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The Connection of England With Newfoundland



[This text was written by Sir George William Des Voeux, former governor of Newfoundland, in 1900. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


THOUGH the Northmen who settled in Greenland in the 16th century are said to have sighted Newfoundland, the first clearly ascertained discovery of the Island by an European was that made in 1497 by John Cabot. Genoese by birth and Venetian by adoption, he was naturalised in England at the latter end of the 15th century. His ship, the Mathew, fitted out by English enterprise, was principally manned by Englishmen and sailed under a charter of the English King, Henry VII. The first fishermen in the waters of the Island and the first settlers on its coasts were also Englishmen, and as the English people have ever since Cabot's discovery had a large part, and since the middle of the 16th century the leading part, in its affairs, to describe fully the connection between England and Newfoundland would be to re-write the whole of the recorded history of the Colony. I propose therefore to confine my attention to a few leading points.


On the return of Cabot's expedition, the wealth of fish in the Newfoundland seas became known in England ; and in pursuit of it vessels provided with fishing gear and articles for trade with the natives were sent out to the Island in the following year. But the chief benefit from Cabot's discovery­ was in the first instance obtained by foreigners ; for even in 1578, according to Hakluyt, the English vessels employed in the Newfoundland fishing numbered only 50 out of 400, the more accessible seas of Iceland, Scotland and Ireland rendering the new field of less importance to Englishmen than to others less favourably situated. Various facts, however, recently adduced and especially the Act of Parliament of 1541, which deals with the fishery of "Newland," in common with those of "Iseland," "Scotlands" and others, show to be an error the notion, at one time prevalent, that Newfoundland was altogether abandoned by England during the first half of the 16th century. On the 5th of August, 1583, Newfoundland was formally annexed to the British Crown by Sir Humphrey Gilbert (half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh) under a Commission from Queen Elizabeth, which was read by him publicly at St. John's, as the record states, "before the Masters and principall officers of the shippes as well Englishmen as Spaniards, Portugalls and other nations." Gilbert made various grants of land for fishing stations, refusing at the same time all applications for larger ones which seemed to contemplate permanent settlement. He enacted three laws, one of them for the establishment of the Church of England, and setting out for return to England within the month of his arrival he was lost with his ship before reaching home.


In Gilbert's refusal of grants for settlement we see one of the first indications of the policy which England , for more than two centuries adopted, or permitted, with regard to its oldest Colony. The landowners and merchants of the Western Counties of England, who had initiated the fishing industry of Newfoundland, wished to keep it to themselves, and with this object they and their successors (who with their employés were long known as "The Adventurers") did all in their power by obstructing settlement in the Island to prevent the growth of a resident population, as being likely to interfere with their monopoly. For furthering this object their wealth and influence only too frequently enabled them to obtain the assistance of the English Government and they thus occasioned a long series of efforts, extending even into the present century, directed to prevent the development and obstruct the progress of the Colony.


In 1610 the Adventurers' normal interest with the Court was temporarily over-ridden by the superior influence with James I. of Lord Chancellor Bacon. At his instigation a Royal charter and, it is believed, a considerable subsidy were given to a Company in which he was interested, having ostensibly for its principal object the colonisation of Newfoundland. Though the elaborate provisions contained in the charter, and probably having their origin in Bacon himself, show that he, at all events, had colonisation in view, it seems that the traders associated with him, if we may judge from their instructions to their first Governor, had an eye principally to the advantage to be gained over others interested in the fishery who were outside the charter. These latter, however, had to be counted with, and indeed, not only they, but such settlers as had in spite of opposition already made their homes in the Island, were not without substantial grounds for discontent. For, though by the charter there was a nominal reservation to those "who trade or voyadge to the partes aforesaid for fishing of all liberties, powers, easements," &c., which they had hitherto enjoyed, yet a title superior to all existing rights is given to the Company in respect of an extent of territory which, however obscurely defined, certainly included nearly the whole Peninsula of Avalon as well as the shores of Trinity Bay - in fact all, or nearly all, of the coast line which at that time was in use by Europeans.


Discontent quickly made itself evident in action. Shortly after the arrival of Alderman John Guy, the first Governor under the charter, the Crown was petitioned for protection against the "planters" (as the Colonists under the charter were called) whom the migratory fishermen on return from their annual voyage to England had found occupying and excluding them from the best fishing places which they had until then regarded as belonging to themselves. From this petition and the controversy which arose respecting it, we may gather that besides the grievances openly avowed there was another of equal or greater potency in the supersession by the new authority of the jurisdiction of the "Fishing Admirals." These functionaries, whose names so frequently occur in the history of the Island , from early in the 16th until late in the 17th century, were chosen ordinarily each week of the season by the Masters of fishing vessels from among their own number. Previously, by recognised custom and after 1633, with the express. sanction of the Home Government, they exercised magisterial and executive control over the fishermen. Their rough justice, useful in some respects for maintaining order, was exercised tyrannously and often with gross partiality against residents, and in the interest of "The Adventurers." In the case of Guy's Colony, however, both Adventurers and residents previous to the charter united. in opposition to it.


When their petition failed of effect, they resorted to incendiarism and other hostile means of injuring the new colonists. Guy, having no force sufficient to cope either with the local obstruction. or with the Moorish pirates, who were continually plundering with impartiality both of the opposing: parties, seems to have become quickly disgusted with his position, which he retained for only two. fishing seasons. His colony, however, continued a precarious existence for some years and then, about 1630, disappears from history. Subsequent attempts at colonisation, under James I., by Lord Baltimore, Lord Falkland and others, and under Charles I., by Sir David Kirke, in concert with the Duke of Hamilton and others, failed after an existence equally precarious and temporary. Though subsidiary causes of these successive failures were mismanagement, the non-residence, except for very short periods of those principally interested, and the incursions of Moorish and other pirates, against which the very rare visits, of ships-of-war afforded a very inadequate protection, the principal cause is to be found in the charters authorising these colonies which, like that of Guy, showed complete indifference to pre-existing rights. Exceeding all others in grossness of injustice was the charter granted by Charles I. to the Duke of Hamilton, Sir David. Kirke and others. For not only, as containing a grant of the whole Island of Newfoundland between latitudes 46° and 53°, did it absolutely ignore all pre-existing rights, including those antecedently granted by the Crown (such as those of Lord Baltimore which were confirmed by a positive promise of the King made only six months before the date of the new charter), but it forbade settlement by prescribing penalties for residence within six miles of the shore, and gave to the Charterers what was practically a fishing monopoly, by prohibiting inhabitants from taking the first choice of fishing grounds.


Fortunately the force supplied in aid of this charter was insufficient for the complete fulfilment of its tyrannical intentions and "planters" remained on the coast in spite of it; but the superior privileges accorded to the annually visiting, as compared with the resident, fishermen, including the legalised jurisdiction of the Fishing Admirals, caused trouble which lasted for two centuries - their indirect effect for evil having hardly disappeared even now. The attitude of Cromwell towards Newfoundland was in marked contrast to that of the Kings who preceded and succeeded him. Partly perhaps because the Adventurers had been in favour with the Court and were therefore for the most part Royalists, he put an end to their exclusive privileges. His Commissioner, John Trevorgie, whom Mr. D. W. Prowse, in his History of Newfoundland, justly calls the first real Governor of the Island , having sufficient force with him to check opposition, encouraged settlers and with a strong hand repressed the selfish injustice of the Adventurers. Under Trevorgie equal justice to all was almost for the first time seen in Newfoundland ; both settlers and fishermen prospered as they never had before; and his short administration thus appears as one of the very few bright spots in the history of the Island . Trevorgie suffered, however, in his own person from the normal neglect of Newfoundland which characterised the Home Government. His miserable salary was for six months unpaid, and as a probable consequence he was arrested for debt by his own Courts. Under Charles II., at the instance of the Adventurers, the rule of the Fishing Admirals was resumed, and, also in their interest, an Order of Council in 1675 was directed to the expulsion of the settlers. By another Order, dated 1676, the settlers were called upon to surrender all their property. Outrages on the latter on the part of the Adventurers were the natural result, and, according to a contemporary statement, "1,500 men in three weeks. would not repair the injury done in the first few days."


Bitter complaints from the Colony brought about some improvement in 1677, when, by a further Order, "planters" were permitted to retain temporarily such houses and stages as were still left to them. Their petition for a Governor was, however, declined. In the same reign the French were permitted to take possession of Placentia and to eject the English settlers there. During their occupation of the place, which continued intermittently up to the date of the Treaty of Utrecht, 1713, fighting between the French and English in Newfoundland was constant. Most of the English settlements were again and again destroyed, while St. John's itself was three times captured, being in 1708 completely destroyed, its garrison made prisoners and sent to France . Brave resistance to these attacks was not infrequently made by the settlers and fishermen, notably in the defence of Bonavista in 1704 ; but the land-force supplied by England, being ordinarily only a single company of soldiers, was far too weak for any adequate defence; and, though, in 1705, Lieutenants Moody and Latham made a most gallant resistance to the attacks of a greatly superior force upon the forts outside St. John's, they were unable to save the town. Newfoundland, in fact, at this period, 1662-1713, furnishes a specially humiliating page of English history, whether civil, naval or military. While the sinister compact between Charles II. and Louis XIV. was in force, and when, as its result, the Dutch fleet sailed up the Thames and burnt Sheerness, it was unlikely that there would be any effective naval defence of Newfoundland . Dutch vessels accordingly made successful attacks in 1665 on St. John's, and in 1673 on Ferryland, and the only advantage against them was obtained by an English fishing captain, Christopher Martin, who in the latter year gallantly beat off their attack on St. John's.


When England was again at war with France , the spasmodic efforts of the English Government to retrieve disasters entirely failed of permanent effect. After the complete destruction of the English settlements by the French, Admiral Norris was sent out in 1697 with a large squadron and two regiments for the purpose of recapturing Newfoundland ; but his efforts seem to have been principally confined to the re-building of the forts at St. John's. When the French fleet under Desmond appeared off that harbour he refrained from meeting it, and contented himself with putting a cable across the harbour. In fact, he made no attempt to attack the French either by land or sea. Again, in 1703, Admiral Graydon, though having under his command a large force of ships and soldiers, decided on the impracticability of attacking Placentia, and was on this account dismissed the service for cowardice. And, finally, in 1711, Admiral Hovenden, seems to have been afflicted with a similar excess of caution. For, though having with. him 15 ships, 900 guns and 4,000 men, he also decided against attacking Placentia, though it was easily accessible from the land-side, and its very inferior garrison was supported by only one ship-of-war, which was subsequently proved to be short of supplies of all kinds. What was the loss of the "planters" during this period cannot be estimated; but some notion of it may be gathered from the sworn estimate at £188,000 sterling of that occasioned them by one incursion of the French in 1705. And the suffering of the Adventurers, whose vessels and fish were frequently taken or destroyed, appears to have been also very great.


In 1713 the numbers of fishing ships, boats and inhabitants' boats were respectively 46, 162 and 483, as compared with 171, 800 and 764 in 1700, when the falling off had already been very great. Though much of this loss was no doubt inevitable during wartime, abundant records tend to prove that by far the larger part might have been saved had the English Government paid other than the most fitful attention to the complaints and demands of the Colonists. From 1697 to 1703, and again from 1705 to 1728, the chief authority in the Island was vested in the Senior Naval Officers, and though their administration of justice was not always such as might be desired, it was at least a great improvement upon that of the Fishing Admirals; and it is recorded to their credit that, though their instructions were drawn in the interest of the Adventurers, their sense of justice induced them on many occasions to show respect for the rights of the "planters." The authority of the Fishing Admirals still existed by Act of Parliament, and though out of wholesome awe of the Naval Commanders they allowed it to be in great measure superseded, they asserted their claim to it at once, when in 1728 Captain Osborne, having been given the civil post of Governor and Commander-in-Chief, attempted to oust their jurisdiction altogether. Their opposition was successful, and such was the interest of the Adventurers with the Home Government that they continued to exercise their functions through the administration of many successive Governors.


The records abound in evidence of the most glaring outrages upon justice both on their part and on the part of the justices appointed by the Governor. There was, besides, constant conflict of jurisdiction and the matter was not settled until the appointment of a Chief justice in 1791 and the establishment by Act of Parliament, in 1792, of a Supreme Court of Judicature. In 1762 owing to the neglect of the defences of Newfoundland, which justified the severe animadversion of Chatham, the French had again captured St. John's as well as Carbonear and Trinity. Though they were gallantly defeated and driven out of the Island in the same year by General Amherst, this success was too late to prevent great destruction of the settlements and fishery establishments. As a specimen of the religious intolerance which characterised English administration of Newfoundland during the 18th century as it did Home government to a great extent, it may be mentioned that in 1755 Governor Dorrell fined, and compelled to leave the Colony, many priests and other Catholics, burning their houses and fishing "stages" for celebrating and attending mass; while in 1759 the Governor compelled those who had not subscribed to the English Church, either to work upon it themselves, pay a carpenter or go to jail. Though a very large proportion of the inhabitants consisted of Catholics from Ireland and of English Dissenters, liberty of conscience and religious worship was only granted in 1782 under Admiral and Governor John Campbell.


As one of the few advantages derived by Newfoundland from its British connection, it may be mentioned that during the four years, 1763-7, the celebrated Captain Cook was engaged in and completed the survey of the Island, his chart of it showing remarkable accuracy even in the light of the more complete knowledge of the present day. In 1776 owing to great competition in the Newfoundland fisheries on the part of foreigners and American Colonists an Act of Parliament (15 Geo. III., c. XXXI.) was passed with a view to the exclusion of the latter. But though ostensibly for this purpose only, its wording seems to imply that it was also intended to discourage settlement in the Island and to put at a disadvantage the local fishermen. For under it no person was allowed to fish on the Banks "except those arriving from His Majesty's Dominions in Europe ." Fishing vessels, to which were awarded bounties and other privileges, "must be British built and owned by British subjects residing in England , Scotland and Ireland ," and they were allowed to carry no passengers to Newfoundland without special permission. From which it may be gathered that there was still potent at home the interests of the English Adventurers which had so long hindered the progress of the Colony. A completely satisfactory estimate of the balance of advantage or disadvantage obtained by Newfoundland from its connection with England cannot be made without consideration of the duties and taxes levied there and of the manner in which the proceeds were applied. But on this point it is difficult to obtain accurate knowledge either from the historians or from the published records. We know that the early charters, such as that granted to the Duke of Hamilton and others by Charles I., contained powers for levying duties and that such portion of the proceeds as was not retained by the Charterers and escaped from the hands of the Collectors went into the Royal Treasury; and, though it is probable that this amount was often insufficient to cover the cost incurred in connection with the Island, there was on the other hand no pretence that this expenditure was for any other than exclusively English benefit.


Even the constitution of the Supreme Court by no means put an end to just causes of complaint in respect of the administration of justice. The first judges appointed appear indeed to have been honest men, as they. sometimes gave judgments against the Adventurers' interest - an experience which had been a very rare one during the preceding centuries - but the tenure of their office, which from 1792 to 1809 was only for one year, was not conducive to independence; while as four out of the five appointed within that period were, two of them naval surgeons, one a Collector of Customs and one a bankrupt merchant, their want of legal qualification rendered them peculiarly open to attack from those who resented their impartial decisions. Since 1813 the Chief justices have always been barristers of seven years' standing, and have been open to no exception therefore on the score of want of legal status, nor, with one or two exceptions in the first half of the century, upon any other ground. Apart from fisheries questions which arose out of the Treaty of Utrecht, specially dealt with elsewhere, the subsequent history of Newfoundland contains only a few episodes of which the space at disposal permits the mention as illustrative of English connection with the Colony. In 1816 Admiral Pickmore, on appointment to preside over the Colony, was ordered to remain there during the winter and was the first Governor who ever did so, this fact being only another proof of how little account with the English Government had previously been held the interests of resident Colonists and how completely administration was directed to the interests of the Adventurers.


In this year, however, began a change for the better in this respect, and the English Government showed at the same time its solicitude for the Colonists by granting £10,000 in aid of the distress caused by famine. Previously to 1832 there had been much agitation in the Colony in favour of the grant of a local Legislature, and in that year it was given by Act of Parliament, notwithstanding the determined resistance of the Adventurers, who desired a return to the rule of the Fishing Admirals. But, of the two Houses created, the Upper was composed exclusively of officials, and constant quarrels therefore arose between them. A new Constitution was granted in 1842 under which the Houses were amalgamated. This remained in force only until 1848, when the system of 1832 was restored. After prolonged agitation on the subject, "Responsible Government" was at length granted in 1855 and has existed ever since. This Legislative and Executive system, modelled as nearly as practicable from that of England, though on the whole showing a marked improvement by comparison with any that preceded it, has not worked in Newfoundland as satisfactorily as elsewhere owing to various causes. The chief amongst these are the small number of electors, the extreme ignorance of the great majority and the very limited class of persons possessed of sufficient education and leisure for positions of administrative responsibility. All things considered, however, the success of the measure has been greater than could have been reasonably expected.


The fishery question, which is chiefly concerned with the conflicting rights and interests of the English and French, had its origin in the Treaty of Utrecht. Concluded in 1713 at the end of a war in which England had been victorious, one of its provisions showed a singular disregard of the interests of Newfoundland, inasmuch as it granted .to the French certain rights of fishing on a large portion of its coast - a portion moreover which was so carelessly defined, as regards its southern limit "Point Riche," as to give. rise to immediate dispute. By this name the English previously knew, and have ever since known, a point of land situate in latitude about 50.40 at the northern extremity of Ingernachoix Bay; but the French shortly after the signing of the Treaty contended, on very meagre evidence, that it belonged, and that they had regarded it as belonging, to another point called by the English Cape Ray, and situate at the extreme southern limit of the coast in latitude about 47.55. With continued injustice to the Colony, the French limit was accepted by England, and some 180 miles of coast was thus added to that contemplated by the Treaty, though the very wording of the latter would seem to show that the English view was at the date of signature recognised by both sides. For if the whole of the western coast which is included by the Cape Ray limit had been intended, the fact would surely have been mentioned; whereas the words used in the Treaty, "and from thence running down by the western side reaches as far as Cape Riche," imply intention to describe only a part of it. In 1763, by the Treaty of Paris, concluded at the close of a war in which England had again been almost everywhere victorious, the Treaty of Utrecht was recognised as still binding, though it had already proved most injurious to His Britannic Majesty's subjects, while its evil effects were greatly aggravated by the cession to France of the Islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, off the Newfoundland coast. Though there is no proof of the charge of bribery which was openly made against the British Ministry in respect of this Treaty, it eras scarcely less disgraceful on that account, and fully deserved the protests of commercial England, the satire of Junius, and the denunciations of Chatham.


Still more concessions to the French at the expense of the Colony were made in 1783. The Treaty of Versailles in that year recognised previous French rights on the Newfoundland Shore over the whole extent claimed by the French, according to their interpretation of the Treaty of Utrecht, with the exception of Bonavista Bay, while the injurious nature of the Treaty itself was greatly enhanced by a secret Declaration whereby England promised "the most positive measures for preventing his "(the British King's) subjects from interfering in any manner by their competition with the fishery of the French during the temporary exercise of it which is granted to them," &c. The same Treaty of Versailles ceded to France "in full right " the Islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, omitting all the conditions previously imposed. Though Treaties are abrogated by war and their renewal is, to say the least, an anomaly when their stipulations are of a seriously onerous nature to the subjects of the victorious Power, the English Government again and again permitted such renewals to the detriment of her oldest Colony. For not only in the cases already mentioned, but at the end of three successful wars which were subsequent to this injurious Treaty and Declaration, the fishery rights given to France under them were deliberately confirmed, and the Islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, though twice taken by English forces, were on each occasion given back to the French and are still held by them. Moreover the Treaties and the Declaration of 1783, injurious enough in themselves, have been rendered far more so by the successive concessions to the French, not only of their unnatural interpretations of them, but of some points which are excluded from any plausible interpretation. It is impossible within the limited compass of this article to follow in detail all the differences and abortive attempts at settlement which have occurred during the present century with reference to these fishery rights and the Treaty obligations which created them. But the last attempt of this kind deserves special notice as showing the continuity of Imperial indifference, or carelessness, with respect to the interests of the Colony.


In November, 1885, an "Arrangement "for the settlement of the Fishery question was signed by authorised representatives of England and France. The following is a summary of its important provisions: (1) The exclusive right of fishing claimed by France in respect of the whole of the Treaty Shore is allowed as regards numerous small portions of it and certain small islands near the coast, with the reservation that existing British "establishments" are permitted to remain; and as regards the other, in the aggregate larger, portions of the Shore, the French are given what is ostensibly a merely preferent right in the terms of the Declaration of 1783. (2) On the portions of coast exclusively reserved for French fishing, no residence or operations of any kind, not then in existence, are permitted to British subjects, except as regards railways connecting with the Shore mines found in the immediate neigh. bourhood. (3) A right is given to the French of fishing for salmon off the Treaty Shore and in its rivers up to the limit of tidal water. (4) The French are given an inalienable right to purchase bait on the whole coast of Newfoundland. This Arrangement was forwarded to Newfoundland for consideration, and a representative of the Colonial Office, who was one of its signatories, on behalf of England , was sent with a newly-appointed Governor (*) to assist in obtaining the necessary sanction of the Colonial Legislature. But objections on the part of the Colonists proved insuperable, and moreover appeared so reasonable that the Governor, though expected to support the Arrangement, was quickly converted to their views, and stated them with evident approval in a despatch written within a month of his arrival. It was evident that, besides the exclusive right of fishing ceded to the French at many points of the coast, the preferent right given in respect of the remaining portions of the Treaty Shore might be made practically exclusive in the absence of more precise definition of the words quoted in the Arrangement from the Declaration of 1783 - according to which British subjects were not "troubler en aucune manière par leur concurrence la pêche des Français." The principal objection, however, was to the Bait Clause. In a subsequent despatch the Governor pointed out what has never been controverted, that the power of withholding or restricting the sale of bait was the only available protection against the French bounties on the export of fish, and that, if an inalienable right of purchase were given to the French, the serious injury to the Colony already caused by these bounties might easily, by their increase, be rendered ruinous. This representation had the desired effect, and the "Arrangement" was dropped. But undue concessions to the French have been made since then, while the present position of affairs which, in deference to them, England has permitted, is altogether at variance with the spirit, and in some respects directly opposed to the letter, of the Treaties and Declarations.


By the Treaty of 1763 St. Pierre and Miquelon, having been ceded by England to "serve as a shelter to the French fishermen," France undertook, in consideration of such cession, "not to fortify the said islands, to erect no buildings on them but merely for the convenience of the fishery and to keep upon them a guard of fifty men only for the police." Also among the conditions made by the English Government, previous to the signature of the Treaty, was one to which the French made no objection, viz. : "That an English Commissary might be allowed to reside at St. Pierre." Whether by intention or carelessness these conditions as already mentioned were omitted in the Treaty of Versailles, their object being apparently regarded as sufficiently served (1) by the statement in King George's accompanying Declaration that the islands are " ceded for the purpose of serving as a real shelter to the French fishermen," and (2) by the expression of His Majesty's confidence that "these possessions will not become an object of jealousy between the two nations." This remarkable confidence was by a coincident Declaration of the French King stated to be justified ; but in fact the subsequent proceedings of the French have been entirely out of accord with the spirit of these declarations and have been in all respects such as the conditions imposed by the Treaty of 1763 were intended to preclude. For the forts of St. Pierre now bristle with cannon; a considerable garrison far exceeding fifty men is kept there; England, alone of all nations who have applied for such, is denied a consular representative; while St. Pierre, instead of a settlement "merely for the convenience of the fishermen," has all the buildings of an ordinary French Colony, and mercantile warehouses for a large trade by no means exclusively connected with the fishery - in fact a smuggling trade which has done incalculable injury to the revenues not only of Newfoundland but of Canada also. In all these particulars France, however wanting in international comity, has, done nothing which is actually forbidden by Treaties now in force, and the wrong done to the Colony may therefore be claimed to be legally permissible.


Though in all the Treaties the English right of dominion over the whole of the soil of Newfoundland is fully recognised, British complacency was at one time within. this century pushed so far that a Governor of the Colony actually warned by Proclamation all British subjects to retire from the French Shore, on the ground that residence there interfered with the French fishery ; and not very long ago the British Government forbade the construction to the coast in question of a railway which was regarded by the French as an interruption - one of the grounds alleged being that the whistling of the locomotive would drive away the fish ! Though such restrictions of the undoubted rights of Englishmen have not been permitted to continue, the settlers on the Coast in question have been subjected to continual annoyance and persecution at the instance of the French, and British ships of war have been too frequently used as unwilling instruments for the purpose. These settlers have been, and are at this moment being, prevented from fishing in the sea opposite to their own homesteads, and their nets and other property have been frequently destroyed on the same pretence of interruption of the French fishery, even at a time when the latter had become, as it remains, so insignificant in amount as apparently to be kept up merely for the purpose of annoyance. If the very doubtful point be conceded that a Declaration coincident with, but not contained in, a Treaty remains binding when the Treaty is renewed after abrogation (though not expressly referred to in such renewal) even these untoward proceedings can, with a certain plausibility, be defended by a strained interpretation of the loosely-worded Declaration of 1763. But another wrong has been inflicted by the French on the unfortunate inhabitants of this Coast for which there is no possible justification.


By the Article XIII. of the Treaty of Utrecht, which is still in force [at the time of writing of this article], it was declared not to be lawful for the subjects of France "to erect any buildings" in the Island of Newfoundland "besides stages made of boards and huts necessary and useful for the drying of fish, or to resort to the said Island beyond the time necessary for fishing and drying of fish." This restriction has been in no way qualified and in some respects expressly confirmed by subsequent Treaties. "Stages" being used simply for the drying of codfish, the fishing contemplated by the Treaties was simply that of cod ; and for more than 50 years after the Treaty of Utrecht no other fishing on the Treaty Shore was permitted, the occasional attempts of the French to extend the meaning of the Treaties, even to salmon, having been frustrated by the English Governors. In the latter half of the present century, however, the English residents on the Coast, having discovered the profit to be derived from lobsters, were largely engaged in the industry of catching and canning them, and in 1889 there had been erected and were in working order some sixty of the necessary factories. Though only by a very loose nomenclature can lobsters be termed "fish" at all, the French then began to erect similar factories of their own, these being by no means the temporary "huts" necessary and useful for the drying of fish which are exclusively permitted by the Treaties, but permanent structures involving the use of both brick and iron.


Not contented with a share of this new industry, the French then had the assurance to claim the whole of it, and to demand that the English factories should be removed. Though not yielding completely to this preposterous claim the English Government authorised the removal of some of the English lobster factories by English ships-of-war, until it was found that the Act of Parliament which permitted such proceedings had long ago expired. It is scarcely conceivable that lobster factories can have been held as interrupting French fishery other than that of lobster-catching ; so that by practically admitting the latter to be fishery, and the buildings erected for it by the French as permissible, the strongest points of the British case were tacitly yielded and the English Government found itself in the position of being obliged, as a temporary settlement of the difficulty, to agree to a so-called Modus Vivendi which, coming into force in 1890, has existed ever since. By this arrangement, then existing factories of both nations are recognised, but no others of either nation are permitted, and Newfoundland is thus prohibited from developing one of its most promising industries. As the French citizens connected with the lobster factories who permanently reside in the Island, as well as the few of their compatriots engaged in the real fishery of the Coast, claim exemption from, and are in practice permitted freedom from, British law ; while to the great detriment of the Island revenue they are allowed to import all their supplies free of duties, thus affording a cover to much smuggling; it may be gathered to how large an extent England has allowed herself to be practically deprived of that complete dominion over the land of the Colony which is expressly recognised by the Treaties.


The successive concessions to the French above described may perhaps in the present century have been justified by Imperial necessities. Those of 1815 were made with a view to rendering less unpopular the restored Bourbon dynasty, while later yieldings may have had excuse in the expediency of avoiding war at an inconvenient time. But what is absolutely inexcusable is that all these sacrifices have been made entirely at the cost of a very poor Colony. In January, 1887, when the present climax of concession had by no means been reached, the Governor of the Colony writing upon the Fishery question used the words: "I would respectfully express on behalf of this suffering Colony the earnest hope that the vital interests of 200,000 British subjects will not be disregarded out of deference to the susceptibilities of any foreign Power ;" and further, in urging the claim of the Colony to exercise the right, long withheld, and protect itself against the French Bounty system by an Act restricting the sale of Bait, he urges that if this denial of right was owing to some Imperial consideration, "in fairness the heavy resulting loss should not, or at all events not exclusively, fall upon this Colony, and that if in the national interest a right is to be withheld from Newfoundland which naturally belongs to it, and the possession of which makes to it all the difference between wealth and penury, there is involved on the part of the nation a corresponding obligation to grant compensation of a value equal, or nearly equal, to that of the right withheld." It may be gathered from what has been above described that if there were on the just principle thus enunciated an assessment by an impartial tribunal of the damages which have been suffered by the Colony in the national interest during the last two centuries, or even in, this century alone, the aggregate would reach an enormous sum. And yet Newfoundland has never received any compensation whatever.


* EDITOR's NOTE. This was Sir William Des Voeux himself, and it seems not unlikely that his changed views on the subject had something to do with his transfer to Hong-Kong in 1887.


Source : Sir George William Des Voeux, "The Connection of England with Newfoundland", in J. Castell HOPKINS , ed., Canada. An Encyclopaedia of the Country, Toronto, The Linscott Publishing Company, 1900, 557p., pp. 473-482.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College