The French Newfoundland Fishery in the 17th Century

The French fishery at Newfoundland reached its peak in the first half of the 17th century. The Spanish and Portuguese fisheries were dying away, leaving the English as the only competitor. But the French fleet was much larger: at mid-century, French fishing vessels outnumbered English ones by two to one, approximately 500 to 250.

Late 17th Century Fishing Vessel
Late 17th Century Fishing Vessel
Ships such as this one often frequented the coastal waters around the island of Newfoundland on a seasonal basis during the 17th and 18th centuries. The image is a detail from a French woodcut of unknown origins. In 1710, a similar scene appeared on the Herman Moll map of North America.
Reproduced by permission of Shane O'Dea. ©2015.

The English fishery was confined to the "English Shore" between Bonavista and Trepassey. The French concentrated their efforts in two main areas: the coast north of Bonavista - known as le petit nord - and the south coast of the island, encompassing Placentia Bay, St. Pierre and Miquelon, and the adjacent bays and banks. This was known as la côte du Chapeau Rouge. The fishers in both areas came mostly from ports in Brittany.

In addition, however, Basques fished the area between Trepassey and Placentia Bay, the west coast, and the Strait of Belle Isle. As well, French vessels - often from Normandy - fished in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, along the coasts of Cape Breton and Acadia (Acadie), and on the banks offshore. The bank fishery, la pêche errante, which produced green fish, was as important as the shore fishery, and employed about half of the fishing fleet.

In addition to the migratory fishery, the French began to develop une pêche coloniale - a fishery carried on by colonists. This practice began at Port Royal in Acadia in 1605. But more important were the colonies founded at Plaisance (Placentia) in 1660, and after 1713 at Cape Breton (Île Royale).

After 1660, the French fisheries began to decline. The fleet became smaller - 359 vessels in 1686 - and the number of ports involved decreased. This process seems to have been triggered by the decision of merchants in some major ports-such as Nantes, Le Hâvre and Bordeaux - to diversify into other trades, particularly that with the West Indian sugar islands, which was very profitable. An associated factor was a slowdown in demand for fish, caused by economic hard times. Codfish was not cheap food in this period. It was almost always more expensive than beef, and to save money, people stopped eating it on fast days, substituting eggs or dried vegetables.

Late in the 17th century, the long contest between England and France began, which was to last into the early 19th century. The rivalry could not be contained in Europe, but spread to all parts of the world where the two countries encountered each other - the West Indies, India, and North America. War was to have a more important impact on the French Newfoundland fishery than any other factor.

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