Garrison Life in the 18th Century (continued)
Nevertheless, the military still played an important role, and if
its presence was reduced, the community was threatened with decline.
This is what happened to Placentia. During the 18th century Placentia
dominated the immediate region, and though its fortifications and garrison
may have been of dubious quality, in wartime they enhanced the importance
of Placentia as a service centre considerably. The renewed effort to
fortify and garrison St. John's after 1763 lessened Placentia's military
and strategic significance, and its population declined.
From the logbook of H.M.S. Pegasus. A view of the town and harbour of Placentia.
Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada, C-2529.
The advantages of having a garrison were significant. At a time when
there were no institutions or mechanism to deal with poverty and
destitution, the garrison could sometimes be relied upon to assist
by distributing military rations. This was done in 1784 at St. John's.
A few years earlier, in May 1779, a fire destroyed half of St. John's,
including vast quantities of provisions. The resulting food shortage left
the people desperate, even after the arrival of the spring convoys. The
following winter was therefore extremely difficult, with many people so
weakened by malnutrition that they succumbed to an epidemic early in 1780.
Governor Richard Edwards seized this opportunity to enlist recruits into a
volunteer corps to support the garrison. Volunteers were promised a
recruitment bounty, regular army rations whenever they mustered for
drill, and additional provisions for their families. Edwards also
awarded contracts to volunteers to supply firewood or construction
material. It was, according to one military historian, "a masterpiece of coercion" (Nicholson, 1964, 15).
In peacetime, the garrison also provided the town with pomp and
ceremony. This quality must not be dismissed lightly. The presence of
the military helped lend an air of spectacle to an otherwise miserable
environment. Military reviews, salutes to observe the arrival of a new
governor, or the King's birthday, or the anniversary of his coronation,
all added to the sense of pageantry, and contributed in their modest way
to an awareness of the empire to which the inhabitants belonged. The
military, therefore, reinforced the position of the sovereign, his
representative the governor, and even the church in the society that
was emerging in Newfoundland. The officers encouraged and participated
in leisure activities such as dinner parties, public balls, and on
occasion, horse racing. The garrison was therefore developing into an
important part of community life, and was recognized as a valuable addition
to the local economy and society.
Thus the military presence in Newfoundland before 1815 did more than
provide the fishery with protection. The garrisons also played an
important role in local economies, and helped stimulate the
diversification of the society by bringing out women and children
to Newfoundland, as well as domestic servants, skilled labourers,
tradesmen and artisans. It provided pomp and ceremony, and added to
the quality of social life. In short, the garrisons in Newfoundland
had a strong influence on the way in which the local communities in
which they were stationed developed during the 18th century.
©1991, Olaf Janzen