On July 1, 1867, the Department of Marine and Fisheries came into existence as the Dominion body responsible for the affairs of shipping which had been handled previously by New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and the United Upper and Lower Provinces. These latter, having graced the new Confederation by donation of the family name of Canada, accepted the prospects of a new future as Quebec and Ontario.
At the time, public awareness of Confederation was accompanied by something less than the emotion engendered today in celebration of its Centenary, and there was no great furore over the alchemy of the slow process by which the domains of Queen Victoria in North America had, somehow or other, been rearranged. But the years following Confederation were relatively prosperous and, in a gently rising tide of population and economy, many people began to realize that there really was a new future. Meantime, for those moving to the new government centre of Ottawa, there was much to be done in fitting together the machinery of federal administration and in gearing it to the collective load. In the world of shipping, throbbing with the vitality of a myriad local enterprises and adventures, but suffering from the limitations of provincial and colonial jurisdiction, many changes were necessary if the trade of the Dominion was to flourish in keeping with the immensities of the land which was rapidly unfolding.
Canadian ships were then British ships in a literal way, quite unlike the wraith of legal substance of modern times, but the full benefits of the Imperial Merchant Shipping Act of 1854 were difficult to apply to ships based outside the United Kingdom or dependent on conditions differing from those in Britain. This classic piece of legislation, keystone of the great arch of marine law which was to influence the course of shipping in many nations in the ensuing half century, had been called into being to regulate grave administrative and social defects in the British merchant service, which the old navigation acts were by now inadequate to handle, and to regulate for conditions which had arisen because of the industrial revolution of the sea. Among other important matters, the Act required that British ships be commanded and officered by holders of statutory certificates of competency which were issued following examination in British ports. In Canada, the facilities for nautical education were poor, the courses of instruction and certificates were not recognized by the British Board of Trade, and few Canadian mates and masters were in a position to be examined for the new certificates. This raised no difficulties in coastwise shipping in North America, nor on the Anglo-Canadian routes to which this regulation did not apply, but Canadian ships requesting clearance from British ports to destinations outside Canada were sometimes held up until the master could qualify by examination under the Act, as required by British law, or until a certified officer could be obtained in his place.
The twenty years following Confederation saw the apogee of Canadian square rigged sailing ships and, to the humble Bluenoser and Quebecker thrusting her homely wooden hull and deck load of timber across the Western Ocean and beyond, had now been added some of the most splendid full rigged ships in the history of merchant shipbuilding and wooden construction. Lofty and graceful, these vessels were launched from many an industry on the beaches of Quebec and the Maritimes, and were employed in worldwide trading; in the scarcity of European shipping following the Australian gold-rush, the opening up of California and the development of the British Empire, Canadian sailing ships also found a ready sale to other owners on arrival in British ports. But the life was hard and back-breaking for the toiling seamen, lonely and austere for masters and mates alleviated sometimes by the presence of the captains wife and always uncertain for the owners, in the risks and chances inseparable from a business with ships all over the earth, at a time when communications were slow and unreliable. Even for families whose lives were immersed in the owning and manning of ships, the borderline between frugal operation and the accrual of modest profit on the one hand, was sometimes difficult to distinguish from under manning, overloading and the ever present chances of disaster, on the other.
Although the great mass of Canadian shipping was under sail, steam was making inroads on the oceanic tonnage of visiting ships, and screw steamers of increasing size and power were discharging passengers and cargo, and loading farm and forest products, in our principal ports. Even on the long sea
routes to the other side of the globe, where fine lined sailing clippers of iron or composite build were reeling off the knots of record runs, the impending opening of the Suez canal, and improvements in the economy of the steam reciprocating engine, were sounding the death knell of the long supremacy of sail. In its place was just beginning the era of the steam tramps, held in contempt by traditional seamen built by the mile and sawn off by the fathom they said which bucked their way with dependable slowness, as well to Halifax and Saint John as to the ports of Orient.
Almost unnoticed in the great world of marine steam engineering, then mainly centred in Scotland, an obscure New Brunswicker had played a part in the improvements which made possible these long voyage steamers, and heralded an age of increased thermal efficiency in the crude machinery of the early nineteenth century. More than a decade before Napier had built the sister ships Queen Victoria and Napoleon III with two oscillating simple cylinders, Benjamin Franklin Tibbets had built and installed the first compound steam engine to be employed afloat, in the steamer Reindeer at Devon, N.B., in 1845. In common with many researchers on both sides of the Atlantic, this brilliant mechanical engineer had made a deep study of the compound engine. The Reindeer was not immediately successful and suffered from mechanical defects, and Tibbets made no financial gain from his invention, but it was the compound, in a later stage of development, which lifted the marine steam engine from a ponderous slow moving structure of great weight, low steam pressure and heavy consumption of coal, to the beginnings of a modern form of prime mover able to compete against wind and wages in the economics of long voyage transportation.
But if steam was, as yet, a stranger to the Canadian merchant marine at sea, the same could not be said at home. In the frontier conditions of a hundred years ago there were few good roads, and the early railway boom, a decade yet from the opening of the Intercolonial Railway connecting Montreal and the Maritimes, was far from creating a national system. Inland communication in the Dominion was largely by water, and the paddle wheel and the screw had achieved a place in the life of the country which even the railway could never entirely vanquish until the advent of trucks and modern highways, scarcely a quarter century ago, which administered the coup de grace to local steamers. In 1867 the wood-fired side-wheeler, sparks floating in dense clouds from the natural draft of her tall chimney, and decks piled high with freight and cordwood, was the common carrier of eastern and central Canada, albeit a notorious fire-trap. Boiler explosions, fire, stranding and collisions were facets of tragedy becoming unacceptable in the slow rise of public conscience and a dawning awareness that the conquest of mans environment, by applied science and higher mechanics, was liable to appalling premiums.
In the fishing business, there had been some changes since the Convention of 1818, and the coming of the fishery cruisers to enforce it, in the early eighteen fifties. With the advent of free trade in Britain, a basis of commercial exchange became desirable in substitution for the disappearing imperial preferences of the old country, and the topic of the day was reciprocity, by which was meant a reciprocal free admission, between the British North American colonies and the United States, of their principal natural products.
Fishing had loomed high on this horizon and, with the expressed intention of the British government in 1852, to enforce the 1818 Fishery Convention, reciprocity took on another aspect. Eventually, in 1854, a reciprocity treaty was signed and approved by the legislatures of Great Britain, Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland by which American and British fishermen achieved reciprocal rights in that each could fish off the coasts of the other, and both were allowed to land for drying and curing. A system of fishing licences was put into effect and certain inshore waters were proscribed.
By the time of Confederation, the American civil war had been fought, and people were tired of strife and fearful of the consequences which might arise from a confrontation of British and American warships in defence of fishing rights. The fisheries protection schooners of the old provinces had proved their suitability for this delicate surveillance, and enforcement became firmly entrenched as a civil rather than a military obligation.