A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #2: Settlement, Revolution & War. TOC
Part 5, "The War Of 1812: Eastern Theatre." TOC
Ch. 5 - Treaties, Orders And Decrees.

At Paris, on the 3rd of September, 1783, the war between the colonies and Great Britain was brought to an end by treaty. It is not a long document; it consists of but ten articles. It would have been a much longer document if the parties had settled all their differences that they had with one another. Many of the pre-treaty difficulties just turned themselves into post-treaty difficulties. In the following years, British and American diplomats met and attempted to resolve these festering problems. In 1794, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay, was dispatched to England to see if the parties could resolve their problems once and for all. The Jay Treaty was signed in 1795. There were three key provisions. The first was that British soldiers would be withdrawn from posts in the American West. The second was that a commission was to be established to settle outstanding border issues between the United States and Canada. The third was that there was to be a commission to be established to resolve American losses in British ship seizures and Loyalist losses during the War for Independence. The implementation, or the lack thereof, of these three provisions would be the subject for a different book. What attracts us is the 12th Article of the treaty. It provided that

"His Majesty consents that it shall and may be lawful, during the time hereinafter limited, for the citizens of the United States to carry to any of His Majesty's islands and ports in the West Indies from the United States, in their own vessels, not being above the burthen of seventy tons1, any goods or merchandizes, being of the growth, manufacture or produce of the said States ... And His Majesty also consents that it shall be lawful for the said American citizens to purchase, load and carry away in their said vessels to the United States ... manufacture or produce of the said islands ... Provided always, that the said American vessels do carry and land their cargoes in the United States only ... [and] the United States will prohibit and restrain the carrying any molasses, sugar, coffee, cocoa or cotton in American vessels, either from His Majesty's islands or from the United States to any part of the world except the United States ... And that the cargoes of the said British vessels shall be subject to no other or higher duties or charges, than shall be payable on the same articles if so imported or exported in American vessels. ...
The effect of The Jay Treaty was that the British would allow -- thank you very much -- the Americans to trade goods produced by them for goods produced in the West Indies and in the process they may use smaller American vessels. The rest of the world, it seems, was out of bounds. The result was not popular with the Americans. But Jay did the best he could in the circumstances springing from the fact that, at the time, the infant United States had no clout. The British had clout; she had her glorious navy.

The development of sea power depends on a number of factors. Certain of them are key. Mahan was to write of how nature has favored certain nations. Some nations are strategically located on a strait or straits which seagoing vessels were obliged to pass. Another factor, as regards to the development of sea power, is, "not the total number of square miles which a country contains, but the length of its coast-line and the character [of] its harbors that are to be considered."2 These two factors exist in Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia shared the Cabot Strait with Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia most certainly had a long coastline for a relatively small landmass. That part of the coastline on the Atlantic, while hard and rock strewn, had a number of inlets that led to sheltering harbours, ones which could contain a fleet of large men-of-war. So too, Englishmen who had settled in key harbours, such as Liverpool, were superb woodsmen and builders of sea-going sailing vessels. These men had mostly come up from New England both before and after the War of American Independence. They became extremely good traders. Wood and fish went south in the holds of their sailing vessels. They returned with molasses and salt, and anything else that would survive the voyage and get a good price on the docks of Nova Scotia.3 Certainly the drama of Nova Scotian history is best represented by the sea and the traversing sailing ships and the rugged sun-tanned seaman who manned them.

For Nova Scotians, these West Indian trips became increasingly more important compared to those made to the United States. The number of vessels departing for the West Indies and other British North American colonies grew gradually through the years until 1808 when there was a significant jump. The Nova Scotian trade with these places was always proportionally higher than it was with Great Britain and the United States. However, in 1809, trade, as evidenced by the number of ships coming and going, took a dramatic increase across the board, all except that with the West Indies. The number of vessels departing to the United States in 1810 went down from 135 to 55, and then to only six in 1811. In the meantime trade kept up with the West Indies.4 Along with this shift in trade, beginning about 1808, there was an inverse correlation in the amounts of fish5 that were shipped to the United States and that shipped to the West Indies. This led interested persons in Nova Scotia to believe that some of the fish that went to the United States was transshipped to the West Indies. British subjects with their British ships were missing out. Certain merchants6 at Halifax who made a living buying and selling to seamen were upset –- upset enough to sign a letter addressed to the Colonial Secretary, the Earl of Bathurst. The letter was dated October 8th, 1813. It seems to be written in anticipation of peace negotiations with the Americans. In it the signatories inveigh against the Americans and their territorial ambitions in Louisiana and the invasion of Florida. The implication of this letter was, how can Nova Scotia be expected to compete with these "grasping" Americans without some help from the motherland? This was even more of problem than it should be because "this province has been held in great neglect, and kept in protracted infancy." Indeed, it will be "perpetual infancy" if the Americans are to be allowed to trade with the British West Indian Islands. To compete in the future, the ports of Halifax and St. John should be made -- in regards to West Indian goods -- "free ports." Further, the letter went on, the Americans should be given no rights to fish "in the narrow seas and waters of these Northern British colonies."7

Historically England owed her prosperity to trade. Trading under British Colours8 meant trading under the protection of British law and British naval ships.9 The English parliament passed laws in respect to regulating navigation or shipping. It saw no good reason why it should not be obeyed on the seas around the world. Forget sovereign rights. As a practical matter Great Britain was in the business of policing the high seas and everybody was better off for it, especially Britain. The device used was the The Navigation Act. It was this act that was the principal cause of The War of 1812.

One of the purposes of the The Navigation Act was to reserve "the colonial trade exclusively for British ships."10 It was, as Mahan pointed out, not a "new device, for the special annoyance of Americans." We see in the 17th century that such an act was passed in England so to deal with the "ancient rivalry" she had with Holland.11 I turn to the historian, George Macaulay Trevelyan:

"Though Huskisson12 laid the foundations of British Free Trade policy, he himself did not contemplate a total abolition of duties. But in one respect he was compelled to outstrip Adam Smith himself. The philosopher had pronounced the Navigation Laws injurious to our national wealth, but necessary for our national security, as a means of maintaining the school of seamen. These laws, first enacted against our Dutch rivals in the time of the Commonwealth, had the effect of confining British trade almost entirely to ships owned and manned by British subjects. The system was brought to the ground, not by attacks of laissez-faire economists, but by the action of America in passing a navigation law of her own, which imposed special duties on goods imported in British ships. European countries began to follow suit ..."13
Though the British were only happy to capture all the shipping business they could, not only between themselves and other nations -- but, that too, between any two nations in the world! All that a British naval captain had to determine for himself was whether the cargo of the stopped ship was of the kind that might assist Napoleon and was headed for a port under his control or sway. While it proved to be a great difficulty to the United States, The Navigation Act was an act of war aimed at France. It was simply unfortunate, so the British thought, that other nations should suffer from it. Napoleon responded by devising the "continental system," a system designed to get at British commerce. Thus, between England and France, from 1806 to 1812, there was economic warfare, a war of mutual starvation.

The "continental system" was embodied in a series of decrees of which the most famous were issued from Berlin in 1806 and Milan in 1807. Effectively, trade with Great Britain on the part of any nation was declared illegal by French law. Great Britain retaliated by her own decrees (Orders in Council) forbidding other nations to trade with France, in addition, it was to be illegal under English law to comply with the French decrees.14

"The Orders in Council declared all the countries that enforced Napoleon's Decrees to be in a state of blockade, and instituted a rigorous search of neutral ships to prevent them from trading with our enemies.
Since we held the seas, our system was most acutely felt by the transoceanic neutrals. And since Napoleon held the land, his inveterate war on tea and coffee, sugar and cotton, was most resented in Russia, Scandinavia and Germany, where men had to live without goods from overseas as the price of peace with France. It is therefore no wonder that by 1812 England was at war with the United States and Napoleon with Russia.
On December 22, 1807, an embargo was imposed by the United States. British ships were forbidden to enter or leave American ports. I should say that embargoes are ominous things generally issued in anticipation of war. (The United States, however, was to take four more years of abuse before war finally broke out.) The American embargo did not work. It impacted more against the Americans than the British.16 In Nova Scotia a proposal was made to the Governor that he should grant licences to vessels carrying goods from Nova Scotia to the United States. Though such carriage of British manufactured goods would be against the American laws, it was thought17 that the Americans would find a way to take these goods as there was a great demand for them. In return, badly needed supplies, especially flour and other articles of food, were brought into Nova Scotia.18 Where granted, the licences were signed jointly by the governor and the admiral, thus protecting them from the British ships of war.


During 1807, while a British squadron was at anchor in Chesapeake Bay, a large number of seamen deserted ashore where they came under the protection of American law. It was eventually determined that the U.S. frigate Chesapeake had taken certain of these deserters on as part of her crew. The admiral at Halifax ordered that the Chesapeake be stopped and searched if she ventured out of American waters. On the 22nd of June, some 12 to 15 miles off Cape Henry, the 50-gun British warship, Leopard, challenged the Chesapeake to produce deserters known to be on board. The Chesapeake's captain denied that they had British sailors aboard and further would not allow a British party to come aboard. The Leopard fired several shots into the sides of the Chesapeake. The Chesapeake surrendered and four men were seized as deserters. The Americans had three men killed and 18 wounded, 8 of them badly, and her hull, masts and sails were damaged. This is known as the Chesapeake Incident.19 The two countries were not at war. The Americans were enraged. The British were sorry for the incident and in time reparations were made.20 It cannot be seen, however, that the captains of British warships were to change their ways. While the admiralty did lay down a protocol when looking for British seamen, it was apparently not much followed.

[NEXT: Pt. 5, Ch. 6 - "The Years Leading Up To The War Of 1812."]

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