Newfoundland Settlement and the Migratory Fishery
In 1620, Robert Hayman, former governor of the colony at Bristol's Hope
(Harbour Grace), called the permanent settlement of Newfoundland "a
business honourable, profitable, feasible, facile and opportune". It is
certainly true that the colonies which were established at Cupids, Ferryland
and elsewhere played an important role in the settlement of parts of the Avalon
Peninsula. However, they were the exceptions. Along most of the English Shore,
from Bonavista to Trepassey, the process of settlement was an informal consequence
of the West Country migratory fishery.
English Shore during the 17th Century.
Illustration by Duleepa Wijayawardhana, 1998.
Whether permanent settlement should be allowed or encouraged at Newfoundland was an
issue of some debate in the later 17th century. But in the late 1670s the Committee
for Trade and Plantations in London finally decided that settlement should be accepted.
There were those among the West Country fish merchants who disagreed, and their arguments
have enjoyed a long historical after-life. Indeed, some historians have argued that
successful exploitation of the Newfoundland fishery did not require settlement, and
that the fishery had no place for a settled population.
However, many 17th century contemporaries thought otherwise. Their arguments in
favour of settlement contain an economic logic which fits in with our current
understanding of the fishery as a common property resource. From early proposals
like Hayman's to the late 17th century debate on the need for government, the settlement
of Newfoundland was justified, in great part, as a way to protect the British fishery.
Why was such protection necessary? The fishery is, notoriously, a common property resource,
that is, one which is difficult to enclose or privatize. Consequently, the territories used
by fishers are not protected from interlopers by conventional property rights. Physical
competition among fishers over access to the resource is therefore common. This was as
true of the 17th century fishery as it is of today's fishery. The conflicts between
migratory and settled fishers, often described by historians, should be seen (as they
were then) as examples of a wider phenomenon: competition typical of fishers in general.
Such conflicts were not peculiar to the English Shore of Newfoundland. The French
had to deal with similar problems, as did the English settlements of coastal Maine
and Massachusetts. Fishing crews everywhere were capable of destroying each others'
stages and stealing each others' boats. It was the economic logic of competition
for an open-access resource that led fishermen to do such things.
In Newfoundland, a migratory master who could depend on a resident to protect his
boats, reserve fishing rooms and preserve his stages would have a competitive advantage,
even if he had to pay for it. Once one fishing master in an area had a winter caretaker,
such caretakers became necessary for his competitors. Fishers who left their equipment
unprotected were at the mercy of those whose boats and rooms were secure.
Even the relationship between French and English fishermen in Newfoundland can be seen
in this light. If the French were to continue fishing in proximity to the permanent
English settlements which developed in the mid-17th century, it was inevitable that
they would set up their own colony of resident fishermen to protect their seasonal
stations. This they did at Plaisance (Placentia) in 1662. Conversely, the existence
of French settlement became a strong argument for the maintenance of the English
fishing settlements. After the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 banned French settlement,
France's metropolitan fishermen continued to regard English settlement as an immense