The Revolution as Opportunity
Though the resident population suffered hardship during the early years of
the war, this was not of immediate concern to the government or to the merchants
involved in the fish trade. The British government still frowned on large-scale
settlement in Newfoundland, and merchants there regarded the Revolution as an
opportunity to eliminate American competition in the supply trade. The fact that
prices for food soared to triple their usual price was simply an additional
bonus, and though that perception gave way to alarm when the full implications
of the Revolution for Newfoundland's provisioning needs became apparent, the
crisis could be seen as advantageous rather than harmful.
From 1776 to 1779 the fishery and trade generally thrived. In part this was
because the Americans had been eliminated from the North Atlantic cod fishery
and trade. Then, in preparation for their own entry into the conflict, the
French abandoned their fishery. These two developments gave the English fishery
exclusive access to the European markets, where prices had climbed in response
to dwindling and insecure supplies of fish. These price increases more than
compensated for any losses caused by the outbreak of the war. According to
one observer at the time, "the balance of gain exceeds anything they have seen for seven years."
|St. John's Harbour, 1780.
From 1776 to 1779 the fishery and trade in Newfoundland generally
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and
Labrador (PANL B8 - 13), St. John's, Newfoundland.
The removal of the Americans also opened up new opportunities in the West
Indies for Newfoundland merchants. From 1771 to 1773 the West Indies imported
quintals of dry fish and 16,000 barrels
of pickled fish. Most of this
was supplied by the Yankees, with Newfoundland merchants providing only
25-30,000 quintals. When the Americans left this trade, English-based merchants
were slow to take their place. They preferred not to get into the business of
"refuse fish" which the Caribbean
Refuse fish fetched a lower price, and the Caribbean fish trade was not as
profitable as the European trade. But more importantly, once they discharged
their cargoes, their ships would have nothing to carry from the West Indies to
England, since the sugar trade to England was in other hands.
However, the emerging community of Newfoundland-based merchants was very
much interested in this trade. They saw they could develop a reciprocating
commercial pattern, in which ships carried fish to the Caribbean and returned
with molasses and rum. Such a trade stimulated shipbuilding and shipping at
Newfoundland and through the employment this provided, settlement as well.
©2001, Olaf Janzen