 4 - _ ton truck, from the end of August to October 1989. I drove up nearly every day in a 4 x 4 Suburban. Paragraph 2 - The pristine length of the road is the result of work by KRL in 1989 - 1990, not the “enduring emblem of an advanced civilization”.
The final argument goes to Robert McGhee, curator of Arctic archaeology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization who writes in a review of The Island of Seven Cities in Canadian Geographic (July/August, 2006) “It becomes obvious that Chiasson has never seen the remains of a medieval Chinese city, and a single piece of archaeological evidence is sufficient to disprove his theory: with fleets of huge junks harboured in St. Ann’s Bay and thousands of people living for years in a nearby hilltop city, the sand beaches and rocky pastures of the area should be littered with millions of shards of Asiatic crockery, yet not a single one has been reported during centuries of farming, and none were noticed in the author’s many examinations of the site.”
Oh well, another possible chance at development dissipates like the morning mists. But the book is still a great read.
Reproduced with the permission of the author and the Victoria Standard