Sponsored Settlement: The Colonization of Newfoundland
In late 16th century England, there was a growing
interest in planting colonies in North America, including
Newfoundland. Among those promoting such schemes were Anthony
Parkhurst, who published a pamphlet about Newfoundland in 1578,
and Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who called at St. John's harbour in
1583 on his ill-fated voyage to the mainland.
Sir Humphrey Gilbert, ca. 1584.
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL B16-18),
St. John's, Newfoundland.
A member of that
expedition, Edward Hayes, also promoted the idea of Newfoundland
colonization. Such schemes were often linked to the false belief
that climatic conditions in North America generally, and in
Newfoundland in particular, would be the same as countries like
England and France that were at the same latitude.
Such schemes were also motivated in considerable measure by a
desire to extend English control over a fishery and fish trade
which, in the late 1500s, was dominated by other countries. These
early proposals therefore placed much emphasis on fortifications,
territorial claims, and armed garrisons.
However, nothing of consequence happened until the end of
England's war with Spain in 1604. With peace came a tremendous
increase in overseas investment and activities. New trading
companies, such as the British East India Company (1600), were
formed and colonies began to be regarded as a form of investment
that would produce handsome profits through the development of
local resources. Thus, the first English overseas plantation was
established in Virginia in 1607. The second such venture,
established shortly thereafter, in 1610, was John Guy's
settlement at Cupids, Conception Bay, Newfoundland. Soon, there
were many attempts to establish colonies in the New World, from
Newfoundland to coastal North America and down to the Caribbean.
Initially, they were two basic types of colony in Newfoundland
and other parts of North America. Those such as Cupids,
undertaken as business ventures by groups of investors, were
charter colonies. Others, such as Ferryland and Renews,
launched by an individual proprietors, were called proprietary colonies.
The investors in the London and Bristol Company (known simply
as "the Newfoundland Company") who sponsored the
plantation at Cupids, either had some experience in the fishery
and trade (these were the Bristol subscribers) or else had
capital as well as commercial and political connections (these
were the London merchants and the courtiers). Their plan was to
establish not just one settlement at Cupid's Cove, but eventually
a series of settlements through which the company would
eventually control the Newfoundland fishery and, in consequence,
the trade. The venture was placed in the charge of John Guy, a
Bristol merchant with previous experience at Newfoundland and one
of the founding investors.
The colony at Cupid's Cove hoped to profit from agricultural,
forest and mineral resources. When profits failed to materialize,
the Company began selling tracts of land to other promoters such
as Sir William Vaughan, who established a short-lived colony at
Renews. Vaughan in turn transferred sections of his grant to Lord
Falkland, and to Sir George Calvert, later Lord Baltimore, who
established the Colony of Avalon at Ferryland.
Sir William Vaughan was a visionary who saw overseas
colonization as a solution to social and economic problems at
home, such as overpopulation, unemployment, and poverty. George
Calvert, later Lord Baltimore, who founded the colony of
Ferryland in 1621, clearly believed that overseas colonies could
be profitable ventures, but he also viewed his plantation as a
haven of religious toleration. Despite official discrimination
against Roman Catholics in Protestant England, Calvert, who was
himself converted to the Catholic faith, allowed both Roman
Catholic and Anglican clergy to serve at Ferryland.
Though informal settlement persisted on a small scale from the
early 16th century, all of the charter and proprietary
colonies failed. Why was this? Simply put, the settlers and their
backers found it difficult to sustain year-round habitation at
Newfoundlandand impossible to make a profit. At Cupids and
its offshoot Bristol's Hope, for instance, the settlers found
agriculture difficult, the climate harsh, precious minerals
non-existent, and the fishery a struggle because of competition
from migratory ships and the aggression of pirates such as Peter
Easton. Because emigrants leaving England were attracted to the
mainland colonies rather than to Newfoundland, the population
remained small and precarious, and investors eventually gave up.
A colony- for-profit could only succeed if there were enough
resources to sustain the colonists for year round and to support
a profit-generating export trade. In Newfoundland, only the
fishery held out such a prospect. However, it only functioned for
four or five months of the year. The fishery could generate (and
for over a century it had generated) substantial profits, but
only so long as it was a seasonal and migratory activity based in
This did not mean that settlement itself had failed. What had
failed was collective settlement sponsored from England.
Archaeological research at Ferryland and more recently at Cupids
Cove indicates that settlement by
planters had by then
become a small but permanent fixture on the island.
Besides the English plantations, there was one important
attempt to establish a French colony in Newfoundland. The colony
at Plaisance (Placentia) was not sponsored by private investors
or individuals, like the English charter and proprietary
colonies; it was a royal colony, founded by the French Crown to
serve the interests of the state. Frenchmen engaged in the
flourishing migratory fishery had for many years used the fine
beach at Placentia to dry their fish, and proposals for a colony
there were put forward as early as 1655, but it was not until 1664
that sustained funding was provided for such a venture. For
Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the powerful Minister of Finance (and the
Colonies), a permanent settlement at Placentia was part of a
grand scheme to integrate and strengthen France's involvement in
| Map of Placentia, 1703.
From Baron de Lahontan, New Voyages to North America (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1905) 345. Reprinted from the 1703 English edition, includes facsimile of original 1703 map.
The colony, however, faced many of the
same difficulties as the English colonies had encountered. Heavy
investment in soldiers, fortifications, sponsored emigrants, and
direct subsidies yielded little benefit, and efforts to diversify
the economy proved fruitless Finally, at the end of the War of
the Spanish Succession (1702-13), the French government abandoned
Placentia in order to make a fresh start in Cape Breton, where
they established the fortified colony of Louisbourg.
©1997, J.K. Hiller