The Wars and Newfoundland Society: The Home Front

The most visible sign of the transformation "from fishery to colony" was the increase in Newfoundland's permanent population. There is some dispute about actual population figures, but the permanent, year-round population of the island probably tripled between the War of American Independence and the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The number of women crept steadily upward after 1785, and the number of children grew steadily, both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the overall population.

Permanent Population Growth

During the same period, the number of planters doubled. This is explained by the shift of merchants from the fishery into the supply and carrying trades after 1783, the vigour of the fishery and trade between 1783 and 1788, and the decline in the number of migratory fishermen. The Newfoundland population was becoming more settled and permanent.

Placentia, n.d.
By 1778 there were 1500 people living in Placentia and the surrounding area.
Illustration by Percival Skelton. From Joseph Hatton and M. Harvey, Newfoundland, the Oldest British Colony (London: Chapman and Hall, 1883) 160.

Increasing numbers of servants chose to remain in Newfoundland rather than return. The more fortunate of them married and set up their own family operations as independent fishermen. The less fortunate became "dieters," a new kind of servant who remained in Newfoundland through the winter, working for little more than room and board. As a result, and for the first time, the resident fishery became an important peacetime source of fish for the fish trade.

Family Growth

Yet growth and permanence did not necessarily mean prosperity for the fishermen. Low prices for fish, uncertain markets, and the inflated cost of supplies and provisions all combined to create great hardship within the resident fishery during the 1790s. By 1797 and 1798, the threat of starvation had become quite real. Many residents began to rely on smaller boat- and shore-crews than had been customary, often employing dieters. Under the stress of bad conditions, the number of single men, both masters and servants, tended to shrink. Some left Newfoundland altogether. Others found marriage attractive, since a family could provide some security in hard times.

More and more, residents turned to their families as a source of labour. This explains why the number of permanent families grew between 1785 and 1805, though the overall number of inhabitants did not increase significantly. This, in turn, added enormously to the capacity of the island's population to reproduce and grow. The ensuing "baby boom" revealed itself about 1800 in a rapid and sustained growth of the permanent population.

The Seal Fishery

Other factors also contributed to this trend. One was the birth of the commercial seal fishery after 1793, when the first schooners sailed north into the ice early in the spring to find the herds of breeding harp seals. A growing population needed this new economic opportunity, as did merchants faced with a slump in the fish trade and a surplus of banking vessels. Moreover, the seal oil and pelts were exported entirely to England, a market which was not affected by the wartime closures. By 1803 over 100 vessels, carrying 3,500 to 4,000 men, were engaged in sealing and over 50,000 pelts were produced, a figure that soon doubled.

The Seal Hunt
The Seal Hunt
By 1803 over 100 vessels, carrying 3,500 to 4,000 men, were engaged in sealing.
Illustration by Percival Skelton. From Joseph Hatton and M. Harvey, Newfoundland, the Oldest British Colony (London: Chapman and Hall, 1883) 160.

Sealing employed large numbers of Newfoundland residents at a time of year when work had not been available. Thus their ability to support themselves was greatly improved. Sealing also fitted in with the new emphasis on the family as an economic unit. While the head of a family went off to find seals, the rest of the family remained behind to prepare for the season's cod fishery. Furthermore, by stimulating ancillary activities such as shipbuilding, building trades, warehousing, and so on, sealing further diversified the economy. This industry was without doubt a major factor influencing the spread of permanent settlement along the northeast coast.

Newfoundland Prosperity

The fishery recovered and began to prosper after 1801, and from 1807 conditions favoured the residents in a significant way. In that year, there was an unprecedented degree of prosperity in the Newfoundland fishery, and for the first time ever, the merchants of Trinity Bay bought fish and train oil, and sold goods and provisions, at St. John's prices. A Trinity agent remarked in 1811 that "We were obliged to make considerable alterations or else lose our custom ... I am certain the Planters in this neighbourhood never saw better times in their lives..." (Handcock, 1981, 51)

Not even the outbreak of war with the United States in 1812 dampened this sense of prosperity and optimism. Newfoundland had depended on imports of American provisions, and food shortages and higher prices resulted when war was declared. However, these losses were balanced by buoyant wages and special shipments of provisions from Britain and British North America. In the end, there may have been an actual improvement in the standard of living between 1807 and 1814. Wages and prices continued to rise to new levels, and fishermen now did so well that they could settle their accounts with the merchants.