Map of the southern coasts of the island of Newfoundland, Philippe Buache, 1733, public domain
The Acadian refugees in North Atlantic
In 2004, the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador and the French overseas community of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon together celebrated 500 years of French presence in the region. This event was very natural because if the two neighbors are today separated by an international border, they shared a long common history immersed in the endless colonial British and French conflict. Here are some historical landmarks to understand the Acadian history of this region so coveted by the two great powers…
Foundation of the Plaisance colony
From the beginning of the 16th century, Breton, Norman and Basque fishermen frequented the waters of Newfoundland where cod was abundant and very much prized by Europeans. The seasonal exploitation of the French fishing posts reached its peak around 1550, when the French ports sent several hundred boats each year, much more than the Spanish, Portuguese and British ports. In the 17th century, however, only the British and the French were able to establish permanent settlements in Newfoundland, whose economy was entirely based on cod fishing and trade.
It was at Plaisance (present-day Placentia), on the west coast of the Avalon Peninsula, that the French colony was founded with a governor appointed in 1662, while Saint John’s was the capital of the British colony, on the same peninsula’s east coast. In fact, whereas the British were on the northern part of Newfoundland, the French occupied the southern part. The small fishing villages under French administration extended from the western part of the Avalon Peninsula to Cape Ray and the Port-au-Port Peninsula to the west. Among these sedentary villages was St. Pierre, fishing port of the small archipelago of St. Pierre and Miquelon which was founded around 1604 by Breton, Norman and Basque fishermen. Therefore, the need to control the fisheries in Newfoundland would very quickly exacerbate the Franco-British rivalry.
Substituting Louisbourg to Plaisance
In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht put an end to Spain’s war of succession in Europe. In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, France had to yield to England the colony of Plaisance and the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, but also and especially peninsular Acadia, renamed Nova Scotia.
However, France retained Isle Saint-Jean (now Prince Edward Island), as well as Isle Royale (present-day Cape Breton Island), where construction of the fortress of Louisbourg would soon begin. Isle Royale also replaced Plaisance as a French fishing and trading colony in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. While Newfoundland and its adjacent small islands had become exclusively British, the French had been able to retain a right to fish and dry on the shores of Newfoundland from Cape Bonavista to Point Riche (the French Shores) without being permitted to colonize any site.
By 1714 in order to remain French, most inhabitants of Plaisance and Saint-Pierre and Miquelon had to leave their homeland and settle on Isle Royale. Protected by its fortress, the colony of Louisbourg quickly became the hub of the North Atlantic intercolonial trade. In Nova Scotia, most Acadians still refused to take an oath of allegiance unconditionally to the new colonial power, that is the Crown of England. The British supported it, all the less, because the French had not given up building a new Acadia, with the support of Acadians and Mi’kmaq allies.
In August 1755, the governor of Nova Scotia ordered the massive deportation of the Acadians. It was so zealously executed that in the spring of 1756 more than 6,000 Acadians had been deported and dispersed to the original American colonies. Many of their compatriots did nevertheless manage to take refuge in Quebec and on Isle Royale as well as Isle Saint-Jean, both islands being under French sovereignty. In 1758, the Seven Years’ War, begun four years earlier in North America, began to turn in favor of the British. On July 26th, they captured Louisbourg, and four weeks later they took possession of Isle Saint-Jean. The French and Acadian civilian population of Isle Royale together with the overwhelmingly Acadian inhabitants of Isle Saint-Jean were deported to France.
Extension of fishing rights
In 1763, the Treaty of Paris definitively ended the French presence in North America, except in Newfoundland, where the French retained their right to fish and dry on the French Shores. France also obtained, by way of “compensation”, the restitution of the small archipelago of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon intended to serve as a base for its fishery activities in the region which continued to be lucrative. Moreover, the Treaty allowed France to build civilian structures on the archipelago but only for the sole purpose of fishing and to maintain a small garrison for policing purposes exclusively. Soon, former residents of Louisbourg arrived and settled in Saint-Pierre. They were joined shortly afterwards by many Acadian refugees, originally from Nova Scotia, who preferred to settle in Miquelon. But the long ordeal of all these people in exile was far from over, in an international context still hectic… See Saint-Pierre and Miquelon – Fishermen in Saint-Pierre and Acadians in Miquelon.
But that’s not all. In 1783, the Treaty of Versailles, recognizing the independence of the United States, granted France an extension of its fishing zone to Newfoundland. It now extended further west, between Cape St. John and Cape Ray, but still without the possibility of establishing a colony. The French got back the Port-au-Port Peninsula and Saint-Georges Bay which they had to leave after the abandonment of the Plaisance colony. It is probably before the end of the 18th century that the first Acadian families settled in St. Georges Bay without being expressly authorized… See Newfoundland – When the French fishermen joined the Acadian settlers.