Labrador Fishery

Labrador's settlement history is similar to that of Newfoundland, even in terms of the policies adopted and the problems of exploitation encountered. The only difference may be that Newfoundland's settlement pattern preceded that of Labrador by about a century. Although Labrador was home to virtually no permanent settlers before 1815, Europeans had been visiting the region for quite some time.

The Whaling Industry and the Cod Fishery

The Norse were likely the first Europeans to visit the Labrador coast. Breton and Basque fishermen frequented the Strait of Belle Isle as early as the 1520s in search of cod. However, in the 1540s the abundance of whales soon gave the Basque a new reason to visit Labrador. The whaling industry reached its height in the 1560s and 1570s. The industry, though, was soon to die: by the 1620s Basque whalers were no longer coming to Labrador.

Strait of Belle Isle
Strait of Belle Isle
The picture emphasizes the stark, rugged coastline of the Northern Peninsula and the southern coast of Labrador.
Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

With the demise of whaling, the fishery became Labrador's main resource for a time, as fishermen, mostly from France, continued to collect important quantities of cod there.

The Treaty of Utrecht expelled the French from Plaisance (Placentia) in 1713. Subsequently, the French invested more heavily in the Labrador fishery. Prior to 1713, it was not uncommon for France to grant permanent concessions. That is, merchants, and civil and military leaders were given sections of coastal Labrador where they could enjoy non-exclusive fishing rights and exclusive fur trading and sealing rights.

Following the completion of the conquest of New France by Great Britain in 1760, the granting of land concessions came under British and Anglo-American control. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 placed the Labrador coast under the jurisdiction of the governor of Newfoundland. Immediately there was trouble. The Newfoundland Act of 1699, designed to promote the migratory fishery and restrict private property, now applied to Labrador, leading to a dispute over the validity of previous land grants.

Hugh Palliser

Hugh Palliser was governor of Newfoundland between 1764 and 1768. An advocate of a stronger naval force - the fishery was to be a 'nursery for seamen' - he supported the establishment of a migratory fishery at Labrador and opposed any land concessions. Except for these former concessions, Labrador was the ideal location for the realization of Palliser's goals. It was void of any veritable settlers and its few resources did little to encourage settlement.

In order to execute his plan, Palliser thought it necessary to establish friendly relations with the Inuit, who had developed a reputation for destroying equipment and gear left by the French during the winter. Palliser also considered the French a problem by their mere presence. The French were still the enemy, and, in order to prevent them from training seamen in the Labrador fishery, Palliser kept a close eye on those who were breaching the limits of the French Shore.

Hugh Palliser
Hugh Palliser
Governor from 1764 to 1768. Portrait is from a mezzotint by J.R. Smith published in 1787.
Courtesy of The Rooms Provincial Archives Division (V.A. 27-17), St. John's, NL.

Palliser also rebuked Anglo-American shipping for conducting illicit commerce with the French. Furthermore, they tormented the Inuit and provided England with some strong competition in the migratory fishery. Palliser, then, had to contend with two different groups if the migratory fishery at Labrador was to have a future: the Anglo-American colonials and the concessionaires on the Labrador coast, whose rights, according to Palliser, were annulled by the Newfoundland Act when the ownership of Labrador changed hands.

Palliser had some work to do. He started by banning American colonials from the Newfoundland fishery, including the fishery that was carried out at Labrador. Moreover, merchants and property holders were expelled. To protect that equipment which necessarily had to be left during the winter months, a blockhouse named York Fort was erected at Chateau Bay in 1766 and a wintering garrison was left to reside over it.

An American Brig in Trepassey Harbour, 4 July 1786
An American Brig in Trepassey Harbour, 4 July 1786
The presence of an American ship in Newfoundland is representative of the interest American fishermen had in Newfoundland.
From the logbook of H.M.S. Pegasus, 1786. Drawing by J.S.Meres. Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada (NAC/C 2510).

Palliser's actions, though, were perhaps far too severe to be successful. The Board of Trade supported Palliser's ultimate goal, but nonetheless overruled him and returned property to the owners, maintaining that the seal fishery, which could not be carried out without land ownership, was as important as the cod fishery.

In 1773, Governor Shuldham was given orders to guarantee outfitters that their seal and salmon stations would henceforth be protected. This decision came from the realization that in order to attract investors to Labrador and thus alleviate the costs incurred by establishing seal and salmon posts, property rights had to be recognized and Labrador's usefulness had to be expanded beyond the migratory fishery.

Quebec and Labrador

At the same time, pressure was coming from Quebec-based merchants and concession-holders to restore Labrador to Quebec. Although the Québec Act of 1774 did in fact return Labrador to Quebec, the protection of the fishery at Labrador was to remain under the jurisdiction of the commander-in-chief at Newfoundland. From then on, supervision of the summer fishery at Labrador was reduced to a few warships dispatched from Newfoundland.

Problems soon ensued with the outbreak of the American Revolution; the governor of Quebec was faced with more pressing problems than that of Labrador. Meanwhile, competition for Labrador's coastal resources continued to mount. In 1775, about a hundred British ships fished off the Labrador coast, while Quebec merchants, though less prominent, continued to participate in the seal and salmon fisheries. Even the Americans were still involved in the fishery, as in 1783, they were given the right to participate in the inshore fishery as well as cure fish in unused harbours. Finally, aided by the wars with France from 1793 onward, more and more Newfoundland-based merchants were involved in the Labrador fishery on their own account. This industry came to be known as the floater fishery.

Permanent Settlement

It is at this time that the idea of permanent settlement in Labrador began to take root. Whereas Palliser had thought that permanent fishing stations and the migratory fishery were incompatible, London began to believe that the expense of developing the fishery at Labrador could only ever be worthwhile if 'a year-round, diversified, sedentary form of exploitation' was developed. With the approval of permanent fishing posts housing wintering crews, Labrador began to move towards permanent settlement.

Turmoil was characteristic of the early years of settlement in Labrador. Contemptuous rivalries sometimes erupted among merchants, servants were exploited and the crews themselves often feuded over uncertain boundaries. Clearly, the inefficiency of Quebec's authority over Labrador was not helping the situation. Although some of the commanders of the warships sent out by the Newfoundland governor were successful in refereeing disputes and acting as witnesses to merchants' agreements, the authorities in Newfoundland resolved little as they effectively had no authority in the area.

Newfoundland and Labrador

When Labrador was once again placed under the jurisdiction of Newfoundland in 1809, the heedless state of affairs in Labrador apparently had nothing to do with it. The reports of illicit trade and fishing violations by American fishermen had become all the more usual after 1793, when the unrest between England and France forced them to lessen their participation in the migratory fishery, and, consequently, left the door open for a greater American presence at Labrador. Only when the British government decided to monitor trade violations more closely in 1805 did it see the restoration of Labrador to Newfoundland as a means to put an end to the American abuse. In 1809, in order to allow the Vice-Admiralty Court at St. John's to try cases involving trade violations in Labrador, Parliament once more placed Labrador under the administration of Newfoundland.

By 1815, the British and Canadian merchants based in Quebec still occupied their seal, cod and salmon stations on the Southern Labrador coast. However, on Labrador's Atlantic coast, English merchants tended to move toward general trade and were gradually replaced by the floaters from Newfoundland. The Newfoundlanders were arriving in greater numbers because Labrador was now legally a part of Newfoundland, and they had themselves been ejected from the American and French Shores. Bank fishermen would also join them after having had a dismal fishing season on the banks in 1815. Sustained permanent settlement became increasingly more common, and Labrador entered a phase that Newfoundland had experienced about a hundred years earlier.

The preceding article is based on Chapter X of Olaf Janzen's The History of Newfoundland to 1815, an unpublished study guide for students in History 3110 at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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