Week 4, Lectures, Part II: Newfoundland and Labrador Settlement [or not]

3. Newfoundland / Labrador Settlement History, Early European settlers:

a) Basques [on the Labrador coast]

“Whale-Fishing. Facsimile of a Woodcut in the ‘Cosmographic Universelle’ of Thevet, in folio: Paris, 1574.” [Note the man standing in the whale’s head — from which bucket-fulls of spermaceti were extracted — prized for smokeless candles, cosmetics, leatherworking &c.] Source: Wikimedia Commons.

There is evidence that before 1600, Europeans — specifically those sailing on Basque voyages — had overwintered in northern North America, but they did so relatively rarely and they were sojourners rather than settlers [meaning workers who had no intention of becoming permanent inhabitants. This was the case for Basque whalers trapped by ice at Red Bay Harbour, Labrador, in the 1570s].

Basque whalers in Red Bay Harbour constructed their shore stations in locations that were both close to deep water and sheltered from the northeast and southeast winds. These stations were most frequently used during the whalers’ seasonal visits to the harbour, with the majority of whalers returning to their home ports in the Bay of Biscay for the winter to wait for the next whaling season.

[See Selma Huxley Barkham, “The Basque Whaling Establishments in Labrador 1536-1632- A Summary,” Arctic 37 no. 4 (December 1984): 515-519, (link to pdf), for pictures, maps, and an interesting account of, among other things, early European place names along the Labrador coast, the size of whaling crews, and the amount of alcohol they brought along for the season. Immediately below is an excerpt dealing with Aboriginal – Basques interaction:

“There is evidence that southward movement of the Inuit population from northern Labrador made the peaceful prosecution of the whale fishery more and more difficult. If the account of Basque historian Lope de Isasti, written in 1625, is to be even partially believed, the new opposition came from men ‘called Eskimaos, who are inhuman, because they suddenly attack our men with their bows and arrows (with which they are very dextrous) and kill and eat them’. While the Montignais Indians were apparently helpful and warned the Basques of the approach of the ‘Eskimaos’, it is certainly true that there are at least three separate references in parish records kept between 1575 and 1618 to several Basques being killed by ‘savages’, and there are published references by Jesuit priests underlining the fact that Inuit were militantly opposed to the presence of European fishermen on the Labrador coast.

“It is still unclear to what extent these Inuit incursions are to be blamed for the Basques’ abandonment of their traditional whaling grounds, or whether growing competition from Dutch and English traders and pirates influenced the Basque move, first into the Gulf of St, Lawrence and then up the St. Lawrence River.”

Exercise re: language use — break into groups & ‘deconstruct’ the above to answer Q: what historiographical perspectives are embedded in the piece?]

b) English Settlement attempts: intentions permanent

1) These attempts were marked by a strong fiscal motivation, but expectations differed from outcomes.

The English ventures of trade and colonization were all organized by joint stock companies [i.e. private investors, who might buy a share for £25]. England was simply too poor [not a big enough tax base] to have government-sponsored colonization. So people came together to form rudimentary corporations. [such as the Londonderry (plantation 1609-1641), Virginia, and Bermuda Companies … (see Audrey Horning, “Across the Atlantic: Ulster and Jamestown-the American Perspective,” Ulster Virginia.com website), … and, the Newfoundland Company (a.k.a. London and Bristol Company).]

The joint stock companies tended to be very short term entities, though the hope was that, like the Virginia Company and the Massachusetts Bay Company, they would be long term.

[The not-as-successful-as-hoped joint stock companies were similar to fishing ventures where, usually, a corporation would be formed for a single voyage and the affairs of the corporation would be wound up at the end of that voyage.]

Joint stock ventures were very high risk and under pressure to make a profit right off the bat. There was no limited liability, so any one investor could be held responsible for the debts of the whole company. Because of the interest in immediate profits, short-term thinking was common. And, historians have found, profits were not common.

Take, for example:

2) Some early trials in Newfoundland:

Early non-permanent outcomes:

According to the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website, “There is one record, in an early Cornish account book, of what sounds like an overwintering caretaker left in Conception Bay in 1609 [a year before John Guy’s colony at Cupids]. Some historians posit that other English fishing ships may well have left winter crews behind at this time, but there is no direct evidence for this.”

[Link to “A chart of the south-east part of Newfoundland, containing the bays of Placentia, St. Mary, Trepassey and Conception“dated 1794]

It is clear that, from the time of Elizabeth I, a series of writers advocated the permanent settlement of Newfoundland.

[Notable among them were men with first-hand knowledge of the island:

Anthony Parkhurst (1578)

Edward Hayes (1586)

John Mason (1620)

Richard Whitbourne (1620)

But settlement schemes put forward in the 1570s and 1580s ‘came to nothing’.

“Sir Humphrey Gilbert, c. 1583.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Humphrey Gilbert‘s visit to St. John’s in 1583 was only meant to be a visit. His intended destination was the coast of Maine (known as ‘Norumbega’). St. John’s was a convenient port for supplementing provisions. After the visit, however, Gilbert became more interested in the possibilities of northern settlement. But he drowned. And the people accompanying him [Edward Hayes], like other enthusiasts [writers John Mason and Richard Whitbourne] lacked the capital to finance a colony. So in England there was more talk than action.]


Misc. Addenda:

Additional texts re. Sir Gilbert:



Things to see in St. John’s Harbour, Newfoundland, 1610:

Theodore de Bry, engraving, “Mermaid in St. John’s Harbour,” dated 1628. Source: Memorial University of Newfoundland DAI.

“Now also I will not omit to relate something of a strange Creature that I first saw there in the yeere 1610, in a morning early as I was standing by the water side, in the Harbour of Saint Johns, which I espied verie swiftly to come swimming towards me, looking cheerefully, as it had beene a woman, by the Face, Eyes, Nose, Mouth, Chin, eares, Necke and Forehead: It seemed to be so beautifull, and in those parts so well proportioned, having round about upon the head, all blew strakes, resembling haire, downe to the Necke (but certainly it was haire) for I beheld it long, and another of my companie also, yet living, that was not then farre from me; and seeing the same comming so swiftly towards mee, I stepped backe, for it was come within the length of a long Pike.

“Which when this strange Creature saw that I went from it, it presently thereupon dived a little under water, and did swim to the place where before I landed; whereby I beheld the shoulders and backe downe to the middle, to be as square, white and smooth as the backe of a man, and from the middle to the hinder part, pointing in proportion like a broad hooked Arrow; how it was proportioned in the forepart from the necke and shoulders, I know not; but the same came shortly after unto a Boat, wherein one William Hawkridge, then my servant, was, that hath bin since a Captaine in a Ship to the East Indies, and is lately there imploied againe by Sir Thomas Smith, in the like Voyage; and the same Creature did put both his hands upon the side of the Boate, and did strive to come in to him and others then in the said Boate; whereat they were afraid; and one of them strooke it a full blow on the head; whereat it fell off from them: and afterwards it came to two other Boates in the Harbour; the men in them, for feare fled to land: This (I suppose) was a Mermaide.”

— Richard Whitbourne, ‘The Preface’, A Discourse and Discovery of New-Found-Land (London, 1620; reprint, Amsterdam, New York: Da Capo Press, 1971).

Early ‘permanent’ settlements:

— The Newfoundland Company and John Guy

Prominent Bristol merchant John Guy’s settlement, begun 1610 at Conception Bay, is considered the 1st permanent English settlement in Newfoundland.

Theodore de Bry or Matthaus Merian, engraving, commemorating the initial encounter between John Guy and the Beothuk people in 1612, dated c. 1627-28, in  Historia Americae sive Novi Orbis, ed. Matthaeus Merian  (Frankfurt: Caspar Rotel, 1628, 1634), 7, plate XIII.

See also William Gilbert,Guy not Gosnold: a correction,” Post Medieval Archeology 41, no. 2 (2007), 264-269.

Guy was associated with the Newfoundland Company, a joint stock venture established by Bristol and London Merchants. Their stated aims were practical: “to secure and make safe the trade of fishing.”

For the most part, all the proposals for Newfoundland settlement in the 1600s, when stripped of grandiose justifications, aimed to secure the fishery. As was the case with the Newfoundland Company, the official charters might make brief mention of “converting the inhabitants to Christianity” or finding placement for “super-abounding multitudes” [meaning unwanted people — the poor, the homeless or the displaced, and those thought likely to be petty criminals if they could not find something productive to do.] But, commonly, more space in the charter was devoted to arguing that settlement would improve the efficiency of the fishery and reserve the best fishing ‘rooms’ for English crews. [See Whitbourne, Discourse and Discovery of Newfoundland (1620)]

The Newfoundland Company’s royal charter granted the Company [including Sir Francis Bacon] the entire island of Newfoundland, but settlement activity was to be concentrated on the Avalon peninsula. Thirty-nine colonists — all male — set out from Bristol in 1610, with Guy who had detailed instructions to a) fortify a settlement at Cuper’s Cove in Conception Bay [now known as Cupid’s ], b) trade with ‘Indians’ & covert them to Christianity, and c) experiment with farming [including sheep], cut spars and planks, make salt, potash, and glass, collect samples of mineral ore, and to fish and trade in cured fish and train oil [which is oil from whale blubber or the fat of other marine animals — seals, walrus etc.]

The 1st two winters were mild, the death rate was low — 4 died the 1st winter — and the colonists managed to carry out their instructions fairly well. Buildings, wharves, and a fort were constructed, and a farm and mill established. Twelve boats were built, along with a small barque — the Indeavor — meant for use in finding ‘Indians’ to trade with and to convert.

According to Guy the Indeavor was sailed to nearby Trinity Bay, were the colonists met with Beothuk people in Bull Arm, exchanged gifts, and spent an evening singing, dancing, and dining. So relations with the natives seemed off to a good start.

Guy returned to England with news of great success and hospitable climate and in 1612 returned with 16 female settlers. Guy’s next letter home reported that in the spring of 1613, the first settler baby was born, as was a kid, and the first batch of chicks. There were problems with soil and climate however: though vegetables grew, grain did not, and the hay did not see animals through hard winters [which began in 1613]. Neither had relations with the natives panned out. Apparently, having been harassed by migrant fishers, they had decided against further interaction. To top it off, Peter Easton — a former privateer for the English navy and protector of the migrant fishery — was harassing the colony’s fishers.

Brueghel the Elder, 16th Century Ship. [See also www.nc-outerbanks.com/elizabeth.html]

A digression: About Peter Easton

He had escorted the fishing fleet to Newfoundland in 1602. Legend has it that on that voyage a member of his crew, Gilbert Pike, met his lady love, Sheila, an Irish princess, who was a captive aboard a Spanish ship that Easton scuttled. Gilbert and Sheila, so the story goes, put ashore on Newfoundland and stayed there and she lived to be 105. [See Paul Butler, “The Irish Princess: fact meets fiction in the legend of Newfoundland’s Sheila NaGeira,” The Beaver (February 01, 2005), preview of pertinent text available at AccessMyLibrary.com: http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-31153650_ITM]

By 1610, Easton is reputed to have had a fleet of 40 ships under his command. He arrived in Newfoundland in 1612 “with ten sayle of good ships well furnished and very rich” and raided coastal harbours and ships (English, Portuguese, and French), from Trinity Bay to Ferryland. He set up a base at ‘Mosquito’ — now called Harbout Grace (from ‘Havre de Grace’) — at which in 1613 he was repairing ships and building a fort, and from which he was recruiting sailors, by force if need be. Apparently, his personal residence was at Ferryland. The total damages inflicted on the fishing fleets during his stay in Newfoundland was estimated at £20,400.

It has been argued that Easton did no physical damage to the settlement at Cupids. On one occasion, it is said, the settlers gifted him with 2 pigs — perhaps as payment for ‘protection.’ There was, however, one clash with the colonists in which, reputedly, a man was wounded (by accident) and the onsite governor, Richard Whitbourne, was held captive aboard ship for 11 weeks during which time Easton attempted to convert him to the pirate cause.

Whitbourne was released, on condition that he go to England and get a pardon for Easton. The pardon was granted, but Easton did not hear of it as he had sailed to the Mediterranean to plunder Spanish treasure. He eventually retired to Savoy — a free port for pirates — bought a palace, set up a warehouse for his booty, and to 1620 lived in luxury as the titled, and married to a moneyed bride, “Marquis of Savoy.” What happened afterward is unknown.

Map showing historical Savoy of the 1600s. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

[For a description of the pirate settler dynamic in the Indo-Atlantic world see Kevin Macdonald, “‘A Man of Courage and Activity’: Thomas Tew and Pirate Settlements of the Indo-Atlantic Trade World, 1645-1730,” Working Papers, UC World History Workshop, UC Berkeley (10-03-2005), eScholarship, University of California http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/7tm078mp.]

“The noted Pyrate Paul Jones.” n.d. This appears to be a British caricature of John Paul Jones, born 1747, died 1792. He was a Scottish-American naval commander during the American Revolutionary War, sometimes referred to as the ‘father’ of the U.S. Navy. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R9266-2916.

To return to Guy’s Settlement:

One of the settlement’s problems was that the finances of the Company weren’t so good. [This was a problem for many early joint stock companies a) because they were not regulated in any sense whatsoever b) the partners would not necessarily keep books — and an individual partner might, for example, loan money to the Company for a voyage, and then have the Company hire his own ship for a hefty fee, without canceling the loan, which would keep accruing interest.] Guy got into a spat with the Company over his personal land allotment, and wages for men under his supervision. He left the colony in 1615, forever as it turned out, because when he could not reach an agreement with his partners, he quit the Company.

The plantation at Cuper’s Cove continued however. A mariner, John Mason, with wife, went out to supervise. All was not smooth sailing. The interim leader whom he replaced [Henry Crout] complained Mason (and others) “scorned to torne a Fish” [meaning neglected the fishery], while, at about the same time, migrant fishermen made the opposite complaint: competition from the colonists did England’s fishery harm. Mason made some excellent maps, but by the time he left the settlement in 1621 it was a business failure.

That same year, John Guy informed Parliament that 3 ‘real’ plantations still existed on the island: likely Easton’s old ‘Mosquito’ base which Bristol merchants had transformed to ‘Bristol’s Hope’ c. 1618; St. John’s; and a newly-founded ‘Colony of Avalon’ at Ferryland. That these were all fishery oriented may account for the ‘real’ designation.

The settlers at Cupids no longer had support from the Newfoundland Company — the shareholders having liquidated its assets, subdividing the original grant for sale as smaller proprietorships — but a few people were reportedly still living in the general vicinity c. 1624 or 1628.

Regional Proprietorships

Among successor proprietors of the original Newfoundland Company grant — successors who actually organized colonies, rather than just dreamt about them — there was …

Sir William Vaughan: a Welsh scholar, writer (author of The Golden Grove), and poet, who purchased property in 1616. Vaughan had expressed his concern over poor economic conditions in Wales in The Golden Grove. He saw overseas colonization as a solution to overpopulation, poverty, and an apparent hopelessness that saw “men starved while land went uncultivated and maritime enterprise was ignored” while nearby, in England projects such as the Newfoundland fishery brought prosperity.

His proprietorship, renamed New Cambriol, included the busy harbours of Ferryland, Fermeuse, and Renews, on the southern Avalon south of a line from Caplin (now Calvert) across to Plancentia Bay. The first set of historiographically undefined colonists put in their ship at Aquaforte (Renews).

Two years later, when their governor, Richard Whitbourne arrived, he found no settlement, only people inhabiting fishers’ shacks. A year later, the venture had collapsed (there appears to have been a lack of funds), the colonists had left, and part of the grant was transferred to Sir Henry Cary [viscount Faulkland] and another part to Sir George Calvert [1st Baron Baltimore].

Henry Cary: c. 1620 received a tract that included Bonavista peninsula and beyond (North Faulkland), and then purchased a strip on the Avalon (South Faulkand, including Fermeuse and Renews). A group of principally Irish settlers arrived in 1623, but by 1626 Cary had sold out.

Sir George Calvert started all over again in 1621 at Vaughan’s site with a colony named Avalon. [The name Ferryland is probably derived from the French ‘forillon’ or Portuguese ‘farelhão’ meaning ‘steep rock’ or ‘reef’ noted on maps as early as 1529]. Calvert’s well-financed business venture had a twist: that of being a safe haven for Catholics.

A second group arrived in 1622, and but when Calvert and family arrived in 1628, he found it progress was not as far along as reports home had led him to believe. England and France were at war as of that year and he spent the next repulsing French privateers and dealing with Puritan colonists who resented newly arrived Roman Catholic priests. [He banished the Puritan clergyman]. The winter was severe: lasting from October to May; 100 colonists were ill, 10 died, Calvert & family relocated to Virginia. A village’s worth of settlers stayed behind, but for how long is not clear — Ferryland may have had a high rate of resident turnover as individual fishers came and went.

Coat of Arms of the Company of Adventurers to Newfoundland (and to today’s Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador).

In 1637 David Kirke forcibly installed himself as proprietor of Ferryland, representing the Company of Adventurers to Newfoundland. [The Company’s coat of arms is preserved as the province’s]

He brought in 100 people, took possession of Calvert’s ‘mansion house’ and erected forts there, at St. John’s harbour, and at Bay de Verde. The Company’s patent forbade any interference with fishers, but allowed Kirke to collect an impost of 5% on all fish and oil taken by foreign ships. He got into trouble over taking taxes and allegedly keeping them, was recalled to England, and imprisoned — where he died in 1654.

Nevertheless, Lady Kirke — Sara — and sons continued on in Newfoundland, at least until 1673 when Dutch ships attacked and burned the settlement.

Meanwhile, William Payne, along with associates John Slaney and Sir Percival Willoughby, had a settlement at St. John’s [St. Jehan on a world map of 1541; San Joham on Freire’s Atlas of 1546], that, in 1627, he described as “the principal prime and chief lot in all the country.” It apparently had a plantation and houses that dated back at least a decade. Virtually nothing is known of the settlement, though it is considered to have ‘failed’ as their business venture. The location, however, spreading from around Petty Harbour to around Cape Francis in Holyrood, remained, as it had been for the century previous, a chief fishing port and trading centre of service to fishers.

Informal ‘development’ had been in evidence as early as 1527 when John Rut reported Norman, Breton, and Portuguese ships in the harbour. Gilbert reported French and Portuguese ships in 1583.

Overall, during the 17th century, England, as an imperial power, remained generally uninterested in settling what would become Eastern Canada. Early attempts at settlement indicated that Newfoundland, with its reportedly harsh climate and thin soil, could not support serious agricultural development.

England was far more interested in forwarding settlement on more arable lands to the southwest of Nova Scotia [later the ’13 colonies’, later still the United States] where commodities with ready profits could be grown — particularly tobacco — and where colonists seemed to ‘adapt’ to living conditions more easily [meaning they organized their villages, towns etc. along lines familiar in England].

Tobacco plant and American smoker, colourized version of Lobel’s Plantarus seu stirpium Historia (1570), date uknown. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Thus, Newfoundland remained an anomaly in the expanding British empire, because it was considered an industry, rather than a colony; a place of activity, rather than a society.

This does not mean that the British government, egged on by the fishing merchants running out of its West Country ports, enforced any policy of discouraging settlement [a persistent historiographical myth traceable to Prowse, History of Newfoundland and debunked by Keith Matthews (pp.21-30)]. The government usually supported the idea of settlement, although in 1675, when marauding West Country fishing crews attacked some settlements ashore, the Committee for Trade and Plantations instructed all ‘planters’ to leave [as they could not expect any military protection].

Naval commodore, Sir John Berry, who was sent out to see that the instruction was followed, found on his arrival that it was impractical to implement — too many people, living in too many places and determined to stay. Within a few years the Committee for Trade and Plantations had changed its mind and saw that King William III’s Act of 1699 confirmed the inhabitant’s rights to their plantations. Settlers were thought of a useful for maintaining fishery property ashore over the winter, ensuring a quick start to fishing the next season, and as a bulwark against French incursion.

The French, after all, from about 1662, had a military base and colony at Plaisance.

Presumably the settlers who stayed (many did not) managed to meet some of their own personal wants as well as basic needs.

At bottom: what did the settlers want?

A few of the early settlers might have come out for personal reasons — adventure seeking, escape. Probably they wanted to live in a self-sustaining colony. Despite their inability to generate a profit for any Company’s shareholders, there would seem to be reasons for their tenacity. One obvious (if speculative on my part) incentive would be the hope that whether ‘servants’ of a Company or not, once in Newfoundland they might become householders in their own right — holders of their own property.

One reason settlement may have proceeded slowly is that joint stock companies were reluctant to allot premises [real estate] to their servants. But, formal title or not, servants did occupy land and make decisions regarding its use [who was there to stop them?]. They were dependent on off-island sources for foodstuffs and tolls etc., but these they procured by participating in the fishery and trading their work/production for supplies.

It has been said that in Newfoundland, the only real resource settlers had was the sea and that starvation was a constant threat.

It is worth keeping in mind that these are assessments and assumptions made on the basis of records kept by people at the top, as well as lesser aristocrats and commercial people. So this is historiography that looks ‘top down’ and from an economic perspective — what is missing is a social history that might possibly, if it existed, offer a bit of counter-balancing.

I have yet to see, for example, a comparative analysis that investigates how the Newfoundland settlers lived before they arrived on the island. [see for example, the 1641 depositions project, Trinity College Dublin, http://1641.eneclann.ie/] Did they have warm, well built houses? lots of livestock? lots of work? They did not have a vibrant inshore fishery — that much is certain, because that’s why everybody came to Newfoundland in the first place.

If, as I suspect, the settlers were poor in their places of origin — perhaps members of families that had been so for generations — then it seems likely that they were adept at living in what to the middle classes and above would seem to be very trying circumstances. Where they well-schooled by past experience in what to do when food and shelter were scarce? What if they were expert in knowing what work was worth doing and what were tasks that would not contribute one wit to survival? Could that explain why ‘development’ in Newfoundland did not look like it did elsewhere? Would that mean that what did take place in Newfoundland might be interpreted as ‘development’ if it were analysed differently?

Did all of those individuals who did not stay, leave out of a sense of defeat and failure? Or, is it possible that some of them came to earn some cash to use for starting up a business of their own — or to send to family at home? And, once satisfied they had made enough money they went home?

Weren’t some among those who sailed to Newfoundland clever, or lucky, enough to know when to sign up for paid work and when to settle down? Perhaps on a bit of shore where they could live as well as or better than they had at ‘home’? Did any use their earnings to import sundry goods to sell to other, newly arrived young shore fishers out to make a stake in the world? Did any of these people, perhaps, consider their lives a ‘success’?

So I’m ending on a bit of a cautionary note: Businessmen and other higher-ups in society, when writing explanations in the past, tended to blame their business failures — and social unrest — on people lower down in the social hierarchy who were lazy, or incompetent, or had some deficit due to their community of origin [read ‘ethnicity’, culture, ‘race’]. But, often enough, investigative research reveals that businesses failed and societies had problems because of the policies and practices of the very businessmen and rulers who wrote that it ‘was not their fault.’

In my opinion, because the social side of the early settlement experience has not yet been illuminated, the history of Newfoundland settlement is incomplete.


One Response to Week 4, Lectures, Part II: Newfoundland and Labrador Settlement [or not]

  1. Pingback: No Colony for Old Men: Peter Easton in Conception Bay | Conception Bay Museum

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