The Framework of Newfoundland History

The first period we will call the period of anarchy. It begins with the rediscovery of the Island by Europeans in the fifteenth century and ends in 1610 with the establishment of an English colony in Newfoundland. John Cabot claimed the Island for England by right of discovery, but this meant little, for England at this time was weak and backward, her naval and commercial strength were undeveloped, and she was absorbed in the aftermath of the Wars of the Roses. Although English fishermen soon followed Cabot, they were few in number and the French and Portuguese nations soon outstripped the English in the Newfoundland fishery. By 1640 Spain, with her enormous wealth and power, had also become important in the fishery and all nations were soon competing to develop their interests at the expense of their neighbours. In Europe the shifting alliances of the nations saw many wars; the fighting inevitably spread to the Newfoundland fishing fleets. Obsessed with these conflicts, no nation attempted to establish a colony on the Island, although in the second half of the sixteenth century individuals in both France and England began to think of doing so. While Europe quarrelled, the international fishery in Newfoundland grew chaotically with no one to keep the peace either between the national groups or even within them. To solve this problem the fishermen gradually evolved a code of customs which, unrecognized by any government, at least attempted to control the anarchy and violence among the fishing fleets. As late as 1570 the English still lagged far behind their competitors in the size of their fishery, yet the complex changes which occurred in Western Europe between then and 1600 created conditions in the Newfoundland trade which by 1700 had made England equal in importance to France while the fisheries of Spain and Portugal were in irreversible decline.

The next period in Newfoundland's history lasted between 1610 and 1660 and may be called the era of English settlement. With the end of European conflict in 1604, nations turned to trade and colonization, and both the French and English fisheries prospered well. By 1620 a de facto division of the land was taking place, with each nation gradually confining its fishing operations to separate parts of the coast. The English fished along what became known as the Old English Shore stretching from Trepassey to Greenspond, while the French used the south coast and the area north of Bonavista Bay. This process was not the result of any international agreement and occurred only gradually and for a time; the Spanish and Portuguese continued to fish wherever they could find harbour room. England laid claim to most of Newfoundland but France too claimed sovereignty. In practice each contented itself with what it could control. The English domination of the Avalon Peninsula turned mens's thoughts towards the possibility of establishing colonies here which, by paying their way fishing, logging, agriculture, mining and even through manufacturing, might become profitable to their promoters and help to secure the fishery for England. However, repeated attempts ended in failure for the settlements could not be made to return a profit. There was also conflict between the proprietors of some colonies and the already established English migratory fishery. The English Civil War brought chaos and ruin to the fishery, but although the Proprietory Colonies failed, groups of settlers had become firmly established on the Island.

The third period lasted from 1660 to 1713 and was the period of Anglo-French rivalry within the Island itself. Until 1659 France claimed sovereignty over parts of Newfoundland but, developing her colonies on the mainland and in the West Indies, did not formally plant here. In 1662, however, she established a settlement in her main fishing area at Placentia and for a few years energetically promoted schemes to increase settlement. Simultaneously, the end of war in Europe saw a great revival in the French fishery which by 1675 was seriously affecting the fortunes of the English fishery. The latter were in a state of decline for the long wars and a series of disastrous fishing seasons in the 1660's had ruined the west of England merchants and captains. The old methods of fishing no longer sufficed and new ones were required. Both the settlers and visiting fishermen were ruined by the declining fishery and the latter attempted to have the settlers removed. The British government alone could decide upon this, and at first they agreed that settlement should be ended. However, they quickly changed their mind, but were unable to decide whether the Island should be formally recognised as a colony. For twenty years after 1680 the government followed a policy of having no policy and the Island was left to develop as best it could. In 1689 King William's War broke out; with an intermission between 1697 and 1701 the conflict lasted until 1713. The fighting both here and in Europe had drastic effects upon Newfoundland, and the government was forced to formulate some kind of policy towards her. That policy was unworkable, but the war obscured this to some degree. In 1713, by the Treaty of Utrecht, France ceded her colony on the south coast to England and admitted Engish sovereignty over the entire Island. However, she obtained certain fishing rights along parts of the coast and the French Shore problem began its wearying course. The war had also obscured fundamental changes within the fishery which were changing the old division between settlers and migratory fishermen, bringing them together under the West Country merchants.


Newfoundland underwent a new series of adaptations within the English fishery between 1713 and 1763. English settlement expanded into the south coast and as far up as Fogo and Twillingate. The fishery continued to be poor until the late 1720's but the need for men to move into the newly ceded south coast resulted in the beginnings of large scale Irish emigration to Newfoundland with enormous effects upon its future history. Men found that the attempt to divide the Island into an area monopolised by the English and another shared between them and the French created much friction. The French had lost their best fishing grounds, their competition in Europe gradually diminished, and from 1730 onwards the English fishery began to prosper well. The English soon developed a thriving bank fishery which, together with the bye-boat keepers, formed the backbone of the migratory English fishery, causing not only its revival but a steady expansion by 1750.

It was an era when the merchants of London withdrew from the fishery which was now almost monopolised by merchants and fishermen of the west of England. After 1748 the population began to rise steadily. During the Seven Year's War (1756-1763), English fishermen for the first time learned of the rich fishing grounds along the Northern Peninsula and even more important grounds on the Labrador. The British government was forced by increasing population to introduce a rudimentary civil government and there was an end to discord between the settlers and the visiting fishermen. The Seven Year's War resulted in the English conquest of Canada and laid the conditions for an even larger expansion in Newfoundland after 1763.

Period five was short, lasting only from 1763 until 1775 when the outbreak of the American Revolution portended great changes in Newfoundland. However, it was a period of great prosperity and growth, both in settlement and in the fortunes of the fishery. The Treaty of Paris in 1763, among other things, ceded the French possessions in Canada to Britain, and the English government decided to attach Labrador and the Magdalen Islands to Newfoundland. Thus began the Labrador fishery. In Europe the markets for Newfoundland fish continued to grow and for almost the entire period the fishery proved unusually successful. This created a great demand for ships, seamen and fishermen so that both the migratory and the sedentary fishery grew quickly and the population rose. However, after a long period of neglect the British government again looked at the question of how Newfoundland should be governed. Their first thought was to create a formal colony, but a change of government and the advent of Governor Palliser caused an abrupt change of mind. Alarmed by the growth of settlement, the government sought to discourage it and to promote the migratory fishery. This policy was first adapted for the new fishery at Labrador where it failed. The government persisted and in 1775 Palliser's Act was passed. It signalled a renewal of official hostility towards the settlers, but was viewed with intense hostility by the merchants; the outbreak of the American Revolution delayed its enforcement.

The sixth period lasted from the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775 to the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1793. Before 1775 America had been a great competitor to Newfoundland in the fishery, but it had also become almost the only supplier of shipping, foodstuffs and rum without which the settlers could not live. The outbreak of war abruptly severed the supply routes between America and Newfoundland and caused great but temporary problems. The war itself had great effects on the fishery but the result was even more important. American independence took the United States out of the British Empire and her vessels could no longer bring supplies. Neither could fishermen and merchants buy American shipping, and America could no longer supply the British West Indies with fish. In the years before 1775, anyone who wanted to leave Newfoundland during a time of depression could easily find a ship to take him to Boston. Now this was no longer possible and he was forced to remain on the Island if he could not return to England or Ireland. The supply links with the American colonies were slowly replaced by links with the Maritimes of Canada and with Quebec. Newfoundland built its own ships and took over the West Indian markets for fish. From 1783 to 1789 there was a great post-war boom in the fishery which again caused a rapid increase in settlement. In 1789 the boom collapsed, but the population did not decline greatly as had been the case in past depressions. The migratory fishery began to decline and by 1793 it was becoming clear that Newfoundland now had a population which was too large to be moved, which could not even be discouraged from growing and which was in desperate need of better government and laws. The British government was forced to abandon its policy of discouraging settlement and the future of the Island was assured.

Our last period commences with the outbreak of war in 1793 and lasts until 1832. It may be called the ear of Newfoundland's emergence as an independent community. The long and difficult wars destroyed the migratory fishery and made all dependent upon the resident fishermen. Until 1810 it was difficult to obtain labour from England or Ireland, but natural increase among the Newfoundland population kept it growing; the restricted wartime markets meant that no more labour was required. From 1811 to 1815 the gradual re-opening of the European markets, together with the temporary extinction of every fishing competitor with the exception of Canada, created one of the greatest booms that Newfoundland had ever known. In response thousands of men poured into Newfoundland, especially from Southern Ireland. The Labrador seal and cod fisheries gave additional sources of employment and there was a great boom in shipbuilding for the Labrador and the coastal trades. St. John's became truly the capital of Newfoundland, and the growth of a large more or less resident middle class led to the development of social and political consciousness which resulted in the formation of groups and institutions devoted to charitable, social and eventually political ends. This middle class became the ruling elite of the Island and took the lead in the definition of a distinct Newfoundland consciousness, which was first expressed in the desire for internal self-government.

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