May 2012

The Plaster War of 1820

How the locals won

By Correy Baldwin

All through the summer of 1820, smugglers on the Bay of Fundy openly defied government officials brought in to quash the illegal trade of gypsum – or plaster. The smugglers fiercely defended their trade, in what became known as the Plaster War.

Settlers first discovered gypsum in the late 1770s near Windsor – at the head of the Bay of Fundy – and began mining it in small operations. Much of the mineral lay close to the surface in shallow deposits that could be easily mined, attracting local farmers with no mining experience, who mined small quarries known as “kettle holes” using gunpowder. Local small producers traded it as raw product, loading it onto smaller vessels owned by the area’s fishermen and merchants.

Gypsum mining re­mained in the hands of small producers for de­cades. It was not until the Albert Manufacturing Comp­any set up its mill in 1854 after further deposits were discovered in New Brunswick that the industry shifted to­wards big producers.

Before becoming a building material, gypsum was used as a calcium-rich fertilizer, sold to wheat farmers in the neighbouring British colonies lying southwest of Nova Scotia.

Everything changed when those colonies gained independence in 1783, becoming the United States. The local trade became an international trade, complete with tariffs and customs duties – far too costly for the local small producers. With their livelihoods threatened, but still wanting to trade with their old neighbours, local producers turned to smuggling.

The American border was drawn right through Passamaquoddy Bay, which became a thriving smuggling centre. As the gypsum trade grew (from 91 tonnes in 1794 to 45,360 tonnes in 1818), U.S. and British governments became increasingly concerned about the loss of revenue due to smuggling. Local customs officials often supported the smugglers, and those brought in to impose order were easily thwarted. Passamaquoddy has an abundance of coves and islands. Smugglers worked by night and by fog, with threats, and bribes and local support.

Finally, the British appointed Stephen Humbert, who had once been involved in smuggling himself, as a “Preventative Officer” to put an end to the smuggling business.

Humbert began on a triumphant note, seizing a plaster-smuggling vessel in the Saint John Harbour before sailing for Passamaquoddy, and leaving the seized ship with his deputy (his son John). But that night the smugglers kidnapped John and abandoned him on a distant shore, humiliated.

Things did not go any better for Humbert. The moment he arrived in Passamaquoddy, a plaster ship shot at his vessel. It was the kind of greeting he would get used to. Humbert eventually seized the ship, but over the next few days the ship’s owner twice at­tempted to retake his ship by force. Local law enforcement was on the smuggler’s side.

Humbert realized what he was up against. Throughout the summer he faced increased resistance, with smuggling crews brandishing muskets whenever he approached. Vessels armed themselves with cannons. Some openly pursued him, while others roamed the waters in gangs, looking for him.

In one harbour, a mob hurled stones and threatened his crew with axes and pitchforks. He retreated, and the next day he watched as 10 plaster-smuggling vessels sailed past him, tied together into one enormous raft.

A final confrontation came in late September, when Humbert seized two smuggling vessels along the American border. The smugglers regrouped into a 20-vessel show of force and brought along an American magistrate to arrest him. That night, they took back their seized ships and forced Humbert to retreat.

Humbert gave up. The following year, the government officially abandoned its efforts to control the gypsum trade. The smugglers, and the small producers they worked with, had won.
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