A History of the Canadian Coast Guard and Marine Services
by Thomas E. Appleton

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British Colonial Shipping

On the Atlantic seaboard, things were different. The great fisheries of the Grand Banks, and that marvellous chain of fertile shallows which forms the continental shelf of North America, were being fished with increasing intensity. The English, with their dry cure, tended to concentrate in the stake-lined harbours of Newfoundland where the deep-sea smacks of Devon and Cornwall made their base of operations for the season. By this time fishing had become an important industry and some of the ships brought extra fishermen as passengers to operate the inshore grounds from local boats, called buy boats, whose catches were bought to fill the holds of running carriers, the sack or trading ships which plied between England, Newfoundland and European ports.

The French, decentralized to some extent, worked the south shore of Newfoundland, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and parts of what is now Nova Scotia.

The influence of the cod fisheries on the economic life of the two contesting nations was divergent staple trade for both, to be sure food for a growing European population on the one hand and, for both, but infinitely more important for the English, a source of non-perishable stores for ship victualling which made some kind of alternative to the stinking harness casks of salt beef which fed the seamen of the age. Finally, to quote a phrase which runs like a thread through British naval policy of the long sea wars to come, the Newfoundland fisheries were a prime nursery of seamen on which the Royal Navy could draw to fill the broadside messes of their wooden walls.

In all this maritime activity, scattered as it was by the hand of fate and periodic forays of the great powers at the limit of their lines of supply, there was little attention to spare for the safety of shipping or the welfare of seamen, save only for the efforts of countless brave and unknown men who faced the sea peril with an equanimity born of long acquaintance. In this, the early bases and primitive settlements were no different from their roots in European society as a whole, which was emerging from the fatalism of an earlier age. Perhaps fatalism was the only practicable attitude to adopt in the eighteenth century, the last phase in which it was even remotely possible to run the world without the aid of the elaborate and dispassionate machines of government necessary today. In relation to ships and seamen, it was the period in which Samuel Johnson, the English sage, remarked to the effect that no man would go to sea who had contrivance enough to get himself into a jail.

Nevertheless this was the time when two influences combined to achieve the first aids to navigation in early North America, weak and feeble glimmerings though they were. One was concern for the supplies of war which both Britain and France were lot to see cast away on the ironbound approaches to their newly acquired bases at Halifax and Louisburg, and the other was the growth of local shipping for the fisheries and sea trading. The first led to the establishment of lighthouses at principal ports, while the second gave rise to seamarks and buoys which, from Quebec to New England, guided the safe return of humble sloops and schooners to countless small localities.

The honour of establishing the first lighthouse in what is now Canada belongs to the French, who designed a tower and lantern for their fortress of Louisburg in 1733 and erected it shortly afterwards. As early as 1716 the British had built the light on Little Brewster Island, off Boston, and had followed this with Sambro Island in Nova Scotia in 1758, Cape Breton Island in 1777, and St. Johns, Newfoundland in 1791.

These few lighthouses and primitive aids to navigation, such as wooden barrels with top marks and simple stone beacons, were the beginning of a great system by which, eventually, shipping would proceed with certainty and despatch in all ice-free conditions. But if, as yet, such a concept was beyond the dreams of men, the seamarks to their village homes were treated as objects of inviolacy, as indeed they are now. By a Nova Scotia Act of 1784, damage to a buoy or beacon could bring a sentence of 12 months imprisonment, and the offence of securing a boat to a buoy, still a feature of our regulations, was punishable by the same Act with a twenty pound fine or, in default, by a term of six months in jail. Of such was the importance of the sea handrails to our forefathers.