p. 1667 C
DOCUMENTS RELATING TO THE HISTORY OF NEWFOUNDLAND.
SKETCH OF THE HISTORY OF NEWFOUNDLAND UNTIL 1809
BASED ON THE DOCUMENTS HEREINAFTER PRINTED.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.