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
Portsmouth Harbour, ca. 1700
Portsmouth was 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: Its History and Romance Vol II (London: Halton & Truscott Smith, Ltd., 1926) 6.

Struggle for Control

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 focused 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 sea power. 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.

The Seven Years' War

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
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.

Improving Defences

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 1762.

View of the Fort Amherst site, St. John's Harbour, 1997
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 Richery 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. Richery'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 permanent population.

Version française