Voluntary Settlement: The Peopling of Newfoundland to 1820
Newfoundland was an anomaly in the expanding British Empire of the 17th and
18th centuries, because it was considered primarily as an industry rather than
as a colony - as an activity rather than as a society. In Newfoundland tradition,
this fact has become distorted into an historical mythology in which the British
government, egged on by the fishing merchants of the West Country, enforced a
long-term conscious policy of discouraging settlement. Although historical records
do not support this interpretation, the myth, as articulated by the famous historian
Judge Daniel Prowse in his History of Newfoundland, has become part of what
most Newfoundlanders are taught about their own past. The anti-settlement myth was
debunked in a penetrating article by the late Keith Matthews, but this remains,
unfortunately, more often cited than read (Matthews 21-30).
In fact, British governments through most of the 17th century supported settlement.
Around 1675 this policy came into question and Newfoundland settlers faced serious difficulties
at this time. Marauding migratory West Country fishing crews attacked plantations and
the Committee for Trade and Plantations actually instructed the planters to leave.
Sir John Berry, the humane naval commodore sent to implement this harsh policy,
found it impractical and eloquently defended Newfoundland settlement. Within a few
years the Committee for Trade and Plantations had accepted the
settlement of Newfoundland, a policy backed up by King William III's Act of 1699,
which confirmed the inhabitants' right to their plantations. This policy of acceptance
was interrupted again in the later 18th century, during the governorship of Sir
Hugh Palliser, from 1764 to 1768, but even Palliser accepted existing settlement,
although he treated Irish immigrants harshly. These two episodes of official
anti-settlement policy, separated by a century, are the basis of the myth
that the British and the West Country in particular, opposed immigration to
Newfoundland. In fact, the migratory West Country fishery at Newfoundland
depended on the settlers.
Britain's mercantilist policy, which implied that settlement would be valued
only as an adjunct to the fishery, was not finally abandoned until the 1820s.
It had an important and lasting impact on the island's history, and on the
character of its society. It explains, for instance, the slow development of
legal, political and social institutions.
The original settlers were inhabitants of the proprietary colonies who chose
to remain in Newfoundland, joined by a few other immigrants. In 1680 a census
counted 1,700 people scattered along the English Shore between Bonavista to
Trepassey. They were allowed to remain because the government feared that the
French - who after 1662 had a military base at Plaisance - might otherwise
seize the best harbours. At the end of the 17th century the government
conceded that a small permanent population was desirable, and sanctioned
a limited right to property. But immigration and settlement were never
The permanent population remained small and unstable until the middle years
of the 18th century. There then began an irregular process of population
growth, stimulated by a number of factors. After the Treaty of Utrecht
(1713), the English fishery expanded into areas formerly used by the French,
and an offshore bank fishery developed. West Country merchants, no longer
hostile to residents, began to trade with them, and to purchase not just
their fish, but also goods produced outside the usual fishing season -
particularly seal skins and oil, and furs. American traders also
supplied foodstuffs which helped make year-round habitation possible.
Finally, warfare between Britain and France, especially after 1793,
effectively killed the traditional migratory fishery, which was replaced
by a resident fishery. The population was approximately 20,000 by the
1790s, and double that by 1815. All this happened in the face of an
official policy which did not encourage settlement. "Newfoundland",
wrote one commentator, "has been settled behind your back."
The immigrants came from two geographical areas. The earliest settlers
came from the southwest of England, but by the 1720s substantial numbers
of people were arriving from the southeast of Ireland. By the end of the
18th century a mixed English-Irish society was emerging in Newfoundland
that was to develop a distinct character, in part because its existence
had never been intended.
©1997, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site Project