Family and Politics


An excellent way to appreciate just how complex and anxious the business could be, is to read the instructions given to the masters of sack ships. Such instructions reflect both the concerns of the investor and the responsibilities bestowed on the sailing master. They illustrate how the merchant-venturer was determined to consider every possible way of bringing profit to his venture.

The master of a sack ship had to use his own judgement, since he could not easily contact the merchant-venturer. This meant that trust was an important factor in the relationship between the merchant and master. Many merchants encouraged younger members of the family to serve as shipmasters. Thus, they could ensure reliability and apprentice possible heirs into the business.

As the trade grew more diverse and complex and as connections in Newfoundland and Europe became more established, the merchant's need for a representative or agent in the fishery or the markets also became more acute. That need was often filled by family members such as sons and nephews. Alternatively, a particularly successful shipmaster might be invited to become a business partner. Such a relationship was sometimes cemented by a carefully arranged marriage into the family.

It was in this way that the White family, Poole shipmasters and seafarers at the beginning of the 17th century, gradually became merchants in the Newfoundland trade. The central character in this process was the shipmaster Samuel White (1642-1720). He married Mary Taverner, a member of another Poole family which already had well-established trade ties in the Newfoundland trade. Samuel White's sons married into other important merchant families from Poole and Weymouth. Through their in-laws, the Taverners, the Whites became related to the Lesters and the Masters, two very prominent Newfoundland merchant families. It was through a series of carefully chosen marriages that the Whites became one of the most powerful families in the Newfoundland trade by the middle of the 18th century.

Judicious marriages and male heirs were important factors by which a merchant could improve his position and protect his wealth and influence from unpredictability of the 17th century Newfoundland trade.


Another way a merchant-venturer protected his interests was through political influence. The mayors of the various fishing ports and local members of Parliament put pressure on the government to promote the fishery's interests.

Since the government's perceptions and priorities could differ significantly from those of the Western Adventurers, the merchants worded their petitions carefully. Their real objectives had to be disguised to ensure a favourable response. For instance, the West Country wanted Newfoundland to remain as a "free fishery"- free of government regulation and interference- and therefore opposed settlement. This position was not simply defined in terms of how settlement might harm the fishery but how a decline in the migratory fishery might weaken Newfoundland's role as a "nursery for seamen." Due to the absence of any solid evidence showing that settlement in Newfoundland was either viable or desirable, the government agreed to grant administrative and judicial jurisdiction over the fishery to the West Country interests. The result was the "Western Charter" of 1634 (later amended) which gave the Western Adventurers the responsibility of supervising and regulating their own fishing activity in Newfoundland.

The charter gave political recognition to the fishing interests as the only legitimate voice of the fishery. Whenever their position within the fishery seemed threatened, the Western Adventurers pestered government for an appropriate response, usually one that reaffirmed their rights and privileges but did not require government action within the fishery itself. This was illustrated by the response of the Western Adventurers to the rise of the bye boat fishery during the middle of the 17th century.

The Bye Boat Fishery

Bye boatmen owned fishing rooms and operated inshore fishing boats in the waters around Newfoundland, yet resided in England. They travelled each year to Newfoundland as passengers on the fishing ships and hired men, known as servants, to work for them in exchange for paid fixed wages rather than a share of the profits. While most servants, like their employers, also migrated annually to the fishery, some remained in Newfoundland during the winter months to look after the facilities and equipment.

The majority of bye boat operations were small, involving only one or two boats, and employing between five and 12 men. Generally, there were five boats and 30 men.

This method of operation in the Newfoundland fishery grew out of the hard times experienced in the mid-17th century. Bye boatmen had several advantages over the tiny number of resident fishermen or planters. Because they returned to England in the fall, they were able to supplement their fishing income by finding other employment during the winter. And when they returned in the spring, they brought over tackle and provisions purchased in England at prices much lower than the planters had paid in Newfoundland.

More importantly, the bye boatmen also had several advantages over the ship owners. Since they had no ships to equip, overheads were much lower. They sailed early and hoped to claim a good fishing room. Servants worked for fixed wages rather than shares, which meant bye boatmen could attract skilled workers more easily than the ship owners during the fishery's lean years. And because they sold all their catch to sack ships, they avoided the expense of transporting and marketing the product.

Some West Country merchants became involved in the bye boat system, directly or indirectly, but most of them were initially hostile towards it. So much so, that they persuaded the government to revise the Western Charter in 1661 and 1671 to prevent the transportation of bye boatmen to Newfoundland.

These regulations were unenforceable. The merchants were not united, and in any case did not want to be constrained by the government. In time, many merchants came to understand that the bye boat fishery could work to their advantage: they could earn profits by carrying boatmen and their equipment to Newfoundland.

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