The French Settlement of Placentia
Although migratory fishermen from Normandy, Brittany and the Basque country of
Gascony had exploited Newfoundland waters since the early 16th century, there is
little evidence of French settlement before the 1650s. At this time French Basque
fishermen may have begun to overwinter in Placentia Bay, a practice that was
encouraged after 1655, when the French crown decided to sponsor a colony.
This model of a Basque Fisherman is located at the Castle Hill
Interpretation Centre in Placentia.
Photo courtesy of John de Visser. Taken from Harold
Horwood and John de Visser, Historic Newfoundland (Toronto:
Oxford University Press, ©1986).
About 1660, the sea captain Nicholas Gargot, from La Rochelle, was commissioned
to fortify Placentia and to plant a settlement. Objections by Breton fish
merchants led to official abandonment of the project, although a few brave souls
actually settled at this time. Louis XIV revived the project in 1662 by sending out
30 soldiers and a few settlers under Governor Du Perron, who set to work building a
small fort. Conditions must have been difficult, for some of the soldiers mutinied
and Du Perron, his chaplain and ten others lost their lives.
The following year 20 more soldiers and 20 fishermen with their families arrived to
reinforce the colony. This was exactly the period when the French regime was most
active in encouraging North American colonization. Indeed, these new colonists
arrived on ships en route to Québec with settlers and soldiers recruited by
Sieur de Monts for New France.
The French crown colony of Plaisance was very different from the English
proprietorships of the early decades of the 17th century. It was sponsored as a
strategic and military project rather than a commercial enterprise. However, the
inhabitants fished and traded, and soldiers and administrators frequently acted a
merchants as well. In the 1670s the Governor La Pioppe reorganized the colony and
put it on a stronger footing. French governors even tried to attract disaffected
settlers from the English settlements, and by the turn of the century some Irish
servants had settled there. By 1680 the planters of the neighbouring English Shore
had begun to see Plaisance as a threat.
War broke out between France and England in 1689 and raged intermittently until 1713.
Under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht, the French had to abandon their
Newfoundland colony and move their fortified maritime military headquarters to
Louisbourg, in Cape Breton or "Ile Royale". Many of the soldiers and
fishermen who founded Louisbourg arrived straight from Plaisance.
||French soldier, late 17th century.
Artist unknown. From J.A. Cochrane, The Story of
Newfoundland (Montreal: Ginn and Company, 1938) 163.
A few French families stayed in the area, where they were soon joined by new
settlers, some from Ireland. Others moved to small, clandestine settlements in
southwestern Newfoundland. The treaty of 1713 also forced the French to abandon
their fishing establishments at St. Pierre and Miquelon.
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