Notre Dame Bay, Newfoundland and The American Revolution
Notre Dame Bay (NDB), on the northeast coast of the island of Newfoundland, seems far removed from the World’s battlefields. Today it is among the most idyllic of places. The bay is broad, and deeply indented, having the most jagged coastline and the most islands of all Newfoundland’s major bays. NDB is also the largest of the island’s great bays. Its name means “Bay of Our Lady,” and was bestowed by the French, who came in search of the region’s rich stocks of codfish starting in the 1500s. The French, along with the Portuguese, were the first non-Natives to see the value of NDB’s ocean resources. But it was the Anglo-Irish who became the first Europeans to permanently settle the Bay, starting at the turn of the eighteenth century. To modern tourists NDB hardly seems like a place where guns once roared and soldiers marched. Except for a few cannon still found in the town of Fogo, the communities of Notre Dame Bay look like they’ve been peaceful locales for all of their long histories. Appearances can be deceiving. Besides the low-level conflicts waged between settlers and the Native Beothuk people, Notre Dame Bay, particularly the Twillingate Islands and Fogo, was affected by the long wars between the British and French for control of North America. The bitter civil war fought between the British and their rebellious American colonies, popularly known as the American Revolution, had an even bigger impact on the bay.
In 1755 a Fogo resident named Christopher Bradley reported that forty French vessels were active on Newfoundland’s northeast coast. Although these were fishing vessels, the craft were heavily armed and seemed to be surveying local harbours. This same man also noted the capture of French spies on the island. These French activities probably had some relation to the larger situation in North America. Although the mother countries were not officially at war, British and French forces had clashed in America’s Ohio country in 1754-5. In 1756, for the third time that century, the two nations formally declared war. The conflict became known as the Seven Year’s War – “The French and Indian War” to the American colonists. The war only ended in 1763, the last North American actions being fought on the island of Newfoundland. Notre Dame Bay did not escape the effects of the conflict, with Fogo Island being harassed by French raiders. The French remained a hostile presence in Notre Dame Bay for some years to come. As late as 1786 Newfoundland’s Governor reported that a French vessel named the Bon Ami was paid a bounty to fish off Twillingate. Its job was not just to fish but also to irritate, and hopefully drive away, English settlers.
For a dozen years after the Seven Year’s War Newfoundland and Notre Dame Bay were at peace. Trouble brewed again in 1775 when Britain’s thirteen American colonies rose in revolt. The American Revolution, which lasted until 1783, saw some of the most serious military threats to NDB, though these were much less grave than the continental situation. Even so, the menace was very real to the people who lived in the bay during those years.
During the Revolutionary War Twillingate was troubled by privately-outfitted American warships, or “privateers.” This type of warfare was common during the age of sail, and allowed governments to field extra forces against their enemies without having to spend their own money. Privateers also helped countries with small navies to attack more powerful enemies at sea. They were commissioned to attack enemy shipping under a document called a “letter of marque.” In return for making war on behalf of one’s king or government, privateer owners could keep the value of any ships and cargoes they captured, with the captains and crews getting a share of the prize. Because privateers were not part of regular navies, and operated for profit instead of patriotism, they were often controversial. Many people thought privateers were not much better than pirates, and the line between them was often very thin.
According to Newfoundland’s great historian Judge Daniel Prowse (1834-1914), Twillingate planters suffered some of the colony’s most severe attacks at the Americans’ hands. In the Spring of 1779, for example, a small four-gun privateer, that may have been named the Centipede, raided the settlement. If a warship from Britain’s mighty Royal Navy had been nearby the little vessel would not have dared to attack. Sadly for Twillingate, no provision had been made to protect the town. The Americans were able to capture a vessel owned by a Poole merchant named John Slade (1719-92), who only a few years before had been the naval officer – a kind of law enforcer – for the port of Twillingate. The American raiders took a cargo of fish, and went on to break open Slade’s stores. Although this attack was bad news for Slade and his employees, not everyone in Twillingate suffered because of the privateer’s attack. Perhaps hoping that their fellow colonists would join the struggle against England, the Centipede’s crew distributed some of Slade’s confiscated goods to the “poor inhabitants” of Twillingate.
After their successful raid against Twillingate the rebels, as the British called their American enemies, headed North to Labrador. There they once again attacked property belonging to John Slade. Newfoundland Governor Richard Edwards (c. 1715-95) made extensive preparations to ward off this kind of assault. But the Americans, many of whom were familiar with the Newfoundland fishery, knew to make their attacks only during the early Spring and late Fall when British men-of-war were not on the Newfoundland station. For his part Slade did not take the attacks lying down, outfitting several of his own vessels as privateers, including the twenty-four gun Exeter under Captain Marmaduke Hart.
American raids on Labrador premises also affected one of Slade’s major business rivals, Jeremiah Coughlan (fl. 1765-85), whose headquarters were at Fogo. Like Slade, Coughlan was a West Country merchant, but hailed from Bristol rather than Poole. Having been appointed Naval officer Reservist for the port of Fogo and the region adjacent to Bonavista Bay, Coughlan actively recruited for volunteers to oppose a rebel invasion of Lower Canada (Quebec) in the opening months of the war. In 1778 an American privateer under a Captain named John Grimes sacked Coughlan’s Chateau Bay establishment. Grimes also attacked Coughlan’s posts on the Alexis River, capturing one of his ships.
With privateers like Captain Grimes active in the area, Coughlan was afraid Fogo would be directly attacked. The merchant-officer met with his competitors to try and form a defence force, or militia. When his fellow merchants refused to supply men, Coughlan drew on his own resources and armed his largest ship, the Resolution. In support of Coughlan’s efforts Newfoundland’s Governor sent a pair of naval vessels to search for Grimes. The privateer gave them the slip, escaping after he had destroyed trading premises in Sandwich Bay, Labrador. Thanking the Governor for his aid, Coughlan then redoubled his efforts to organize an informal militia at Fogo. Sixty-seven volunteers were mustered with Coughlan as their “Colonel-Commandant.” Starting in 1779 a new Governor sent Coughlan muskets and cannon to defend the port. With these resources Coughlan built forts at Garrison Point and three other places around Fogo Harbour. He was also given funds to raise an official militia from among Fogo fishermen. This militia kept a round-the-clock watch for suspicious vessels entering the community’s eastern or western tickles. Jeremiah Coughlan’s preparations soon proved their worth; following its attack on Twillingate, the privateer Centipede was deterred from a similar assault on Fogo by Coughlan’s militia and forts.
While these events were tame compared to what Americans (both Patriots and Loyalists) went through on their own soil during the Revolution, the privateering raids in Notre Dame Bay must have made some impact on local military planning. When Britain and the United States went to war again in 1812 engineers suggested mounting cannon at Crow and Carter Points to guard Twillingate’s harbour entrance to protect the growing fishing community, though in the end nothing came of this suggestion.
In the two hundred years since the American War of Independence Notre Dame Bay residents have seen combat around the Globe, but the Bay itself has remained at peace. When World War II broke out in 1939 the Americans returned to Fogo Island and Twillingate. This time they came as friends, establishing facilities at Twillingate and Sandy Cove (Fogo Island). Though there was some military activity in the area, neither place suffered an attack by the Germans, as did the Newfoundland mining town of Bell Island. This time peace had returned to Notre Dame Bay for good.