Notes on 43d Text for Reading Field: Matthews

Canadian History, Week 7

harbour St J's

[Nicholas Pocock?], watercolour, “ View of Upper end of the Harbour from a Little Below Fort William (St. John’s),” dated “late 18th century.” Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1996-381,  MIKAN no. 2837123.

Keith Matthews. Lectures on the history of Newfoundland, 1500-1830. St. John’s, NL.: Breakwater Books, 1988.

Keith Matthews lays out a three-hundred-year history of Newfoundland in a series of 30 lectures. He describes the creation of the province as result of expansion of Western Europe and details aspects of this expansion through a study of overseas commerce and colonization. He examines three principal points, elaborating on them within a framework that breaks the history into seven periods.


Herman Moll, print, “A view of a stage and also of the manner of fishing for, curing and drying cod at New Found Land, ” detail from a map published in 1718. “Moll copied it from a 1698 map by Nicolas De Fer, L’Amerique divisée selon letendue de ses principales parties.” Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 2926914.

The first of Matthew’s principal points is that the two main determinants of Newfoundland history were the fishery and international relationships. As he puts it: “the basic determinant of Newfoundland development lay, of course, in the fishery.”[1] The nature of the fishery was in turn determined by “the pressures of events and decisions and conflicts of men.”[2] The events and conflicts he highlights relate to warfare – he notes that over a period of 227 years, 16 conflicts generated 111 years of war. Although the wars were not necessarily pursued on Newfoundland soil, they had “both long and short-term effects influencing the development of settlement, the use of the migratory fishery, and the state of demand in the foreign market” — not to mention the availability or accessibility of a foreign market.[3]

Matthew’s second point is that although European access to the Newfoundland landmass was accomplished relatively early, development proceeded relatively slowly and resulted in a colony unlike any other. Aside from its different timeline, Matthews singles out the legal system under the fishing admirals as particularly unique. The manner in which a French presence was retained was unusual as well.

Thirdly Matthews establishes that “until the nineteenth century there was no community of Newfoundland, but a series of separate cultural and economic bays independent of and relatively indifferent to each other.”[4]

The first period that Matthews surveys begins in the 15th century and runs to 1610. He describes the time as marked by international struggle – akin to ‘anarchy’ — between France, England, Spain and Portugal for control of the fishery. The fishery was regarded as worth competing for because it was a source of food and employment, was a market in its own right, a means of generating currency and accumulating gold and silver, and of enhancing sea power in terms of both men and boats. The period closes with the establishment of an English settlement on the island. The settlers were regarded as a means of staking and legitimizing a more permanent claim.

The second period begins in 1610 with a largely British presence establishing itself on the Avalon Peninsula through proprietary settlements. These subsequently failed. Spain had been virtually vanquished from the fishery competition, the French persisted and Portugal was relegated to a position dependent on maintaining an alliance with Britain. The fishery was conducted by a mix of settlers and migratory sojourners – primarily fishing ships and planters from the west of England (who would remain dominant to 1780).


Michael Dahl, oil on canvas, “ Portrait of Sir Johh [sic: John] Berry,” dated c.1689. The description notes that “Sir John Berry was born in 1635 in North Devon. He joined the British merchant service in 1652 and the Royal Navy in 1663. By 1665 he received his first command. He was knighted for action in the Battle of Solebay, 1672, during the third Anglo-Dutch wars. In 1675 he commanded the yearly fishing convoy to Newfoundland and conducted the earliest surviving systematic census of Newfoundland’s English shore, known as “Berry’s List”. He then recommended that settlers be allowed to stay on the island, despite plans at the time to have them evicted. Berry was appointed a commissioner for Virginia in 1677. Berry died on 14 Feb. 1690 at Portsmouth and is buried in Stepney Church.” Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 1192860.

By 1660, the beginning of the third period, it was apparent that the rule for settlers was ‘fish or starve.’ To 1713 those struggling in the English fishing colony were also coping with Anglo-French rivalry over ‘shores’ that enhanced the ease with which the valued inshore fishery could be conducted. Land battles on the island saw the French favoured, though the Treaty of Utrecht ceded the island to England.

The fourth period, running from 1713 to 1763, saw an increase in the size of the population due to an influx of Irish settlers. The migratory fishery began to prosper about halfway through the period. Bye-boat keepers – the backbone of the migratory fishery — flourished. A governor and magistrates were appointed to oversee settlement affairs year round.

am brig2

James S. Meres, watercolour, “An American Brig in Trepassey Harbour,” dated 4 July 1786. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 2833950.

The fifth period (1763-1775), saw even greater economic, demographic and geographic expansion for Newfoundland. The British government sought to limit, even reverse this expansion but, at the close of the period, the American Revolution intervened.

harbour NL

James Peachy, watercolour, “The Harbour, St. John’s, Newfoundland, ” dated c.1787. Source:Library and Archives Canada, Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana, Acc. No. R9266-4156.

The sixth period from 1775 began badly – the loss of communication with the American colonies created supply problems and marooned people who might otherwise have chosen to migrate elsewhere. The setback was temporary however. New links were established with the loyal colonies and trade links to the West Indies — previously overseen by American trading firms — were conducted directly by Newfoundland merchants. An elaborate system of credit arrangements marked a shift from an emphasis on the migratory to a sedentary Newfoundland-prosecuted fishery.

merchants NL

Margaret La Marchant, watercolour, “ Scene at St. John’s, Newfoundland in the winter of 1848.” Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1981-86-1 Source: Mrs. N. Kay Woolmer, England.

The last period, from the French Revolution in 1793, extended to 1832 when Newfoundland became a formal colony. The time was marked by a consolidation of community which Matthews attributes to an ambitious middle class. These individuals became the ruling elite and led the way in defining a distinct Newfoundland consciousness which was first expressed as desire for self-government. Promoting nationalism in Newfoundland initially meant asserting that Newfoundlanders (meaning people on the island, but not necessarily people born there), as opposed to people residing elsewhere, should get whatever local official positions and opportunities for advancement there were to be had. St. John’s dominated as the military and administrative centre, the population continued to grow and diversify, but, in spite of a promising boom from 1811 to 1815, the fishery did not keep pace.

In summing up, Matthews takes pains to emphasize that the course and shape of Newfoundland’s particular development pattern was not set by virtue of isolation. Newfoundland. He argues that because of its fishery, the island had extensive contacts to both the ‘New’ and ‘Old’ worlds. As Matthews puts it: “Any Newfoundlander … could go anywhere he wanted; our people knew more than most about life in a large number of foreign countries, and their cultural outlook was then shaped not by rural isolation but by knowledge of a very wide world indeed.”[5]

[1] Keith Matthews, Lectures on the history of Newfoundland, 1500-1830 (St. John’s, NL.: Breakwater Books, 1988), 113.


[2] Ibid., 12.

[3] Ibid., 114.

[4] Ibid., 11.

[5]Ibid., 47.


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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