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Bay Bulls Harbour Provincial Historic Site

Bay Bulls, Newfoundland and Labrador, A0A, Canada

Formally Recognized: 1975/04/25

Drawing of the wreck of the HMS Saphire showing the grid on which it lies, various cannon and timbers, the general outlay of the wreck as it was excavated in 1977.; HFNL 2005
Wreck of the Saphire, Bay Bulls Harbour, NL.
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Construction Date(s)


Listed on the Canadian Register: 2005/08/23

Statement of Significance

Description of Historic Place

The Bay Bulls Harbour Provincial Historic Site is the site of one of Canada’s earliest shipwrecks. It is the only vessel of its size that sunk in Newfoundland during the English /French conflict over control of the cod fisheries. This ship, sunk in 1696, lies at the bottom of Bay Bulls Harbour in the community of Bay Bulls, located on the southern shore of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. The designation encompasses the area of the wrecks and surrounding debris fields, including any and all remaining in-situ artifact

Heritage Value

The Bay Bulls Harbour Provincial Historic Site has been designated because it holds historic, scientific and cultural values. Its historic values lie in its association with the recorded events that led up to the sinking of the HMS Saphire in the late seventeenth century, and it helps show the vital importance of the cod fishery in Newfoundland from very early years.

The HMS Saphire sank in Bay Bulls Harbour during an engagement with a French squadron on September 11, 1696. The main objective of the English Royal Navy in the seventeenth century was to safeguard English trade and merchant vessels through two methods: patrolling, and convoying. Merchant ships often sailed in convoys, under the protection of one or two warships. England’s three main convoys were the Mediterranean, the Levant, and the Newfoundland. The Newfoundland convoy was vital to the English crown for trade purposes. The main threat to Newfoundland was the French, who also maintained settlements and a fishing fleet on the island. Much hostility was generated between the English and French, and the convoy captains were considered the supreme authorities, since no formal government existed on the island at that time

When the English declared war on the French during King William’s War (1689-1697) the French decided to implement surprise attacks on isolated English outposts and settlements, such as Newfoundland. An attack on English settlements on the Avalon Peninsula was planned for the winter of 1696. French forces were to depart from Placentia for the eastern Avalon under the command of Pierre le Moyne d’Iberville by land and a second force, by sea, under the Governor of Terre-Neuve, Jacques-Franclois de Brouillon. Due to disagreements between the two, de Brouillon set out for the English shore on his own to wage an attack on the HMS Saphire. With little time left to prepare a proper defence, Captain Cleasby of the Saphire fortified Bay Bulls as best he could. When de Brouillon attacked Bay Bulls, he burned five small forts and caused the captain of the Saphire to burn the frigate. Cleasby and his crew escaped the burning vessel while the French attempted to board the Saphire, only to be blown up in a spectacular explosion when the fire reached the gunpowder room. Ultimately the French captured Cleasby, and several crew members who became prisoners of war were sent to France and eventually returned to England by exchange.

The Bay Bulls Harbour Provincial Historic Site is scientifically valuable because the buried remains of objects on board the ship reveal information about the material culture of the late seventeenth century and they give clues to daily life on an English warship of that period. The HMS Saphire was a fifth rate frigate of 346 tons. It carried 32 guns and was manned by 135 men. Thousands of artifacts were recovered from the shipwreck site during two archaeological investigations in the 1970s. Among the artifacts recovered, the most exciting finds were the navigational instruments that survived, such as the ornate wooden nocturnal which was used to determine the time at sea at night. To leave such a precious navigational instrument behind suggests the hurry in which the captain and crew left the ship.

Source: Newfoundland Gazette, Friday, March 30, 1979, Newfoundland Regulation 55/79.

Character-Defining Elements

All those elements that respect the archaeological site and artifacts, including:
-in-situ archaeological remnants of the English warship, HMS Saphire, in its location, form and materials;
-all artifacts at the site and surrounding debris field; and
-all artifacts removed from any and all of these sites in an intact and documented state.



Newfoundland and Labrador

Recognition Authority

Province of Newfoundland and Labrador

Recognition Statute

Historic Resources Act

Recognition Type

Provincial Historic Site

Recognition Date


Historical Information

Significant Date(s)


Theme - Category and Type

Governing Canada
Military and Defence

Function - Category and Type




Architect / Designer




Additional Information

Location of Supporting Documentation

Provincial Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, Historic Resources Division, P.O. Box 8700, St. John's, NL, A1B 4J6

Cross-Reference to Collection

Fed/Prov/Terr Identifier




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