Prosperity and the End of the Migratory Fishery, 1803-1815

The trends which developed after 1793 became even more pronounced after 1803, when the Napoleonic wars began. At first, conditions within the fish trade changed little. For instance, the importance of the West Indies as a market for Newfoundland fish grew again, especially after Portuguese markets became glutted in 1805. However, a series of events began late in 1806 that would have a dramatic and beneficial effect on the fish trade.

Napoleon's "Continental System" was designed to cut Britain off from trade with Europe. The British government retaliated with a naval blockade on all ports serving Napoleonic Europe. Caught in the middle of this economic warfare were neutral trading countries like the United States, whose right to trade freely was now threatened. The United States therefore declared its own embargo in 1807, prohibiting trade with countries like Britain which deliberately limited the free movement of trade.

Given that these measures were designed to interfere with maritime trade, it is ironic that they should have stimulated the British trade in Newfoundland fish. The southern European markets continued to demand fish despite Napoleon's decrees, and the United States' decision to stop trading with the British Empire opened the door to more direct trade between Newfoundland and the West Indies. From then on, conditions within the fish trade continued to improve. The Peninsular War in Portugal and Spain after 1808 gradually reopened those markets to full activity, while the American declaration of war in 1812 suspended the United States fishery completely. Newfoundland fish therefore acquired a hammerlock on both the European and Caribbean markets.

Production more than doubled in an attempt to meet the demand for fish, and prices rose to unprecedented levels (24 to 32 shillings per quintal in 1813). It was difficult to find ships to carry all the fish to market. In 1811, over 900,000 quintals of fish were imported by the principal markets in Iberia and the British West Indies; in 1815 that figure reached nearly 1.2 million quintals. The fishery and the fish trade were enjoying their greatest levels of production and prosperity.

Drying fish, St. John's, NL, n.d.
Drying fish, St. John's, NL, n.d.
This 19th century drawing shows the predominant method, in Newfoundland, of drying fish throughout the 19th century.
Illustration by Percival Skelton. From Joseph Hatton and M. Harvey, Newfoundland, the Oldest British Colony (London: Chapman and Hall, 1883) 291.

Little of this activity was being generated by the migratory fishery, which had all but disappeared. Virtually all the fish exported from Newfoundland was now produced by resident fishermen. By 1800, nine out of ten people in most parts of Newfoundland were permanent residents, and the remaining ten percent were the crews of supply and sack ships, not migratory fishermen. The merchants whose fortunes had been based on the migratory fishery had begun to reduce their direct involvement in the fishery in favour of more lucrative activities, such as supplying the planter fishermen. Observing that "every extra 'planter' whom they set up in business made the migratory fishery less and less necessary and viable," Keith Matthews concluded that "The migratory fishery died from a surfeit of prosperity (Matthews, 1968, 546, 603)." And for the same reason, the population of Newfoundland had been able to grow. It was this shift from an English-based fishery to a Newfoundland-based fishery which lies at the heart of the island's transition "from fishery to colony."

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