The Labrador Boundary

Privy Council Documents

Volume IV

Page 1667
sponsored by
Sandi & Ken Tulk,
Manuels, NL

p. 1667                                          C



No. 704.



        Newfoundland was brought to the attention of Europe in 1497, and at once sprang into fame as a great fishing resort. John Cabot left Bristol on May 2 of that year, under a general commission for the discovery of unknown regions. He touched land and planted the King's standard at some point between Cape Breton and the Northern limits of Labrador, and on his return to England on August 6 of the same year gave currency to extraordinary stories as to the abundance of fish in the waters of the shores he had visited. News of his discoveries were conveyed to Milan and Venice, the ambassador from the latter state reporting to his master that Cabot and his companions were giving it out that the seas in those parts were covered with fish, which could be taken in baskets as well as nets, and that it would be no longer necessary to go to Iceland for codfish.
        Newfoundland was known to continental Europe as Codfishland (Baccalaos). Sebastien Cabot, son of John, allowed himself greater liberty than his father had taken in describing the wonders of the seas in the new world. Peter Martyr, in his De orbe novo Decades which was published in 1516 with a dedication to Pope Leo X, relates that Sebastien Cabot, whom he mentions as his “very friend, whom I use familiarly,” declared that it was he who named the island Baccalaos, as the fish in the waters thereabouts sometimes “stayed his shippes.” Martyr's credulity encouraged Sebastien to greater flights. He told Martyr that the bears, which infested the shores, obtained their food by seeking out the places where the fish lay thickest, and plunging in on the throng obtained sufficient to satisfy their hunger. “So that (as he saith) the beares being thus satisfied, they are not noysom to men.”

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        Baccalaos is the name by which the island is designated in a compendium of geography published at Seville in 1519 by Martin Fernandez de Encisco under the title “Suma de Geographia”; and in “La Geographia” of Ptolemy published in Venice in 1547, it is mentioned as Terra Nova del Baccalaos (the land of codfish).
        With the rapid diffusion of news about the great fishing grounds in the west, it is not surprising that the fishermen of the western ports of Europe turned their attention early in this direction. Exact statistics as to the exploitation of these waters are not to be obtained, but legislative enactments and the correspondence of officials and others make it clear, that the number of those engaged in the fisheries in Newfoundland waters reached considerable proportions in a short time.
        Between 1520 and 1530, from 60 to 80 French vessels came annually to Newfoundland, chiefly from the ports of Normandy and Brittany.¹ There are no figures available showing the number of English ships engaged in this fishery at the same period, but the fact that several men of war were sent to the mouth of the English Channel to protect their home-coming leaves no doubt they were not few.
        The English fishery in Newfoundland during the first half of the sixteenth century had reached a magnitude to engage the attention of the Government, since in an act passed in 1542 concerning the buying of fish upon the sea, exemption from its penalties was extended to the buying of fish in Newland² (Newfoundland). A few years later (1548) another act was passed, protecting the fishermen of Iceland, Newfoundland, Ireland and other places from the exactions of licensing officials.³
        During the last quarter of this century, there seems to have been a yearly average of between 300 and 350 vessels employed in taking fish from the waters about Newfoundland.4 In the early part of the century the nationalities of the fishermen engaged in these fisheries were English, Portuguese, Norman and Breton. The Spaniards do not seem to have come over until the end of the first half century. Thereafter they took a large share in the fisheries. The importance of the Newfoundland fisheries to England may be judged from the statement of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1594 that, if any harm should happen to the Newfoundland fleet it would be the greatest calamity that could befall the country.5
        Until the approach to the seventeenth century, Newfoundland was subject to no sovereignty. Fishermen of the several nations all worked in the same field, though the English seem usually to have dominated the combined groups.
        Anthony Parkhurst who made four voyages to Newfoundland, wrote to Hakluyt in 1578 that “the English are commonly lords of the harbour

        1 Early Trading Companies of New France, H. P. Biggar, p. 20, note 4.
        2 33 Hen. VIII C. 2.
        3 2 & 3 Edw. VI c. 6.
        4 Early Trading Companies of New France, H. P. Biggar, p. 24.
        5 Hatfield M.S. quoted by Prowse “History of Newfoundland,” second edition, p. 70.

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where they fish, and use all strangers' help in fishing if need require”;¹ and Hayes, who accompanied Sir Humphrey Gilbert, in his narrative written in 1583, says: “The English merchants that were, and always will be, admirals by turns interchangeably over the fleets of fishermen within the same harbour, for our English merchants command all here.”²
        These merchants were men of consideration. They had their houses in St. Johns, and lived on a scale that enabled them to entertain Sir Humphrey Gilbert during his stay of three weeks. They had their walk which they called “the Garden”, in which the visitors noted the profusion of wild roses; and also “the like plenty of raspberries, which do grow in every place.” As to their business, Judge Prowse says: “The principal traffic consisted in selling for cash—or bartering for fish and oil—Mediterranean products, salt, olive oil, fruits, wines, also West of England cordage, cloth hats, caps, hosiery, Sheffield wares, and general English merchandise. The master and his crew fished, the merchant had his store and traded; considering the large number of fishermen of all nations, probably not less than fifteen thousand, resorting to Newfoundland, it must have been an extensive and, I need not acid, a lucrative trade.”³ On the question of settlement in Newfoundland during the first century after its discovery, there is little, if any, precise information. Such as it is, it is all summed up by Prowse. He quotes a statement by Sabine, that there were 40 to 50 houses in the island as early as 1552; and argues from the necessity for maintaining winter crews to prepare for the following season's fishery, that there must have been a considerable permanent population, nearly all from Devon.
        The period in which Newfoundland was an everyman's land came to an end in 1583. Under the terms of a patent4 granted to him in 1578 by Queen Elizabeth, Sir Humphrey Gilbert appeared at the entrance of the Narrows with a small fleet on August 3, and, having produced his commission from the Queen was welcomed by the English merchants. Two days later, in the presence of the masters and chief officers of the assembled fishing fleet, which comprised besides English, Spanish, Portuguese and other nations' vessels, read his commission, which constituted him proprietor of all the territories within a radius of 200 leagues from where he stood. Thereafter, as he signified to the company, they were to live in that land as territories appertaining to the Crown of England, and to be governed by such laws as should be set down, and should be as agreeable as might be to the laws of England. He established the Church of England, and provided punishments for disloyalty.5
        Gilbert perished with the wreck of the “Squirrel” the same summer, and his schemes remained unrealized. In 1610, the question of settling Newfoundland was raised again, by a petition from a body of nobles and merchants of whom the most prominent were the Earl of Northampton, and

        1 Hakluyt, Principal Navigations (1894 Edition), p. 1696.
        2 Hakluyt, op. cit. pp. 1698-1699.
        3 Prowse, op. cit. P. 70.
        4 Page 1691.
        5 Hakluyt, op. cit. p. 1699.

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Sir Francis Bacon. The body was incorporated and known generally as the London and Bristol Company. On May 8 of that year a charter was issued to this company, granting them an extensive tract in eastern and southern Labrador. The territory comprised within the grant had an inner and an outer boundary. The inner limits were described by a line of longitude drawn north from Cape St. Mary, and by a line of latitude drawn west from Cape Bonavista. The outer limits were coterminous with the boundaries of the island. The territory included “all those countryes, lands and islands commonlie called Newfoundland w'ch are situate between forty and sixe degrees of Northerlie latitude and two and fiftie degrees of the like latitude.” The territory described was to be held in fee simple, subject to an important reservation. There was “saved and reserved unto all manner of persons of whatever nation soever and also unto all our loving subjectes w'ch do at this p'rt or hereafter shall trade or voyadge to the ports aforesaid for fishing all liberties powers easements and all other benefits as well concerning their fishing as well all other circumstances and incidents thereto in as ample manner as they have heretofore used and enjoyed the same without any impediments disturbance or oposition anything in these p'rts to the contrary notwithstanding.”
        The company were permitted to take out with them for the purposes of settlement all English subjects or any others that were willing to become subjects and live under the allegiance of the King of England.
        John Guy was appointed by the company its governor in the colony, and lie set sail with 40 persons to found the settlement. In accordance with the instructions which were given to him before his departure to make a start in Conception Bay, he ran up to the end of the bay and landed his people at Port de Grave, at a place now known as Cupids.¹ The instructions which provided for all the various things necessary to people going to a new settlement, show that the establishment of a colony was the intention of the company. With a view to meeting the anticipated opposition of the season fishermen, Guy was required to assemble the fishermen and read to them the grant, which would assure them of the safeguarding of their rights.²
        When Guy had had time to look about him, he observed several matters that required amendment, and drew up a set of regulations which he published in the form of a proclamation.³ They prohibited the throwing of ballast into harbours; the destruction of structures necessary for the fisheries; the occupation of unnecessary space on the shore; the appropriation of fishing boats belonging to others; the setting fires in the woods; and the decoying of colonists on board the fishing vessels.
        The season fishermen resented this attempt to control them, and presented a petition to the Government, alleging certain injuries they suffered at the hands of the colonists or planters, as they were called in those days. The planters appropriated the best fishing places to themselves; and interfered in several ways mentioned with the freedom of the fishermen from

        1 Prowse, op. cit. p. 94.
        2 Page 1712.
        3 Page 1715.

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England. The fishermen knew their business better than the planters did, and were unwilling to take orders from the latter.¹
        This is the beginning of a secular struggle between residents and fishermen from England, which constitutes a large part of the history of the Island. At the moment the Star Chamber thought that the quarrel could be composed by a simple reminder to both sides that the rights of each were amply protected by the terms of the charter, and that all that was necessary was ordinary good faith on each side. A complaint was made in November 1618, by the merchants and shipowners trading to Newfoundland of encroachments and other transgressions committed by planters. When the Company were heard, it would seem that the planters had been quite blameless, for the Star Chamber after pointing out the provisions made for the colony by the princely care and providence of His Majesty, called to their minds the reservations made on behalf of the season fishermen, admonished them that “It is held very just and expedient and accordingly ordered that the said proviso be duly and punctually observed.” On their part, the fishermen were required, through the mayors of the principal fishing towns in the south and west of England, that they “not only forbear all acts of hostility and such other disorders as heretofore have been committed there: but also to entertain all friendly correspondence with those of the plantation.” Many things happened and much time passed before these felicitous relations were achieved.
        The Company, which held under the charter the tract bounded on the north and west by the latitude of Cape Bonavista and on the west by the longitude of Cape St. Mary, sold all the southern portions, from Petty Harbour downward in 1616 to Sir William Vaughan. Vaughan resold to Lord Falkland the upper part, a six mile belt from the Atlantic Ocean to Placentia Bay between Renews northward to a point between Fermeuse and Aquaforte; and the section north of the Falkland purchase to an irregular line from Petty Harbour to Placentia, to Lord Baltimore. Falkland also acquired part of the peninsula of which Cape Bonavista is the headland.
        There were thus for a short period six colonies in the Island: two in Conception Bay (the one at Port de Grave and an off shoot at Harbour Grace; one each at St. Johns, Avalon (as Baltimore's tract was named), Falkland (North and South), and Vaughan, with headquarters on Trepassey Bay.²
        In spite of what had the appearance of overgovernment, disorder held sway. The Star Chamber was scarcely ever free of complaints from either planters or season fishermen. In 1634, on a presentation of grievances from the merchants and shipowners of Plymouth, Dartmouth and Barnstaple and other creeks adjoining, Noye the Solicitor General laid before the Chamber a short code for the government of both residents and visiting fishermen. In his preamble he observed that planters reside and inhabit there “upon conceit, that for wrongs or injuries done there, either on the shore or in the sea adjoining they cannot be here impeached” the more so since no laws

        1 Calendar State Papers, Colonial, 1574-1660, pp. 1717, 1718.
        2 Prowse op. cit. p. 110.



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