Sir John Coape Sherbrooke | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Sir John Coape Sherbrooke

Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, soldier, administrator, governor-in-chief of British North America (b at Nottinghamshire, Eng 1764; d at Calverton, Eng 14 Feb 1830).
Sherbrooke, Sir John Coape
As lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia, Sherbrooke vigorously defended the colony during the War of 1812 (courtesy Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library/T31641).

Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, soldier, administrator, governor-in-chief of British North America (b at Nottinghamshire, Eng 1764; d at Calverton, Eng 14 Feb 1830). Best known as the fiery Governor General of Nova Scotia during the War of 1812, Sir John Sherbrooke was a career soldier who managed to parlay his talents for combat and politics into one of the most successful government careers in pre-Confederation Canada. Sherbrooke began his military career in Britain in 1780, rising to the rank of captain by 1783. When his regiment disbanded, he obtained a company in the 33rd Foot, then serving in Nova Scotia.

Sherbrooke in Service to Great Britain

He returned to Britain in 1794 and took part in active combat against the revolutionary armies of France. He was promoted to major in the 33rd Foot in 1793 and to lieutenant colonel in 1794. He and his regiment joined the Duke of York's army in Flanders in the campaign against the French. After bad weather prevented Sherbrooke and the regiment from sailing with an expeditionary force to the West Indies, they served in India, landing in Calcutta in February 1797. Made a colonel in January 1798, Sherbrooke participated in the Mysore War in 1799, including the siege of Seringapatam. Sickness dogged him throughout his time in India, long before the use of quinine to prevent malaria was common. He was forced back to England in 1800 to recuperate. In the wake of Napoleon's revival of hostilities with the continental European powers and Britain, Sherbrooke took command of the 4th Battalion Reserve, stationed at Norman Cross, in 1803.

Promoted to major general in early 1805, Sherbrooke was sent to Sicily and in 1807 became commander of the Sicilian Regiment, which led to a diplomatic posting to Egypt. Sherbrooke also earned a reputation as a tough disciplinarian and able army commander, brimming with energy, aggressive and straightforward. This was balanced by great cunning that was not quite genius, but highly valuable. After service in the Peninsular campaigns in Spain, where he earned a reputation as a passionate and dedicated officer, he was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB). Ill health again forced him back to England, where he was soon made a full lieutenant colonel and appointed lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, 19 Aug 1811.

War of 1812

Sherbrooke's career as lieutenant governor was dominated by the War of 1812. With fortifications in poor shape, and the colony's resources being funneled toward the more urgent needs in Upper and Lower Canada, Nova Scotia was in a dilapidated state of military preparedness. Sherbrooke's colony was vulnerable to attack, confronted the dangers of American privateers with the barest of armaments and the local militia, and was reliant on the Royal Navy for protection at sea. With the naval blockade of the American coast, clashes with American vessels like the Chesapeake were growing. Out of economic and military necessity, Sherbrooke took the bold and controversial action of issuing a proclamation of understanding in 1813 toward the New England states, where the war was unpopular, which would guarantee trade and, he hoped, minimize military action. The understanding, formalized through the issuing of licenses, was supplemented by clandestine work between the two regions. Soon, Nova Scotia was becoming profitable. Robust commercial activity went hand in hand with increased smuggling as the demand for war materials such as timber grew. When Vice-Admiral Cochrane took command of British naval forces in North America, however, he initiated a naval blockade and killed the issuing of licensing between New England and the colony, preferring more forceful and direct military efforts to Sherbrooke's conciliatory measures. This change in strategy meant that the colony's economic war boom would not last long after the guns fell silent in 1815.

With the defeat of Napoleon in Europe in 1814, England refocused its efforts in North America, and instructed Sherbrooke to mount an offensive operation for the occupation of part of present-day Maine. Sherbrooke led an expeditionary force in August, striking the contested region between Passamaquoddy Bay and the Penobscot River in August, landing at Castine. His forces subdued the region between the Penobscot and the St Croix. He set up a local military administrative structure for maintaining order and administrating the now occupied region, and then returned to Nova Scotia to resume his duties in government. The eight-month occupation allowed for the collection of a substantial amount of tax revenue for the struggling colony, some of which went to finance the military library at Halifax and the establishment of Dalhousie College.

Politics in British North America

Sherbrooke was promoted to governor-in-chief of British North America in 1816, and handled his short term with competence and vigour, especially on the issues of constitutional reform in Lower Canada, where his capacity for diplomacy and easy friendship with leading politicians and reformers were met with praise. The once brash soldier, who had seen service through much of the British Empire, had also become a capable and effective political leader and administrator. By 1818, however, his illness - exacerbated by a paralytic stroke - forced his retirement to England.