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 Plaisance.

Placentia in the 20th Century
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 Succession (1702-1712).

Breastwork Surrounding Fort Royal
Breastwork Surrounding Fort Royal
Government of Newfoundland and Labrador ©1982.

The Four Stages of Plaisance

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
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.

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 Acadia.

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.

Shaping the History of Plaisance

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 Colbert
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.

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