Today Bay Bulls is a vibrant, growing and family-oriented community of 1200 people situated on the Southern Shore of the Avalon Peninsula and is just a 25 minute drive from downtown St. John’s. But, according to the Sir John Berry census of 1675 the community consisted of just five planter families (including children) and the workers for the planters totaling 62 people. Just over 20 years later, in the midst of King William’s War (1688–97 – The North American theater of the Nine Years’ War) this small harbour would be the scene of a naval battle between a fifth rate English vessel and a small squadron of French vessels.
During King William’s War, De Brouillon the Governor of Placentia (the French capital in Newfoundland) tried but failed to capture St. John’s. When he left St. John’s his squadron of Men of War battle ships including the Pelican, Diamond, Count de Thoulouse, Harcourt, Philip, Vendange, and some fireships, discovered the HMS Saphire off Cape Spear. They attempted to capture HMS Saphire and by the 11th of September had managed to chase the ship into Bay Bulls. De Brouillon then tried to attack both the ship and Bay Bulls.
The Captain of the HMS Saphire was Thomas Cleasby. From the start of the engagement he knew he was in a bad position, the French had at least six ships of war and French soldiers outnumbered his own crew six to one. In spite of the odds, Cleasby managed to position the HMS Saphire to fire on the French ships. The engagement lasted several hours when Cleasby decided to set the HMS Saphire on fire rather than have her become a French prize of war. Cleasby and his men then abandoned HMS Saphire and attempted to escape overland to Ferryland. The French tried to put out the fire but the ship exploded when the fire hit the powder room.
Much of this post is based on a Masters thesis in Maritime Archaeology and History written by Matthew Simmonds in 2002 entitled “The Historical Context and History of the HMS Saphire.” In the thesis Simmonds has a quote from Oldmixion which describes the attack: “…Cleasby did all he could to fortify the place in the little time he had for it: The English who liv’d in the harbour came to his assistance but at the approach of the French they all ran away, and cou’d not have done much good by staying, the enemy being near ten to one. On the 11th of September the whole of the French squadron came down upon the Saphire, and fir’d with the utmost fury. Capt. Cleasby made a brave defence for two hours, and brought most of the his ships guns to bear on the side next the French, who at the same time made a descent, and drove the English, who were there into the woods; they then fir’d on the Saphire’s men from shore, as well as from the ships, and it was in vain for Cleasby to think of maintaining his ship any longer, so he set her on fire, 40 French came on board, endeavouring to extinguish it, but were all blown up into the air, as soon as the fire reach’d the powder room. A 100 more of the Saphire’s crew made the best of their way towards Ferryland, but were interrupted and taken by the enemy. Capt. Cleasby and his company reach’d that harbour, where he and they did the utmost to defend that settlement against the French, who came and attacked it; they landed 600 men, who approached within musket shot of the English, very resolutely, and the English fir’d upon them with equal resolution, which oblig’d them to halt. The French returned their fire, and sent a trumpet to summon them to surrender. Capt. Cleasby, seeing ‘twas impossible for him to repell so many men with so few, came to a treaty and deliver’d up the place, which was not tenable. Himself, his lieutenant, and his 35 men were made prisoners of war, and sent to France, from whence they return’d to England by exchange. The French destroy’d that and all the English settlements, except St. John’s, Bonavista, and Carboneer Harbours (Oldmixion 1741: 23).” Simmonds 2002:39.
HMS Saphire was a 32-gun fifth rate frigate of the English Royal Navy. She was designed and built by Sir Anthony Deane at Harwich, England in 1675, at a cost of £4,175 and was large enough to accommodate 135 men and 32 guns in times of war.
The wreck of the HMS Saphire was found by local divers in Bay Bulls Harbour in the late 1960s. The subsequent looting of the site prompted the formation of the Newfoundland Marine Archaeology Society. This was a non-profit group of divers with an interest in Marine Heritage. The NMAS spent five summers from 1972 to 1977 excavating the wreck of the HMS Saphire.
During the nearly 20 years they were in operation, the NMAS were responsible for the discovery, recording and excavation of nearly 50 underwater archaeological sites. Two of those sites were eventually recognized as Provincial Historic Sites. They include a wreck that is thought to be the HMS Speedwell, a British merchant vessel lost due to ice in Trinity Harbour in 1781 and the HMS Saphire.
The work of the NMAS also attracted the attention of the Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology section who worked on both the HMS Saphire and another wreck on the Northern Peninsula in Conche before they moved on to the excavation of the San Juan in Red Bay Harbour, Labrador.
In the end it was a good thing Captain Cleasby scuttled the HMS Saphire. He was able to save his own life and the lives of most of his crew and keep the ship from the hands of his enemies. More importantly for us today, the HMS Saphire has taught us a tremendous amount about 17th century ships, warfare and life in general. This is evidenced by the 20 published articles written about HMS Saphire by NMAS and Parks Canada staff. As well, the National Film Board of Canada created a documentary called “The Mystery of Bay Bulls” and there are more than 30 unpublished articles and thesis written about HMS Saphire.
Oldmixon, John 1969 The British Empire in America. 1708. 2nd ed. New York: Sentry Press.
Simmonds, Matthew 2002 The Historical Context and History of the HMS Saphire. MA, thesis, University of Bristol.