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1.3 The Colony of Newfoundland 13

Newfoundland was the first English colony established in North America. In a manner of speaking, it was a simple beginning to one of history's great empires. Although the English were one of the first to recognize Newfoundland's value, they were by no means alone in their desire to exploit the cod fish of the Grand Banks. The abundance of cod attracted fishermen from Spain, France, Portugal, and Holland.


Four centuries later the fishing industry has all but vanished off the coast of Newfoundland—the result of decades of over fishing. The Government of Canada declared a moratorium (an end) to fishing in the Grand Banks area in 1992. There was a problem with the moratorium: a good portion of the Grand Banks was actually located in international waters. Thus, Canada had no legal right to tell fishermen from other countries what they could or could not do.

In the mid 1990s, some Spanish fishermen decided to challenge Canada's declaration and decided to fish at the Banks despite the moratorium. I was very proud of the fact that our one warship impounded the Spanish vessel. The Spanish Government was enraged at Canada's aggressive action on the high seas; and there was a real chance that they would declare war on Canada. Cooler heads prevailed, though, and relations with Spain returned to normal.

The main problem confronting fishermen was getting the cod back to European markets before it spoiled. The French and Spanish developed a preservation technique utilizing salt barrels. The English were not quite so fortunate. England did not have natural deposits of salt. Instead, they were forced to improvise a different technique called dry fishing, e.g. They caught the fish, took them ashore, dried the fish on racks, lightly dusted the cod in salt, and then packed the product into crates for the voyage home.

Okay, okay, you're probably wondering "Why am I learning about cod preservation techniques from the 17th Century?" or more importantly all this talk about cod fish has gotten you craving some French fries. Fair enough. I like French fries as much as the next guy. But when you look beyond the surface of events (yes, even boring events like cod preservation techniques), we begin to see the deeper significance and meaning of those events. So I am going to try to model this awareness for you. I hope that through this little exercise you will learn how to ask the right type of questions and be able to make logical connections between causes and their effects.

Ask yourself right now: why were the differences between French/Spanish and English preservation techniques so important? Do not move on to the next paragraph until you have come up with your own answer. Once you have formed an opinion, move on to the next paragraph. If you got the answer right, good for you. If you got the answer wrong, try to understand why you were wrong.

The preservation techniques were important for their differences and consequently because they resulted in different effects. I.e. The French/Spanish technique enabled them to catch and prepare their fish without ever having to leave their ship. The English did not have that luxury. They had to go ashore, break out the racks, and wait patiently for the fish to dry. Thus, the slower dry fish technique influenced the English to establish seasonal settlements on the coast of Newfoundland. And seasonal settlements evolved eventually into colonies, colonies into provinces, and provinces into countries; and even countries like Canada become part of empires. The question is which empire?

If Spain did not own large deposits of salt it is likely they would have established settlements on the island just like England. If this were the case, would Newfoundland today be referred to as Terra nova? Would the English speakers of the island who pronounce words like "about" as aboot or "car" as krarr be replaced by more articulate speakers of Spanish? Definitely something to think about while eating fish and chips. Something as modest as the dry fish technique started the ball rolling for the eventual development of the largest empire in the history of humankind: the British Empire.

Now in true Ace Ventura 2 fashion I am going to celebrate: "I'm good!!! Can you feel it?! Can you feel that!? Huh? Captain Compost!" (To get the joke hit the link above and watch the Youtube video. If the link happens to be dead, you'll just have to watch the movie for yourself.)

globe Click here to watch the "John Cabot" video from the Historica web site.


Gilbert & Guy

For both financial and political reasons England sought sole control of the Grand Banks. Thus, under the commission of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Humphrey Gilbert established a permanent colony at a site near present day St. John's on August 5, 1583.

Gilbert's colony is considered by many historians as the true beginning of the British Empire. Gilbert, however, did not live long enough to see his colony flourish as he drowned after his ship, the intimidatingly named Squirrel, sank during a storm on a return trip to England. In reality, Gilbert's colony wasn't much of a colony. There weren't any settlers (which is kind of an important ingredient when it comes to establishing a settlement).newfoundland

In 1610, another Englishman named John Guy would change all that by founding a colony with actual colonists. Guy was appointed Newfoundland's first governor and commissioned by King James I to encourage settlement and convert the local Beothuk to Christianity.

The new settlement was beset by problems from the start:

  • Firstly, the colony's existence created tension between the English and the French/Spanish because all the major European powers wanted a share of the region's resources
  • Secondly, the surrounding countryside was unsuitable for farming; therefore, colonists always faced the prospect of starvation with the onset of every winter
  • Lastly, pirates like the "Pirate Admiral" Peter Easton plundered St. John's repeatedly in heroic and cliché fashion

The combination of poor weather, international tension and piracy, compelled Guy to return to England and ask for his old job as a Wal-Mart greeter back. With the departure of Guy, settlers began leaving and by 1631 the colony had all but disappeared (except for the seasonal arrival of fishermen).

Spreading the Gospel 14


John Guy not only had issues pertaining to problematic pirates (alliteration intended). He also had problems proselytizing the Beothuk people (additional alliteration annoying). Guy's failure to convert the Beothuk to Christianity was not because they resisted conversion. The problem was the Beothuk were nowhere to be found. Moreover, two years had passed before Guy even attempted to convert the local natives. So, a person could logically assume he didn't make the religious component to his mandate much of a priority. He was far too worried about practical matters like finding food for survival, defending his colony from Easton and men of his ilk, and helping the colony deal with problem of scurvy.

In October of 1612, John Guy set sail in search of the Beothuk. After several days sailing, the ship's lookout caught sight of smoke wafting skywards from the shore. Guy set anchor and he and several of his men (see above illustration) made their way towards the source of the smoke. According to a witness of the proceeding the initial encounter between the English and Beothuk hunters was cautious but friendly.

John Guy described the meeting in his journal: "[Dear Diary] [t]he savages passed over a little water stream towards Mr. Whittington, dancing, leaping and singing, coming together, the foremost of them, presented unto him a chain of leather full of small periwinkle shells, a splitting knife, [some Pokemon trading cards] and a feather that stuck in his hair.  The other [Beothuk man] gave him [Whittington] an arrow without a head; and [in return Whittington gave the Beothuk man] a linen cap and a hand towel, who put presently the linen cap upon his head: and to the other he gave a knife: and after hand in hand, they all three did sing and [do the moonwalk, then the robot, and then gave thanks].”

I may have taken the liberty to add [a few things] to dress up Guy's boring account of the meeting. But the central theme remains intact: Guy met some Beothuk, they exchanged gifts, and then they partied like it was 1699. At the end of the gathering, the Beothuk indicated that it was time for them to leave. Through signs the two groups managed to arrange a meeting at this same spot sometime the following year. Despite Guy's promise the next meeting would never take place. Instead, he left for England that same year never to return.

The next documented meeting between the English and Beothuk came several years later (and was not quite so friendly): an English fishing boat was sailing in the exact same bay where Guy had encountered the Beothuk hunters a couple years before. The Beothuk waited patiently for the English to come ashore. The ship's captain noticed the Beothuk were waving at him. He felt threatened and gave an order for the ship's cannon to be fired at the natives. Needless to say the Beothuk wisely left and went back into hiding. And a rumor spread among them not to wave in a friendly manner towards an Englishman...ever.

Ultimately, the departure of John Guy resulted in the failure of the English colony at St. John's. However, this did not mean the end of European settlement of Newfoundland. On the contrary, the French of New France took over where the English left off. This French presence continued uninterruptedly until the break out of hostilities between France and England in 1710 during Queen Anne's War.

Genocide 15

The Beothuk were justifiably afraid of white people for several reasons: firstly, the English trespassed on Beothuk land and were aggressive; secondly, the English cut the natives off from their traditional hunting and fishing grounds; and lastly (and certainly most confusing) you couldn't apparently wave at an English person to get their attention.

Therefore, the Beothuk abandoned any hope of mutual co-existence and did what any people would do to protect its interests: they began cutting the nets of English fishermen and stole food from the settlers. Settlers responded by shooting the natives on sight. The subsequent conflict between the two groups lasted over a two hundred years period (1613 to 1823 AD). The conflict finally came to an end in 1823 when there weren't any Beothuk left to shoot.

To their credit Newfoundland's colonial government tried to end the slaughter of the Beothuk by the latter 1700s. But the help came too late. In fact, the government's assistance actually made matters worse: they tried to save the near-extinct Beothuk by offering a bounty to anyone who could bring a live one in. The plan was to teach a captured Beothuk person the ways and language of the white man. Then the English would use this Beothuk person as a sort of ambassador to help convince the natives to abandon their 4,000 year old culture in favor of a culture barely 400 years old.

Obviously the attempt to save the Beothuk failed because it encouraged hunters to hunt. Go figure. Here are a couple of accounts related to the colonial government's "progressive" policy towards the natives:

  • One little Beothuk boy, just four years old, had his mother shot out from beneath him as she fled with him on her back. The little boy was then taken in for the reward money.
  • In another encounter, a Beothuk woman named Demasduwit was taken prisoner by bounty hunters, who killed her husband right in front of her, leaving her new born baby behind. Demasduwit was taken out to be "civilized," in order to act as a future ambassador of sorts; but she died of disease before she could be re-introduced to her society. The English were nice enough to send the corpse back to her people. I wonder what type of message they were hoping to send?

New France

Jacques Cartier was the first Frenchman to attempt colonization in 1541. The initial attempt failed primarily because Cartier's voyage did not yield the promised gold or diamonds. The French Crown refused to support any further adventures until it could be established that a profit would be made. Furthermore, throughout the 16th Century the Catholic kings of France were too busy killing Protestants to worry about setting up colonies in far off distant lands.

For fifty years (1541-1591 AD) France had been crippled by a debilitating civil war fought over religion. The butchery ended upon the arrival of my favorite French king, Henry IV of Navarre. I like him specifically because he was responsible for passing the Edict of Nantes. The edict enabled Henry IV to establish the legal basis for religious toleration in France. The result for France was peace and it could not have come at a better time. For the French Wars of Religion (as the civil war came to be later known) had virtually bankrupted the kingdom. Henry IV's progressive policies rebuilt war torn France and restored her to her pre-war greatness.

Once life in France returned to normal, Henry IV turned his attention back to the New World. Though he had little desire to risk his own money in a colonial venture, he was more than willing to give such a mission his blessing. Thus, a company composed of aristocrats and merchants called the One Hundred Associates was established in 1605. The king gave the company full control over the affairs of the fledgling colony of New France in return for a share of the profits gained through the fur trade.

champlainSettlers to New France began arriving in 1608. They were led by a capable leader named Samuel de Champlain. Champlain named his colony Quebec after an Algonquin word meaning "the place where the river narrows." Champlain understood the strategic importance of Quebec's location: it was located on high ground at a place where the broad St. Lawrence River narrowed. If he controlled access to the St. Lawrence at this point he would control the entire fur trade network around the entire Great Lakes region. He wasn't the only one to make the connection. Consequently, the French colony invited attacks from both the Spanish and English.

This next event sounds like something out of an Oliver Stone film: the Spanish hired a settler named Antoine Natel and four other Frenchmen to murder Champlain. After the French leader was dead, the Spanish planned to take the new colony over. But the conspiracy failed. A friend of Champlain's overheard the plot and warned him. The conspirators were subsequently arrested and thrown in prison.

Following the conspirators' trial, Champlain had the leader of the conspiracy (Mr. Duval) put to death: the punishment reads sort of like a recipe for preparing roast duck—Duval was [lightly] strangled, then [lovingly] decapitated, [left to sit for an hour], and then [to make sure he was truly dead] his head was placed upon a stake in the most prominent part of the fort [to cook for thirty minutes]; it was a public punishment intended to show everyone—especially the Spanish—that Quebec would remain the possession of France.

The First Nations & New France

Champlain's cruelty to Duval was also for the benefit of the surrounding First Nations.  The Huron, in particular, understood the message: Champlain could be a dangerous enemy but also a valuable ally in the conflict with the Iroquois. Eager to increase his trade with the Huron, Champlain offered them his military support.


If Donnacona had not died while with Cartier, would the Iroquois have been France's primary fur trading partner and ally instead of the Huron? Definitely an interesting question to ask (if you're lame like me) considering subsequent events.

In the spring of 1609, Champlain was asked to accompany a Huron war party to attack the Iroquois. During the journey, Champlain passed by the Great Lakes and learned a thing or two about surviving in the wilderness. Although the party had started with over 300 Huron and nine French, by the time they reached the Iroquois the expedition was down to only 60 natives (and three French).

The enemy was finally encountered at Ticonderoga Point—high ground located between the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks.  The warriors in both camps spent the evening preparing for battle.  “The whole night,” Champlain wrote, “was spent in dancing and singing, in both camps, with many insults being proffered.  Our men told the Iroquois they would see a kind of warfare they had never seen before.” The Huron war captains told Champlain to kill the Iroquois war chiefs as fast as possible. These chiefs were easy to recognize because of their distinctive head dress.

At dawn, two hundred Iroquois attacked.  Champlain moved to the front of his group to get a clear shot at the chiefs with his harquebus (rifle). The French captain described the account in his journal: “Our men called out to me with loud yells and [broke into] two groups to let me through.  I stood out in front of them, and I aimed straight at one of the three chiefs and with a single shot two of them dropped to the ground.  I had put four bullets in my harquebus.  The Iroquois were very astonished that two men could be slain even though they wore armor made of cotton thread and wood, able to withstand their own arrows.  A great panic came over them.  As I was reloading, one of my companions fired a shot that so startled them that seeing their chiefs dead before them, they lost courage and fled into the depths of the woods.”

The victory made the French and Huron strong allies and trading partners. After the battle at Ticonderoga Point, the Iroquois became mortal enemies of the French. At the request of the Huron, Champlain took on the Iroquois in 1610 at the mouth of the Richelieu River, and then again in 1615.  These incidents were the first skirmishes in a rivalry between two political and economic powers—France/Huron and England/Iroquois—that would endure for another 150 years.