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Castle Hill National Historic Park preserves what remains of French and English fortifications built in the 17th and 18th centuries. Blessed with a superb harbour and a stone beach ideal for drying cod, Placentia, or Plaisance as the French knew it, was frequented by Basque fishermen from the early 16th century.
The first official colony was founded by the French in 1662 during the reign of Louis XIV. Plaisance was valued as a check against possible English expansion in Newfoundland, as a base from which to defend the approach to Canada in wartime, and as a protective base for the French fishing fleet in Newfoundland. The fishery was important to both England and France, not only for economic reasons, but because it was an ideal training ground for naval recruits. The colony was initially defended by 30 soldiers that accompanied the colonists in 1662. The original defence works proved inadequate. The first work, Le Vieux Fort, was erected on a point of land to the east of the settlement. It quickly became rundown. Fort Louis, on the northern point of the gut, became the main fort in 1691. The first defensive work within the boundaries of Castle Hill National Historic Park was begun in 1692 in response to an English attack (War of the League of Augsburg, 1689-97). This was Le Gaiflardin, a small redoubt atop Gaillardin Mountain. The most important hilltop fortification, Fort Royal, was started on Castle Hill in 1693.
Even in an unfinished state, it was instrumental in causing the retreat of an English fleet that year, giving quick proof of its strategic value. Not only did it command the roadstead and the town below, but because of its mountainous position Fort Royal was nearly inaccessible to an enemy. It was protected in the rear by Le Gaillardin and in front by the Detached Redoubt, also constructed in 1693. Fort Royal was not completely finished until the early years of the 18th century. From their fortified base at Plaisance, the French attacked the English capital of St. John's three times: 1696, 1705 and 1709. Only in 1705 did they fail to take the main fort, Fort William, but they still burnt the town to the ground. Small in number, the French were never able to hold their prize, and each time they withdrew to Plaisance, enabling the English fishery to spring up anew.
There was another fundamental weakness in the French position at Plaisance. The colony was not self-sufficient, and depended on imported foodstuffs from France, Canada, and New England. As a result, during the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13), British ships established a blockade across the mouth of Placentia Bay. This caused famine in Plaisance, relieved only occasionally when a supply ship managed to slip through. Morale was low, and the population declined from 520 in 1705 to 225 in 171 1. In the end, however, the fate of Plaisance was determined not by events in Newfoundland, but at the treaty table in Europe. The colony was ceded to the British by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. By this same treaty France received Isle Royale, or Cape Breton Island, and in a few years Louisbourg assumed the role once envisaged for Plaisance.
The British quickly moved into the former French colony, renaming it Placentia. In the long peace after Utrecht the French defences were allowed to decline, since the British believed that superior naval power was the key to control of Newfoundland. A minor work, Fort Frederick was begun on the south point of the gut in 1721. During the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) the New Fort was erected on the site of the French Fort Louis. The defeat of the French at Louisbourg and Quebec during the Seven Years War (1756-63) signalled the end of the French empire in what is today Canada. In a bold but desperate move to improve her bargaining position, France sent out a small force of some 800 men who captured St. John's on June 27, 1762. One result was a last moment of glory for Placentia.
That summer, Governor Thomas Graves made for Placentia instead of St. John's. The defences were quickly upgraded, and a blockhouse begun in 1758 inside the walls of Fort Royal was finished. For a time the old French fort was called Castle Graves. In September a British expeditionary force from Boston, Halifax and Louisbourg re-captured St. John's and Placentia quickly returned to its old self. Totally surpassed in strategic and economic importance by St. John's, Placentia declined steadily, until in 1811 its token garrison was withdrawn. An integral component of the French and English fortifications, Castle Hill became a National Historic Park in 1968.
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