The Defence of the Fisheries
There were no garrisoned fortifications on the Island until France
established its colony at Plaisance (Placentia) in 1662. The British
eventually established a fortified garrison as well, at St. John's and
then at Placentia. However, the British fishery's principal defence was
provided by concentrating the warships of the Royal Navy in European
waters, where they could protect the fishery's bases in the West Country,
and control its lines of trade and communications. Local defence at
Newfoundland was provided by the fishing fleet's naval escort which
remained in Newfoundland during the fishing season. The practice began
in the 1650s and eventually became the cornerstone of the British approach
to the defence of all of its maritime commerce and empire, not just the
defence of the Newfoundland fishery and trade.
|Portsmouth Harbour, ca. 1700.
among the most important naval ports in Britain. Naval vessels destined for the
Newfoundland station often left from here.
Detail from an engraving by Hulsbergh after Lightbody.
From Frank C. Bowen, The Sea: It's History and
Romance Vol II (London: Halton & Truscott Smith, Ltd., 1926) 6.
There were never more than a few ships stationed at each centre of
colonial commerce. The real struggle for control of overseas trade
occurred in European waters, where the ports of origin and of destination
for that commerce could be found; it was there that rival navies focussed
their efforts and fought decisive battles. It was the trade, not the
territory which had to be protected.
So far as Newfoundland was concerned, with its migratory fishery,
there seemed to be little point in fortifying an island which was
supposedly vacant most of the year, and only a navy could protect the
fishery and trade during its trans-Atlantic passage. It also seemed
obvious that fortifications were of little value in protecting so
dispersed an activity as the fishery. As the Lords of Trade explained
in 1675, "no fortifications can be any security, by reasons of the distance of the Harbours" (Graham, 1942, pp. 260-1); and in the words
of the Committee of the Privy Council the same year, Newfoundland "will alwayes belong to him that is superior at Sea" (Janzen, 1983, p. 15).
This conclusion seemed justified by the experience of the War of the
Spanish Succession (1702-1713), when the French fort at Plaisance
successfully resisted one British expedition and held out against
an enemy blockade for more than two years, while Fort William at St.
John's failed to prevent the destruction of the town on one occasion
and was captured by the enemy on another. By any standard, the French
"won" the war in Newfoundland. Yet when the war ended, the Treaty of
Utrecht (1713) awarded sovereignty over the island to the British, not
the French. This outcome was determined by battles won and lost in and
near Europe, and by the destruction of French merchant shipping by
British seapower. Fortifications had little impact.
The same considerations held true for much of the first part of the
18th century. The British garrisons at Placentia and St. John's remained
small and neglected, and the fortifications deteriorated steadily. These
were not designed to protect the island and its inhabitants. As the Duke
of Richmond explained in 1766, "The protecting the Vessels, Seamen and fishing Utensils from a sudden Attack ... is the main Point. For the protection of the Inhabitants settled on the Island is neither practicable nor desirable"
(Janzen, 1986, p. 168; Candow, 1984, p. 24).
Fortifications provided nothing more than a strong point where migratory
fishermen could find refuge when in danger. The official view was that
Newfoundland was still, or ought still to be, a migratory fishery for
which a naval defence was most suitable.
Then came the Seven Years' War (1755-1763). By the late stages of that
war, the British exercised an overwhelming degree of sea power throughout
the North Atlantic. Time and again, British fleets destroyed French fleets
in battle, leaving the French incapable of preventing overseas colonies
like Louisbourg and Canada from being captured by the British. Yet the
French were still able in 1762 to assemble a small expedition and send
it to Newfoundland. This daring raid came very close to succeeding. By
landing at Bay Bulls and sending their troops overland to strike at St.
John's from the rear, the French surprised the defenders at St. John's.
Fort William and its garrison surrendered with barely a shot fired. St.
John's was then occupied by the French for nearly three months.
||The Descent of The French on St. John's, 1762.
Artist unknown. In June 1762 during the Seven Years War, the French captured
St. John's. The battle depicted here is probably fanciful.
Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada (NAC/C-040901).
The raid did not overturn the official British view of how best to
defend the fishery. If anything, the speed and ease with which St. John's
was eventually recaptured seemed to confirm that Newfoundland really did
"belong to him that is superior at Sea". Nevertheless it was also clear
that British sea power could not guarantee the safety of British overseas
possessions, and the raid had inflicted substantial damage on the fishery,
which was no longer purely migratory. The fishery and trade was now
dependent upon extensive storage, service, and trading establishments
in many harbours. The defence of these facilities was therefore a matter
of great importance, but the existing works at St. John's were incapable
of providing it. Consequently, the whole question of local defence was
carefully studied during the 1760s to determine what kind of improved
fortifications were needed, and where.
The result was the construction during the 1770s of new fortifications
at St. John's. This was judged the harbour most suited for the defence of
the fishery, because of its central location and the ease with which it
could be defended. Fort Amherst was built first, to defend the entrance
to the Narrows. Then Fort Townshend was built, overlooking the harbour,
to guard against an attack from the rear. The new defences were also
designed to repulse the strength of attack launched by the French in
|View of the Fort Amherst site, St.
John's Harbour, 1997.
Fort Amherst was built in the 1770s to defend the entrance
to the Narrows. The original fort has long disappeared. During the second World War,
gun placements were installed to protect the harbour from German u-boats.
Reproduced by permission of Wendy Churchill. Photo ©1997.
Everyone fully expected another war to break out between England and
France eventually, and for France to attack the fishery once again. Yet
when that war came, during the American Revolution, the expected attack
never came. For various reasons the French never raided the Newfoundland
fishery during that war. They knew that the real decisions would be decided
at the negotiating table. Indeed, it was not until the French Revolutionary
wars that the defences built in the 1770s were finally tested. In 1796
French Admiral de Richerry descended upon the fishery. The formidable
defences at St. John's discouraged an attack upon that harbour, and in
that sense, they were a success. However, the defences at St. John's were
helpless to prevent the destruction of Petty Harbour, Bay Bulls, and other
fishing centres nearby. Richerry's raid confirmed that the security of the
migratory fishery by the late 18th century could not be provided by a single
well-defended harbour (assuming, of course, that it ever could).
Moreover, though the improved defences at St. John's were designed to
help preserve the migratory fishery at a time of intense Anglo-French
competition, they may in fact have contributed to its decline. The
construction and maintenance of the elaborate defences attracted tradesmen,
artisans, and a large garrison of soldiers which stimulated the social and
economic development of the town. This set the town on the road to becoming
a genuine capital. Furthermore, during the 1778-1783 war the local
authorities at St. John's supplemented the garrison with a militia, and
then a provincial regiment, which doubled the garrison's size. This greatly
reinforced the garrison's social and economic impact. It was also a tacit
admission that the migratory fishery depended upon the presence of a
©1991, Olaf Janzen