Labrador's settlement history is similar to that of Newfoundland, even in
terms of the policies adopted and the problems of exploitation encountered.
The only difference may be that Newfoundland's settlement pattern preceded
that of Labrador by about a century. Although Labrador was home to virtually
no permanent settlers before 1815, Europeans had been visiting the region for
quite some time.
The Norse were likely the first Europeans to visit the Labrador coast.
Breton and Basque fishermen frequented the Strait of Belle Isle as early as
the 1520s in search of cod. However, in the 1540s the abundance of whales
soon gave the Basque a new reason to visit Labrador. The whaling industry
reached its height in the 1560s and 1570s. The industry, though, was soon
to die: by the 1620s Basque whalers were no longer coming to Labrador.
||Strait of Belle Isle
The picture emphasizes the stark, rugged coastline of the Northern Peninsula and the southern coast of Labrador.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives, QE II Library, Memorial University, St. John's, NL.
With the demise of whaling, the fishery became Labrador's main resource
for a time, as fishermen, mostly from France, continued to collect important
quantities of cod there.
The Treaty of Utrecht expelled the French from Plaisance (Placentia) in
1713. Subsequently, the French invested more heavily in the Labrador fishery.
Prior to 1713, it was not uncommon for France to grant permanent concessions.
That is, merchants, and civil and military leaders were given sections of
coastal Labrador where they could enjoy non-exclusive fishing rights and
exclusive fur trading and sealing rights.
Following the completion of the conquest of New France by Great Britain
in 1760, the granting of land concessions came under British and Anglo-American
control. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 placed the Labrador coast under the
jurisdiction of the governor of Newfoundland. Immediately there was trouble.
The Newfoundland Act of 1699, designed to promote the migratory fishery and
restrict private property, now applied to Labrador, leading to a dispute over
the validity of previous land grants.
Hugh Palliser was governor of Newfoundland between 1764 and 1768. An advocate
of a stronger naval force - the fishery was to be a 'nursery for seamen' - he
supported the establishment of a migratory fishery at Labrador and opposed any
land concessions. Except for these former concessions, Labrador was the ideal
location for the realization of Palliser's goals. It was void of any veritable
settlers and its few resources did little to encourage settlement.
In order to execute his plan, Palliser thought it necessary to establish
friendly relations with the Inuit, who had developed a reputation for destroying
equipment and gear left by the French during the winter. Palliser also
considered the French a problem by their mere presence. The French were still
the enemy, and, in order to prevent them from training seamen in the Labrador
fishery, Palliser kept a close eye on those who were breaching the limits of
the French Shore.
Governor from 1764 to 1768. Portrait is from a mezzotint by
J.R. Smith published in 1787.
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL V.A. 27-17), St. John's, NL.
Palliser also rebuked Anglo-American shipping for conducting illicit commerce
with the French. Furthermore, they tormented the Inuit and provided England
with some strong competition in the migratory fishery. Palliser, then, had to
contend with two different groups if the migratory fishery at Labrador was to
have a future: the Anglo-American colonials and the concessionaires on the
Labrador coast, whose rights, according to Palliser, were annulled by the
Newfoundland Act when the ownership of Labrador changed hands.
Palliser had some work to do. He started by banning American colonials from
the Newfoundland fishery, including the fishery that was carried out at
Labrador. Moreover, merchants and property holders were expelled. To protect
that equipment which necessarily had to be left during the winter months, a
blockhouse named York Fort was erected at Chateau Bay in 1766 and a wintering
garrison was left to reside over it.
||An American Brig in Trepassey Harbour, 4 July 1786
The presence of an American ship in Newfoundland is representative of the interest American fishermen had in Newfoundland.
From the logbook of H.M.S. Pegasus, 1786. Drawing by J.S.Meres. Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada (NAC/C 2510).
Palliser's actions, though, were perhaps far too severe to be successful.
The Board of Trade supported Palliser's ultimate goal, but nonetheless overruled
him and returned property to the owners, maintaining that the seal fishery,
which could not be carried out without land ownership, was as important as the
In 1773, Governor Shuldham was given orders to guarantee outfitters that
their seal and salmon stations would henceforth be protected. This decision
came from the realization that in order to attract investors to Labrador and
thus alleviate the costs incurred by establishing seal and salmon posts,
property rights had to be recognized and Labrador's usefulness had to be
expanded beyond the migratory fishery.
At the same time, pressure was coming from Québec-based merchants and
concession-holders to restore Labrador to Québec. Although the Québec Act
of 1774 did in fact return Labrador to Québec, the protection of the fishery
at Labrador was to remain under the jurisdiction of the commander-in-chief at
Newfoundland. From then on, supervision of the summer fishery at Labrador was
reduced to a few warships dispatched from Newfoundland.
Problems soon ensued with the outbreak of the American Revolution; the
governor of Québec was faced with more pressing problems than that of Labrador.
Meanwhile, competition for Labrador's coastal resources continued to mount.
In 1775, about a hundred British ships fished off the Labrador coast, while
Québec merchants, though less prominent, continued to participate in the seal
and salmon fisheries. Even the Americans were still involved in the fishery,
as in 1783, they were given the right to participate in the inshore fishery as
well as cure fish in unused harbours. Finally, aided by the wars with France
from 1793 onward, more and more Newfoundland-based merchants were involved in
the Labrador fishery on their own account. This industry came to be known as
the floater fishery.
It is at this time that the idea of permanent settlement in Labrador began
to take root. Whereas Palliser had thought that permanent fishing stations and
the migratory fishery were incompatible, London began to believe that the
expense of developing the fishery at Labrador could only ever be worthwhile
if 'a year-round, diversified, sedentary form of exploitation' was developed.
With the approval of permanent fishing posts housing wintering crews, Labrador
began to move towards permanent settlement.
Turmoil was characteristic of the early years of settlement in Labrador.
Contemptuous rivalries sometimes erupted among merchants, servants were
exploited and the crews themselves often feuded over uncertain boundaries.
Clearly, the inefficiency of Québec's authority over Labrador was not helping
the situation. Although some of the commanders of the warships sent out by
the Newfoundland governor were successful in refereeing disputes and acting as
witnesses to merchants' agreements, the authorities in Newfoundland resolved
little as they effectively had no authority in the area.
When Labrador was once again placed under the jurisdiction of Newfoundland
in 1809, the heedless state of affairs in Labrador apparently had nothing to
do with it. The reports of illicit trade and fishing violations by American
fishermen had become all the more usual after 1793, when the unrest between
England and France forced them to lessen their participation in the migratory
fishery, and, consequently, left the door open for a greater American presence
at Labrador. Only when the British government decided to monitor trade
violations more closely in 1805 did it see the restoration of Labrador to
Newfoundland as a means to put an end to the American abuse. In 1809, in order
to allow the Vice-Admiralty Court at St. John's to try cases involving trade
violations in Labrador, Parliament once more placed Labrador under the
administration of Newfoundland.
By 1815, the British and Canadian merchants based in Québec still occupied their seal, cod and salmon stations on the Southern Labrador coast. However, on Labrador's Atlantic coast, English merchants tended to move toward general trade and were gradually replaced by the floaters from Newfoundland. The Newfoundlanders were arriving in greater numbers because Labrador was now legally a part of Newfoundland, and they had themselves been ejected from the American and French Shores. Bank fishermen would also join them after having had a dismal fishing season on the banks in 1815. Sustained permanent settlement became increasingly more common, and Labrador entered a phase that Newfoundland had experienced about a hundred years earlier.
1998, Jeff Butt
The preceding article is based on Chapter X of Olaf Janzen's The History of Newfoundland to 1815, an unpublished study guide for students in History 3110 at Memorial University of Newfoundland.