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  • Ashore and Afloat: The British Navy and the Halifax Yard before 1820
  • Cheryl Fury
Ashore and Afloat: The British Navy and the Halifax Yard before 1820. Julian Gwyn. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2004. Pp. 366, b&w, $35.00

For those of us who live in the Maritime provinces, Halifax and the navy seem virtually synonymous. The impact of the British, and later, Canadian, navy have made a huge impact on the area. It is somewhat surprising that for most of its early history, Halifax was quite marginal among the naval yards of the British Empire. This is only one of the themes Gwyn explores in Ashore and Afloat: The British Navy and the Halifax Naval Yard before 1820, a meticulous portrait of the economic impact of the yard in peace and in war.

Construction of the Halifax yard was undertaken in the 1750s to bolster the British presence and its drive for dominance in North America. Originally designed to combat the French, its fortunes rose and fell with imperial policy. It played a small but significant role until 1819, and reached its zenith during the struggles with the Americans in the War of Independence and the War of 1812. While it proved good value for British pounds, once the possibility of maritime warfare against the United States was extinguished, so too was the yard's importance to Britain in the nineteenth century.

Despite being the largest industrial site in British North America, the yard would have been more useful if it had possessed a dry dock. Without it, Halifax lacked adequate facilities to conduct major repairs, and many ships had to be sent back to England. A dry dock would have also facilitated Haligonian shipbuilding, utilizing the outstanding timber of neighbouring New Brunswick.

This is only one example of the Navy Board's policies that Gwyn condemns. The word myopia appears frequently in conjunction with the Admiralty and Navy Board. Gwyn demonstrates that the administration that micromanaged the yard from three thousand miles away was seldom up to the task. Had the personnel on site been allowed more autonomy, Halifax, and by extension, the British Empire, would have been better served. [End Page 115]

Part of Halifax's handicap was the administration's blind preference for men and supplies from Britain over anything local. This fact held true for just about everything – whether artisans or materials. When skilled local workers were employed, certainly no Acadian, Aboriginal, or Afro-Nova Scotians would have been given desirable posts. British biases are also evident against local lumber. This is one of the areas where the Halifax yard was unique – its proximity and utilization of timber for the fleet. Even though much of the region's growth would eventually be tied to lumber (mainly from New Brunswick, which was crafted out of the frontiers of Nova Scotia), the motherland was slow to recognize the high quality of local 'sticks' for masts and such.

When it came at all, changes in Britain's policies and attitudes occurred under the extreme circumstances that war can bring. Commissioner Wodehouse seems to have been one of the rare individuals who sought and obtained an increased measure of autonomy for the Halifax yard.

While the Navy Board was often intractable and ignorant, the other serious drawback was that inclement weather rendered Halifax harbour hazardous in winter. Such circumstances are difficult to overcome, and anyone who has endured a Maritime winter can appreciate why the fleet opted primarily for the Bermuda base when the American menace evaporated.

Despite being entitled Ashore and Afloat, Gwyn's book deals largely with the naval yard's affairs ashore. Gwyn is correct in emphasizing the importance of the Halifax yard to the town, yet we are mainly shown its economic impact. Even though the book jacket claims there are 'no stones unturned' in this study, Gwyn makes only a few allusions to the social and cultural influence of the yard and the navy.

Gwyn has provided copious, informative endnotes, a helpful biographical directory, and useful tables, as well as a glossary and illustrations. Stylistically, it is well written in a straightforward and organized manner. Ashore and Afloat is a storehouse...


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