Long Term Impact of the Revolution

It would be misleading to assume that the war had no ill-effect on the fisheries. Increasingly, the fish exported to Europe was caught and processed by resident fishermen since the diversion of men into the navy, and the disruption of trans-Atlantic shipping caused the migratory fishery to decline. In addition, for the first time in the 18th century the migratory fishery suffered serious injury in Newfoundland waters. American privateers attacked and drove the bank fishing fleet off the seas. Familiar with the region, and understanding the enormous economic and strategic importance of the fishery, it became a target of war.


American privateers also loitered in Newfoundland waters in order to harass British ships sailing to and from the Caribbean and North America, since they used the Grand Banks as a navigational marker, and the Gulf Stream as a means of speeding along the west-to-east voyage. During the war, this enormous volume of commercial shipping also included military transports and supply ships. The possibility of capturing ships carrying very valuable cargoes was a more powerful magnet than the fishing vessels. However, privateers could extend their cruising time by seizing fishing vessels and stripping them of their water, provisions, sails and rigging, and even their men.

Ship America
Ship America
The ship America was the most famous Salem privateer.
Artist unknown. From Edgar Stanton Maclay, A History of American Privateers (New York: Burt Franklin, 1899) 335.

This practice did not appear immediately. Privateers were not a serious problem at Newfoundland in 1776. The following year they left the inshore fishery alone, but they caused serious damage to the bank fishery. By 1778 the bank fishery had to all intents and purposes been abandoned under the combined strain of these attacks and a labour shortage. In that year, for the first time, coastal settlements also came under attack, especially on the south coast. The settlements north of St. John's were hardly touched by privateers. Since the migratory bye boat fishery was strongest south of St. John's while the resident fishery was strongest to the north, this pattern meant that it was the migratory fishery which suffered the most from American privateers.

Operating Costs

The migratory fishery was also burdened by soaring operating costs. Food prices which had averaged about 12 shillings per hundredweight in 1760, rose to between 28 shillings and 36 shillings per hundredweight during the war. Naturally, wages had to be increased to match food prices. One result was that the number of servants per master went down. In 1764 the average ratio of servants to masters was 7:1. By 1784 it had been reduced to 4:1. Resident boat keepers managed to adjust by relying more on their families to provide the labour needed to catch and make fish, but the bye boat men did not have this option.

The situation became much worse in 1779 when Spain declared war on Great Britain and immediately closed its markets to British trade. This embargo was rigorously enforced. Even when inferior Norwegian fish soared in price, the Spanish refused to relent and re-open their markets to British fish. Portugal could absorb some of the fish which normally went to Spain, but not all. And the West Indies market preferred only inferior grades.

The loss of the Spanish markets, the damage caused by privateers, the shortage of labour, the rising cost of provisions and of labour, all combined to drive merchants out of business. Many firms went bankrupt after 1779, particularly those which were relatively new to the trade. Those that survived, often did so by hastening their transition out of the fishery and into the supply trade. The number of migratory fishing ships dropped to 51 in 1781, or less than 20 per cent of the number recorded in 1775. The transient bye boat fishery also declined, from 518 bye boat men in 1774 to 176 in 1781.

Rise in Resident Population

More and more, the resident population was becoming the mainstay of the Newfoundland fishery. In 1770, the migratory fishery caught 365,000 quintals of fish, the resident fishery only 277,000 quintals. In 1781 the migratory fishery caught 86,000 quintals, the resident fishery caught 171,000 quintals. These figures show that, while the resident fishery declined, the migratory fishery fared worse. The resident population, though, actually increased. Out-migration to the American colonies ended when the Revolution began, and the risks of the trans-Atlantic voyage combined with the likelihood of being pressed into the Royal Navy had encouraged many fishermen to remain in Newfoundland, where there were new opportunities generated by the expanding trade with the West Indies and the shipping it required. The expansion of the military garrison through the creation first of a militia, and later a provincial regiment caused more people to stay.

Map of St. John's, 1784
Map of St. John's, 1784
This map shows Fort Townshend and Fort William. The expansion of the military garrison in Newfoundland resulted in an increased resident population.

A. Fort Townshend
B. The Town
C. The Church
D. Fort William

Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections (Coll - 193, 12.04.070), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

Overall Impact

Thus, the American Revolution had many effects on the Newfoundland fishery and trade. Some were common to all wars of that period, some were specific. The war ended with a larger permanent population than the seasonal one. The migratory population never regained its prominence, and the migratory fishery was decimated. Though it made a spectacular recovery after 1783, that recovery was superficial. The persistence of the permanent population was both caused by the accelerated diversity of the local economy, and itself contributed to that diversification.

These changes had important implications for British policy. When the Revolution began in 1775, the British Parliament had just re-asserted its commitment to a migratory fishery. By 1783, that commitment was hopelessly out-dated. A major re-assessment of the nature and character of the British fishery and trade at Newfoundland was therefore necessary and began to take place over the next ten years.