A History of Nova Scotia Page


Book #3: TOC
The Road To Being Canada
(1815-1867)
Chapter 42, Free Trade, Fishery, And Relations With The United States

With the end of the war years (France and the United States), Nova Scotia fell on hard times, particularly at Halifax. No longer did large squadrons of British ships arrive, no longer was it necessary to maintain large numbers of British troops, no longer did great numbers of British trade ships arrive. However, trade noticeably picked up with the United States.1 In the year 1814, great numbers of ships were coming and going at Halifax with tons of goods. By 1821, with the significant exception of the goods coming and going to the United States, there are to be seen great reductions in trade as gauged by ship movements at Halifax. By 1828 things were once again picking up.

Just after the war, both Great Britain and the United States made efforts to normalize trade relations. This gave rise to a convention which was signed on July 3rd, 1815: A Convention to Regulate the Commerce between the Territories of The United States and of His Britannick Majesty. Subject to the normal laws of the country, men of commerce from each of the two countries were free to do business in either place. "Generally the Merchants and Traders of each Nation respectively shall enjoy the most complete protection and security for their Commerce." However, while this applied to the home territory of the two countries, it seems that it was not to apply to the colonial possessions, such as those which Great Britain had in the "in the West Indies and on the Continent of North America." They were not to "be affected by any of the provisions" of the Convention. Rather each party shall remain in the complete possession of its rights with respect to such an Intercourse." (We might remind ourselves that in 1815, as between the two, it was Great Britain that had possessions "in the West Indies and on the Continent of North America," not so for the United States.)

While the Convention of 1815 was not to apply to Nova Scotia, it being a British colonial possession in North America, it had a significant impact on the colony. Up to 1815, and for years before, because Great Britain and the United States were at war, there was to be no trade with the Americans (smuggling however was rampant). American fishermen from New England were not allowed to fish off the coasts of Nova Scotia, though they were allowed to pull into the harbours of Nova Scotia, if suffering from some sort of a marine distress. After 1815 there was a significant buildup of Americans helping themselves to "Nova Scotia fish." Nova Scotian fishermen became increasingly upset with these Americans.2 The politicians tried to deal with the problem.

In 1818, the House made an address to "his excellency on the subject of the fisheries, complaining of the resort of fishing vessels to the shores of these provinces, -- objecting especially to their passing through the gut of Canso -- to their right of fishing in the gulf of St. Lawrence or the Bay of Fundy. ... Eight American fishing vessels were seized this summer by the navy on the station, and sent into Halifax harbor."3 Note that these seizures took place in the summer. Illegal fishing and smuggling took place through the winter, too; this was a job for the British navy, but they did not like sailing off the coasts of Nova Scotia during the winter months. "... not one of our own Squadron has been to this place from Bermudas since November last. Their only duty is to check smuggling & they ought to have been at their post two months ago."4

Lord Dalhousie treated the subject further in his journal:

"I have also transmitted an Address from the Assembly on the late Convention, to be presented to the Prince Regent; this treaty with America has laid open the fisheries to them, & admits them to come freely into all our harbours to wood & water when they please -- it is to license to them a free smuggling trade into the Province which nothing can effectively check. The supply of fish caught by our own poor people in the distant harbours will be brought up for bad flour, bad rum, or the refuse of the bad American markets. It will of course reduce our own export of fish, while it makes our population friendly with Yankees, & when the day of war shall come, the loyalty of the Province will be doubtful at the best."5
It seems, upon registering the province's complaint at the Home Office at London, changes came into effect.
"The enforcement of the Navigation Laws shut out the Americans from the islands and American fishermen were warned not to return to the fishing grounds. A lively diplomatic war ensued between England and the United States in which the American Government adopted the weapons of her opponent and passed navigation laws favouring her own commerce. To meet American restrictive measures Halifax was made a free port in 1818. ... The first breach in this system was the convention of 1818 which opened the North Atlantic fishing grounds to the Americans and allowed them under certain restrictions to obtain wood and water in the harbours of the province. The key to the understanding of all the fishery disputes with the United States is the smuggling trade. Experience had shown that if the Americans were allowed to fish off the shores of the province and more especially if they could enter the harbours for any purpose whatsoever, they could engage conveniently in an extensive smuggling trade. ... By 1830 the mercantilist policies were giving way to the economic advantages of free trade.6
There began, at some point after 1815, an understanding in both Nova Scotia and the Great Republic to the south, that while it certainly did not exist during the war years, freer trade would favour most everybody. Free Trade would reduce smuggling to a considerable degree; smuggling from all accounts was a very large problem. Initially, the Tories or Conservatives were against free trade, but they were gradually converted, such that the Reciprocity Treaty was signed by Britain and the United States in 1854.

The difficulty was not that these two territories should not have reciprocal arrangements for free trade, but rather that the Americans were reluctant to sweeten the deal because Nova Scotians would have to give up their exclusive (pretty much) rights to fish off the coasts of Nova Scotia. This they had gained in negotiations which led to the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in December of 1814, ending the War of 1812. The question of fishing rights came up again which led the British to allow, by the Convention of 1818, fishing rights for Americans along Newfoundland and Labrador.7 Still Nova Scotian shores were protected "within three marine miles off the coast of British North America." Exceptions however were made "for the purpose of shelter and repairing damages therein, of purchasing wood, and of obtaining water ..."8

Fishing rights were to be a sore point for the fishermen of both Nova Scotia and New England for years to come. Fish, of course, was a major export for Nova Scotia, most of it going down into the Caribbean to feed the cane-cutters. But the people of Nova Scotia, as should be understood by now, traded in a number of different commodities. In examining the content and quantity of exports going out of Nova Scotia will result in an understanding of how, many Nova Scotians made their living during the first half of the 19th century. As a measure of the commercial activities in Nova Scotia, we need only to look at manifests of the sailing vessels that cleared her ports. Let us look at those clearing Lunenburg between 12th January and the 25th of March, 1818. 150,000 feet of pine lumber, 24,850 oak and ash hogshead staves, 8,500 hogshead hoops, 1,300 gallons of fish oil, 453 barrels9 of pickled fish, 24 half do do., 5,320 quintals dry cod and scale fish, 220 bushels of potatoes, 15 do turnips, 53 shooks, 20 spars, 11,000 shingles.10 Flour was still being imported into the province. During 1819 over 50,00 barrels were imported into the province, whereas 37,500 bushels of potatoes were exported.11

In 1844, the Congress of the United States passed a law allowing goods from Britain to pass through the port of Boston and on into Canada, duty free. This act led to the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854, between the United States and the British provinces to the north.12

The Treaty of 1854 was one between Britain and the United States, which certain people in Nova Scotia felt that they "had not been adequately consulted in the granting to foreign fishermen of her inshore fisheries."13 Samuel Cunard, for one, supported free trade. In a letter to Howe, Cunard wrote "to bring it [reciprocity] before the Lieutenant-Governor at once, that this province may not be excluded from any arrangement that may be made."14 It's easy to see why Cunard took such a position, by then Cunard had significant interests, not just in shipping but also in the wider commercial businesses such as Banking. Though, there is the view that maybe Cunard was an exception and that "most of the opposition to reciprocity was centered in Halifax and that it was based on the selfish concerns of the Halifax commercial élite." In that they would "suffer because of increased American competition."15

(The relationship between Howe and Cunard was an interesting one. "How the two men with such opposing views as Cunard and Howe ever became good friends was a mystery to all who knew them. Perhaps it was because of certain complementary qualities in each. Howe was a poet of some note, and Cunard was inclined, when in England, to mingle with London's literary set. A poor businessman himself, Howe undoubtedly admired Sam's ability to make money, though he never hesitated to denounce his methods, if he considered them too sharp."16)

The American Government reacted very coolly to British overtures on the subject of reciprocity. "Domestic politics, especially the delicate balancing of sectional interests within the union, were preoccupying the American administration." Nova Scotians kept waiting for some sort of a concession for giving up their heretofore exclusive on the fishery, however, no such concession was forthcoming from the Americans. The negotiations, we need to remind ourselves were ongoing between the two countries of Great Britain and the United States. Nova Scotia was but a British colony and had to fit her concerns in through messages to London, which messages were not received or poorly understood. What Nova Scotians were advocating and emphasizing continually "was that the fishery should not be surrendered without 'substantial equivalents' and only after consultation with the Nova Scotian legislature."17

In any event, it could not be expected, given the history of the previous two centuries, that American fisherman could ever be excluded from the great fishery banks off the coasts of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. What was in issue, was where a country's territorial waters ended. Three miles seem to be an acceptable measure.

"The American jurists and diplomats insisted that it followed all the sinuosities of the shore. If admitted this claim would give American fishermen the right of entrance to huge British bights and bays full of valuable fish. The Canadian contention was that the three-mile limit ran from headland to headland, thus excluding the Americans from fishing within the deeper indentations of the coast-line."18
In the end, by the Treaty of 1854, as part of the overall free trade deal, American fishermen were given permission to fish in British waters off the east coast.19 It seems without giving any regard to what the wishes and desires of Nova Scotians, the British government made the matter moot. A reciprocity treaty between Britain and the United States was concluded without out any return on behalf of the Americans for the lost the fishing rights which hither fore belonged exclusively to Nova Scotians. As of June 5th, 1854, the treaty, British law, was also law in Nova Scotia and there was nothing much Nova Scotians could do about it.

Joe Howe:

"I look upon the matter in which the treaty has been consummated as one of the grossest insults that I have ever known to have been perpetrated in a colony. And I say that I would not hesitate to forgo the advantages of the treaty for one year or seven years in order to teach these men in England who barter away our property -- that we know our rights, dare maintain them. Sir, I have no hesitation in saying also, that when I look at the summary mode in which our dearest interests are trifled with -- while I feel more and more as a Nova Scotian, I feel less and less as a British subject."20
R. H. McDonald concluded:
"Despite such indignation at the manner by which it was achieved, support for the treaty continued to grow. While not as generous as might have been expected the treaty did offer substantial advantages to Nova Scotia in regards to expanded markets for her fish, coal21 and forest products. Hence in spite of anger with the British over the negotiations, the treaty was ratified by a healthy majority in both Houses of the Legislature."22

NEXT: [Chapter 43, Responsible Government]

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Peter Landry