Prosperity and the end of the Migratory Fishery, 1803-1815
The trends which developed after 1793 became even more pronounced after
1803, when the Napoleonic wars began. At first, conditions within the fish
trade changed little. For instance, the importance of the West Indies as a
market for Newfoundland fish grew again, especially after Portuguese markets
became glutted in 1805. However, a series of events began late in 1806 that
would have a dramatic and beneficial effect on the fish trade.
Napoleon's "Continental System" was designed to cut Britain off from trade
with Europe. The British government retaliated with a naval blockade on all
ports serving Napoleonic Europe. Caught in the middle of this economic
warfare were neutral trading countries like the United States, whose right
to trade freely was now threatened. The United States therefore declared its
own embargo in 1807, prohibiting trade with countries like Britain which
deliberately limited the free movement of trade.
Given that these measures were designed to interfere with maritime trade, it
is ironic that they should have stimulated the British trade in Newfoundland
fish. The southern European markets continued to demand fish despite Napoleon's
decrees, and the United States' decision to stop trading with the British
Empire opened the door to more direct trade between Newfoundland and the West
Indies. From then on, conditions within the fish trade continued to improve.
The Peninsular War in Portugal and Spain after 1808 gradually reopened those
markets to full activity, while the American declaration of war in 1812
suspended the United States fishery completely. Newfoundland fish therefore
acquired a hammerlock on both the European and Caribbean markets.
Production more than doubled in an attempt to meet the demand for fish,
and prices rose to unprecedented levels (24 to 32 shillings per quintal in
1813). It was difficult to find ships to carry all the fish to market. In
1811, over 900,000 quintals of fish were imported by the principal markets
Iberia and the British West Indies;
in 1815 that figure reached nearly
1.2 million quintals. The fishery and the fish trade were enjoying their
greatest levels of production and prosperity.
||Drying fish, St. John's, Newfoundland, n.d.
This 19th century drawing shows the predominent method, in Newfoundland, of drying fish
throughout the 19th century.
Illustration by Percival Skelton. From Joseph Hatton and M.
Harvey, Newfoundland, the Oldest British Colony (London: Chapman and Hall, 1883)
Little of this activity was being generated by the migratory fishery,
which had all but disappeared. Virtually all the fish exported from
Newfoundland was now produced by resident fishermen. By 1800, nine out
of ten people in most parts of Newfoundland were permanent residents, and
the remaining ten percent were the crews of supply and sack ships, not
migratory fishermen. The merchants whose fortunes had been based on the
migratory fishery had begun to reduce their direct involvement in the
fishery in favour of more lucrative activities, such as supplying the
planter fishermen. Observing that "every extra 'planter' whom they set up in business made the migratory fishery less and less necessary and viable,"
Keith Matthews concluded that "The migratory fishery died from a surfeit of prosperity (Matthews, 1968, 546, 603)." And for the same reason, the
population of Newfoundland had been able to grow. It was this shift from
an English-based fishery to a Newfoundland-based fishery which lies at the
heart of the island's transition "from fishery to colony."
©2001, Olaf Janzen