A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #2: Settlement, Revolution & War. TOC
Part 4, "Nova Scotia at the Turn of the 19th Century." TOC
Ch. 1 - Nova Scotia And The Napoleonic Wars:

In 1793, Great Britain went to war with France, a war, which except for a short 18 month period during 1802-03, continued for 23 years. We should start this part a few years before 1793.

In June of 1789, the French Revolution against the nobility and the clergy (the ancien régime) formally began. The States-General constituting itself as a majority against the ruling classes, in 1789, defiantly proclaimed itself the National Assembly and took power unto itself. In July, the storming of the Bastille took place, after which Louis XVI recognized the legal existence of the Constituent Assembly, -- as the new National Assembly was called. The assembly adopted the "Declaration of the Rights of Man" and drafted a new constitution. The new constitution did allow for a limited monarchy, which of course the king did not immediately recognize. The French constitution of 1791 expressed a theory of liberty, the "Golden Rule of Liberty," being that one is permitted to do anything which does not injure another person's like right. Though there was at the start an accommodation for a monarchial head, as there had been in England for some considerable period of time, ultimately a pure republic was designed which made no room for a king. In June of that year, Louis XVI tried to flee France, but was arrested and returned to Paris. A little more than a year later, on August 10th, a Parisian mob, led by the rhetoric of Danton, stormed the Tuileries and took the royal family as prisoners. Then came the "September massacres" as it is known in French History, when a mass killing of political prisoners occurred in Paris during the first week of September, 1792. On January 21st, 1793, Louis XVI was beheaded.1 At London, George III sent the French ambassador packing. Diplomatic relations were severed. By February 1st, 1793, there existed a state of war between France and England. The revolution petered out as the war wore on. By 1799 an army man, Napoleon Bonaparte, a cunning and strong leader, declared himself to be with and of the people and against the monarchy, at home and abroad. Napoleon made his way up to became the dictator of France. It is at this point, 1799, that the French Revolution was at an end.

In England, "the fourteen years from the outbreak of the French revolution to the Peace of Amiens -- from 1789 till 1802 -- formed an almost unbroken succession of bad harvests, and that of 1792 was one of the worst of the series. ... It was, then, at a moment of acute commercial and agricultural crisis that this most pacific and commercial of ministers [Pitt] found himself confronted with a war of the very first magnitude."2 Pitt was to learn from his father, Lord Chatham, that a foreign policy required firmness and purpose. He learned, too, that vacillation was the one unpardonable sin. Further he learned from his father, that the arm of a country should never be put further forward than it could be maintained. It should be no surprise, given the circumstances of Great Britain, therefore, to learn, that Pitt's policy during his administration (up to 1801) "was twofold: it was a naval policy and a policy of subsidy."3

As the French armies moved in to "liberate" Holland, Pitt -- deliberately not sending British troops into Europe4 -- made his opening move by sending a large part of the available British forces to the West Indies. Great fortunes had been made by English planters in the sugar islands. So, the West Indies were more highly regarded than Nova Scotia and Canada. Disease swept the British soldiers off to their deaths by the thousand. As many died there, in three years, as did with Wellington in the six years, 1808-1814, that it took the "Iron Duke" to drive Napoleon's troops out of Spain.5

At the opening of the war: Austria, Prussia, Spain, and Britain formed an alliance against France (the "First Coalition"). Prussia retired after gobbling up Poland; Spain made peace (July 1795); and, large parts of Holland and Belgium received the French as friends. Britain was then left alone to fight France, alone as mostly she was throughout the length of the war: 1793-1815.

By 1794, the British superiority at sea and the French superiority throughout most all of Europe was clear to any observer. The French superiority in Continental Europe had no direct effect on those English speaking people along the eastern seaboard of North America. British sovereignty of the seas6, however, very definitely did. American captains would be hailed at sea and the captain that did not listen to a hailing British Man-of-War was looking for very serious trouble, especially when the British war ship was in a raking position with twenty or so cannon at the ready. If the boarded ship could prove that she was entirely neutral and had no cargo coming or going to or from France then her papers were endorsed and she was sent on her way. The least suspicion on the part of the inspecting British Naval officer would result in a prize crew being put on board the detained vessel and sent to Halifax, there to be judged by an Admiralty Court. A lot of citizens of the United States of America, as might be expected, took great exception to the abuse they had to take from the British. This is a subject we shall deal with in some detail in our next part. We simply observe at this place that, at the turn of the century, the United States was but a gangly youth who could do little more than complain. On November 19th, 1794, as a result of the United States bringing their complaints to the table in England, there came about the Jay Treaty.7

Things did not generally go well for Great Britain for the first few years of the war.

"By the end of 1796 further negotiations for peace had signally failed, and the French had required the British plenipotentiary to quit Paris within forty-eight hours. Britain had now reached an almost zero of humiliation and peril. An enormous load of debt, an impaired credit, a series of military defeats, a rising discontent among the people, a dismemberment of all the great monarchical powers formed in 1793 to destroy France, and no visible signs of the war coming to an end -- this was the prospect which Pitt had to face. And, further, he was to learn with pain that he had been wrong in ever supposing France would, through lack of funds, be forced to sue for peace. On the contrary, British credit now collapsed."8
In December of 1796, the French under General Hoche sent an expedition consisting of 43 ships and 15,000 men to Ireland hoping to find the people ready to assist France in subduing England. Sailing from Brest, the French fleet reached Bantry Bay in Ireland, but unfortunately for the French and fortunately for the British, a storm blew up: "Before Hoche's expedition could disembark, a gale impelled the fleet from their anchors, sank one ship, dismantled others and drove several ashore. The net result was that the remnant returned to Brest after complete failure."9 These events were followed by people in Nova Scotia. Perkins wrote in his diary on April 7th, 1797: "By yesterdays paper there is accounts of an invasion attempted by the French on Ireland with large armament, but by the Providence of God the ships were dispersed by storms, & several of them lost. The most of them returned to Brest." Another entry that shows the interest Perkins had in these momentous world events is illustrated by that of 1 July, 1804: "... The news from Europe is that a change in the Ministry has taken place. Mr. Pitt is First Lord of the Treasury & Chancellor of the Exchequer Lord Melville First Lord of the Admiralty. Many other changes, and also great promotions in the navy. Bonaparte is said to be elected Emperor of the Gauls and is to be crowned with all the solemnity and signs of royalty in August next. The farce [fear] of invasion is still kept up. There is also said to be a Regency appointed or to be appointed by the King's desire which is to be the Prince of Wales & Mr. Pitt."

During these years of war with France, at Halifax, French prizes10 would not be rare and English Men-of-War were common visitors. For example on April 2nd, 1792, H.M.S. Alligator, 28 guns, brought into Halifax Harbour two French Prizes.11 Perkins in his diary wrote on September 14th, 1796: "... News that Admiral Murray's Squadron has captured a French Frigate of 44 guns & carried her into Halifax." Among the Royal naval fleet which left Halifax in November of 1796, for a cruise, were: the Resolution (74 guns), Assistance (50 guns), Andromeda (32 guns), Ceres (32 guns), Lynx (18 guns) and Hunter (18 guns).12 But not only French prizes were brought in, so were American ships. The Americans, though neutral, were to suffer the effects of war. Ships continued to be stopped on the high seas by British Men-of-War and searched by British navel officers. Often, the detained ships were sent to Halifax, there in many instances to be condemned as carrying French cargo. On July 6th, 1798, the American Congress passed An Act Respecting Alien Enemies: "That whenever there shall be a declared war between the United States and any foreign nation or government, or any invasion or predatory incursion shall be perpetrated, attempted, or threatened against the territory of the United States, by any foreign nation or government, and the President of the United States shall make public proclamation of the event, all natives, citizens, denizens, or subjects of the hostile nation or government, being males of the age of fourteen years and upwards, who shall be within the United States, and not actually naturalized, shall be liable to be apprehended, restrained, secured and removed, as alien enemies."13

There was a very real fear in England of a French invasion which lasted at various levels throughout until 1805. All that Napoleon thought he ever needed was some protection for his troop transports. Napoleon's navy, however, could never quite get it together. Daily, Napoleon gazed at the horizon of the channel looking for his fleet. All that was needed was to be in charge of the Channel for twelve hours.14 It was in the winter of 1803-4 that the British nation became aware that a flotilla of 3000 craft had been collected near the camp of Napoleon's Grand Army at Boulogne. On 24th of November, 1803, Wentworth wrote at Halifax, "We are daily and very anxiously waiting the event of Buonaparte's projected invasion of Great Britain."15 Wentworth and other royal officers at Halifax feared, if not an invasion, then fearsome raids on the ports in Nova Scotia. A fear that they had since at least 1796, for in that year on September 5th a French squadron raided ports in Newfoundland. The law officers were convinced there was a French fleet, just off the coast of Nova Scotia. Prince Edward was of that view. "As for us we keep ourselves constantly on the alert, lest they should honor us with a visit, which is not impossible, though it may be improbable, but I flatter myself that in the event of a visit we would so conduct ourselves, that they would be glad to retire as quickly as possible."16

England, on declaring war on the European revolution, declared war at the same time on its sympathizers at home. War does not allow much scope to a nation to perfect its ideas of liberty. Only after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 did we see a return in England to the ideas of Paine, Bentham and Godwin. The French revolution was just one experience that showed, in gory detail, the difficulties with the notion of absolute liberty. There were a significant number of British citizens who supported the principles that drove the French Revolution. During July of 1791, an event unfolded which became known as the Birmingham Riots. A mob gathered at Birmingham, England. The rioters, in support of the revolutionary movement that was just then in full bloom in France, wore blue cockades in their hats. They moved about town seeking contributions from the inhabitants. "There was scarcely an housekeeper that dared refuse them meat, drink, money or whatever they demanded. The shops were mostly shut up, business nearly at a stand, and everybody employed removing and secreting their valuables."17 The military from all quarters moved in and reestablished order, the peace-liking locals very much appreciated the army's presence.

"Priestley was a scientist of European reputation in an age when scientists were few. He was a man of blameless life and high public spirit. He was not a Republican, but he was a Dissenter -- nay, a Unitarian -- and he was now active in favour of Parliamentary Reform and Repeal of the Test Acts, and in public approval of the general course of the French Revolution up to the summer of 1791. Therefore his house and scientific instruments were destroyed by the 'Church and State' mob of Birmingham, who had been incited against Nonconformists by sermons and pamphlets of the local clergy, and were personally encouraged on the night of riot by two J.P.'s. Dissenting chapels and the private houses of Dissenters ... were destroyed, with every appearance of connivance on the part of the Magistrates."18
This governmental approach to the matter continued to one degree or another through the balance of the war. In 1793, for example, the "Reform-martyrs," of whom Thomas Muir (1765-99) was one, were put on trial, and, being found guilty, were transported to Botany Bay. These trials were part of the larger government effort to prosecute editors, nonconformists and radicals who were arguing for Parliamentary reform. In 1794, again in England, Habeas Corpus19 was suspended,20 and the Traitorous Correspondence Act was passed. So too in that year there was the trial of the 12 Reformers. Thomas Holcroft, Horne Tooke, Thomas Hardy, John Thelwall and others were brought to trial on the charge of high treason, and acquitted amid much excitement. Numbers of men "against whom there was no evidence lingered in prison during the last years of the century."21 In 1795 the suspension of the Habeas Corpus was renewed; its suspension lasted to 1801. In the same year, 1795, the government sought to further suppress free speech and freedom of assembly by passing the Treasonable Practices Act and the Seditious Meetings Act. The first of these acts made the business of getting a conviction much easier by dispensing with certain evidentiary requirements. The second act forbad public meetings where there was more than fifty people involved without the superintendence of a magistrate. These bills were effective: "political life died out in England."22. Throughout these times, however, it needs to be observed, respectable people considered the government too weak rather than too strong. Nothing much separated the mob, whether friendly or otherwise, from the powerful. There was little protection given to the sovereign and his ministers. In 1812, Spencer Perceval (1762-1812), the only English Prime Minister ever to be assassinated, was shot while entering the lobby of the House of Commons.

On May 12th, 1792, John Wentworth arrived at Halifax. On May 14th, he was sworn in as Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia. He remained so for the next sixteen years, until 1808, a year in which one might begin to trace the development of what was to be called The War of 1812. Wentworth was challenged within the first year of his administration by the opening events of a 23-year war. It was the beginning of a period lasting through to 1815 which saw the erection of "many new fortifications at Halifax."23 Halifax became, once again, a major staging-place to muster British forces so as to carry out raids on the French possessions as did remain in North America.

The port of Halifax is one that has always has been very busy during war years, from its beginning in the mid 18th century right on to the major wars of the 20th century. With peace, money dried up at Halifax. With the ending of the war between Great Britain and its American colonies, 1783-4, all activity at Halifax came practically to a standstill, where it remained for the next decade.24 With the outbreak of war in 1793, there was a positive building boom: Prince Edward implemented plans to fortify Halifax, which included refortifying George's Island by the erection of a "Star Fort" which could accommodate 300 men. At the centre was a blockhouse, one story high, 40' square and 10' high., to serve as a guard house for an officer and forty men. So too, was commenced the third citadel on the hill just west overlooking the town. In 1796, a boom was erected across the mouth of the Northwest Arm, from Chain Rock just where one had been secured in 1762. Fort Ogilvie, named after a general who was then at Halifax, was built at Point Pleasant, the southern most tip of the peninsula of Halifax. Its purpose was to bring cross fire in the 2,200 yard channel that separates Ives Point at the north end of McNab's Island and Point Pleasant, the extreme south end of Halifax peninsula. The two opposing batteries could bring a cross fire to any unwanted ship venturing in from the mouth of Halifax Harbour.

We have already told of Pitt's immediate interest in taking away from France her island possessions in the West Indies. The British throughout the years of the war were largely successful in this endeavour. So too, attention was given to those few islands at the mouth of the St. Lawrence which were left to the French at the end of the previous war, The Seven Years War which had concluded in 1763. An expedition, in 1793, fitted out at Halifax under General Ogilvie, sailed to the French Islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon. The force was under convoy with the Royal Navy ships Hussar (28 guns) and Alligator (28 guns).25 Our faithful reporter, Simeon Perkins, wrote how he had returned home to Liverpool from Halifax, having been there to attend the sitting of the legislature.26. While at Halifax, Perkins observed that "Troops & Convoy for the West Indies sail. That Saturday night "Capt. George, of the frigate Hussar, had pressed about 60 people on Saturday night."27 Perkins, I just note, wrote "West Indies" but he either was mistaken or misinformed, the force was off to St. Pierre and Miquelon.

I quote from the DCB, in its biographical sketch on General Ogilvie:

"After hostilities broke out between Britain and France in 1793, Ogilvie, acting on instructions from London, organized an expedition against Saint-Pierre and Miquelon consisting of members of the 4th and 65th Foot and the Royal Artillery on transports, accompanied by a frigate and several armed vessels. In concert with a force from Newfoundland, on 14 May they attacked the ill defended French colony, which surrendered without firing a shot. Ogilvie returned to Halifax on 20 June with 570 officials, troops, and fishermen as prisoners; the remaining inhabitants of the islands were deported to Nova Scotia and the Channel Islands the next year. On 12 Oct. 1793 Ogilvie was advanced to major-general by the normal process of seniority."
Chas. Bruce Fergusson wrote:
"According to a return of the two islands [St. Pierre and Miquelon], the population at the time of their capture in 1793 included 120 troops and officers of government, 450 fisherman and 950 inhabitants, making a total 1,520. ... More than 500 of officials, troops and fisherman were removed from the islands to Halifax in 1793, and steps were taken in 1794 for the removal of the rest. ... It was estimated [quotes authority] that about 450 of the former inhabitants of St. Pierre and Miquelon would settle in Nova Scotia, with the others being sent to Guernsey."28
So we see the presence of French prisoners at Halifax at the beginning of the war, 1793; and it was to be a familiar sight right through to 1815.29 The French governor, Danséville was among the prisoners brought to Halifax. Danséville was to remain in Halifax for the long French/English war, living in Dartmouth until he was repatriated to France in 1814. He lived at a place that became known as Brook House. The old French governor was quite the gardener, laying out walk ways and fish ponds; all along being supported by a pension granted by the English.30

Though the Napoleonic wars stretched over on 23-year period, eight years into it there was an intermission. It lasted but eighteen months. In October, 1801, Preliminary Articles of Peace were signed at London. Leading up to this event there was -- yes, a peace movement. "The mail coaches were placarded PEACE WITH FRANCE in large capitals, and the drivers all wore a sprig of laurel, as an emblem of peace, in their hats."31 Upon hearing that the treaty had been signed, there was much excitement in London, as John Ashton observed, there were many illuminations, one in "Pall Mall had a flying Cupid holding a miniature of Napoleon, with a scroll underneath, 'Peace to Great Britain.' ... squibs, rockets, and pistols were let off in the streets ..."32 It didn't seem that all this celebration was because of any great patriotic feelings or concern over the young men that died in the war, but rather because it was thought that peace would bring the income tax to an end and good cuts of meat back into the market. All this business of course was in the following year, 1802, to lead to the signing of the Treaty of Amiens (March 25, 1802). It was to bring the hostilities between France and England to an end. And while England was to continue supreme on the oceans of the world (this was not a concession on the part of France but a matter of fact), France was left supreme in Western Europe.33

"Perhaps in no place was war so little objectionable as at Halifax. While it lasted, that place was the rendezvous of all ships and armies employed against the French and Spaniards in America. The people of that town therefore learned with some regret that the war was at an end."34 It is interesting to get Perkins' views. The first that the people of Liverpool heard of the peace -- rumours of peace or of war, as the case may be, often circulated -- was on November 21st, 1801: "This evening an express arrives from Halifax from the owners of the Privateer ship General Bowyer [then just calling by at Liverpool], informing that a packet was arrived from England last Thursday with news of a general peace in Europe. Preliminaries signed the 10th October, and the owners of the General Bowyer have ordered her home to Halifax." Less than a month before the people of Liverpool received the news of peace, there had been sent out two of her privateers. On October 25th, "The Brig Rover, a letter of mark, with eight guns, Joseph Freeman, Commander, sails for the West Indies. The schooner Ratler, Enos Collins, Commander, with some guns, also sails for the West Indies." With peace these privateers could no longer take enemy shipping. Thus, for Liverpool, as with a number of other small communities in Nova Scotia, there was no more booty to be had.

We might as well follow along with Perkins and see how, in short order, relations between France and England ruptured bringing on war once again. On December 30th, 1803, a captain arriving from Dominica "brings a rumour that there is likely to be war with France, and the British Minister has been ill treated by Bonaparte, & left Paris, and that orders were recd in the West Indies to all Commanders to be in readiness for war. I hope it is only a rumour." So we see Perkins -- even if there were those of a different view at the capital, Halifax -- regretting the coming of war. For the people of Liverpool, it was a trade-off. In times of war it was privateering. In times of peace, trade in the West Indies without a great fear of molestation. Just that January, the 23rd, the community had reason to hope for continued peace as four brigs sailed together from Liverpool, all loaded with fish and lumber for the Barbados. Seven days later, on the 30th of January, we see where Perkins wrote, "There is great talk of war at Halifax."

On May 5th Perkins wrote again of his concerns:

"5 May [1803]: ... There is strong rumour of war with France being at hand, very great preparations for war. Impressing men and fitting out men of war in England in consequence of great preparations in France & Holland which alarm the British Ministers. Some men have also been impressed at Halifax. There is great reason to fear a war will be the result which will be very detrimental to our trade, as well as distressing to all Europe, and perhaps to the world in general."
On June 27th, Perkins wrote again:
"27 June: [A captain arriving from Halifax] brings last Saturday's papers, wherein is the King's Proclamation Of War against France, and likewise an order to detain all vessels in English ports belonging to the Batavian Republic. Sir John Wentworth has also published a Proclamation for Annoying the Enemy by Letters of Marque, etc. [This news prompts Perkins and his friends not to proceed to the West Indies with their load of fish. The markets were bad, anyway and if] we add to this we expect insurance will be very high and the risk very great. We therefore give up that voyage & conclude if a suitable crew can be got to send her to Newfoundland with lumber, or otherwise if we hear Alewives & Pollock will answer in the States to send her there."
In March the British Commons passed a resolution calling for an additional "10,000 men to be employed for the sea service." Included in this number was the provision for 3,400 Marines.35 On the 18th of May, a declaration of war was laid before parliament. On the 20th, Lord Nelson sailed from Portsmouth in the Victory to take command in the Mediterranean. News that the War was on again came to Halifax by way of a circular letter from Downing Street dated 16 May, 1803. It was communicated to the legislature of Nova Scotia on Friday, June the 24th. Letters of marque and commissions to privateers were to be issued, and French ships to be captured. "The kings share of all French ships and property will be given to privateers. Homeward bound ships should wait for convoys."36

On October 21st, 1805, Nelson gave the matter of British sovereignty on the seas37, his final touch at Trafalgar where he annihilated both the French and Spanish navies. In December of that year, so as it seems to counterbalance Nelson's great success, Napoleon defeated the armies of Russia and Austria, each with its emperor at its head. This French success followed along after an amazing overland march of Napoleon's "Grande Army" from the western shores of France to Austerlitz, a place located in modern day Czechoslovakia.

In support of a Spanish rising, in July of 1808, Arthur Wellesley (later to become known as the Duke of Wellington) led the first small British force of 9000 men into the Peninsula of Spain, a gate into the hostile fortress of Napoleonic Europe. In August, Wellesley defeated the French under Junot at Vimeiro. Finally, the people of Great Britain and those of Europe were to understand that the French armies of Napoleon were not invincible. Though what Wellesley did at Vimeiro occupies considerably less space than that of Nelson's victory at Trafalgar, Wellesley's victory had as great or some would say a greater38 historical impact. Cobbett observed at the time that Trafalgar "gave no new turn to the war, excited no great degree of feeling in the nations of Europe, and did not, in the least, arrest the progress of the French arms or diminish their fame or that dread of those arms which universally prevailed."39

What remains to be outlined are the final years of the Napoleonic wars from 1808 to 1815. Another war to be outlined is that which enveloped itself within this period, The War of 1812. These are to be treated in our next part.


[NEXT: Book 2, Part 4, Ch. 2 - "Nova Scotian Society: The People."]

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