The Issues Crystallize

The Naval Bill

Naval Scares Of The 1870’s

HMS Thrush, 1892

Caption: HMS Thrush, 1892

In the meantime there was a flurry of panic. In 1878 a Russian steamship, Cimbria, landed at Ellsworth, Maine, with a complement of 60 officers and 600 men. Some thought its mission was to purchase from the Americans small, fast steamers that could attack Britain's seaborne commerce. The apprehended crisis did not materialize, but Major-General Edward Selby Smyth continued to believe that in the event of an Anglo-Russian war the weapons and guns that might be installed in Cimbria could serve as well on land as at sea. It was in view of such a contingency that, in a letter to his minister on 3 May 1878, Smyth suggested forming a small armada of steamships in the Gulf of St Lawrence.

In February 1879 this danger was a thing of the past. Smyth was inclined to favour a naval reserve based on one or two old British vessels on which, even at anchor, numerous Canadian sailors, idled by winter, could train. Landlocked naval militia units could use them in summer. 50

At first the British Admiralty expressed no interest, but in 1880, in one of the about-faces Canadians would have to get used to, came the announcement that it was prepared to give Canada Charybes, a vessel suitable for what the Canadians wanted. The Canadian government had other concerns, however, and turned Charybes over to the department of marine and fisheries, which had a refit done at a cost of over $20,000. Afterwards, not knowing what to do with the ship, they towed it to Halifax, where it was left with the Admiralty. This fiasco would result in long-term mothballing of the naval force.

If Canada was still feeling its way on naval defence, it was no further ahead with its general perspective on maritime affairs. A department of marine and fisheries had been formed in 1868, then split into two separate departments in 1884, only to be reconstituted in 1892 as the single department it had been in the first place. It would be split again in 1930, and then, in 1936, the marine section would be transferred to the department of transport. In 1995 the marine section would be moved to the department of fisheries and oceans.

This indecisiveness would have no negative effect on plans to create a Canadian navy, which continued to hatch until the late 19th century. Almost all these plans were based on data that are still valid at the end of the 20th century - the immensity of Canada's coastlines, for example - or would remain important for decades and even up to the Second World War. During the 1880s fears were voiced more or less as follows: Lacking naval batteries or vessels, Canadas coasts were left undefended. The nearest British squadron was also responsible for Bermuda and would be recalled immediately in the event of war in Europe.