History of Plaisance
By the beginning of the 17th century, European fishermen had been visiting Newfoundland and its
offshore cod banks for nearly 200 years. The Portuguese, French, Normans, Spanish and English had
therefore had time to get to know the island's coast, including the Bay of Plaisance. It is believed
that Spanish Basques first fished in the area, which they called Placentia. The French name was
||Placentia in the 20th century.
Photo courtesy of John de Visser. Taken from Harold Horwood and John de
Visser, Historic Newfoundland (Toronto: Oxford University Press, ©1986).
The existence of this harbour was therefore already well known in 1658, when France named Nicolas
Gargot the first governor of Plaisance. A number of factors prompted France formally to occupy this
fishing station. The main object was to compete more effectively with the English in Newfoundland,
and Plaisance was thought to be a good base. The bay is free of ice by early spring and fishing
activity could start there earlier than elsewhere. It was also a convenient sheltering place for
those going to or returning from Canada, Acadia, the English North American colonies and the West
Indies. The establishment of a garrison allowed fishermen to pursue their activities with greater
safety in neighbouring harbours such as Burin, St. Lawrence, Mortier and Chapeau Rouge. Despite the
fact that the French garrisons at Plaisance were small, the soldiers and French privateers managed
to hold their own in the face of numerous English attacks during the two major conflicts which
marked the colony's history - the War of the League of Augsburg (1688-1697) and the War of Spanish
|Breastwork surrounding Fort Royal.
Photo by Edward Power. Reproduced by permission of Department of Education,
Government of Newfoundland and Labrador ©1982.
The history of Plaisance can be divided into four stages. The period from 1662 to 1670 was a time of
difficult beginnings. From 1670 to 1690, the colony gained in importance with the arrival of
colonial administrators. From 1690 to 1702, the colony developed from every point of view, but the
period from 1702 to 1713 was difficult both economically and politically.
||18th century British Map of Placentia.
From D.W. Prowse, A History of Newfoundland from the English, Colonial, and
Foreign Records, 2nd edition (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1896) 276.
(More Information. 45 kb)
The period 1689-1697 is of particular significance. War with England prompted the French government
to put in place new administrative structures. The first civil servants arrived in 1689, and set up
a small administration to work in conjunction with the governor. By 1700, Plaisance had at least
four civil servants and had become a fully fledged colony of New France, together with Canada and
Despite its small population and brief existence, Plaisance was more than just a military base; it
was also a colony in its own right with an economy based on the cod fishery and cod trade. Fishing
activities were shared between French ships and resident boatkeepers (planters), who hired seasonal
fishermen from France each year. Planters sometimes became merchants and privateers.
The history of Plaisance was largely shaped by two significant characteristics: the involvement of
administrators in the fishery, and the high cost of goods imported from France. Like their
counterparts elsewhere in the French empire, administrators, both civil and military, had a
financial interest in the local economy, in this case the fishery and the trade. They were not
interested in supporting the interests of the French merchant ships which came to Newfoundland to
make significant profits on the sale of goods, and to take back cargos of dried cod. These ships
had a supposed monopoly in supplying the planters, and sometimes demanded exorbitant prices.
However, from about 1706 Plaisance drew a large part of its annual supply from Québec, and
products from New England were readily available at better prices than those from France. Boston
merchants could visit Plaisance three or four times a year, whereas French merchants could perhaps
make only a single visit. This illicit trade was in existence by 1676 and continued after 1690,
probably preventing the colony's collapse during the war.
|Jean Baptiste Colbert, 1619-1683.
King Louis XIV's controller general of finances, Jean Baptiste Colbert, encouraged French settlement
at Plaisance in order to extend the French involvement in the Newfoundland fisheries and strengthen
the French presence in the New World.
Courtesy of the Documentary Art and Photography Division,
National Archives of Canada. C-006325
By the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), Plaisance was handed over to Britain. Its French inhabitants were
given the choice of returning to France, or settling in the new French colony of Île Royale (Cape
Breton Island). In the spring of 1714, the governor of Plaisance began organizing the emigration.
Apart from four or five individuals who chose to become British subjects, the inhabitants opted for
Cape Breton. Three royal ships, assisted by merchant vessels, took the population to the future site
of Louisbourg. It is said that the group consisted of 116 men, 10 women and 23 children. In the new
colony, these planter families received free property rights comparable to those they had left
behind in Plaisance.
© 2000, Nicolas Landry
Related Articles on the Heritage Web Site