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PALLISER (Pallisser), Sir HUGH, naval officer and governor of Newfoundland; b. 22 Feb. 1722/23 at Kirk Deighton (West Yorkshire), England, only son of Captain Hugh Palliser and Mary Robinson; d. 19 March 1796 at Chalfont St Giles, England.

Hugh Palliser was born into an old landed family which had estates in Yorkshire and Ireland. His parents died when he was young and he and his sisters were probably raised by his mother’s relatives. Entering the Royal Navy at age 11 on board the Aldborough, commanded by his uncle Nicholas Robinson, he was promoted lieutenant in September 1741. Five years later he became captain of the Captain and during the War of the Austrian Succession commanded several ships. In one, the Sutherland, he was severely injured when an arms chest exploded on the quarterdeck, and he remained crippled and in pain in his left leg until his death.

Soon after the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War Palliser was given command of the Eagle, in which he participated in the blockade of northern French ports. In 1757 he was present in Vice-Admiral Francis Holburne’s fleet cruising off Louisbourg, Île Royale (Cape Breton Island), and in 1759, commanding the Shrewsbury, he was with Saunders’ fleet at the siege of Quebec. On the surrender of the town on 18 September, Palliser had the honour of landing with a party of seamen and marines to take possession of the Lower Town. In 1762, when news of the French capture of St John’s [see Charles-Henri-Louis d’Arsac de Ternay] reached England, he was sent to Newfoundland with a squadron. He did not, however, arrive off the coast until 19 September, the day after the French surrendered to Lieutenant-Colonel William Amherst. In April 1764 Palliser was appointed governor of Newfoundland, succeeding Thomas Graves*.

Palliser, now a commodore, arrived in St John’s harbour on board the Guernsey on 18 April 1764. His squadron of seven ships manned by some 1,100 men testified to the Newfoundland fishery’s importance to the British government. From the first, Palliser was active and energetic in visiting the different areas of his administration. In 1764 he went to the south coast and the Bay of Islands on the west coast. He was on the south coast again for over a month during the summer of 1765, and he subsequently visited the north coast, as well as the coast of Labrador, which had been placed under the jurisdiction of the governor of Newfoundland in 1763. In 1767 he once more spent the early part of the fishing season off the south coast and then paid a second visit to Labrador.

The policing of the French fishery in Newfoundland was a particularly necessary and time-consuming task during the early years of Palliser’s governorship. By the treaty of Paris in February 1763, France was allowed to retain fishing rights which the treaty of Utrecht had granted her on the so-called French Shore, a stretch of coastline from Cape Bonavista to Point Riche. At the same time, she received the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon as a base for her fishermen. For some time before 1763, however, British fishermen had been active on the French Shore, and they considered that they had a concurrent right to the fishery there. The French believed equally strongly that they possessed an exclusive right. The short time available for the British government to formulate detailed regulations for the 1763 fishing season meant that serious disputes broke out that year between British and French fishermen on the French Shore. In its instructions to him, the British government had ordered Palliser not to allow British subjects to interrupt the French fishery but stressed that French fishermen were to be kept strictly within their treaty limits. Palliser made it clear that although French fishermen on the treaty coast were not to be interfered with, British fishermen possessed concurrent rights there, and he early took the vitally important step of asserting that all disputes were to be settled by British officials and no French warships were to enter Newfoundland waters. Thus in July 1764, when he learned that a squadron under Commodore François-Jean-Baptiste L’Ollivier de Tronjoly had gathered at Saint-Pierre in order to visit the French Shore, he sailed to that island. After he bluntly warned Tronjoly that the proposed visitation would violate British sovereignty, it was called off. The French government protested his actions, but Palliser fully explained his policy of firmness on “national points” to his superiors, and he was supported by the Admiralty and the Board of Trade.

When Palliser himself visited the French Shore in 1765, he issued several proclamations designed to confine the French strictly to their treaty rights. Under the treaty, they were not allowed to erect buildings other than those used in the fishery, and they were forbidden to remain beyond the end of the fishing season; in addition, the British assumed that boats would not be built on the French Shore. Palliser kept the officers of his squadron busy patrolling the coasts, seizing locally built boats, and arresting Frenchmen who had stayed in Newfoundland over the winter. He sympathized with the French, however, when their huts and boats were destroyed during the winter, blaming the inhabitants of Newfoundland and lamenting his inability to curb them. The governor also dealt firmly with the problem of illegal trade and French fishing on the south coast. Early in the season of 1765 he found French boats fishing all along that shore and promptly seized those he could, simultaneously sending a stiff protest to François-Gabriel dAngeac, the governor of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. He was equally hard on British subjects guilty of wrongdoing. New England vessels found trading at Saint-Pierre were taken and sent to the vice-admiralty courts in St John’s and Placentia, and south coast residents convicted of trading with the French lost their houses and fishing equipment and were themselves expelled from Newfoundland.

In his attempts to limit the French fishery to the terms of the treaty, Palliser was motivated by concern for the migratory fishermen from England who came out each year, and not for the inhabitants of Newfoundland. A naval governor, he naturally viewed the Newfoundland fishery primarily as a great “nursery” to train seamen for the British merchant marine and navy. If Newfoundland developed into a settled colony, then ships and men employed in the fishery would not return annually to Britain, the provisions and fishing gear would be only partly British, and income from fish sold abroad would not flow back to Britain. To support the annual ship fishers further, Palliser sought to limit the inhabitants’ property rights in fishing places and attempted to enforce the regulations of the act of 1698. He tried continually to convert unoccupied land or land to which residents did not have clear title into ships’ fishing rooms. In the fall of 1766, for example, he charged that many “idle people” had built houses and planted gardens on ships’ rooms in St John’s harbour. They were warned to withdraw before the next season, when everything would be cleared away to “accommodate the Ship Fishers, who must never be disappointed for want of room.” Palliser also tried to enforce the clauses in the act of 1698 which required owners of fishing ships to return all their seamen to the British Isles at the end of the season. He repeatedly reprimanded Andrew Pinson*, a West Country merchant who landed his men in St John’s at the end of the season without money to pay their passages home, supplying them with liquor and other goods in lieu of wages. In 1767 Palliser issued a detailed proclamation designed to rid Newfoundland of the thousands of poor fishermen left behind for the winter; masters were to ensure that their men could return home by not advancing more than half their wages during the season. Palliser was not completely successful in enforcing this measure, but during his governorship the number of persons remaining in Newfoundland over the winter decreased. His aims for the Newfoundland fishery were reflected in the Act for the Encouragement of the Ship Fishery passed by parliament in 1775. It was known as Palliser’s Act because, as the Newfoundland historian Daniel Woodley Prowse* states, “Sir Hugh’s hand can be traced in every line.” The act gave bounties for fishing ships going to the Grand Banks, recapitulated the regulations of 1698, and incorporated the essence of Palliser’s order of 1767.

One of Palliser’s cherished projects was the establishment of a British ship fishery on the Labrador coast. He hoped that the fishery might flourish there as had originally been intended in Newfoundland, since the area had few settlers and it would be necessary only to establish friendly relations with the native population and exclude interlopers from the colonies and elsewhere. On his voyage to Newfoundland in 1765 Palliser was accompanied by four Moravian missionaries, including both Christian Larsen Drachart and Jens Haven, who were to travel to Labrador as interpreters with instructions to stop the Inuit from trading with the French and from clashing with British fishermen. When the governor himself arrived at Chateau Bay in August, the missionaries had assembled over 500 Inuit to meet with him; friendly relations were established and a profitable trade in furs was carried on. He also made examples of persons found trading illicitly. In 1765 one of his officers raided the post of the Quebec merchants Daniel Bayne* and William Brymer at Cape Charles and found French goods. Palliser ordered the post closed and Bayne and Brymer’s agent expelled from the coast. He then issued a proclamation banning inhabitants of Newfoundland and the mainland colonies from frequenting the coast. For years afterwards, however, he was harassed by law suits the irate merchants initiated to recover their damages, until he settled out of court in 1770. In the summer of 1766 a timber blockhouse was erected at Chateau Bay to protect the property of British ship fishers from Inuit and colonial crews. Palliser himself spent a good part of the summer of 1767 at Chateau Bay cultivating good relations with the Inuit and encouraging the ship fishers by giving them greater security of tenure in new posts. His efforts were marked with success; whereas no British fishing ships had been on the Labrador coast in the 1764 season, 23 fished there in the 1768 season.

Even before his appointment as governor, Palliser had worked closely with James Cook, who had been master’s mate on the Eagle and who in 1763 had been appointed to survey Newfoundland. Although it was Thomas Graves who procured Cook his initial appointment and supplied him with the survey ship Grenville, Palliser secured Cook’s appointment as master of the ship with his own crew. It was also due to Palliser that Cook’s manuscript charts contained much information useful for the fishery; anxious to extend the range of the ship fishers, the governor ordered Cook to take every opportunity to note likely harbours and beaches for the creation of new fishing rooms. And Cook’s surveys covered those coasts where the British had most to fear from French rivalry. In view of the instructions given to Palliser in 1764 he naturally first directed Cook to survey the hotly contested northern waters systematically. In 1765 he also ordered Cook to chart the coastline near Saint-Pierre and Miquelon in order to assist his squadron’s patrols and to encourage British fishermen to resort there. Palliser obtained the Admiralty’s permission for Cook to publish his charts, and in August 1766 he reported that the British fishery on the south coast was well established and likely to expand quickly, “to which the surveys lately taken of that coast, and published by their Lordships’ orders, will greatly contribute.”

As might be expected, Palliser had little use for the resident population of Newfoundland, but his administration of justice was generally humane and even-handed, and he showed himself ready on occasion to protect fishermen against highly placed merchants. In his attitudes towards the native population of Newfoundland and Labrador the governor was a person of his time. Although he saw the Labrador Inuit as barbarians who needed to be converted into good British subjects and Christians, he at least adopted a policy of conciliation rather than one of extirpation, and he was genuinely revolted at the attacks of whaling crews on the Inuit. He distrusted the Roman Catholic Micmacs who came from Nova Scotia to hunt and fish on the south coast of Newfoundland, because he believed that they were under the domination of the French at Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. He repeatedly confiscated from the Indians passports which had been issued by the Nova Scotia and Cape Breton authorities, and he admonished the offending officials to issue no more. The Newfoundland Indians, the Beothuks, were rapidly dwindling in number, and Palliser offered rewards for any brought in alive. In 1768 a little boy was captured, but he was “so young as to be of no use, not even to get a word of their language from it.” Late in the same year a small expedition headed by Lieutenant John Cartwright and his brother George* was dispatched to the interior to find the Beothuks’ chief settlement and establish friendly relations, but although the party travelled up the Exploits River to Red Indian Lake, the search was fruitless.

Palliser’s years as governor from 1764 to 1768 brought considerable change to Newfoundland. In 1764 only 238 British ships with slightly more than 7,000 men had come out to the Newfoundland fishery, but in 1768, 389 ships carried out over 12,000 men. Conversely, the totals of resident fishermen fell from just over 10,000 to some 7,000 and the most vital statistic, the number of seamen who returned annually to the British Isles, more than doubled from 5,562 in 1764 to 11,811 in 1768. As for the rival French fishery, the number of fishermen and their total catch were well below the combined figures for the British migratory fishermen and the inhabitants of Newfoundland.

Palliser left Newfoundland for the last time in November 1768. In February 1769 John Byron was appointed governor, and Palliser began a political career in addition to his naval one. As comptroller of the navy from 1770 to 1775 he organized and outfitted several voyages of exploration, including those of his old friend Cook. On 6 Aug. 1773 he was created a baronet and in the fall of 1774 was elected to parliament from Scarborough; the following year he was promoted rear-admiral and soon afterwards became one of the lords of the Admiralty; in addition, he was appointed lieutenant-general of marines after Saunders’ death. When hostilities broke out in the American colonies, Palliser was in charge of arranging transports and victuallers for the British armies, and he organized the relief expedition which lifted the siege of Quebec in May 1776 [see Sir Charles Douglas].

In 1778 Palliser was promoted vice-admiral and became third in command of the home fleet under Admiral Augustus Keppel. In a battle with a French fleet off Ushant on 27 July, a misunderstanding or disagreement on tactics between Palliser and Keppel contributed to the indecisive result. The incident was taken up by party politicians and the ensuing courts martial of the two admirals, who had been personal friends, bitterly divided the navy. When Keppel was exonerated in February 1779, the exultant London mob looted Palliser’s house. He became so unpopular that the government was forced to dismiss him from his offices, and he resigned his seat in parliament. Even when he also was acquitted, the Earl of Sandwich, first lord of the Admiralty, dared not reinstate him but did brave the invective of opposition politicians to name him governor of Greenwich Hospital in 1780. Palliser ended his long career honourably in that comfortable sinecure. He re-entered parliament as a member for Huntingdon from 1780 to 1784 and was promoted full admiral in 1787.

Palliser died at his country house in Buckinghamshire at the age of 73. He left the bulk of his fortune to his illegitimate son George Thomas; the baronetcy and his Irish estates devolved on his grand-nephew Hugh Walters, who took the name of Palliser. In his will Palliser bequeathed £30 a year for educating and clothing 40 children at a day school he had established in his parish in 1780. Although Palliser was a tireless collector of naval papers, neither these nor the personal papers he surely must have kept have survived to the present day.

Hugh Palliser was an admirable servant of the state. As well as being a brave and aggressive sea officer, he was a methodical and industrious man of business. Prowse points out that his administration in Newfoundland lasted the unusual period of five years, owing, no doubt, to the consistent approval of his policies by the British government, and that his records are the most voluminous of the 18th-century governors. There can be little doubt that the pettiness, evasion, and idleness in the small world of St John’s and the outports irritated him, and his letters and orders sometimes crackle with exasperation. But if he was stern, he was also energetic and fair. He attempted to preserve the Beothuk and Inuit, and he felt real concern for fishermen paid off in overpriced goods and left destitute on the beach after a season of dangerous toil. The friend of men like Cook, Saunders, and Joseph Banks* must have been intelligent and zealous.

At Newfoundland Palliser kept the French fishery within its treaty limits and the supervision of both fisheries firmly under his control. His attempt to retain Newfoundland and Labrador for the annual ship fishers had only limited success, however, in spite of substantial short-term gains. To try to enforce the fishing regulations of 1698 and his own rules was to attempt what was virtually impossible. Palliser is best remembered, perhaps, for his support of James Cook. Cook for his part remembered his “worthy friend” in the Palliser Isles of the South Pacific and in Cape Palliser, which guards the eastern entrance to Cook Strait in New Zealand.

William H. Whiteley

A portrait of Sir Hugh Palliser by Nathaniel Dance was in the possession of the last baronet in the late 19th century; a copy of this portrait hangs in the Painted Hall at Greenwich Naval College.

BL, Add. mss 33030, 35915, 38219, 38227, 38310, 38388, 38396. PAC, MG 23, A1, ser.1, 13; A4, 17. PANL, GN2/1, 3, 4. PRO, Adm. 1/470, 1/2291–94, 1/2296, 1/2299–301, 1/4126–27, 1/5313, 2/91–93, 2/236, 2/539, 2/541–42, 3/71–76, 8/40–44, 50/19, 51/4210, 80/121; CO 194/16–18, 194/21, 194/26–28, 195/19, 324/41, 391/71–76; Prob. 11/1274, f.206; SP 41/39, 42/43, 42/65, 42/136, 44/328. Gentlemans Magazine, 1796, 439–40. G.B., Privy Council, Acts of P.C., col., 1766–83. The private papers of John, Earl of Sandwich, first lord of the Admiralty, 1771–1782, ed. G. R. Barnes and J. H. Owen (4v., London, 1932–38). A. [C.] Valentine, The British establishment, 1760–1784 . . . (2v., Norman, Okla., 1970), II, 674–75. Charnock, Biographia navalis, V, 483–96. DNB. R. M. Hunt, The life of Sir Hugh Palliser . . . (London, 1844). A. M. Lysaght, Joseph Banks in Newfoundland and Labrador, 1766: his diary, manuscripts and collections (London and Berkeley, Calif., 1971). Prowse, History of Nfld. (1895), 328, 344. J. H. Broomfield, “The Keppel-Palliser affair, 1778–1779,” Mariners Mirror (Cambridge, Eng.), 47 (1961), 195–207; “Lord Sandwich at the Admiralty Board: politics and the British navy, 1771–1778,” Mariners Mirror, 51 (1965), 7–17. G. O. Rothney, “The case of Bayne and Brymer; an incident in the early history of Labrador,” CHR, XV (1934), 264–75. W. H. Whiteley, “The establishment of the Moravian mission in Labrador and British policy, 1763–83,” CHR, XLV (1964), 29–50; “Governor Hugh Palliser and the Newfoundland and Labrador fishery, 1764–1768,” CHR, L (1969), 141–63; “James Cook and British policy in the Newfoundland fisheries, 1763–7,” CHR, LIV (1973), 245–72.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

William H. Whiteley, “PALLISER, Sir HUGH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 23, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/palliser_hugh_4E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/palliser_hugh_4E.html
Author of Article:   William H. Whiteley
Title of Article:   PALLISER, Sir HUGH
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1979
Year of revision:   1979
Access Date:   February 23, 2024