The English Fishery and Trade in the 18th Century
The British migratory fishery at Newfoundland reached its
height in the 18th century in terms of production, employment,
and revenue. It overtook the French fishery, which had been the
larger of the two during the 17th century, in part because the
French were forced off most of the island of Newfoundland after
1713 and in part because the English fishery had expanded beyond
the its old limits. In addition, secondary activities such as the
salmon, and later the seal fisheries became significant.
This expansion, both in geography and in economic activities,
made permanent settlement in Newfoundland possible for the first
time. The number of permanent residents was small, but
significant. This development alarmed those who still favoured a
purely migratory ship fishery, but to the West Country merchants
who controlled the fishery and trade, the growth of a resident
population was an advantage. Expansion of the fishery and
settlement generated great prosperity, and a few merchants became
tremendously wealthy and powerful, owning fleets of ships,
employing thousands of fishermen, and dominating the lives of
West Country merchants became wealthy enough to diversify
their activities so that, when next the migratory fishery found
itself in difficulty, they had alternative sources of income. At
the same time, the encouragement given to settlement, expansion
and diversification in Newfoundland eventually allowed the
residents to dominate the fishery.
This meant, paradoxically, that the success of the British
migratory fishery at Newfoundland in the 18th century set the
stage for its own extinction. However, this success was preceded
by a quarter century of great difficulty.
A Disastrous Quarter Century
Ship and Boat Fisheries - a Symbiosis
When the 18th century opened, England was at peace after a
decade of war which had severely damaged the fishery. The demands
of the navy for seamen, the interruption of the trade, the
devastation caused by the French in Newfoundland, had all
burdened a fishery already weakened by a pre-war trade
depression. The traditional ship fishery was in decline, and the
boat fisheries (both planter and bye-boat) were expanding.
Thus there were significant changes occuring in the fishery
when peace was restored. This made it hard for West Country
fishing interests to respond effectively to the great increase in
competition that now developed. Many towns with little or no
experience in the Newfoundland trade, such as Cork, Liverpool,
Chester, and Hull, took advantage of the post-war release of
credit and labour to become involved in a variety of maritime
trades, including that with Newfoundland. London, which had four
vessels at Newfoundland in 1684, had 73 in 1698. The West Country
hold on the Newfoundland trade seemed threatened.
Some towns responded by trying to revitalize the traditional
ship fishery. Dartmouth merchants, for instance, returned to the
old ways and so did the North Devon towns of Barnstaple and
Bideford. But conditions did not favour the ship fishery for two
major reasons. First, it had always been important to gain first
access to the best fishing rooms by arriving early in the spring.
This was increasingly difficult because many fishing rooms were
now occupied all year, not only by planters but also by merchants
who were shifting more of their operation into trade and into the
|Bideford, England, n.d.
Artist unknown. From D.W. Prowse, A History of
Newfoundland from the English, Colonial, and Foreign Records
(London: Macmillan, 1895) 221.
Second, the ship fishery had always needed large numbers of
men - it was normal to hire six men for each of the ship's
fishing boats, together with a large shore crew. Merchants now
found that enough labour was not always available. During the
war, men were pressed into the navy or chose to remain in
Newfoundland, working in the boat fisheries - and the boat
fisheries had advantages. One was that the fishermen were paid in
wages, not in shares. Given that outcome of a fishing voyage
could be very uncertain, wages were more secure. The boat fishery
continued to grow even after peace was restored and some ports
experienced real hardship as a result.
Some West Country ports abandoned the old methods and adopted
a cross between boat and ship fishery. Ships still went out each
spring, but with smaller crews using smaller boats. Such a
reduced operation could not collect a full cargo by the end of
the season, nor was it intended to. Instead, the balance of the
cargo was acquired from the boat fishermen. In addition, a
substantial proportion of the voyage's revenue came from
transporting passengers and freight for the boat fishery.
This kind of operation shows that many West Country merchants
not only accepted the presence of a permanent population in
Newfoundland, but had learned to adapt to, and prosper from it.
Migratory and resident fisheries were becoming integrated, and
over the century West Country merchants reduced their direct
involvement in the fishery in favour of an increased commitment
to the supply trade.
The War of the Spanish Succession broke out in 1702, lasted
until 1713, and brought the British fishery at Newfoundland to
its lowest point ever. There was a vicious land war in which the
French attacked and destroyed English Shore settlements. St.
John's was captured twice. Trans-Atlantic commerce was
interrupted by enemy privateers, by impressment, and by
government embargoes on trade. Spain was an enemy, so the
fishery's largest market was closed for a decade. Many Italian
market ports were also closed because they were under the control
or influence of the Spanish crown. Only Portugal continued to
purchase English salt cod.
Ironically, there were record catches at Newfoundland, with
some boats taking over 400
quintals in a single season. But
without uninterrupted trade across the Atlantic and free access
to markets, the fishery could not prosper. Both the migratory and
sedentary fisheries contracted. The number of fishing ships
(including the new hybrid kind) dropped from 171 in 1700 to 20 or
30 on average during the war years. In 1708 only seven sack ships
were recorded at Newfoundland, compared with nearly 50 in 1700.
The total catch by migrant and resident fishermen between 1702
and 1709 averaged under 100,000 quintals per year, compared with
300,000 quintals per year before the war.
Conditions did not improve after the war. Markets and trade
opportunities revived, but the fishery itself began to fail. For
the next ten years both French and English fishermen at
Newfoundland experienced disastrously poor catches. For many
merchants as well as planters, this situation was the final
straw. A number were forced into bankruptcy. The population of
Newfoundland shrank as residents returned to England or emigrated
to America. The number of West Country ports active in the
Newfoundland trade was further reduced.
At the same time, the failure of the fishery after 1715 played
a significant role in consolidating West Country control over the
Newfoundland fishery and trade. Those who could do so moved into
other commercial activities. The London ship owners, for
instance, who had greatly increased their involvement in the sack
ship business by the end of the 1600s, now withdrew from the
trade completely. The competition which had seemed to threaten
West Country dominance in the fishery in 1700 disappeared.
For the fishing merchants and planters who had no alternative,
it became a matter of either sticking with the Newfoundland
fishery or being defeated by it. And many were defeated. But when
the fishery recovered late in the 1720s, those who survived had
improved their position, both relatively and absolutely. For the
next 60 years, the Newfoundland fishery would be dominated by the
merchants of just a few towns: Dartmouth, Poole, Exeter (through
its outports of Topsham and Teignmouth), and to a lesser extent
Bristol and Jersey.
||Bristol, England, 1787.
View of the harbour, showing Redcliff Church.
Painting by Nicholas Pocock. From Stanley Hutton,
Bristol and its Famous Associations (Bristol: J.W.
Arrowsmith, 1907) 21.
The Rise of the English Bank Fishery
The disastrous years from 1702 to the mid-1720s caused other
significant changes in the fishery. One of these was the birth of
the English bank fishery. The English had always preferred the
inshore dry fishery, leaving the banks to others, notably the
French who were skilled at the wet cure required on the banks and
who had a strong domestic market for green cod. But some fishing
merchants took a second look at the bank fishery as the ship
fishery faded and inshore fishing yields began to plummet.
Bankers were far more productive per man, they required smaller
crews, and were relatively cheap to build. Such cost advantages
more than compensated for the lower price which the banker's
The lower price was a result of the cure. The English were not
able to copy the French green cure. Instead, the English bank
fishermen salted the fish heavily in the hold and brought the
catch to shore, where it was dried. The quality of the fish was
not as high as that produced by inshore fishermen, but large
numbers continued to exploit the banks.
It is difficult accurately to estimate the size of the bank
fishery in this period. Before 1769 the official records did not
distinguish between bankers and inshore fishing ships; all were
listed under the collective term "British fishing
ship." Though the most impressive growth in the bank fishery
occurred after 1763, it was very significant earlier in the
Generally it was Devonshire fishermen who favoured the new
bank fishery. They had long dominated the "Southern
Shore" from St. John's to Trepassey, a stretch of the coast
which had a clear locational advantage for exploiting the banks.
Fishermen north of St. John's continued to concentrate on the
The bank fishermen also made money by carrying passengers back
and forth to Newfoundland. Since they did not have large crews,
the bankers had plenty of room for passengers. At a fee of £3
per passenger, one way, and 20 shillings per ton for supplies and
provisions, a banker could defray much of its operating costs
from passage-money alone. In a bad year, the passage-money earned
by transporting 60 or 70 fishermen and their supplies across the
ocean and back could spell the difference between a disastrous
and a profitable voyage. It is not surprising that a close
relationship developed between the bank fishery, which welcomed
passengers, and the migratory bye-boat fishery, whose fishermen
The Bye-Boat Fishery
As an inshore activity, the bye-boat fishery was affected by
the poor fishing after 1715, but not as badly as the resident
fishery. With no permanent facilities to maintain, the bye-boat
men had lower overhead costs. They often rented fishing rooms
from planters, and produced more fish using fewer men. Not
surprisingly the importance of the bye-boat fishery increased
during this period.
Like the bank fishery, the bye-boat fishery was most popular
among the men of South Devon. And in Newfoundland, the bye-boat
fishery was most prominent on the "Southern Shore,"
where the bank fishermen were based while in Newfoundland. The
bank and bye-boat fisheries were linked and inter-dependent. The
growth and expansion of one contributed to the growth and
expansion of the other.
The Resident Fishery
In contrast, the resident fishery suffered greatly during the
early part of the century. The war bankrupted many planters, and
the depression which followed caused further hardship. As
earnings fell, planters were forced to buy wintering supplies on
credit from English and American traders. They then had to turn
over the next season's catch to their creditors at a price
determined by the traders. Thus many planters found themselves in
a vicious debt cycle from which there seemed no escape, except
emigration to America.
Because this was illegal, it is difficult to
estimate accurately how many left Newfoundland in this way. One
naval officer claimed that as many as 1,500 fishermen went to
America in a particularly hard year. While many of these would
have been seasonally-employed servants, not planters, we do know
that the resident population showed little growth during this
period; it may even have declined.
This may explain why the resident fishery did not take greater
advantage of new opportunities for expansion that existed after
the war ended in 1713. The Treaty of Utrecht, which brought the
War of the Spanish Succession to an end, recognized British
sovereignty over the entire island of Newfoundland. France
retained important fishing rights on the coast between Cape
Bonavista and Pointe Riche (the so-called "French
Shore"), but shifted the centre of its fishery to Louisbourg
on Cape Breton Island and abandoned Plaisance.
The English were slow to move into the areas formerly used by
the French. The main reason for this was the failure of the
fishery, which affected the new regions as much as the old.
Residents and others would have been too preoccupied with
surviving where they were, without adding the risk of venturing
into unknown territory.
Labour Problems: The Irish Connection
The Newfoundland fishery was so uncertain in the years after
1715 that West Countrymen became unwilling to participate. They
could not be certain that they would earn enough to pay for their
return passage. As a result, and for the first time on a
significant scale, the West Country fishing fleets began to pick
up workers in Ireland. The fleets had long been accustomed to
stop at Cork and Waterford for provisions while en route to
Newfoundland. Now they began to collect men as well. Most Irish
recruits, like those from the West Country, were landsmen from
the rural hinterland, attracted by the possibility of work in
Newfoundland. Their lack of skills was no more an obstacle than
it was for West Country landsmen. Besides, the new bank fishery
demanded fewer skills than the inshore fishery. By the 1720s
practically all the West Country fishing towns were recruiting
Irish workers for Newfoundland.
The recovery of the fishery at the end of the 1720s did not
end this practice. A series of famines struck Ireland at that
time which maintained, even increased, the flow of Irish workers
Recovery and Diversification: The English Fishery After
Fishing and Trading
The years between 1702 and 1725 had demonstrated just how
risky the fishing industry could be. Consequently, as more and
more residents bought supplies from them on credit, the merchants
began to concentrate their efforts in the supply trade.
Whether they carried men from Ireland or general cargoes from
England, it is obvious from the volume of cargoes carried by
"fishing ships" that more people were being supplied
than the merchants' own fishing crews. Those West Country
ports which remained most active in the sedentary fishery were,
predictably, most heavily concerned with the supply trade.
Poole, with substantial interests in Trinity and Bonavista
bays, took the lead in this trend. Others soon followed. Exeter,
which freighted mostly salt in 1720, regularly freighted
provisions and manufactured goods ten years later. Dartmouth,
which freighted almost nothing in 1720, became heavily involved
in the supply trade before the end of the decade. The fishing
ships had become traders as well, and their backers were
increasingly tolerant of permanent settlement.
American trading vessels appeared at Newfoundland as early as
the 1640s, and were regular visitors to the fishery by the 1670s.
But throughout the 17th century the Americans had traded on a
speculative basis. In the 18th century, the Americans became much
more organized, with factors residing year-round, in charge of
permanent warehouses. This enabled them to sell goods all year
round, wholesale and retail. They received in exchange cash -
though this was extremely rare - or bills of exchange. If bills
were not available, the factor might accept
refuse cod for sale
in the West Indies. The fish could be exchanged there for bills
of exchange, a return cargo, or a combination of both. This kind
of trade was extremely important for the Americans, and their
trade with Newfoundland grew steadily. Twenty American vessels
were counted in 1721; in 1748 the number was 95.
While some West Country merchants complained about unfair
competition, most had no objection to American traders. Yankees
supplied the fishery with cereal products, livestock, molasses,
and especially rum. These goods did not compete with those
imported from England and Ireland. If anything, the Yankee trade
was complementary to that of the English merchants.
Objections to the Americans came from two sources and were
related to a common problem. Merchants who dominated a particular
bay or district felt threatened by emigration to America, because
too many people escaped their debts and obligations in this way.
The British government was also concerned, because emigration
threatened the fishery's role as a nursery for seamen. But so
long as most residents and merchants tolerated, even welcomed the
American traders, nothing was done to restrict their presence in
West Country Traders
By the 1720s the West Country merchants were following the
example of the American traders. They now had extensive and
permanent properties in Newfoundland to support their fishing
operations. The fishing rooms of the 17th century, available on a
first-come, first-served basis, had almost disappeared. Most of
them had been quietly (and illegally) occupied on a permanent
basis by the crews and servants of West Country fishing
merchants, and ownership was no longer disputed. The rooms were
treated as private property, and when a merchant died, his rooms
passed to his heirs.
The old distinction between "Western Adventurers"
and "planters" was becoming blurred and irrelevant. The
West Country fishing merchants had "planted" their
businesses in Newfoundland, if not themselves and their families,
and their growing involvement in the supply trade reinforced this
trend. To ensure proper management of their operations, merchants
often sent junior members of their families to live in
Newfoundland. Many remained on the island for considerable
periods of time. The West Country merchants were diversifying
their activities, and were no longer exclusively fishing
merchants. They were also suppliers, shippers, wholesalers, and
retailers. This gave the larger merchants enormous resiliency
during the periodic outbreaks of war. A merchant's overall level
of business would not suffer nearly as much as it did in the 17th
century, when almost all of his business would have been
concentrated in the ship fishery. War still caused the migratory
fishery to contract, but the merchant could still do business
with planters and boatmen.
Diversification and resiliency permitted the accumulation of
considerable wealth and influence both in England and in
Newfoundland. Joseph White, head of a prominent Poole fishing
merchant family, died in 1772; his estate was worth £130,000.
Such wealth gave a merchant family much greater economic control
than had been customary in the previous century.
More and more, merchants owned their ships outright. Share
ownership still persisted, but it no longer involved several
principal shareholders. Instead, there was usually a single
shareholder with the controlling interest, and a host of smaller
investors, often sources of quick cash. A few merchants even
owned fleets of shipping. The Dartmouth firm of Newman and
Holdsworth owned ten ships and vessels at one point, and Joseph
White owned 14 in 1750. Other merchants also owned warehouses,
vineyards, "wine houses," "fish houses," and
other commercial property in market countries like Spain and
If diversification was an important factor in the survival of
many West Country fishing merchants, the fish trade still
remained their most important activity, and Spain and Portugal
were still their most important markets. Commercial treaties with
both countries, together with the continued decline of the
Spanish economy (which made that country increasingly dependent
upon foreign suppliers), reinforced the trading patterns which
had been established during the previous centuries.
The successful outcome of a voyage nevertheless continued to
depend on luck, a knowledgeable sailing master, and reliable
contacts in key market ports. Competition in the lucrative
Iberian market was considerable. Spain consumed around 400,000
quintals of saltfish annually, and Portugal took another 150,000
or more. The British fishery supplied an important proportion of
that total. In 1770 over 600,000 quintals were exported from
Newfoundland to "foreign markets", a term which
included the Italian and West Indian markets, as well as Spain
The French fishery produced another 350,000 quintals at
mid-century, although much of this - perhaps 250,000 - was
intended for the domestic market. The American (New England) cod
fishery produced around 250,000 quintals annually. Most of this
went to the West Indies as "refuse" fish, but an
increasing amount was sent to southern Europe. By the 1760s
Yankee traders were selling 60,000 quintals of saltfish annually
at Bilbao alone. Such competition to the British fish trade may
well have contributed to the animosity felt by some of the West
Country merchants towards the Americans.
Still, the lion's share of the market belonged to the West
Country merchants. Despite an unsteady start at the beginning of
the century, the British dominated the North Atlantic fish trade
once the fishery began to recover late in the 1720s. All branches
of the fishery prospered, especially the bye-boat fishery. By
1735 the British cod trade was supplying 400,000 quintals to
foreign markets, a figure which exceeded the total catch of the
Even wars did not seriously damage the English trade. There
were some difficulties during the War of the Austrian Succession
(1739-1748), but thereafter the British fishery prospered more
than ever before. Exports to foreign markets exceeded 500,000
quintals in 1752. Unprecedented levels were also reached in the
number of bye-boats (581 in 1748), inhabitants' boats (944 in
1752), passengers (over 5,900 in 1752), bye-boat men (nearly
5,900 in 1750), and planters (over 10,000 planters and servants
in 1754; about two-thirds seasonally employed).
Between 1755 and 1763 the Seven Years' War caused the fishery
and production to contract. But from 1763 to 1775 the British
fishery again expanded to new heights of prosperity and
productivity. Not once in the decade after 1763 did the volume of
fish caught by British fishermen at Newfoundland fall below
500,000 quintals; twice it exceeded 700,000 quintals.
Meanwhile, France had lost all its North American possessions
apart from the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, ceded as a
seasonal base and shelter, hardly an adequate substitute for what
had been lost. French fishermen could also use the French or
Treaty Shore. The French remained important at Newfoundland, but
the British had clearly become supreme in the fish trade to
Europe. The French were no longer serious competitors.
One reason for this success was the nature of the supply trade
which supported the British fishery at Newfoundland. As we saw,
Ireland and especially North America had become the fishery's
most important sources of provisions. Most supplies used by the
French fishery came from Europe, and were much more expensive.
Consequently the French fishery was not as competitive, and began
to lose ground in southern European markets.
A second important factor in explaining the remarkable rise of
the British fish trade was the presence of the sedentary fishery.
Whenever war caused the migratory fishery to contract, the
sedentary fishery would expand to take up much of the slack. This
meant that the British fishery never stopped producing. In
contrast, the French resident fishery was in steady retreat
throughout the 18th century, and the French fishery remained
primarily migratory. This meant that in time of war most of its
fishery was suspended. Markets were lost, and proved difficult to
recover. After 1763, the French fishery was exclusively
migratory, subject to complete interruption with every war. This
fact alone gave the British an incomparable advantage in the
North Atlantic fish trade.
The End of Monopoly : the Later 18th Century
The British conquest of Canada during the Seven Years
War had serious implications for the Newfoundland trade. Before
1763 it had been extremely difficult for newcomers to break into
the fishery and trade at Newfoundland. The West Country had
established a virtual monopoly, and controlled the planter
fishery. Speculative trading voyages were therefore unlikely to
be profitable. The conquest of Canada helped to change this
As a regular trade developed between Britain and Québec,
traders would stop at Newfoundland to see if a cargo could be
arranged. Many of these were Scots, eager to develop new markets
for their rapidly industrializing economy. Interest in
Newfoundland was concentrated in the port of Greenock, which had
sent ships to the fishery as early as 1725, the object being to
smuggle European products such as lace, silks, to British
American colonies. Both Scottish and Irish shipping increased. As
these newcomers began to make regular visits they established
permanent warehouses on the island. Though the level of their
activity did not rival that of the West Country merchants, they
had cracked the monopoly.
Few of the West Country merchants were disturbed. None of them
had abandoned the fishery altogether, and in the fishery their
dominance was secure. The 1760s and early 1770s were the best
years ever for the fishery. Exports increased, yet prices
remained steady. Employment soared, with perhaps 20,000-30,000
men working in the fishery. The migratory fishery prospered the
most, especially the bank fishery, and overshadowed the sedentary
fishery, which itself had grown significantly. That British
administrators still believed that the resident fishery was
undesirable and ought to be discouraged shows how little they
understood the situation. The migratory fisheries were, in fact,
dependent on the resident fishery; and the resident fishery was
creating a genuine Newfoundland society.
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