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The Portuguese In Newfoundland Waters

 

 

The sheltered harbour of St. John's has provided a safe haven for ships of many nations for more than four centuries. The colourful array of foreign vessels moored two and three abreast along the waterfront makes a fascinating sight when storm warnings on the Grand Bankss call a halt to fishing and cause the ships to seek the safety of the strategically located and virtually landlocked port.

Prominent among them are the sturdy vessels of the "White Fleet" of Portugal, which has been sending ships to the Grand Bankss of Newfoundland since the earliest years of the recorded history of the areas. The Portuguese share the hospitality of St. John's with sailors and fishermen from France, Spain, Norway, Russia, Germany and Great Britain, since virtually all of the maritime nations on both sides of the Atlantic exploit the prolific fishery of the Grand Bankss, a submarine plateau or continental shelf which commences about fifty miles east of Cape Race, Newfoundland.

When John Cabot returned from his voyage of discovery in 1497, his reports of the abundance of cod to be found in the coastal waters of Newfoundland aroused the eager interest of the fishing merchants in the east of England. They persuaded the Crown to impose harsh anti-settlement laws which held back any appreciable colonization of the "New Founde Lande" for centuries after its discovery.

Although the repressive laws prevented legal settlement by colonists from Great Britain, they could do nothing to discourage other countries from sharing in the fishing bonanza to be found on the Grand Bankss.

The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw the beginning of Portuguese exploration, backed by the maritimes ingenuity which took adventurous navigators from Portugal to many far distant corners of the world.

Some of their names are widely known-Prince Henry, Magellan and Vasco de Gama and are readily recognized by any reasonably well-read persons. Others are less familiar except to serious students of history. The brothers Gaspar and Miguel Corte Real made bold voyages seeking the elusive North West Passage in tiny caravels of the Order of Christ in the years 1501-1502. Miguel was lost in the northern seas while seeking his brother Gaspar, who is credited by some historians with explorations of the coasts from Greenland all the way to New England.

Two other Portuguese, Alvarex Fagundes and Estevan Gomez (the latter serving Spain) navigated, respectively, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Bay of Fundy before 1525, more than a decade ahead of the well-documented voyages of Jacques Cartier. In recognition of the contribution made by the Corte Real brothers, the King of Portugal granted to their brother Vasco and his descendants `'Real and actual possession of the Mainland and Islands" discovered by Gaspar Corte Real during the expeditions which were financed and carried out by this Azores family at tremendous material and physical cost. Fagundes, in 1520, applied for and received a nominal royal grant of the lands he might discover "within the Portuguese sphere of influence". Some of the names he gave to points he discovered in the western part of Newfoundland were later changed to English and French nomenclature.

It has been asserted by some historians that the Portuguese were the first to exploit the fishing found on the Grand Bankss, late in the 15th century. In support of this theory there is documentation of special tithes levied on catches of cod by King Manuel of Portugal as early as 1506. For a century or more after its recorded discovery, Newfoundland became known to Western Europe as '`Tierra dos Bacallaos" (Portuguese for codfish). It is identified in this manner on a map published in 1569 by the celeb rated Dutchman Gerardus Mercator, who marked Labrador (the Portuguese word for farmer) as "Terra Corte Realis".

Some of the longest settled and most historic parts of the Island of Newfoundland stil bear names of Portuguese origin, since many of the 16th century cartographers were Portuguese and were the first to assign names to the major capes, bays, harbours and islands on the east and southeast coasts of Newfoundland. As early as 1502 a Portuguese map identified what is now Newfoundland as "Land of the King of Portugal".

Despite the various nominal royal grants of land to the early Portuguese explorers, there appears to be no appreciable evidence of any organized or determined attempt to confirm territorial claims or ambitions by military or naval force or by planned colonization. Along with some of the other seafaring nations, Portugal continued to send fishing fleets to the Grand Bankss on a seasonal basis. The principal port, St. John's, became familiar to succeeding generations of sailors and fishermen from the various fishing countries of the world and has retained its identity on an international level for more than four centuries.

From May to October each year, the ships of Portugal's "White Fleet" lend unique colour and charm to the port of St. John's Until the 1950's, these ships were of the traditonal Banksfishing schooner design with decks piled high with colourful wooden dories. They have been replaced by modern draggers and trawlers.

The most conspicuous aspect of the long association of Portugal with Newfoundland has been the virtually complete absence of any serious friction to mar the mutually friendly relationship shared by the many hundreds of fishermen and the resident population of St. John's. It is a remarkable tribute to the rugged, hard-working men of the Portuguese fleets that so many thousands of them have staged their friendly invasion of Newfoundland's provincial capital at frequent intervals throughout the summer months and maintained an unrivalled reputation for good behaviour that has kept them in high standing as extremely welcome visitors.

On two occasions in recent years, the special relationship between Newfoundland and Portugal has been given official public recognition. In 1955, the Roman Catholic Cathedral in St. John's observed its centennial and was evaluated to the rank of Basilica. A highlight of the celebrations was a parade of several thousand Portuguese fishermen who marched through the city from the waterfront to the Basilica and presented an enduring gift in the form of a statue of Our Lady of Fatima. Again, in 1965, they gathered in large numbers for the ceremonial unveiling of a huge bronze statue of Gaspar Corte Real erected in a prominent location on Prince Philip Drive adjacent to Confederation Building, headquarters of the Provincial Government.

The statue stands on a large concrete platform, on which is engraved in large letters an inscription which bears testimony to an historic international friendship; it reads "Gaspar Corte Real, Portugese Navigator. He reached Terra Nova in the 15th. century at the beginning of the era of the great discoveries. From the Portuguese Fisheries Organization as an expression of gratitude on behalf of the Portuguese Grand Bankss Fishermen for the friendly hospitality always extended to them by the people of Terra Nova-May 1965"

 

 

Page contributed by: Bill Crant, April 29, 2000
Page revised: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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