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Newfoundland History

The Rule of the Fishing Admirals in Newfoundland


[This text was written in 1950. For the full citation, see the end of the document. Links and comments in brackets [...] have been added to the original text by Claude Bélanger. For further information, consult this page.]


With so many fishermen of different nationalities using the coast, there were bound to be disputes, and it early became an accepted custom that the master of the first ship to enter a harbour in the spring should be Admiral of the Port and dispense rough justice. At first there was a change of admiral each week; later the first arrival held authority for the whole fishing season.


An early attempt to establish formal justice in Newfoundland was made in 1615, when Sir Richard Whitbourne [consult his biography at the DCB] was sent out by the English Government in answer to petitions from the planters. Whitbourne held Courts of Vice-Admiralty around the Island and received "presentments" from the masters of 170 English fishing ships. He had, however, no means of enforcing his decisions.


In an attempt to bring some order to the Island the Star Chamber regulations of 1633 legalized the old custom of rule by the "Fishing Admirals". The Admiral was now empowered to act as a kind of governor -to allot places in the harbour and to judge disputes. Regardless of their fitness, these men had virtually absolute power over fishermen and settlers alike and ruled by a system of fines, whipping and imprisonment, with no appeal from their judgments.


The Colony enjoyed a brief respite from their rule when Cromwell, in 1653, sent a Commission of fourteen men to govern the Island. All British ships on the coast were put under their control and the collection of taxes on fish and oil was entrusted to them. Under the able management of John Treworgie [consult his biography at the DCB], head of the Commission, settlement grew, the fisheries increased, and trade was promoted with the colonies on the mainland.


The rule of the Fishing Admirals was confirmed afresh by Charles II in 1670, though by this time the settlers, increased in numbers and strength, succeeded in getting a ruling that they were to be left in possession of their property. The power of the Fishing Admirals decreased with the appointment of naval governors in the 18th century and gradually fell into disuse. The last vestige of their authority was swept away by statute in 1809, a few years before the appointment of the first year-round resident governor.

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Source: GOVERNMENT OF CANADA , Newfoundland . An Introduction to Canada's New Province , Published by authority of the Right Honourable C. D. HOWE, Minister of Trade and Commerce, prepared by the Department of External Affairs, in collaboration with the Dominion Bureau of Statistics, Ottawa, 1950, 142p., pp. 15-41.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College