The Fishery and Settlement in Newfoundland

The settlers who came to Newfoundland with John Guy or Lord Falkland were not fishermen. They (or those who sent them out) hoped to make a living by agriculture, mining, and small scale manufacturing. However, by 1640 all had learned what the visiting fishermen already knew: he who would live in Newfoundland must be a fisherman or starve, for this was the only resource which could be quickly and relatively cheaply exploited. Thus, until the nineteenth century almost everyone who settled in Newfoundland was directly involved in fishing and completely dependent upon it.


The trouble was that although the fishery was vital to settlement, settlement was not essential for the fishery, which could easily be carried on by men coming out annually from Western Europe. Indeed, for a long time, it was better from almost everyone's point of view to commute rather than to settle here. All the goods and provisions needed in the fishery had to come from Europe anyway, and all the markets for fish lay on the same side of the Atlantic. It cost little to load men as well as provisions upon the vessels coming to and fro. The merchants and ship captains all lived in Europe and conducted their business from there while the seamen and fishermen, like the Portuguese now, lived in old established and comfortable villages surrounded by their kinfolk and friends, and by all that they had grown up in and loved. During the winter many of the fishermen could obtain work back at home either on the land in their own small holdings and tenements, or as tradesmen.

In contrast Newfoundland had almost nothing to offer. The land was wild and uncultivated, cold and barren. When the fishing fleet left at the end of the season, there was no communication with the outside world until the following spring. There were no churches, social institutions, taverns or even stores. The land communications between the fishing harbours were extremely bad and one settlement was no better than the others. There was no profitable winter employment and the earnings from the summer had to keep men alive for twelve months. All provisions and clothing, everything needed to keep a man alive and working, had to be transported across the Atlantic and so cost far more to the settler than those who could live for almost half the year in Europe. The only thing that brought men to Newfoundland was the fishery, and this did not demand permanent residence here. In open and constant communication with Europe, the Island was for most who came here, only a place of work. We in Newfoundland have tended in the past to view the Labrador in the same way.

One is almost forced to ask how settlement ever developed at all. Well, it is important to realise that until the later years of the eighteenth century very few people lived here permanently. As late as 1750, the population which remained on the Island during the winter totalled only 6900 souls - scattered in communities between the Burin Peninsula and Twillingate. Even this figure is very misleading, for most of these were not permanent residents as we are now. The only permanent residents on Newfoundland were the planters and their families. The name planter did not apply to everyone who lived in Newfoundland, but only to a middle class - the boat keepers who carried on the inshore fishery. These planters were employers who used servants, hired in England or Ireland, to serve for perhaps two summers and winters in the fishery. The servants, when their time expired, normally retuned to their homes in Europe and thus were not settlers like those who went to Massachusetts or Virginia. Of the 6900 people staying in the winter of 1750, there were only 804 planters, 931 women and 714 children. Thus only 2676 people were permanently resident here. It is true that by that time some of the servants may also have been born here, but they would have been few in number and we must remember that many of the planters did not really intend to live and die on the Island. They too had homes and relatives in England, returned often, and many retired there in old age.

Thus the fishery in Newfoundland was the only reason for settlement, but while the migratory fishery existed, and until something happened to make the Island more vital for the fishery, it demanded very few settlers. Yet the fact remains that settlers did come to Newfoundland and managed to survive in the fishery. The population grew with painful slowness, but it did grow. Why did they come? Why did they become increasingly more important for the fishery? The collapse of the proprietory colonies left a few settlers on the Island, although most seem to have drifted back to England or on to the new colonies in New England. Those who stayed made the best life they could and formed the nucleus of our population. They were gradually outnumbered, however, by the emigration of men and very few women from the west of England. Most of the early planters do not seem to have intended to remain forever, and many names appear and rapidly disappear in the early settlements. Even then, there were some advantages to remaining all year. One could build a fishing plantation and be sure of being able to use it the following year. During the winter, ice and weather damaged buildings and gear, and even the migratory fishing captains gradually saw the advantage of leaving a man or two behind to get everything ready for the next fishing season, and if you were a believer in hard work, you could fish longer in the year - during the fall when the fishing fleet had left. Certainly a few of the early settlers came out for personal reasons - an adventurous itch, a brush with the law or to run away from a wife and a family in England. Because the planter employed several servants, not many permanent residents were needed in order that quite a large population might remain annually. Most of these early planters did not intend to remain on the Island forever, as we can see from the great shortage of wives in census returns of the 1670's. Their servants probably intended to stay for an even shorter period of time. The population of Newfoundland reflected conditions in the fishery. When the fishery was bad, the population tended to decline rapidly. Paradoxically however, the number remaining in the winters did not immediately follow suit. If the fishery was good, then the hired servants were paid their wages and could buy a passage back to Europe. If it was bad, they did not get paid and were trapped here. However, in the latter case, especially after 1700, they could also find a ship to take them to New England. The instability of a settlement which reacted directly to conditions of the fishery meant that for very long periods the population did not increase overmuch and indeed might even decline. Thus between 1699 and 1740 the population declined and only gradually recovered to its level. This might have gone on forever had not conditions in the fishery changed. What Newfoundland needed was a long period of prosperity when markets were good, profits and wages high, and when there was great competition for the fishing rooms along the coast from which the fishery was carried on; this did not really occur until the 1750's. Wars and depressions gave little incentive even to the migratory fishermen, let alone the settlers.

Nevertheless, long before then, certain developments were forcing the English migratory fishermen to think of expanding settlement. From the merchants' point of view, the depressions in the fishery which were endemic between 1660 and 1730 meant that if he engaged directly in the fishery, hiring a ship, paying the men and taking all the risks, he stood little chance of good profit and much chance of ruin. Now the planter or the bye-boat keeper was an independent man; he obtained his goods and craft from the merchant and hired his own men. If the voyage was good, he obtained part of the profit; but these were hard times and hence if the voyage was bad, he took part of the loss and the merchant risked less. There were other reasons for at least some settlement. By 1700 the timber close to the harbours on the Avalon Peninsula had been destroyed; there were no roads and few horses on the Island and wood had to be cut some distance inland. In the past, ships coming from England had sent their crews into the woods to cut timber for flakes, stages, boats and cookroom immediately upon their arrival in the spring, but this was becoming more and more difficult. Thus the visiting fishermen who could find someone to cut wood for him during the winter could commence fishing much sooner. The growing shortage of timber created another problem. In the past the vital fishing rooms in the harbours had been taken on a "first-come-first-served" basis. The occupant had then built his own fishing works. Now, however, it was becoming expensive in time and money to build these rooms. The merchants and fishermen realised that they must try to obtain permanent possession of some part of the shore in order that they could be sure of using their own stages and building every year. For this, men had to be left to look after the rooms during the winter. These reasons all played a part in the growth of settlement but did not by themselves justify any great expansion in the population. Probably the main reason for the growth before 1763 must be found in the problem of carrying on the fishery during war. In war time, the fishermen who lived in the west of England were liable to be swept into the Royal Navy by the Press Gangs, and indeed between 1689 and 1692 the government forbade any fishing ship at all to come to Newfoundland. For the merchants this left only the settlers to carry on the fishery. There were other results. Men might prefer living in Devonshire to living in Newfoundland, but they infinitely preferred living in Newfoundland to being forced into the Royal Navy, so men tried to stay here during wars. Even if they were given protections by the English government which exempted them from service in the Navy, they faced grave danger from enemy privateers and warships which captured large numbers of the Newfoundland fishing and trading ships. Thus the resident population found its greatest justification in war time. Without settlers, the fishery could not be continued.

These changes were creating a need for more settlers, but the conditions of life on the Island remained as harsh and uncertain as they had always been, and it held few attractions for permanent settlement. The men who came as planters did not have to bring their wives and children with them, and the servants had no incentive to do so at all. If the fishery were bad in Newfoundland, the servant faced starvation in the winter, but if he managed to return to England or Ireland, there was always the charity of his relatives or the local poor laws and charities. Despite this, some of the men married here and had children. Many of their children drifted back to England or on to America, but others stayed, married in their turn, had their children and there slowly developed a class of people who knew no homes but Newfoundland. This was especially the case in Conception Bay. This was true in part even before 1700, but the fighting which raged during King William's and Queen Anne's Wars dispersed most of them, and the whole process painfully started again. Newfoundland needed long prosperity, security from attack and a much greater diversification of economic life before her population could grow solidly and quickly. These conditions coalesced after 1763. Thus the fishery conditioned the colony. The fishery alone brought men out, but the fishery discouraged them from settling and made it easy for them to leave. Truly, for Newfoundland it gave with one hand and took away with the other, but it forms the basis of our entire cultural tradition. Without it we would hardly have been able to develop any kind of colony at all.

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