Economic Changes, 1730-1815

The cod fishery continued to dominate the Newfoundland and Labrador economy during the period of naval government. However, the industry changed dramatically between 1729 and 1815 from a European-controlled industry to one that was domestically owned and operated. By the early-19th century, most of the profits that once flowed across the Atlantic to Great Britain remained at Newfoundland and Labrador, where they benefited a quickly expanding resident population.

Salt Fish, 1969 Salt Fish, 1969
The cod fishery continued to dominate the Newfoundland and Labrador economy during the period of naval government.
Etching by Don Wright. Courtesy of AGNL.
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A variety of factors contributed to the changing nature of the Newfoundland and Labrador economy – wars in Europe disrupted the migratory fishery and helped to foster a resident one; the appearance of local merchant firms meant more of the industry's profits stayed inside the colony; and a growing resident population allowed local fishers to displace migratory workers as the major producers of saltfish harvested from inshore waters.

The colony's economy also diversified into sectors outside of the cod fishery during the period of naval government, which in turn provided vital sources of supplementary income for local families. New economic activities included hunting game and trapping furs in the fall and winter; woodcutting and shipbuilding in the winter; and farming, berry picking, and animal husbandry in the spring, summer, and early fall. The development of the seal hunt in the winter and spring was a particularly important factor in the development of the resident economy. By 1815, the colony's population and economy had expanded to the point that larger communities not only supported fishers, but also coopers, bakers, carpenters, tailors, physicians, and a variety of other workers.

Migratory Fishery and the Economy

For much of the 18th century, Newfoundland and Labrador served as a seasonal base for European fishers engaged in the transatlantic migratory fishery. Most workers arrived at the colony in the spring, caught and processed cod for a few months, and then returned home by late fall. The fishery was lucrative, but few of its profits remained in Newfoundland and Labrador. Instead, fish merchants based in Britain directed the industry and sold the fish to markets in southern Europe and the Caribbean. Many merchants opposed permanent settlement of Newfoundland and Labrador out of fear that resident fisheries and institutions would impose taxes on trade and limit migratory British access to cod stocks.

Bristol England, 1787
England's West Country fish merchants directed NL's migratory fishery for much of the 18th century.
Painting by Nicholas Pocock. From Stanley Hutton, Bristol and its Famous Associations (Bristol: J.W. Arrowsmith, 1907) 21.
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Bristol England, 1787

During the second half of the 1700s, however, the colony's permanent population gradually increased and a family-based resident fishery slowly emerged, which relied on relatively small household operations. Men and older boys harvested cod from inshore waters, while all members of the family, including women and children, helped to gut, salt, and dry the fish, which they then traded to local merchants and planters for food, clothes, and other provisions.

Although the resident fishery steadily expanded, it operated on a much smaller scale than the migratory fishery for much of the 1700s. This finally reversed during the late-18th and early-19th centuries when a series of wars involving Britain and France disrupted the transatlantic fishery and helped to foster Newfoundland and Labrador's burgeoning resident industry.

Warfare and the Economy

The American Revolution (1775-1783), French Revolution (1789-1799), Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), and Anglo-American War (1812-1814) dramatically altered the nature of the Newfoundland and Labrador economy. The migratory fishery generally contracted during hostilities, while the resident fishery expanded and prospered. By the time peace was restored in 1815, the colony's permanent population far exceeded its seasonal one and the migratory fishery had given way to a resident industry.

During hostilities, the British government recognized its fishers were vulnerable to enemy attack while crossing the Atlantic and reduced the number of men and vessels it sent to Newfoundland and Labrador each year. It also strengthened military forces by recruiting migratory fishers into the Royal Navy. At the same time, Newfoundland and Labrador's permanent population steadily increased as immigrants arrived to both avoid enlistment into British military forces and engage in the colony's increasingly lucrative resident fishery.

As competing nations withdrew from the cod fishery to focus on military concerns, Newfoundland and Labrador acquired a virtual monopoly over the international saltfish trade and its economy prospered. The colony tended to experience an economic boom during the wars, followed by a brief economic downturn when hostilities ended and other nations reentered the saltfish trade.

The most dramatic changes took place during the Napoleonic Wars and American Revolution, when Britain, France, and America scaled back their fisheries and gave Newfoundland and Labrador almost unrestricted access to important markets in southern Europe and the Caribbean. The colony's fish exports almost doubled during the wars, jumping from 625,519 quintals in 1805 to 1,182,661 in 1815, while fish prices almost tripled due to rising wartime demand. Newfoundland and Labrador's sudden economic prosperity resulted in higher wages for resident fishers – the seasonal wage for splitters, for example, increased from roughly £30 before the war to as much as £140 in 1814.

Economic Diversification

As the colony's population increased during the wars – from 11,382 in 1797 to 40,568 in 1815 – it also became more diverse. The fishery remained the colony's major employer, but physicians, surgeons, shopkeepers, tailors, carpenters, blacksmiths, and other workers also lived in many of Newfoundland and Labrador's larger communities by the early-19th century.

At the same time, new industries and activities emerged to help diversify the Newfoundland and Labrador economy and provide year-round work for those engaged in the seasonal fishery. Sealing was an increasingly important source of employment during the spring and winter, while woodcutting, shipbuilding, and trapping gained significance as winter industries. Agriculture became more widespread during the early 1800s and many families cultivated vegetable gardens to supplement their earnings from the fishery.

Farm scene near St. John's, ca. 1790 Farm scene near St. John's, ca. 1790
Agriculture became more widespread in Newfoundland during the early 1800s.
From D.W. Prowse, A History of Newfoundland from the English, Colonial and Foreign Records (London: Macmillan, 1895) 319.
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Despite the emergence of new industries, the inshore salt-cod fishery continued to dominate the Newfoundland and Labrador economy throughout the 19th century, as it had for generations. The fishery employed more people than any other local industry and saltfish remained the colony's primary export, although profits fluctuated from year to year.

Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2009, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site

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