Initial Impact of the Revolution on Newfoundland
The quarrel between Great Britain and its North American colonies had been
brewing for some time, but no one expected a revolt to break out in 1775.
Earlier that year, the British government attempted to coerce Massachusetts
into behaving itself by imposing the so-called "Restraining Act." By this
legislation, several punitive measures were imposed on Massachusetts: the
colony's trade with the British Isles was to be restrained, as well as its
fishery at Newfoundland, and the port of Boston was closed. Massachusetts
and the other American colonies, acting in Congress, retaliated by
suspending all trade with those colonies and possessions which continued
to support Great Britain, including Newfoundland. It was a brilliant
counter-move. On the one hand, it was non-violent. Yet, given Newfoundland's
dependence on the American provisions trade, it was guaranteed to let the
authorities in England know that the Americans were in a position to exert
pressure on Great Britain too.
||Boston, Massachusetts, 1774.
In 1775, the "Restraining Act" placed on Massachusetts closed the
port of Boston.
From Justin Winsor, Memorial History of Boston
(Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1882) 411.
The effect on Newfoundland is easy to measure. In 1774, 175 American trading
vessels came to Newfoundland. In 1775 this number fell to 66, and in 1776 to
three. Moreover, the timing in 1775 was masterful. Most of the British fishing
fleet had already departed with their usual cargoes of dry goods, salt, and
passengers. The vessels carried no flour or bread because they were accustomed
to having the Americans supply these items. When the trade reached Newfoundland,
it discovered that neither the residents nor the seasonal fishermen had
sufficient food to last the season, let alone an entire year. Many vessels
were quickly unloaded and sent back to England, or on to Québec to acquire
provisions there. But the ability of Québec and England to make up the
deficit in food was limited, and when the ships returned to Newfoundland
with their cargoes in September, it was evident that there still would not
Many people left Newfoundland to avoid starvation. The decline in population
was greater in the transient population, however, and the resident population
soon exceeded the seasonal one. Many of those who remained intensified their
efforts to grow food, especially in the larger population centres like Harbour
Grace and St. John's. Statistics indicate that the acreage of "improved land"
increased from 1,700 acres in 1775 to 6,000 in 1783. Even so, there was hunger
and starvation during the winter of 1775-76, and reports of deaths. Naturally,
survival was easiest where there were merchants with well-stocked warehouses.
People therefore begin to drift out of the outports and into the larger towns.
|Farm scene near St. John's, 1790.
Many Newfoundlanders intensified their efforts to grow their own
food when the
American colonies suspended all trade with colonies that supported
Great Britain, including Newfoundland.
From D.W. Prowse, A History of Newfoundland from
the English, Colonial and Foreign Records (London: Macmillan,
The stress on diversifying food supplies or finding alternative sources for
provisioning encouraged merchants in parts of the British Isles which had never
previously had much to do with Newfoundland to expand their operations. For
instance, before 1775 the Scots only used Newfoundland as a convenient entrepôt
for an illicit trade with the Americans. After 1775, Newfoundland itself became
an object of Scottish commercial activity. In 1771, official records show only
£700 worth of exports from Scotland to Newfoundland. In 1775 this climbed to
£4,000, and in 1776 to £17,000. The items included a significant quantity of
provisions. Apparently, the monopolistic commercial power of the West Country
merchants was coming to an end.
©2001, Olaf Janzen