- Frigates and Foremasts: The North American Squadron in Nova Scotia Waters
This is a book for specialists: specialists in naval history, maritime history, and to a lesser extent imperial history and Nova Scotian history. It is not a book for the casual reader, even if that reader is a historian.
Julian Gwyn, who has a well-established reputation as a maritime historian and as an economic historian with a particular interest in Nova Scotia, has written an account of the involvement of the British navy in Nova Scotian and nearby North American waters essentially from the first fall of the Louisbourg fortress until the end of the War of 1812. This subject has not been treated systematically by previous writers, although according to Gwyn, referring to the navy, 'no other British institution so marked this formative period of Nova Scotia's history.' Thus he has provided the first connected narrative of British naval activity in the area surrounding Nova Scotia for the years 1745-1815.
The research is impressive, the mastery of both primary and secondary sources is evident, and the book has clearly been a labour of love. The story is complex, and some of the nautical terminology will be unfamiliar to many readers, who will find essential the glossary of terms that the author has provided. The organization of material is chronological, with much emphasis upon commanding officers and their idiosyncracies. The presentation is marred on occasion by a somewhat precious writing style.
The navy's role off Nova Scotia was military, economic, and regulatory: to attack and defend in wartime, to protect fishing interests at all times, and to enforce revenue legislation sometimes. It accomplished what it did despite the fact that the British Admiralty rarely took a serious interest in the region. Nova Scotia was simply not a priority. This was true from beginning to end. In the middle decades of the eighteenth century, New England and the Newfoundland fishery were more important in the eyes of London. But one of the most revealing examples occurred in the War of 1812. It was understandable that the British were preoccupied as long as there was a war of epic proportions raging on and around the continent of Europe, but once that was over and Napoleon was exiled to Elba, they withdrew ships from active service rather than turn the full naval might of the kingdom against the Americans; 'many in Britain considered [it] an unnatural war.'
A weakness of this book lies in its step-by-step chronicling of events, with an occasional digression such as the remarkable account of how, during the War of 1812, civil authorities in the exceptionally underdeveloped British colony of Cape Breton Island imprisoned for months a British naval officer who was the victim of an assault on a Sydney street. How [End Page 279] could this happen? There are many instances when the uninitiated reader is bound to be surprised at the role that the rule of law, or the lack of it, plays. Civilian hostility - intense and visceral - to the navy emerges time and again. A separate chapter on such matters, and some careful reflection on their broader significance, would have been welcome.
As a work of reference, this study will be valuable for maritime and naval historians, and for historians of early Nova Scotia generally. [End Page 280]
Ian Ross Robertson, Department of History, University of Toronto at Scarborough