Establishment of Colonial Status

Although the British Government had attempted to use Palliser's Act (1775) to limit residence in Newfoundland, just 50 years later in 1825 it conferred colonial status within the British Empire upon Newfoundland due to the economic, political, social, and demographic changes resulting from the French and Napoleonic Wars. By the turn of the 19th century permanent settlement, diversification of the fishing industry, and the growth of St. John's as a commercial center meant that Newfoundland was no longer simply a fishing station. These changes coincided with new British imperial policy, in which the British government embraced reform to lessen its colonial financial responsibilities.

St. John's Harbour, late 18th century
Artist unknown. Watercolor. “View of Upper end of the Harbour from a Little below Fort William (St. John's).” From Library and Archives Canada (Acc. No. 1996-381).
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St. John's Harbour, late 18th century

Permanent Settlement

The pace of permanent settlement on the island quickened largely because of the wartime conditions of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic period. British vessels risked attack by French naval vessels and privateers. Merchants, traders and fishers soon realized that it was safer and more convenient to remain on the island year round. What was a measure of convenience during wartime turned into custom, and the small number of permanent settlers in the 1790s began to increase thereafter. By the middle of the 19th century the increase became steadier and was complemented by an influx of English and Irish migrants which further increased the size of the permanent population.

The seal fishery also fostered permanent residence on the island. Sealing took place in early spring before the fishing fleet arrived, which forced anyone wishing to engage in the hunt to remain on the island during the winter. Residence further allowed people to trap furs and fish for salmon. By 1800 Newfoundland and Labrador possessed a large-scale commercial seal hunt. This larger scale required greater local capital investment by merchants and created more employment for a large number of resident inhabitants. At the same time, a resident cod fishery was emerging in the southeastern parts of the island. Population growth, combined with the growth of the spring seal fishery, made the migratory fishery unnecessary and guaranteed that Newfoundland could be sustained through a broader economic base.

19th Century Sealing Steamer, pre-1895 Sealing Steamer, pre-1895
Sealing took place in early spring before the fishing fleet arrived, which forced anyone wishing to engage in the hunt to remain on the island during the winter.

From Prowse, D.W., A History of Newfoundland, from the English, Colonial and Foreign Records. (London: Macmillan, 1895) 492.
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By 1815 Newfoundland had a population of 70,000, but the British government, thinking that the migratory fishery might revive relative to the resident industry in the post-war context, was reluctant to grant it colonial government. However, the migratory fishery did not revive in the context of a post-1815 economic depression. By 1815 residents owned almost all the fishing boats used in the fishery and were producing all the salt fish. The increasing participation of settlers in the fishery was the most important factor leading to colonization.

Property and Marriage Laws

The growth in settlement encouraged legal reform in Newfoundland. In the first decade of the 19th century, St. John's was losing its character as a fishing town and becoming a commercial and trading center for the island. The prosperous nature of the fishery and an increasing population contributed to the governor's decision to offer leases on crown lands for cultivation to feed the poor.

In 1803 Governor James Gambier offered 80 acres and asked London to change its policies regarding the issue of land ownership. Gambier began granting fishers small plots of land to support their families, a practice continued under Governor Sir Erasmus Gower. This allowed residents to cultivate the soil and get money and food which helped them to overwinter. Under both of these governors, land began to be leased to grow vegetables and serve as building lots. Soon, public and dwelling houses began to fill the harbour. In 1811 the British Parliament passed legislation which marked a break with previous policies opposing settlement and reserving land to be used exclusively for the fishery. Now rooms could be possessed as private property.

In addition, all marriages contracted before 5 January 1818 were legitimized and all marriages thereafter were to be celebrated by persons of the Church. These changes to marriage and property laws required year-round residence by colonial officials and a governor; as a result, the governor was to remain in Newfoundland all year as of 1818.

Social Development and Reform

While settlement and legal reform prompted a more permanent official presence in Newfoundland, such did not satisfy the interests of growing local interests, especially in St. John's. An increased permanent population brought a resident class of merchants, agents, and professionals to the island's chief port and administrative centre.

William Carson (1770-1843), n.d.
William Carson was one of Newfoundland's leading reformers during the early 19th century.

Artist unknown. Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL A23-91),
St. John's, NL.
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William Carson (1770-1843), n.d.

By 1811 the Newfoundland economy was expanding due to the reopening of the Spanish market for salt cod. Fish prices and servants' wages were increasing, which attracted Irish immigrants, including farmers, craftsmen, clerks, shopkeepers, and labourers. These immigrants increased and diversified the population in St. John's and its surrounding areas. Settlers who possessed education and professional standing, such as William Carson and Patrick Morris, began to challenge the existing order and demand a say in government. The result was agitation for political representation.

In addition, more prominent residents had formed nascent political institutions in St. John's, such as the Society of Merchants and the Benevolent Irish Society. The establishment of the colony's first newspapers – including the Royal Gazette, the Mercantile Journal, and the Newfoundland Sentinel – assisted the movement for political representation by providing advocates with a means to make their message known.

Postwar economic depression spurred calls for reform and arguments about Newfoundland's future. From 1816-18 trade declined due to reduced prices for fish, compounded locally by smaller catches and poor weather for drying fish. Many merchants and planters fell into bankruptcy, causing local hardships, which cold winters and fires only compounded. Reformers pondered the cause of the economic crisis and how such a situation could be improved. Carson argued that Newfoundland's poor economic condition was not due to its reliance on foreign markets, but because of the current laws and government.

Prompted by a controversial court decision in the Lundrigan-Butler Affair that sentenced two Conception Bay fishers to public whippings, Carson and Morris organized a public meeting on 14 November 1820 at which attendees passed a series of resolutions opposing the existing surrogate system of justice.

In early 1821 the reformers sent a petition to the British Parliament calling for reform of the legal system in Newfoundland, arguing that Newfoundland should have a legislature, a privilege which had been granted to other colonies. Neither Governor Hamilton nor the colonial undersecretary supported the petition.

However, there was a group in Parliament interested in colonial problems of social injustice and it gave the petition the necessary parliamentary support. The timing was right, as there were liberals and radicals arguing for faster constitutional development in the colonies generally, and so for the first time in 30 years Newfoundland's system of government was discussed by the British government.

It was this change in the basic direction of imperial policy, not local agitation, which led the British government in the direction of reform. The peace saw the issue of general colonial development and administration re-enter Parliamentary discussion, in the midst of new economic and political thought in Britain. There were arguments for the emancipation of the colonies from Britain, as well as concerns about expenditure and the cost of administering the various territories. As a result, the British government began retreating from the military, financial, and administrative obligations of Empire by granting representative institutions to white colonial possessions in the 1820s.

1824 Judicature Act

Despite all the changes that had occurred both on the island and in terms of the general British outlook, Lord Bathurst, secretary of state for the colonies, was still not convinced that Newfoundland was ready for self-government. He decided instead to take a moderate and cautious course. A new Judicature Act in 1824 preceded the change in Newfoundland's status the following year.

The Act addressed five major themes related to personnel, jurisdiction, procedures, property, and new policy initiatives. This set out a functioning judicial regime and, along with colonial status, raised the question of political institutions and representative government. The Act ended surrogate courts and naval officers' judicial roles.

The Act also reformed the local government in St. John's, now providing for the establishment of a corporate body with the authority to impose or levy rates and assessments on households and residents. For the first time the colony had a sense of legal security, though Britain would still negotiate for Newfoundland on most internal and external matters, in addition to retaining control over most of its affairs.

While the legislation of 1824 had raised Newfoundland to colonial status, a new form of government did not come into effect until two years later because Lord Bathurst was uncertain as to the type of government that would be best suited to the island. The mode of government adopted for Newfoundland followed that of New South Wales: a council consisting of a governor and the five principal officers of the Crown. When new Governor Sir Thomas Cochrane arrived at St. John's in October 1825 he selected as councilors chief justice R.A. Tucker, two new assistant judges, and Lieutenant Colonel T.K. Burke, commander of the military forces in Newfoundland.

Cochrane Sir Thomas Cochrane (1789-1872), n.d.
Sir Thomas Cochrane became Governor of Newfoundland after the island attained official colonial status in 1825. He remained in office until 1834.
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL V27-37B), St. John's, NL.
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The council was an improvement in the system of government and brought Newfoundland more in line with other colonies, but it was only advisory and only met to discuss questions posed by the governor. The Royal Charter of 1825 proclaimed the Act effective 2 January 1826.

Article by Carolyn Lambert. ©2008, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site

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