The French Newfoundland Fishery in the 18th Century
The 18th century brought a number of difficulties for the
French fisheries at Newfoundland. There was a catastrophic
decline in inshore cod stocks from about 1710 into the late
1720s, but a more profound factor was Anglo-French warfare which
disrupted the fishery, the trade and the markets. Moreover, the
various peace treaties limited where and how the French could fish.
The first blow came with the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) which
ended the War of the Spanish Succession. In this treaty,
France recognized English sovereignty over the island of
Newfoundland. As a result, the French left Plaisance (Placentia)
and ceased fishing along the south coast. However, the French were
allowed to continue fishing in season on the Newfoundland coast
between Cape Bonavista and Pointe Riche, the petit nord,
an area which came to be known as the French Shore, or Treaty Shore.
Though France had to cede mainland Acadia (now Nova Scotia), it retained
Cape Breton Island, now renamed Île Royale. There France created a
new colony, and built the great fortress of Louisbourg. This became the
centre of a flourishing fishery.
The Seven Years' War (1756-1763) ended the French presence on the North
American mainland. By the Treaty of Paris (1763) France ceded
Canada to Britain, together with Labrador and Cape Breton. But
the French were determined to retain their fishery in the region,
and persuaded the British to renew their right to fish on the French
Shore. In addition, Britain agreed to hand over the islands of St.
Pierre and Miquelon, just off Newfoundland's south coast, to serve
as a shelter ("abri") for the French banking fleet.
|Map of the island of Newfoundland, 1768.
This 18th-century English map of Newfoundland shows the
limits of the French Shore, as specified in the Treaty of
Utrecht (1713) and Treaty of Versailles (1783). The designated
limits encompassed Cape Bonavista, Cape John, Point Riche, and
Cape Ray, and St. Pierre - shown here as St. Peter's Island.
Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada / C-087924.
From Peter Neary and Patrick O'Flaherty, Part of the Main: An
Illustrated History of Newfoundland and Labrador (St. John's,
Newfoundland: Breakwater Books, ©1983) 41.
Further adjustments appeared in the Treaty of Versailles (1783), one
of the web of international treaties negotiated at the end of the American
Revolutionary War. The boundaries of the French Shore were changed - it was
now to run from Cape St. John to Cape Ray - and French rights there defined
in a declaration. Similarly, the French possession of St. Pierre and Miquelon
was confirmed and clarified. The French Newfoundland fishery was again
suspended during the Anglo-French wars that lasted from 1793 to 1815. The
peace treaty restored the situation as it has been after 1783.
The disruptions of war and increasing restrictions damaged both the sedentary
and banking branches of the French fishery, and improved the position of the
British and American fisheries. The French lost their markets for dry fish in
Spain and Italy, for instance, and merchants were forced to rely on an
increasingly unpredictable domestic market. Some ports abandoned the bank
fishery altogether, or severely reduced their fleets. By the latter part of
the 18th century, the French Newfoundland fishery was dominated by St. Malo and
Granville. In the 1780s, 60 percent of French vessels fishing on the banks, and
80 percent of those fishing on the French Shore, came from these ports.
For all these problems, the French fishing effort remained impressive.
Until the 1770s the French fleet was larger than the English - between
300 and 400 ships to the English 150 to 200 - though total production of
fish was considerably lower. It has been estimated that between 1763 and
1815 the French produced approximately 350,000 metric tons; the estimate
for Britain over the same period is 17 million metric tons.
The survival and relative success of the French fishery after 1763 was due
in part to intervention by the French government, which did not want to lose
this valuable nursery for seamen. First, an import duty was placed on foreign
fish, both dry and green, entering France or the French West Indian islands.
This effectively protected the French industry from competition in those markets.
In addition, the government took measures to facilitate the distribution of fish
within France itself.
Then, after 1783, the government provided subsidies (primes) to encourage
the outfitting of fishing vessels, and the sale of fish in foreign markets. For
instance, in the 1780s the government provided a subsidy, or bounty, of 100
livres per crew member to vessels going to the French Shore. The export
bounty was between five and 12 livres depending on market. These were
important incentives, though the export bounties were not at first very effective.
The French regarded their fishery at Newfoundland as a very important asset,
both economically, and because it trained seamen. The maintenance of the
fishery was seen as a vital object of national policy. As a result it did
not die out amid the troubles of the 18th century, but survived to flourish
In summary, then, over the course of the 18th century France was excluded
from the coastal fisheries of what is now Atlantic Canada, but retained a
right to fish on the Newfoundland French Shore and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence,
and was given St. Pierre and Miquelon as a base for a bank fishery. This
situation persisted into the 20th century.