The Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812

Newfoundland Threatened

HMS Asia in Halifax harbour, 1797

Caption: HMS Asia in Halifax harbour, 1797

It was in the Maritimes, in 1796, that the most serious threat occurred, when a French fleet of seven vessels and a few frigates, under the command of Admiral Joseph de Richery, appeared off the coast of Newfoundland, almost creating a state of panic. There were soon rumours from every quarter that they would disembark on the island and attack St. John's. The British authorities remained sceptical, however, feeling that the French fleet would not dare to attack military objectives. In fact, it appears that Richery had come only with the intention of interfering with the fisheries, which he did. After lurking in the vicinity for a few weeks, the Admiral returned to France, knowing full well that the Royal Navy would end up catching him if he were to stay longer. The only true landing in Newfoundland was at Bay Bulls, where the French sailors destroyed a few houses and warehouses.

Although worrisome, these raids were not a serious threat. The British therefore did not change their naval strategy and continued to assign a limited number of warships to guard the St. Lawrence and the Newfoundland fisheries. Even if some of the enemy fleet broke through the British blockade of the European coasts, as Richery did, they would be unable to stay in the vicinity of North America too long without risking encounters with powerful pursuers. At any rate, the French and Spanish fleets were suffering defeat after defeat at the hands of the British, and towards the end of the 1790s England was virtually the undisputed ruler of the seas.