A Cautious Beginning: The Court of Civil Jurisdiction 1791
by Christopher English and Christopher Curran

Rule of the Fishing Admirals

From the earliest days of renewed European contact with Newfoundland in the 15th century, Britain treated the Island and the Labrador coast differently from her other overseas holdings. Newfoundland's uniqueness flowed from the value placed upon her as a seasonal berth from which to exploit the cod stocks of the Labrador current and the Grand Banks.

St. John's Harbour, Newfoundland
St. John's Harbour, Newfoundland, 1610 from Teodar De Bry's America, 1628.

Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador(PANL NA 3137).
with more information (85 kb).
St. John's Harbour, Newfoundland

Whatever the merits of the debate over John Cabot's landfall, whether Bonavista Bay or Cape Breton, the merchants of Bristol and the English West Country had secretly exploited the fishery for some years before 1497. Even in a pre-mercantilist age the value of the fish staple, for domestic consumption in Great Britain and for export to Roman Catholic Europe, was appreciated. Athwart the main path of communications, between Europe and North America before 1800, the Island was a pawn, subject to great power rivalry and war. England claimed it, France powerfully contested it, and Spain had used the Island for fishing from the earliest days. A highly efficient whaling industry pursued by French and Spanish Basques in the 16th century is apparent from the recent archaeological discoveries at Red Bay on the Strait of Belle Isle.

The Royal Charters granted to private individuals, Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1578 and Lord Baltimore in 1610, or Companies under Sir John Guy or Sir David Kirke in 1628, the London and Bristol Company or the Western Company of Adventurers in 1634, were duplicated at that period in other parts of the Empire. But when they failed through a combination of undercapitalization, ill-prepared and inadequately supplied settlers, isolation and an unforgiving climate, the succeeding system of Crown Colonies, as in Virginia or the West Indies by 1660, was not applied in Newfoundland. Instead, vacillation, procrastination and indecision prevailed to 1699.4

France's retention of the right to fish and to dry its catch on the French Shore, a huge stretch of coastline from Cape Bonavista to Cape Race to 1783, and from Cape St. John to Cape Race to 1904, was indicative of the primacy of imperial concerns. The explanation for Newfoundland's separate status probably lies in the continuity of imperial policy: the importance of the fishery and the insecurity of Britain's local control. While the Spanish had deferred by the mid-17th century, France was only gradually contained via the treaties of Utrecht ( 1713) and Paris ( 1763). Newfoundland would be won or lost on the battlefields of Europe and the high seas, and according to the degree that she served England's interest. Migratory and seasonal, the fishery demanded neither government expenditures nor governance. It offered a lucrative staple crop, and provided employment to thousands of seamen and fishermen and profits to those who supplied them with ships, gear, food and supplies. As a nursery for seamen it served as a training ground for men who might be enrolled or impressed into the nation's defence in wartime.5

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