Canadian history, to a much greater extent than is generally realized, has been shaped by the forces of sea power. In the eighteenth century, the struggle between Britain and France was characterized by the ability of a great naval power to deploy limited land forces at the most effective places and, on the other hand, by the inability of a great military power to sustain its maximum potential because of naval inferiority. In the American revolutionary war, despite a series of calamitous military defeats, it was sea power which enabled British North America to survive and, when again in great danger during the war of 1812, to delay the crisis until sufficient troops could be spared, from the closing scenes of the Napoleonic wars in Europe, to redress the balance of military forces. Evolving slowly through all these difficulties, the British Colonies developed under their inherited political philosophy which, entirely dependent at the beginning, flowered under a parliamentary system devoted to freedom of the individual, and grew inevitably towards a position of independence from the mother country. In matters of defence, however, it would be a long time before the new Dominion was in a position to adopt a national posture.
It is true that there had been times when wars or unsettled international conditions gave rise to the formation, in Canada, of naval organizations for limited or specific purposes. Such a force was the Provincial Marine which, as we have seen, lingered on, at least on paper, for many years after the war of 1812, and went afloat on active service for the last time in the Fenian raids of the sixties. We have also seen that the coming of the fishery cruisers, if hardly to be considered as a naval force, involved a role of enforcement by vessels which, technically speaking, were armed; the armament consisted of a single small gun for firing across the bows of offending fishing schooners or sometimes, in ships such as La Canadienne and Napoleon III which acted in a police role, of rifles for civil purposes. A few of the officers of these ships, but by no means all, had served in the imperial navy, and both officers and men wore uniform. Apart from microscopic naval exertions such as these, neither Canadian nor British authorities considered the defence of Canada on the sea to be anything but the responsibility of the Royal Navy which, since time immemorial, had been the sure shield of the British Empire and the cloak under which the exertions of lesser powers might be contained.
And then, at the high noon of the Pax Britannica, a small cloud or two appeared. No one realized it at the time, but the first signs of naval rivalry between the great powers would herald a terrible progression which eventually, by way of Tshushima, Coronel and the Falkland Islands, would lead to the battle of Jutland and the Valhalla of heavy ships in line of battle. It might be thought that confederated Canada was well clear of the main stream of this myopic competition, but even here the first ripples began to be apparent. During the American civil war the ironclad battery Monitor had demonstrated the arrival of a new age in the give and take of naval gunnery, and the Confederate cruiser Alabama, fitted out and armed under the very noses of the British, showed the damage which could be inflicted by a fast commerce raider disappearing into the ocean void. Shortly afterwards, in the late seventies, a period of strained relations between Russia and Britain looked ominous for a while, and the Canadian Government began to think in terms of a naval reserve to protect shipping both at sea and on the lakes.
Commissioned by Marine and Fisheries in 1881 in an ill-fated scheme to train naval reservists, the Charybdis had one distinction she was the only full rigged ship to be owned by the Department. Shown here in full naval rig, she sailed from Plymouth to Saint John, N.-S. with her upper yards on deck. Her boilers were re-tubed for the occasion.
(Department of National Defence)
This idea, inspired partly by the demonstrated ease with which fast merchant ships could be transformed into armed raiders, and partly by the availability for training in Eastern Canada of thousands of fishermen who were accustomed to the utmost rigours of seafaring, was discussed in the annual report of the general officer commanding the Canadian Militia in 1879.
"It would be a mutual benefit if the Imperial Government would bestow or lend to the Dominion an ironclad or wooden frigate, partly for coast defence in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, as well as for training naval volunteers and a school for lads on the principle that many line-of-battle-ships and frigates are now employed in the Thames, Mersey, Clyde and other British ports."
There being no Canadian naval authority at the time, the government marine service was deemed to be the appropriate body to undertake this scheme.
Thus it was that the Department of Marine and Fisheries found itself in possession of the first major warship to be owned by the Dominion of Canada. HMS Charybdis had paid off in England after a seven year commission on the China station and when, in 1880, the Governor General stated in a dispatch to the Colonial Secretary that his government:
"would not be averse to instituting a ship for training purposes if the Imperial Government would provide the ship."
the Charybdis was allocated, by the Admiralty, for this purpose. A sailing corvette with steam machinery, the Charybdis was not unlike the Alert and both were representative of a fast disappearing type used only for showing the flag in remote places, for hydrography, and for special work such as exploration or the training of young seamen. Captain P. A. Scott, a retired officer of the Royal Navy who made a second career in the Department, was sent to England to bring the ship to Canada. Captain Scott had commanded the Druid and Lady Head shortly after Confederation and was now in command of the Dominion fishery cruiser fleet, an appointment which he held until his retirement in 1888. It had been the intention of the Admiralty to supply the Charybdis on loan to Canada, but, with dockyards full of old corvettes, Their Lordships made a present of her as an outright gift. She was a fine looking ship in the tradition of the Old Navy, with topsails of classic cut and a lengthy gun deck with broadside messes for the seamen. Captain Scott paid little attention to the engine room tucked away beneath the splendour of open decks, hammock nettings and brass stanchions. But his chief engineer, with the sceptical outlook of many years of struggle with ancient machinery, made a thorough inspection of the "chamber of horrors" and reported a melancholy tale; the boilers were done. In truth, ships of this type were heavy to sail and awkward to steam.
Repairs were carried out at the expense of the Canadian Government, and early in 1881 the Charybdis was ready for sea. She was not, of course, HMCS Charybdis, for it would be another thirty years before the Royal Canadian Navy evolved from these beginnings but, as a Dominion government ship under the commander of the fishery fleet, she wore the blue ensign of Canada and the long blue commission pendant. Despite these brave attempts, all was not well. Captain Scott brought the ship safety across the Atlantic, and she berthed in Saint John, N.B. to take up her new role. But the voyage had been a disappointment. The crew of 120 were short handed and it was seen that a realistic scheme of naval training would require something more than an old ship bereft of the benefits of Admiralty supply and administration. Ships of this type had been intended for use with enormous crews and the fact was that the projected naval reserve was beyond the resources which could reasonably be allocated for the purpose. To make matters worse, the Charybdis came adrift in a gale of wind and inflicted damage on other shipping; when two visitors fell into Saint John harbour and were drowned, because of the rotten state of the gangway, the government came in for criticism and it was decided to abandon the project. In August 1882 the Charybdis was towed to Halifax and returned to the Dockyard for disposal.
The Canadian Pacific Liner Empress of India which inaugurated the trans-Pacific mail and passenger service. She sailed from Yokohama on April 17, 1891, arriving at Victoria early on the 28th. After a three hour stop the Empress sailed to Vancouver, the same day, to connect with a special train. Mail reached London in 21 days from Japan.
If the Department of Marine and Fisheries had been unfortunate in this brief excursion into the realms of defence, the Department of Railways and Canals presented a bonus to the naval life of Canada as a by-product of the transcontinental railway. When the first train from the east was received into Vancouver alongside a large banner proclaiming Labor Omnia Vincit, it might have been added that the work of the railway builders had simplified the work of shipping. British warships on the Pacific coast, operating from the naval base at Esquimalt, had hitherto been supplied with naval stores by sea around
Stationed in the Bay of Fundy for fisheries protection and Marine Service duties from 1892. Note the ram bow and the small cannon on the taffrail.
(Walter D. Cunningham, Saint John, N.B.)
Cape Horn, a passage of many months and, from the time of ordering until eventual fulfillment, perhaps a year or more. Now after a comparatively short passage from England to Halifax, consignments could be sent by rail to the west coast in a matter of days, and a shipment of vital importance could reach the Pacific squadron in some three weeks from Britain. The high point of an imperialistic age was reached in 1891 when the Canadian Pacific liner Empress of India left Yokohama for Vancouver to inaugurate a first class mail and passenger service on the trans-Pacific run and Canada was firmly established as the strongest link in the great chain of Empire communications. Clearly, here was a problem in defence, not only for Britain in the interests of her naval supremacy, but also for Canada, now emerging as the great Dominion.
To add to a world-wide interest in naval strategy, Captain Alfred T. Mahan USN inspired a new professionalism when, between 1890 and 1892, he wrote two famous books on the influence of sea power. These were carefully studied in the war colleges of the world and, as they hammered home the earlier lessons of history in naval warfare, additional nations were minded to enter the great naval race, not only among the older countries of maritime heritage, but in some whose flag was relatively new on the seas. To the already large navies of Britain and France had now been added those of Russia and Japan, the United States Navy was cruising for a field, and the new navy of Germany, untried but hard hitting and efficient, was causing food for thought. In this climate of suspicion and growing armaments, even Canada, remote though she was from the seats of power, was inevitably sucked towards the widening vortex.
As in all international involvements, the question of Canadian participation in the prevalent naval expansion was, of course, a matter of opinion and political debate. In this issue, which was of great importance to the national weal, the country had reached a watershed where her own interests, as distinct from the interests of imperial defence, might well have taken a different course. Britain, on the other hand, at the height of her world-wide naval responsibilities, and conscious of a relative decline in her supremacy at sea, was anxious to encourage satellite navies, or at least naval reserves, in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, subject always to overall control by the Admiralty in time of war. Indeed, with the Mahan doctrine of mobility of sea power, it was hoped that the principal units of the smaller navies could be concentrated if required to support the main fleet, not necessarily in their own waters. Briefly then, and very roughly, the choice facing the government of the day could be described as Canadian Navy, no navy, or outright contribution to the British Navy. In the event, influenced by the impending menace of German naval construction, Sir Wilfrid Laurier brought in a bill to establish a Canadian naval force and, May 4, 1910, the Naval Service Act received assent.
The Marine and Fisheries cruiser at Halifax about 1890. Note the brass muzzle loading cannon on deck ahead of the foremast. The continuous half-round at the edge of the upper deck pre-dates by about 70 years a similar design feature in the St. Laurent class destroyers of the RCN.
From this point, the history of the Naval Service spans outside the scope of this work, but mention must be made of the preparations, in which the Department of Marine and Fisheries played an important role. As the government body devoted to marine administration, it was the natural repository of our early naval responsibilities, and the Minister, the Hon. L. P. Brodeur, became answerable to parliament for the new Naval Service of Canada which became a separate department to which were appointed some of the senior officers of the Department of Marine and Fisheries, including the deputy minister, George J. Desbarats, and the commander of the Marine and Fisheries fleet, Rear Admiral Kingsmill.
As we have already seen, the influence of former naval officers was considerable. Captain P. A. Scott commanded the fleet from 1869 to 1888, Andrew R. Gordon (who had retired from the navy as a lieutenant) from 1891 to 1893, and Osprey George Valentine Spain from 1893 until 1908. Their naval service varied widely, Scott having retired as a post captain and Spain as a sub lieutenant, bull all used their early training and experience to bring a corporate morale to our scattered ships and bases. In accordance with the custom of the times all were referred to as "captain" or "commander" when in charge of ships, and as "commander of the fleet" when in the most senior appointment. They were dedicated and devoted men to whom our service owed much in the years of growth.
Admiral Sir Charles Kingsmill, K.B., R.C.N.
As Rear Admiral Kingsmill he commanded the Marine and Fisheries fleet from 1908 to 1910.
(Department of National Defence)
Scott, although he was unfortunate over the Charybdis business, had commanded many of our ships, Gordon had successfully undertaken the three Hudson Bay expeditions, and Spain had achieved much in the administration of the service, including a scheme for half pay for the officers when their ships were laid up in winter, and various improvements which helped the pay and conditions of employment of the seamen. But it was to Rear Admiral Kingsmill that the service owed much of the development in the years immediately preceding the formation of the Naval Service of Canada, and to whom, in the difficult years of the first world war, the Royal Canadian Navy would look for leadership as its professional head.
Charles Edmund Kingsmill was born at Guelph, in Upper Canada, in 1855 and, by the time that he took command of the Marine and Fisheries fleet in 1908, he had risen to flag rank in the Royal Navy and had commanded battleships, including a division of the home fleet. After his service in the Department of Marine and Fisheries, and subsequently as the Director of the Naval Service of Canada, he finally retired in 1920 with the rank of admiral, which he had held since 1917. Knighted in 1918, Sir Charles
Kingsmill had charge of our fleet at a crucial stage in its history. Never again would the naval influence be as strong, but not till recent years, and for entirely different reasons, would the sense of corporate service again rise to a comparable level.
Originally with black topsides, the Marine and Fisheries cruiser was painted white for naval exercises in the West Indies. After 1911 a raised forecastle was added. Note the accommodation ladder, awnings fore and aft, and boat boom.
One further development of the naval renaissance of the years before 1910 remains to be recorded. It was realized that the projected Naval Service, even if the bill authorizing its existence were to survive the shoals of political hazard, could hardly be created overnight and that it would be difficult to provide, in the time available, a Canadian input of young officers. There was then no naval college and, although Canadians could enlist in the Royal Navy, as many had done, there was no way in which they could do so as representatives of a Canadian service. In this dilemma, anticipating the need for elementary sea training, the CGS Canada was used for the purpose. The Canada was a remarkable little ship, similar to a fast naval sloop of the period, which had been built by Vickers Sons and Maxim, at Barrow-in-Furness, in 1904. Of 200 feet in length, she could steam at 22 knots, was armed with four small quick-firing guns, and carried a complement of 75 officers and men. With a ram bow, she was certainly the most warlike fishery cruiser we ever had, and was the ultimate of a series which included a smaller, but generally similar, vessel the CGS Vigilant built by Polsons of Toronto. These two, which were really small warships in all but name, followed a previous series of fishery cruisers, Constance, Curlew and Petrel, which had been commissioned in 1892.
To the Canada then, the Department looked for a first serious venture into professional sea training. In the winter of 1905, the Canada, with representatives from the crews of other fishery cruisers, commenced a series of instructional cruises and, for some years, exercised with the British fleet on the West Indies station. Among other officers, cadets Beard, Bate, Brodeur, German and Nelles trained in the CGS Canada in the years before the advent of the Naval Service. Two of them, Cadet V. G. Brodeur who is a son of the Hon. L. P. Brodeur, Minister from 1906 to 1911, and Cadet Percy Nelles, rose to flag rank in the Royal Canadian Navy and one of these two, Admiral P. W. Nelles, became also the first Canadian trained officer to command his Service, and the first to rise to the rank of full admiral.
From these small beginnings, hoping for a successful confinement, but by no means sure of the result, a small band of officers in the Marine and Fisheries Service anticipated the birth of the Royal Canadian Navy. They had little to look forward to by way of pay or promotion, or even of continuity of service but, in a day to come, they would see their Navy expand to become the sheet anchor of the allied close escort forces in the convoy battle of the Atlantic.
Shown here in the Welland Canal in 1914, the Vigilant was built by Polsons at Toronto in 1904. She may be regarded as the first "modern" warship to be built in Canada. She was employed on the Great Lakes on fisheries protection.
(Department of National Defence)
The Petrel was built for Great Lakes fisheries protection. Proving too slow to cope with American fishing tugs, she was transferred to the Atlantic coast about 1904 on the grounds that she was fast enough to deal with schooners. The Vigilant took over the Great Lakes work.
(Ivan S. Brookes)