Voluntary Settlement: The Peopling of Newfoundland to 1820

Newfoundland was an anomaly in the expanding British Empire of the 17th and 18th centuries, because it was considered primarily as an industry rather than as a colony - as an activity rather than as a society. In Newfoundland tradition, this fact has become distorted into an historical mythology in which the British government, egged on by the fishing merchants of the West Country, enforced a long-term conscious policy of discouraging settlement. Although historical records do not support this interpretation, the myth, as articulated by the famous historian Judge Daniel Prowse in his History of Newfoundland, has become part of what most Newfoundlanders are taught about their own past. The anti-settlement myth was debunked in a penetrating article by the late Keith Matthews, but this remains, unfortunately, more often cited than read (Matthews 21-30).

Supporting Settlement

In fact, British governments through most of the 17th century supported settlement. Around 1675 this policy came into question and Newfoundland settlers faced serious difficulties at this time. Marauding migratory West Country fishing crews attacked plantations and the Committee for Trade and Plantations actually instructed the planters to leave. Sir John Berry, the humane naval commodore sent to implement this harsh policy, found it impractical and eloquently defended Newfoundland settlement. Within a few years the Committee for Trade and Plantations had accepted the de facto settlement of Newfoundland, a policy backed up by King William III's Act of 1699, which confirmed the inhabitants' right to their plantations. This policy of acceptance was interrupted again in the later 18th century, during the governorship of Sir Hugh Palliser, from 1764 to 1768, but even Palliser accepted existing settlement, although he treated Irish immigrants harshly. These two episodes of official anti-settlement policy, separated by a century, are the basis of the myth that the British and the West Country in particular, opposed immigration to Newfoundland. In fact, the migratory West Country fishery at Newfoundland depended on the settlers.

Britain's mercantilist policy, which implied that settlement would be valued only as an adjunct to the fishery, was not finally abandoned until the 1820s. It had an important and lasting impact on the island's history, and on the character of its society. It explains, for instance, the slow development of legal, political and social institutions.

Growing Population

The original settlers were inhabitants of the proprietary colonies who chose to remain in Newfoundland, joined by a few other immigrants. In 1680 a census counted 1,700 people scattered along the English Shore between Bonavista to Trepassey. They were allowed to remain because the government feared that the French - who after 1662 had a military base at Plaisance - might otherwise seize the best harbours. At the end of the 17th century the government conceded that a small permanent population was desirable, and sanctioned a limited right to property. But immigration and settlement were never encouraged.

The permanent population remained small and unstable until the middle years of the 18th century. There then began an irregular process of population growth, stimulated by a number of factors. After the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), the English fishery expanded into areas formerly used by the French, and an offshore bank fishery developed. West Country merchants, no longer hostile to residents, began to trade with them, and to purchase not just their fish, but also goods produced outside the usual fishing season - particularly seal skins and oil, and furs. American traders also supplied foodstuffs which helped make year-round habitation possible. Finally, warfare between Britain and France, especially after 1793, effectively killed the traditional migratory fishery, which was replaced by a resident fishery. The population was approximately 20,000 by the 1790s, and double that by 1815. All this happened in the face of an official policy which did not encourage settlement. "Newfoundland", wrote one commentator, "has been settled behind your back."

The immigrants came from two geographical areas. The earliest settlers came from the southwest of England, but by the 1720s substantial numbers of people were arriving from the southeast of Ireland. By the end of the 18th century a mixed English-Irish society was emerging in Newfoundland that was to develop a distinct character, in part because its existence had never been intended.

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