Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia





Labrador, the name applied to the north-east coast of North America, south of Hudson strait and north of the gulf of St. Lawrence. Originally the name, in its earlier form (Terra del Laboratore), was applied to Greenland; but because the early geographers thought Davis strait was a gulf, and the mainland continued south, the name was shifted down to what is now Labrador, which is designated in the earliest maps merely as Terra Corterialis. The origin of the name is explained in the Wolfenbüttel map of 1534, which bears along the coast of Greenland the legend, "Country of Labrador, which was discovered by the English of the port of Bristol, and because he who first gave notice of seeing it was a farmer [ llavrador ] from the Azores, this name became attached to it." This llavrador was probably one Joao Fernandes, who was one of John Cabot's crew on his second voyage, who was born on the same island of the Azores as Gaspar Cortereal, and who possibly persuaded Cortereal to make his first voyage to North America in 1500.


Labrador was first visited by the Norsemen from Greenland , who came hither in search of timber about the year 1000. But these visits ceased without tangible result; and the real discoverer of the Labrador coast was John Cabot   in 1498. He was followed by Gaspar Cortereal, by John Rut in 1527, by Jacques Cartier, who described Labrador as "the land God gave to Cain", by Martin Frobisher, by John Davis, by John Knight in 1606, by Jean Bourdon   in 1657, by Louis Jolliet   in 1679, and by a multitude of other explorers. It is only, however, within more recent times that the coast of Labrador has been mapped in an exact way; and this has been due to the surveys carried out by the British Admiralty, the first of which was carried out by Captain Cook, and to the excellent charts of the Moravian missionaries in Labrador .


The only things that have drawn men to Labrador are fish and furs. During the French régime in Canada , a number of trading-posts and fishing-stations were established along what is known as the "Quebec Labrador" as far north as the straits of Belle Isle, and possibly farther north. These were taken over by the British after the conquest of 1763; and later the Hudson 's Bay Company established trading-posts in Hamilton inlet . Gradually, also, a scattered population of fishermen grew up along the Labrador coast north of the strait of Belle Isle; and in 1764 the Moravian missionaries began the establishment of a series of mission-stations along the Labrador coast which have done much to transform the Eskimos [now referred to as Inuits] into a gentler and more Christian race.


Up to 1763 Labrador may perhaps be regarded as having been part of New France; but in that year it was annexed to Newfoundland , and the Labrador fishery was placed under the same regulations as the Newfoundland fishery. This caused discontent; and in 1774 Labrador was returned to Canada . In 1809, however, it was re-annexed to Newfoundland ; and it has continued to be part of Newfoundland from that date to this, except that in 1825 that part of Labrador known as the Côte du Nord or Quebec Labrador was returned to Lower Canada .


Unfortunately, however, the exact boundaries of Labrador were never, until recently, adequately defined. The letters patent regularly issued to the governors of Newfoundland defined his jurisdiction as extending to "all the coast of Labrador, from the entrance of Hudson 's straits to a line to be drawn due north and south from Anse Sablon on the said coast to the fifty-second degree of north latitude." As usual, the advisers of the crown, when attempting to define this boundary in North America, revealed their ignorance of, or carelessness about, North American geography. "Anse Sablon" is evidently intended for Blanc Sablon, at the southern end of the strait of Belle Isle; but the entrance to Hudson strait might be anywhere from cape Chidley to Fort Chimo, and what was meant by the "coast" of Labrador was a matter of conjecture. Did the word "coast" comprise merely a few miles from the shore, or did it mean the whole of the watershed of the rivers flowing into the Atlantic ocean ? Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, these questions had only an academic interest; but with the dawn of the possibility, after 1900, that the water-powers and pulp-wood of the interior of Labrador might have a commercial value, Newfoundland began to press its claims to a considerable part of the Labrador peninsula . When Canada issued a map coloured red right to the Atlantic seaboard, Newfoundland retorted by issuing a map in which nearly the whole of the Labrador peninsula was coloured green. Eventually, the dispute was referred to the judicial Committee of the Privy Council; and in 1927 this court found, in the main, in favour of the claims of Newfoundland. The result is to-day that a good part of the eastern half of the Labrador peninsula belongs to Newfoundland .


The literature relating to Labrador is voluminous; but special reference should be made to W. G. Gosling, Labrador, its discovery, exploration, and development (New York, 1911), W. T Grenfell, Labrador: The country and the people (New York, 1909; new. ed., 1913), and Dillon Wallace, The lure of the Labrador wild (New York, 1905). An excellent picture of life of the Labrador will be found in the novels and short stories of Norman Duncan, especially in his Dr. Luke of the Labrador (New York, 1903), and his Dr. Grenfell's parish (New York, 1905).


Source: W. Stewart WALLACE, "Labrador", in The Encyclopedia of Canada , Vol. 3, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 396p., pp. 364-366.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College