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Special interest attaches to Newfoundland, as being the most ancient of all the colonies of Great Britain. On this island the foot of the Briton first trod the soil of the New World, and here the flag of England was first unfurled in token of sovereignty over a portion of the newly discovered territory. The genius of the Anglo-Saxon achieved its first triumph in maritime explorations by the discovery of this island beyond the stormy waves of the North Atlantic, and in its settlement tried its first experiment in colonisation.
The close of the fifteenth century witnessed the grandest event of modern times – the discovery of the New World by Columbus. A boundless field for human enterprise was thus thrown open, and many of the boldest and noblest spirits of Europe were fired with enthusiasm to go out and explore the wonders and mysteries of the new realms. Among those who felt this quickening impulse most keenly, was John Cabot and his son Sebastian. He was an Italian by birth, a native of Venice, who had for several years been settled in Bristol, where he was engaged in trade, and where his son Sebastian was born. The father was a thoughtful, speculative man, who took a deep interest in those maritime discoveries that were then stirring the pulses of the world; while his son Sebastian, who was destined to be the first discoverer of continental America, and thus to secure a fame second only to that of Columbus, inherited his father’s predilectices, and early entered on a seafaring life. The speculations of these two thoughtful men led them to believe that, by taking a north-west course across the Atlantic, instead of that which conducted Columbus to his great discovery, they would reach new and unknown lands, or perhaps find a shorter passage to “Cathay”, or to the eastern shores of Asia. When the astounding new of D\Columbus’ discovery reached England, Henry VII, must have been sorely mortified to think that he had missed the honour of being the patron of the discoverer of the New World, and of being proclaimed sovereign of vast realms, with all their untold treasures, beyond the western waves. When, then, John Cabot and his son made the proposal to the King of undertaking a voyage of discovery from Bristol to regions far north of those which Columbus was then exploring, Henry lent a willing ear to the offer of the adventurers, and speedily furnished them with letters patent sanctioning their undertaking.
In these letters John Cabot is named, as well as his three sons; but there is no evidence to show that any one of them but Sebastian took part in the enterprise. This bold seaman, in the spring of 1497, five years after Columbus’ first voyage, sailed from the port of Bristol, across those boisterous seas of the North Atlantic, never before furrowed by European keel. It is greatly to be lamented that no journal was kept of this voyage, on the results of which England’s claims on the New World were to rest. But for the achievement of this intrepid navigator, the Spaniards might have monopolised discovery in North, as well as South America and Mexico; and the English tongue might not have been spoken over the northern half of the continent. Notwithstanding that such momentous consequences depended on the results of the voyage, no journal of it was kept; and we are left to gather whatever knowledge of it we can from the scattered and imperfect records of contemporary writers. All we can learn is, that on the 24th day of June, 1497, the voyagers sighted land, which the commander gratefully named Bona Vista – happy sight – an Italian designation still borne by Cape Bonavista, on the eastern shores of Newfoundland. It would appear that Cabot than shaped his course further to the north-west, until the reached the coast of Labrador; then turning south, he made the coast of Nova Scotia, and sailed along the Atlantic shore of the continent as far south as Florida. Thus to Cabot belongs the glory of first discovering the continent of America, for at that time only some of the islands were discovered by Columbus; and it was not till fourteen months afterwards that the Genoese navigator, without being aware of it, touched the continent in the neighbourhood of Veragua and Honduras. It is sad to think that England has raised no monument to the memory of her great sailor, and that not even the name of a cape, bay, or headland in the New World reminds us of the glory of his achievement. After a most adventurous and honourable career, he died in London, at the age of eighty; but no one knows where his ashes repose. The following entry in the account of the privy-purse expenses of Henry VII, shows what sort of reward the avaricious monarch bestowed on the intrepid navigator: - "To him that found the New Isle, £10"
It is interesting to know that the name of the ship in which Cabot made his first voyage, was The Matthew of Bristol, as appears from the following extract from an ancient Bristol manuscript: - "In the year 1497, the 24th June, on St. John’s Day, was Newfoundland found by Bristol men, in a ship called The Matthew." It is not difficult to trace the origin of the name "Newfoundland". On the old maps the whole of the northern region is designed Terra Nova, or New Land, the epithet applying to all the English discoveries in the North. In the course of time the name settled down on this single island, just as the term “West Indies” which once applied to the whole of America, is now limited to a group if islands on its eastern side. Cabot is said to have called the island Bacalaos, from the abundance of the codfish he observed in its waters, the native term for which is Baccalao. Hence the designation of a small rocky islet, north of St. John’s, Baccalieu.
For almost a century no attempts were made by Englishmen to follow up this discovery of their countrymen by colonising Newfoundland. The Portuguese were the first to turn their attention to these northern regions discovered by Cabot. In the year 1500, Gaspar Cortereal ranged the coast of North America, discovered and named Conception Bay and Portugal Cove, in Newfoundland, and established the first regular fishery on its shores, and in seventeen years after forty sail of Portugese, French, and Spaniards were engaged in the cod fishery; and in 1527, an English captain wrote a letter to Henry VIII, from the haven of St. John’s, Newfoundland, in which he declares that he found, in that one harbour, eleven sail of Normans, and one Breton, engaged in the fishery. In 1578, the number of vessels employed in the cod fishery had increased to 400, of which only fifty were English, the remainder being French and Spanish.
The next effort at colonisation was in 1610, when James I granted a patent to Mr. Guy, an enterprising Bristol merchant, for a “plantation” in Newfoundland. No very satisfactory results followed this attempt, although Bacon headed it.
In 1615, Captain Richard Whitbourne, of Exmouth, in Devonshire, was sent to Newfoundland by the Admiralty, to establish order and correct abuses which had grown up among the fishermen. He empanelled juries and dispensed justice, after a fashion, in the most frequented harbors. On his return home, in 1622, he wrote a “Discourse and Discovery of Newfoundland,” which quaint production of the brave old sea captain is a valuable fragment of Newfoundland history.
A year later, Sir George Calvert, afterwards Lord Baltimore, a native of Yorkshire, educated at Oxford, a Roman Catholic gentleman of superior abilities, and much capacity for business, renewed the attempts at colonising the island. Sharing largely in the popular enthusiasm of his countrymen in favor of “plantations” in America, he obtained, when Secretary of State for James I, a patent, conveying to him the lordship of the whole southern peninsula of Newfoundland. One object he had in view was, to provide here an asylum for his co-religionists who were sufferers from the intolerant spirit of the times. The immense tract thus granted to him extended from Trinity Bay to the Bay of Placentia, and was named by him Avalon, from the ancient name of Glastonbury, in Somersetshire, where, according to traditions, Christianity was first preached in Britain. Lord Baltimore planted his colony at Ferryland, forty miles north of Cape Race, where he built a fine house, and resided for many years with his family. He afterwards quitted Newfoundland for the more inviting region of Maryland, where he founded the city of Baltimore.
Soon after the departure of Lord Baltimore, Viscount Falkland, Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, sent out a number of emigrants from that country, to increase the scanty population of Newfoundland; and in 1654, Sir David Kirk, with the sanction of Parliament, introduced another body of settlers, which, in more recent times, was swelled to considerable dimensions by emigrants from Ireland, so as at length almost to equal the Saxon portion of the inhabitants.
In 1630, or about a century and a half after its discovery, Newfoundland contained only 350 families, or nearly 2000 inhabitants, distributed in fifteen small settlements, chiefly along the eastern shore. These constituted the resident population, but in addition there was a floating population of several thousands, who frequented the shores during summer, for the sake of the fisheries, which had now attained vast dimensions. Even as early as 1626, one hundred and fifty vessels were annually dispatched from Devonshire alone, and the French were even more active in carrying on the fisheries than the English. These lucrative fisheries, on the part of the English, were carried on by shipowners and traders residing in the West of England. They sent out their ships and fishing crews early in summer – the fish caught were salted and dried ashore; and when winter approached, the fishermen re-embarked for England, carrying with them the products of their labor. Hence it became the interest of these traders to discourage the settlement of the country, as they wished to retain the harbors and fishing-coves for the use of their servants in curing the fish; and they regarded all settlers on the land as interlopers, hostile to their pursuits. Their most strenuous efforts were directed to keep the resident population within the narrowest limits. Unfortunately the British Government fell in with their views; and looking upon the Newfoundland fisheries as a nursery for seamen, they prohibited all attempts at settlement. No more efforts at colonisation were countenanced. The most stringent laws were promulgated forbidding fishermen to remain behind at the close of the fishing season; and masters of vessels were compelled to give bonds to bring back such persons as they took out. The commanders of the convoys were ordered to bring away all planters; settlement within six miles of the shore was prohibited; and all “plantations” were to be discouraged. This wretched, shortsighted policy was persevered in for more than a century. With such laws in force, the wonder is, not that the colony did not advance, but that any resident population should be found to occupy its shores.
Another element that retarded the prosperity of the colony was the presence and continual encroachments of the French. Their rule gradually extended over Nova Scotia (Acadia), Cape Breton, and Canada; and as Newfoundland was the key to their transatlantic possessions, and commanded the narrow entrance to the most considerable of them, it became a paramount consideration with France to establish herself in Newfoundland, and to control its valuable fisheries. In 1635, the French obtained permission from the English to dry fish in Newfoundland, on payment of a duty of five per cent, of the produce; and in 1660, they founded a colony in Placentia, and erected strong fortifications. When war broke out between the rival nations, on the accession of William III to the throne, the island became the scene of several skirmishes, naval battles, and sieges. St. Johns fell before a French attack in 1696, and the whole of the settlements, with the exception of Bonavista and Carbonear, shared the same fate. The treaty of Ryswick restored all these conquests to England, leaving France in possession of her settlements on the south-west coast. During the wars which followed, in the reign of Queen Anne, St Johns again fell into the hands of the French in 1708, and for some years they had entire possession of the island. The celebrated Treaty of Utrecht, in 1713, ended hostilities, and gave the sovereignty of the entire country to Great Britain, but unfortunately secured to France the right of catching and drying fish on the extent of coast from Cape Bonavista to Point Riche, on the western side. The consequences have been disastrous to Newfoundland – practically excluding the inhabitants from the half of the island most favorable for agricultural pursuits, and thus driving them to the precarious returns of the fisheries, as the sole source of their subsistence.
The state of misrule under which the people found themselves in early times may be judged of from the character of the laws that were enacted. In the reign of Charles I, the Star Chamber enacted that if a person in Newfoundland killed another, or stole to the value of forty shillings, the offender was to be sent to England, and placed under the power of the Earl Marshal, who could order exception on the testimony of two witnesses. Another notable enactment of this arbitrary tribunal was, that the master of the first ship from England entering a harbor, was to be admiral therein for the fishing season, and be empowered to decide all complaints. Even in the reign of William III, when more constitutional principles were guiding the rulers of the nation, a code of laws for the government of Newfoundland was enacted, in which some of the worst abuses of the past were perpetuated, and confusion intensified. By this extraordinary statute, the fishing admirals of Star Chamber origin were reinstated, with unlimited powers. We can readily image what kind of justice was dealt out to the resident inhabitants by these rough, ignorant sea captains, who regarded them as interlopers, whose presence was barely tolerated.
Under every discouragement, however, the population continued slowly to increase. At length, in 1728, the dawn of a better day appeared. Lord Vere Beauclerk, who then commanded the naval force on the station, was clear-sighted enough to discover the causes of the prevailing abuses, and honest enough to make effectual representations to the home Government. Up to this date all applications for a Governor had been refused; but now this policy was abandoned, and Captain Henry Osborne was appointed as first Governor of Newfoundland, with a commission to nominate justices of the peace, and establish some form of civil government. Thus at length the country rose into the rank of a British colony. For many years the governors found themselves almost powerless, in consequence of the authority possessed by the fishing admirals, founded on the statute of William III, and the refusal of these functionaries to recognise the jurisdiction of the new ruler. The Government, however, were firm in their adherence to the improved policy, being at length awakened to the necessity of reforming prevailing abuses, and in 1750 made an important addition to the powers of local government by the appointment of Commissioners of Oyer and Terminer, before whom felons could be tried within the limits of the island.
Three years after the fall of Quebec before the victorious soldiers of Wolfe, a French expedition arrived in the Bay of Bulls, twenty miles from St. John’s, and in June 1762 a force was landed there, triumph, however was short lived. A British force was speedily collected and landed at Torbay, six miles north of St. John’s. The troops marched on the capital, which, after a sharp struggle, was carried by assault, and the French garrison capitulated. This proved to be the last of the many vain attempts of the French to occupy Newfoundland. In 1763, the Peace of Paris ended the Seven Years’ War, but left the French in the enjoyment of the same fishery rights in Newfoundland as had been secured to them by the Treaty of Utrecht. The fixed inhabitants of the island had increased at this date to 8000, while 5000 more were summer residents who returned home every winter.
Additional strength was imparted to the local government in 1765 by the extension of the Navigation Laws to Newfoundland, and the formal recognition of the island as one of His Majesty’s “plantations.” A customhouse was established at the same time, and Labrador was attached to the governorship of Newfoundland, thereby greatly increasing its importance. A survey of the coasts was at the same time commenced by the celebrated navigator Captain Cook. A new Act, entitled commonly “Palliser’s Act,” for the regulation of affairs in Newfoundland, was passed in Parliament; but it still aimed at perpetuating the old system of a ship fishery from England, and obliged masters of ships, under a heavy penalty, to secure the return of seamen to England each season.
In 1784, entire religious liberty was granted by proclamation of Governor Campbell. Previous to this, the Roman Catholic faith was proscribed, and its adherents subjected to civil disabilities. All disabilities were now removed, and freedom of worship granted to all denominations.
In 1785, the population of St. John’s was only 1600, and that of the whole island 10,000. The houses of the capital were of the poorest and meanest description, the streets narrow and filthy, and the buildings irregularly huddled together on narrow strips of ground, the precarious tenure of which had been reluctantly wrung from some Governor. During the absence of the Governor in the winter season there was no proper administration of justice. And as no efforts were put forth in the interests of education, and securing the people religious instruction, it is not wonderful that disorder, immorality, and crime should be often rife.
A great step in advance was taken in 1792, when the British Parliament instituted a Supreme Court of Judicature for the island. Chief Justice Reeves received the first appointment from His Majesty to preside over this court.
During the long wars which followed the outbreak of the French Revolution, Newfoundland attained an unprecedented prosperity. All competitors in the fisheries were swept from the seas; the markets of Europe were exclusively in the hands of the merchants of the country: the fisheries were unusually successful, and the price of fish trebled. Wages of fisherman rose to a high figure, and emigrants flocked to the country. In 1814, nearly 7000 persons arrived in Newfoundland. The laws against colonisation could no longer be rigidly enforced. A post office was established in 1805, and the following year the first newspaper, the Royal Gazette, was published. In 1815, the population had increased to 80,000. Strenuous efforts were made to supply the spiritual wants of the Protestant portion of the population, and Roman Catholics were not less zealous. In 1805, Newfoundland was annexed to the newly created bishopric of Nova Scotia, and in 1839 was constituted a separate see. Wesleyan Methodism was introduced as early as 1786, and attained a vigorous growth. At last, in 1811, the restriction against the erection of houses was removed, and the shores of St. Johns harbor were divided into building and water lots, and thrown open by lease of thirty years, to public competition. The capital now made rapid progress; and though repeatedly destroyed by fire, has risen phoenix-like, brighter and better from its ashes. The laws against the cultivation of the soil were at length repealed; and even the merchants began to see that the fisheries would be best carried on by a fixed population; and the Government discovered the delusion of strengthening the navy by men trained in the fisheries. The years 1816 and 1817 were memorable for fires that destroyed a large portion of St. John’s, and caused an immense amount of suffering. But the spirit and energy of the people rose superior to their misfortunes, and the town was speedily rebuilt. In 1824 circuit courts were initiated; and in 1825 the first roads were constructed around St. John’s. In 1832 the colony obtained the boom of representative government, similar to that of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. An Act for the advancement of education passed the local legislature. In 1846 a terrible fire destroyed three-fourths of St. Johns, and an immense amount of property. Once more the city rose from its ashes, improved and beautified. In 1855 the system of “responsible government” was inaugurated. In 1858 the first Atlantic cable was landed at Bay of Bull’s Arm. The census taken in 1869 shows the population of the island, along with that of Labrador, to be 146,536; of which 85,496 are Protestants, and 61,040 are Roman Catholics. The value of the exports in 1869 was 6,096,799 dols; that of imports 5,254,152 dols.
Transcribed by Lenora Furey (June 2003)
Page Revised: April - 2003 (Don Tate)
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