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).
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
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