The Impact of the Anglo-French Wars, 1793-1803
Coming so soon after the massive market collapse of the late 1780s, the
wars had a devastating effect on the migratory fishery. The raid by Admiral
de Richery in 1796 caused panic and some damage. In the same year, Spain
entered the war as an ally of France, and closed its markets to British
trade. British saltfish could enter Spain clandestinely through Portugal,
but this caused so much fish to pass through Portuguese entry ports that
prices there were driven down. And when Portugal was threatened by invasion
in 1800, that market became too unreliable for merchants in the fish trade.
As a result, merchants increased the volume of fish sent to the West Indies.
Overall, export levels remained reasonably high (400,000 quintals in 1800),
but trade conditions generally were poor, particularly since there was growing
competition from Scandinavian countries as well as from the more familiar
Americans, who were exporting nearly as much fish at this time as the
The number of bankruptcies during the first decade of the war reflected
the uncertain state of the Newfoundland fish trade. Not only were markets
difficult, but risks and insurance rates soared in wartime, adding to a
merchant's overhead. The labour shortage inflated wages within the fishery,
the merchant marine and the shipbuilding industry. Shipbuilding costs also
increased because of wartime interruptions in the supply of materials used
to construct and outfit ships and vessels. These higher operating costs in
turn caused wartime freight rates to increase.
The result was that British merchants began to transfer capital out of
the fishery and into the carrying trade - fishery profits had become uncertain,
while the profits from shipping and trade were protected by rising wartime
freight rates. The number of British-based migratory fishing ships decreased
dramatically, especially in the banking fleet. This offshore fleet consisted
of 82 vessels in 1793; by 1807 it had dropped to 33, of which 30 were based
at St. John's.
Merchants were looking for dependable investments. For example, Poole firms
operating at Trinity re-directed some of their capital from the bank fishery
to the carrying trade. Others diverted their bankers to the northern cod
fishery, the new spring seal fishery, or the inshore fishery along the Treaty
Shore which the French had abandoned as soon as war broke out. By 1801, only
one banker still operated out of Trinity. Lester and Company had a fleet of
20 vessels in 1788, about half of them bankers; in 1800 the fleet had shrunk
to 11, nearly all of them engaged in the carrying trade.
|Lester Premises, Trinity, late 1700s.
A modern depiction of the Lester and Company premises at Trinity
in the late 18th century.
Reproduced by permission of Gordon Handcock, ©1983. From
Peter Neary and Patrick O'Flaherty, Part of the Main: An Illustrated History of
Newfoundland and Labrador (St. John's, ©1983) 32.
The wartime period, then, was not disastrous for those merchants who
withdrew from the fishing industry but maintained their investment in the
fish trade. The British government was not beset with widespread cries of
ruin, as had occurred in previous wars, and the "decline" of the migratory
fishery does not mean that an activity had ended, but that it had been
transformed. West Country merchants had long been reducing their direct
involvement in the fishery in favour of other activities, such as the supply
and carrying trades. The market glut of 1788 to 1791, and the onset of war
in 1793, simply accelerated an established trend. Production levels in the
fishery remained greater than anything the British fishery had been able to
deliver before 1750. This was because the resident fishery, for the first time
ever, was able to take up any slack in production caused by the contraction of
the migratory fishery.
©2001, Olaf Janzen