The Aftermath of the War

The Anglo-French wars may have helped transform Newfoundland from a fishery into a colony, but the arrival of peace in 1815 brought a sharp reminder that the future of a colony whose well-being rested on a single economic activity would be a rocky one.

The bubble of prosperity ended when peacetime conditions, including competition from other North Atlantic fisheries, resumed. Norwegian and French saltfish reappeared in the markets, especially in the Mediterranean; fish prices fell to pre-war levels; and Newfoundland fish began to be displaced. The bank fishery failed to recover, and the saltfish trade stagnated. The costs of imported provisions and labour, however, remained high.

This combination of declining income and continuing high prices drove the Newfoundland economy into depression. Numerous mercantile firms went bankrupt, and those which survived did so by curtailing credit to the planters. Unemployment was widespread, and many recent immigrants discovered how harsh life could be in Newfoundland without work or shelter. Serious fires during the winters of 1816-17 and 1817-18 left thousands homeless. Matters were made worse by unusual atmospheric conditions which began in 1815. The summer of 1816 and the two following winters were extremely cold. Severe ice conditions prevented sealing vessels from leaving port in the spring of 1817, while the winter of 1817-18 was the coldest ever.

Hardship, even starvation, among the poor was so extreme that looting and pillaging became more or less routine. A Methodist preacher in St. John's wrote in despair that "Insurrection (and) famine have been staring us in the face all the winter--I fear Sir that Newfoundland is almost ruined (Flynn, 1981, 69)."

The crisis was worsened by government action and policies. France and the United States were granted generous fishing concessions in Newfoundland waters when peace was restored. These concessions prevented the expansion of the Newfoundland residential fishery, especially northwards.

An American brig in Trepassey harbour, July 4, 1786.
The Americans had been interested in the Newfoundland fisheries for many years.

Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada (NAC/C 2510).
(47 kb)
American brig

Furthermore, French fishermen were assisted by government subsidies, while British fishermen had few if any incentives. Indeed, the British government actually made things more difficult by imposing a duty on American flour and bread. Merchants began to import provisions at greater cost from the British Isles or nearby British colonies, and passed on the costs to their clients and customers, the fishermen themselves.

Had there been a more diversified economy, this might not have imposed such hardship. People might have withdrawn from the fishery in favour of other economic activities. But this was not possible; the few new economic activities to make their appearance late in the 18th century, like shipbuilding and sealing, remained subordinate to the fishery itself. There would be no significant economic alternatives to the fishery until well into the 19th century. A colony wedded to the sea would not have an easy future.

©2001, Olaf Janzen

Bibliography


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