Early Naval Activity in Canada 17th & 18th Centuries

Three days later, on July 24th, Admiral Edward Boscawen, commander of all British vessels in North America, informed Amherst of his bold plan to capture the remaining two ships – the Prudent (74 guns) and the Bienfaisant (64 guns).  Late in the night of July 25th-26th, two squadrons under the command of Captains John Laforey and George Balfour, totaling approximately 600 sailors and marines, rowed into the harbor.  Concealed by the dark and fog, and with Amherst ordering his artillery to “fire into the works as much as possible, to keep the enemy’s attention to the land,” the two squadrons slipped past the French battery guarding the entrance to the harbor and approached the two French vessels undetected.

As Laforey’s command approached the Prudent and Captain Balfour the Bienfaisant, each was hailed by sentries aboard the ships.  Receiving no response, the guards opened fire, breaking the silence.  The squadrons then moved quickly to maneuver alongside their respective targets, capturing both ships with minimal resistance, but at a cost of sixteen casualties (7 killed, 9 wounded).     

Hearing the events that transpired, the French defenders were alerted to the threat and opened fire upon the two ships.  Under fire, and finding the Prudent run aground, the British sailors set her ablaze.  The Bienfaisant, meanwhile, was towed to the Northeast corner of the harbor, safe from French artillery fire.  The image above, printed in 1771, depicts the Prudent caught in a blaze, while nearby the Bienfaisant is towed to safety.

The following day, with Amherst’s ground forces making ready to breach the city walls and Boscawen’s fleet entering the harbor, the French governor sent a messenger to Amherst initiating the surrender of the city.

England and the Netherlands, were establishing their own colonies in North America, attracted in part by the lucrative trade in furs. England’s alliance with merchants of the Hudson’s Bay Company, established in 1670, and, to an even greater extent, the mother country’s support of its colonies along the Atlantic seaboard to the south, led to frequent skirmishes and raids, often with the aid of native allies, between the English, Dutch, and French colonists. The role that sea power could play in such battles was demonstrated in 1628 when English privateers under Captain David Kirke captured a French supply convoy bound for Quebec, forcing Champlain’s garrison to endure a winter of severe privation. Returning the next year with an even stronger fleet, Kirke easily captured Quebec, taking Champlain and most of the French garrison to England and holding the outpost until it was restored to France in 1632. In a similar demonstration, a force of New Englanders under Major Robert Sedgwick sailed from Boston in 1654 and captured the French settlement of Port Royal, keeping Acadia under English rule until it was returned to France in 1667.

Colonial rivalry was renewed when England and Holland clashed with France in the War of the League of Augsburg beginning in 1688. As in future Anglo-French wars, the degree of confrontation in the American colonies was influenced by the strategy England adopted to exploit its seapower advantage over its land-based European rival. Although the superior numbers and seamanship of the Royal Navy allowed England to adopt a “Blue Water” strategy centred on fleet actions, naval blockade and colonial conquest-all designed to exert commercial pressure on France by interrupting its overseas trade-it also left the French free to concentrate their larger armies against their European opponents. To prevent France from completely dominating Europe-a situation that would have allowed Versailles to divert its considerable resources into a naval building program to overwhelm the Royal Navy-London had to complement its naval effort by sending English armies and money to the continent to aid their allies. As British Cabinet minister Lord Newcastle succinctly described it, England’s strategy was to protect “our alliances on the continent, and so, by diverting the expense of France, enable us to maintain our superiority at sea.” London’s thinking proved apt during the War of the League of Augsburg when the English and Dutch armies drained away French strength through a long, drawn-out stalemate on land that allowed the two sea powers time to overcome their enemy’s initial naval success. After the decisive Anglo-Dutch victory in the English Channel off Barfleur in 1692, France lacked the maritime strength to rebuild a navy comparable to the one with which it began the conflict and for the remainder of the war was forced to concentrate its ocean efforts on prosecuting a commerce raiding campaign instead.

The Pelican, French ship of line (1693-1697). Three centuries later, an authentic replica of the Pelican was built in La Malbaie, Quebec. Construction began in 1987, but the project encountered many problems. In 1991, the architect François Cordeau was removed from the project management. The concept was then changed quite a bit. The wooden hull gave way to steel, up to the waterline. AML Naval Shipyard remade the ship’s bottom. All sorts of other important changes reinforced the vessel. The ship was completed in 1992.

With the fighting between the Anglo-Dutch and French focused in Europe, the conflict in North America was restricted to small expeditions and raids. French expansion down the Mississippi valley as far south as Louisiana had been buttressed by a series of forts and trading posts that effectively hemmed in the English American colonies along the eastern seaboard. Prior to the war, France had moved to solidify its American position by encouraging immigration to increase the colony’s population, by establishing a naval school at Quebec to train river pilots and chart-makers, and by sending a few Canadiens to develop their military and naval skills with more formal training in the French navy. Most notable among these was Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, who led four successful naval expeditions into Hudson Bay to capture the English forts along its shores during the war. During the winter of 1696-97, moreover, d’Iberville led 125 soldiers and Canadiens along the coast of Newfoundland, pillaging and burning the undefended English fishing settlements before eventually capturing St John’s. Taking command of the forty-four gun Pelican later that spring, d’Iberville sailed to capture Fort Nelson on Hudson Bay with four consorts. After his small squadron was trapped by ice flows, however, only Pelican managed to extricate herself to press on toward the English fort where it engaged the ships Hampshire of fifty-two guns, Dering of thirty-six, and Hudson’s Bay of thirty-two on 5 September 1697. In a four hour engagement, Pelican sank Hampshire and forced Hudson’s Bay to strike her colours, while Dering was the lone English ship to escape. The heavily damaged Pelican, meanwhile, was driven ashore by storms and wrecked near Fort Nelson. The timely arrival of the remainder of the French squadron, which had since freed itself from the ice, then allowed d’Iberville to capture the fort. English colonists also enjoyed some success during the war, most notably when another New England force, this time under Sir William Phips, again captured Port Royal in 1690 before sailing up the St Lawrence in an unsuccessful attempt to take Quebec. With the fighting in Europe stalemated both on land and at sea, the War of the League of Augsburg was ended in September 1697 with the Treaty of Ryswick restoring both sides’ conquests, including the return, for a second time, of Acadia to French control.

During the Anglo-French wars of the first half of the eighteenth century, the use of seapower in support of colonial operations continued to be secondary to the fighting in Europe. With the success of her armies on land during the War of the Spanish Succession, 1702-1713, Britain (as England and Scotland became after the Act of Union in 1707) was finally able to exhaust French resources on land as well as at sea. Under the superb generalship of the Duke of Marlborough, the British-led coalition won a series of impressive victories on the continent, demonstrating that its troops and leaders were equal to the best in Europe and that London was willing to deploy them in strength to prevent French hegemony. Lacking any semblance of a real battle fleet, France once again resorted to an effective guerre de course, causing the Royal Navy to provide warships as escorts to convoyed British merchantmen. In North America the most notable achievement was the capture of Port Royal in 1710 by a force consisting largely of colonial troops. With the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, a bankrupted France was forced to cede mainland Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and its posts on Hudson Bay, concessions that increased the vulnerability of its remaining possessions in North America. French leaders subsequently encouraged the shipbuilding industry at Quebec and built several forts, most notably at Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, hoping to protect both the fishery and the main entrance to the colony through the Gulf of St Lawrence.

When war broke out between France and Britain in 1744-the War of the Austrian Succession-the fighting quickly spread to the colonies that had gained in importance to both economies in recent decades. For the first time, both sides despatched large naval fleets to North American waters to protect their interests. In the wake of attacks on New England vessels by French privateers from Louisbourg, American colonists mounted an expedition that captured the Cape Breton port in 1745 after a six-week siege, the New England effort being aided by British warships from Commodore Peter Warren’s Atlantic squadron brought up from the Caribbean. A powerful French naval force under the Duc d’Anville set sail the following year to recapture the fortress but was devastated by Atlantic storms during the crossing. Only a handful of French warships managed to reach safety in Chebucto Bay before returning home. In May 1747, a British squadron intercepted and defeated an escorted French convoy attempting to bring reinforcements and supplies to Quebec.

In the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle of 1748, however, Louisbourg was returned to France in exchange for relinquishing wartime gains made by French armies in Holland and India. The treaty-which turned out to be more of a temporary truce than a peace- reflected both French land and British sea power. Although the New England colonists were outraged that “the key to the Atlantic” had been returned to France so territory could be regained for Britain’s Dutch allies, London was well aware that a continental commitment remained necessary to distract the French from concentrating their considerable resources on building a stronger navy, one that could ultimately threaten Britain’s overseas colonies and trade. To further solidify its maritime position in North America, the Royal Navy established a naval and military base at Halifax in 1749, providing British warships with a large, accessible and well-protected harbour in the western North Atlantic.

With the perceived economic and strategic importance of overseas colonies continuing to grow among the European powers, the elimination of French colonial trade became the focus of British strategy when the Anglo-French rivalry resumed open conflict in 1756. Indeed, the importance that Britain and France placed on their colonial campaigns during the Seven Years’ War was in contrast to the secondary character of colonial operations in the earlier struggles and made the 1756-63 conflict, as some have termed it, the first true world war. By the early 1750s, both empires were seeking control of the Ohio River valley, where large areas lightly populated by the French were coveted by British colonists moving west through the Appalachians. With frontier skirmishes becoming more frequent, both Versailles and London despatched military reinforcements to North America. Although not yet formally at war, a French squadron narrowly escaped capture-losing only two transports-in the Strait of Belle Isle in June 1755 when it was surprised by a British fleet under Admiral Edward Boscawen. Anglo-French clashes in North America and the Mediterranean also coincided with growing European fears over the increased military strength of Frederick the Great’s Prussia. Formal declarations of war in May 1756 pitted Britain and Prussia against France and her allies, Austria, Russia, Sweden, and Saxony.

During the war’s opening stages, a rebuilt French navy was able to elude the British naval blockade in Europe and escort reinforcements to both Canada and the West Indies, an increase in military strength that helped to repulse the initial attacks by British and colonial troops. By 1758, however, the Royal Navy’s grip around coastal Europe had become more effective, making it difficult for the French to send further aid across the Atlantic. With French forces in North America largely cut off from Europe, the British government planned to take both Louisbourg and Quebec that summer, while making another thrust up the Lake Champlain valley. While the inland campaign was defeated by General Louis Joseph Marquis de Montcalm at Fort Carillon, 12,000 troops under Major-General Jeffrey Amherst, supported by a fleet of twenty ships of the line, eighteen frigates, and 100 transports under Boscawen lay siege to Louisbourg in June. The French defenders, outnumbered three to one, put up a stiff resistance before surrendering on 27 July, delaying the British long enough to postpone the Quebec campaign until the following spring.

In June 1759 Vice-Admiral Charles Saunders led a British armada of forty-nine warships-of which the largest was Saunders’s flagship, the ninety-gun HMS Neptune-and some 120 transports up the St Lawrence to land a force of 8,500 British troops under the command of Major-General James Wolfe on the Isle of Orleans below Quebec. “The picture one gets is that of a steady stream of the elements of naval power moving up the river as the wind serves, until in due time Saunders has so much strength in the Quebec area that the French are no longer able to challenge him.” In fact, Saunders fleet was larger than the one Sir Edward Hawke had under his command when he decisively defeated the French navy at Quiberon Bay, off the mouth of the Loire River on the Biscay coast, later that year. Despite the powerful British armada controlling the river, however, Wolfe spent the entire summer trying to devise a means to attack the virtually impregnable fortress and its 14,000 defenders under Montcalm. Unable to breach the French defences on the Beauport shore below the town, Wolfe’s brigade commanders recommended using the fleet to land the army above the fortress. As a prominent historian of the campaign has explained, “the brigadiers were in constant consultation with Saunders when making their plan, and the calculations in it concerning movements by water, embarkation and disembarkation are doubtless his. Naval officers are notoriously backward about giving advice on matters affecting land warfare; but this plan was as much a naval as an army one, and one cannot help wondering whether the silent, competent vice-admiral’s association with it may not have been the factor that decided Wolfe to accept it.”

Passing above the town on the night of 12/13 September, Saunders landed Wolfe’s men at the Anse au Foulon where they climbed the cliffs to the Plains of Abraham and cut French communications with Montreal and the French ships further up river. When Montcalm left the protection of his fortress walls to offer battle on the 13th, Wolfe’s gamble paid off. In a short, sharp fight, the British won the day and the defeated French army retreated into the city. After the bulk of the French forces abandoned the fortress to slip around the British army and move up river toward Montreal later that night, Quebec capitulated five days later. As decisive as the battle on the open plain was, the course of the campaign has led another historian to suggest that “Wolfe’s little army was really no more than a most efficient landing party from an overwhelming fleet.” The importance of naval power in the struggle for New France was demonstrated again in April 1760 when the 4,000-man British garrison that had wintered at Quebec was besieged by a 7,000-man French force, virtually the entire military strength left in the colony, that had been transported down river before the ice was out of the St Lawrence. Repeating Montcalm’s mistake, the British moved out of the fortress only to be defeated in a battle that involved heavier casualties than the more famous (or infamous) September clash-the British losing 1,100 to the French 800 in the April contest versus some 600 to 700 on each side the year before. Although the besieging French were hopeful of recapturing Quebec, it was the arrival of a British squadron in the St Lawrence in mid-May-Saunders having left a strong detachment at Halifax with instructions to re-enter the river as early as possible in the spring-that forced the French to retreat on Montreal after their own supporting frigates were attacked and destroyed. Despite the French navy’s crushing defeat at Quiberon Bay the previous November, a small squadron was sent from France with supplies and a few reinforcements but it was unable to pass the British ships blockading the river and was forced to take refuge in the Restigouche River where it was caught and destroyed in July 1760.

With the tactical brilliance of Frederick the Great’s Prussian armies (subsidized by the British treasury) confounding France’s European allies and the Royal Navy effectively isolating France’s overseas colonies, Britain completed the conquest of Canada in 1760. By war’s end, British forces had also taken Guadaloupe, Dominica, and Martinique in the West Indies, eliminated French influence in India and even captured Manila in the Phillipines and Havana in Cuba (Spain having joined France in the war). The Royal Navy was also able to provide the 8,000 ships of Britain’s merchant fleet with more effective protection against French privateers than in earlier conflicts, allowing a virtually untouched Britain to expand its trade and finance its dual naval/continental strategy. With the conclusion of peace in early 1763, Britain’s naval mastery allowed it to emerge from the Seven Years’ War as the only nation to have made major territorial gains, having been awarded all of France’s North American empire except Louisiana and the islands of St Pierre and Miquelon off Newfoundland. Britain also received Florida in exchange for returning Havana to Spanish control.

French Fourth Rate ship of the line ‘Le Pélican’ (1693)