Early Settlement Schemes
Before 1600, Europeans overwintered in northern North America only rarely and
usually by accident, as in the case of Basque whalers trapped by ice at Red Bay in the 1570s.
There is one record, in an early Cornish account book, of what sounds like an over-wintering
caretaker in Conception Bay in 1609 (a year before John Guy's colony at Cupids).
It is sometimes claimed that English fishing ships regularly left winter crews
behind at this time, but there is no other evidence for this. In fact, the
suggestion seems unlikely.
Red Bay Harbour, Labrador.
Basque whalers in Red Bay preferred to construct their shore stations in locations which
were both close to deep water and sheltered from the northeast and southwest winds. These
stations were most frequently used during the whalers' seasonal visits to the harbour. In
the 16th century, the Basques (like other European visitors) did not usually overwinter in
Labrador, but returned to their home ports in the Bay of Biscay until the next whaling season.
Adapted with permission by Duleepa Wijayawardhana, 1998. Adapted and reproduced by
permission of J.A. Tuck, Atlantic Archaeology Ltd. From James A. Tuck and
Robert Grenier, Red Bay, Labrador: World Whaling Capital A.D. 1550-1600
(St. John's, Newfoundland: Atlantic Archaeology Ltd., ©1989) 38.
From the time of Elizabeth I a series of writers advocated the settlement of Newfoundland.
Four are distinguished by their extensive first-hand knowledge of the island: Anthony
Parkhurst (1578), Edward Hayes (1586), John Mason (1620) and Richard Whitbourne (1620).
The schemes of the 1570s and 80s came to nothing. Humphrey Gilbert's visit to St. John's
in 1583 is sometimes misunderstood as an effort at Newfoundland colonization, but it was
not. Gilbert had plans to exploit "Norumbega", that is, the coast of Maine.
St. John's was just a port where he found it convenient to supplement his lean
provisions by bullying the European fishermen he found there. After their visit
to Newfoundland both Gilbert and his companion Hayes became more interested in the
possibilities of northern settlement, but Gilbert was to drown a few weeks later on the
way to his proposed southern colony. And Hayes, like Mason and Whitbourne after him,
lacked the capital to finance a colony and could do little more than publicize the
possibilities they saw.
The early proponents of Newfoundland settlement offered various grandiose reasons for
their schemes, but the special advantages of the island were more relevant and these were,
largely, related to the fishery. Whitbourne, for example, in his Discourse and Discovery
of Newfoundland (1620), defended colonization of the island with most of the rationales
usual at the time, from "converting the Inhabitants to Christianitie" to
disburdening England of its "superabounding multitudes". But he presented in
greatest detail the case that settlement would permit a more efficient fishery. He also
suggested that overwintering crews would be able to pre-empt fishing rooms. This raised the
possibility of establishing a monopoly on the dry fishery, and it is possible this was a
disguised part of the strategy of the Newfoundland Company, which backed John Guy's colony
at Cupids. Whatever the calculations behind these early plantations, those that were
successful in establishing permanent residents were fishery-oriented.
In 1621 John Guy told the House of Commons that there were "But three real plantations
in Newfoundland". He was probably thinking of Bristol's Hope (Harbour Grace), St. John's
and the newly-founded Colony of Avalon at Ferryland.
©1998, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site Project