Strikingly set on a seaside bluff overlooking the town of Placentia, Castle Hill National Historic site is a link to Newfoundland’s British and French colonial heritage and a scenic backdrop in which to explore the 17th and 18th centuries, when these two superpowers fought for control of North America.
First fortified in 1693, the grounds of Castle Hill are today home to ruins of Fort Royal’s earthworks, stone walls and artillery batteries as well as six smoothbore cannons. Thousands of authentic artefacts have been unearthed onsite—cannon balls, fishhooks, tools, ceramics and more. Interactive exhibits at the Visitor Centre further unveil Castle Hill’s war-torn history.
Harbour views from alongside a cannon illuminate the role of Castle Hill’s defenses, scenic hiking trails traverse a cliffside spruce forest and the remnants of fortifications and skirmish-sites guide guests through the rich history of this impressive, battle-hardened military installation.
The Placentia area attracted Basque fishermen as early as the 16th century. Large quantities of cod fish, highly prized in Europe, brought fishermen in droves. The French government founded the colony of "Plaisance" in 1662.
During the late 17th and 18th centuries, French and British forces fought sporadically for control of Newfoundland, though the island's fate was still heavily influenced by events in Europe. Determined to control the Newfoundland fishery, the French chose Placentia, or "Plaisance" as they called it, for its excellent harbour and proximity to the Grand Banks. Here, they hoped to build a colony that would solidify their claim to a portion of the fishing rights around the island of Newfoundland.
Under the leadership of New France's most famous soldier, Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville, the French marched overland from Plaisance to the Southern Shore, up towards St. John's and on to Conception Bay. Iberville was successful, easily taking all but one of his targets. His men destroyed 36 settlements and captured more than 300 fishing boats, 200,000 quintals (hundred weight) of cod, and 700 prisoners in four months.
Back in France, a decision to send Iberville to Hudson Bay may have saved the British from being driven out of Newfoundland.
Plaisance proved to be a poor choice for the French colonists. Despite successful fortifications at Castle Hill which allowed the French to fend off British attacks, Plaisance had serious problems. The British were able to blockade Placentia Bay fairly easily. The French colonists had limited access to basic supplies. The land itself was not good for farming, and yielded little in the way of crops or livestock. With no support infrastructure, and rivalries between resident and seasonal fishermen on the rise, the colony was destined to fail.
Today, the remains of France's 17th-century fortress at Castle Hill are all that is left of the French presence here. Events in Europe sealed Plaisance's fate when the British gained sovereignty over Newfoundland by the Treaty of Utrecht, leaving France with fishing rights to the northeast and west coasts. The French colonists and soldiers moved on to build the Fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia. Castle Hill was fortified by the British for a brief period during the Seven Years' War, but Placentia was overshadowed by St. John's.
Castle Hill played a critical role in this chapter in Newfoundland's history, and in Europe's changing role in the New World.