Newfoundland and the French and American Wars, 1793-1815
Britain was at war with France from 1793 until 1815, with a brief period of
peace in 1802-1803. This pause, the Peace of Amiens, separated the French
Revolutionary Wars from the Napoleonic Wars. Tensions generated by this
conflict led to the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States, and
it is appropriate to discuss all three wars together.
Their long duration, the great demands they placed on Britain's military and
naval establishment, and the considerable disruption that they caused to
maritime trade, all combined to place great strain on Great Britain, which
nevertheless emerged from the war as the foremost world power. At the same
time, the wars greatly accelerated Newfoundland's own transformation “from fishery to colony.”
(Ryan, 1983). It is this transition which makes the era of
the Napoleonic wars an important watershed in Newfoundland's history.
During previous periods of warfare, the migratory fishery had always
contracted, at least temporarily, and the resident fishery had expanded. The
wars between 1793 and 1815 were different from previous wars in two important
respects. First, the migratory fishery was not healthy at the outset, making
it less able to withstand the impact of a period of prolonged warfare. Second,
the wars had a profound impact on maritime trade.
For example, the navy's demand for men surpassed all previous levels: the
pre-war naval establishment of approximately 20,000 men expanded more than
seven times, the highest figure before the 20th century. The insatiable appetite
for mariners, combined with the duration of the wars, made it impossible to
maintain a nucleus of experienced migratory fishermen. This meant that when
the wars finally ended, there was no one left to train the “green men” who
were so essential to the recovery of the migratory fishery. Knowledge and skills
faded over 20 years of war, making changes necessary in the organization and
structure of the outfitting industry.
Yet that knowledge and those skills were not lost to the fishery itself.
Many of the skilled men, both fishermen and outfitters, moved permanently to
Newfoundland to avoid the upheaval caused by the war. The fishermen knew that
in Newfoundland, they were exempt from
impressment and protected
from the risks of wartime trans-Atlantic voyages; and the merchant-outfitters
knew they could apply their skills and make money in the resident fishery.
|The impressment of an American seaman.
In Newfoundland men were exempt from impressment, an act practiced
in the United States.
From a drawing by Stanley M. Arthurs. From Captain A.T. Mahan,
Sea Power and its Relations to the War of 1812, Vol. I
(London: Sampson Low, Marston & Company, Limited, 1905) frontispiece.
As a result, though the migratory fishery went into an irreversible decline
1793 and 1815, the resident fishery expanded to take its place. This shift from
an English-based fishery to a Newfoundland-based fishery lies at the heart of
the island's transition “from fishery to colony,” and is what gives the
Napoleonic wars their enormous importance to the history of Newfoundland.
©2001, Olaf Janzen
Image text updated February, 2007.