A letter from Cupids
Life in Newfoundland in 1611
Part 1 of 2
On May 16, 1611, John Guy wrote a letter to “Right Worshipful” John Slaney, treasurer of the London and Bristol Company, which was granted a royal charter by King James I to establish a plantation or colony in Newfoundland.
The letter is an early extant record of a winter spent on the island.
Guy begins by stating that English fishing ships were assigned prime fishing places. The colonists’ wants were supplied by incoming vessels.
Food was plentiful and substantial reserves were left over from the original supplies taken to Newfoundland.
In October and November of the previous year, “ there were scarce six days wherein it either froze or snowed.” By May, the sun had thawed and melted the ice and snow. As a result, the autumn was “ both warmer and drier than in England.”
December brought “sometimes fair weather, sometimes frost and snow, and sometimes open weather and rain … The wind was variable as it would every fortnight visit all the points of the compass.”
The frost continued from January to March. The wind was, “ for the most part, westerly, and now and then northerly.” On at least three occasions, southerly winds brought rain and thaw.
“Many days the sun shone warm and bright from morning to night,” Guy observed.
“Small brooks … were not the whole winter three nights over frozen so thick that the ice could bear a dog to go over it,” something Guy learned from experience each morning when he went to the brook which ran by his house to wash. Snow, when it drifted, was about 18 inches deep. The colonists were never in want of wood and water reserves.
During the winter, they regularly travelled, “either by land or water.” At those times, Guy noted, they “ lie abroad and drink water” as far away as “ five leagues from our habitation.” On occasion, there was no fire, but nobody suffered from the cold.
No more than 15 days were unsuitable for work that winter. Overall, there was little cause to regard the winter as extreme.
Indeed, Guy informed his correspondent, “not only men may safely inhabit here without any need of stove, but navigation may be made to and fro from England to these parts at any time of the year.”
Newfoundland was a healthy country. Only four colonists out of 39 had died.
Thomas Percy, a sawyer (woodcutter), died Dec. 11. A day before Percy’s death, Guy learned Percy had killed a man in Rochester. This was “the cause … he came this voyage.”
John Morris Tyler “miscarried … by reason of a bruise” Feb. 1.
Marmaduke Whitington died Feb. 15. He had brought smallpox with him from Bristol, after which he “was never perfectly well.”
William Stone died April 13. Suffering from “a stiffness in one of his knees,” he “ kept his bed 10 weeks and would never stir his body, which laziness brought him to his end.”
As for the remaining colonists, four or five had been sick for three or four months. Most were “now better than they were.” However, one was still ill.
“All of them, if they had as good will to work as they had good stomachs to their victuals, would long since have been recovered,” Guy noted drolly.
Starting in April, the colonists “never wanted the company of ravens and small birds.”
Guy, intent on convincing Slaney that Newfoundland had a healthy climate, reminded him of Richard Fletcher, Guy’s master pilot, who was with a party in Northern Ireland for two years. During that time, 32 of 40 died of scurvy, though there had been fresh food and other items Newfoundland did not have.
From Oct. 1 to May 16, the colonists had erected several structures.
There was a storehouse for provisions. A dwelling house was finished by Dec. 1. A 120’ x 90’ stockade surrounded the houses. Boats could be built under shelter in a working shed.
On a platform, made of posts and rails, three cannons commanded the harbour entrance.
A 12-ton decked boat was almost finished. It would be used, Guy explained, “to sail and row about the headlands.” There were also six fishing boats and pinnacles. There were few idle moments on the plantation. Guy wrote about “a second sawpit at the fresh lake (two miles long and near the house): in keeping two pairs of sawyers to saw planks for the said buildings, in ridding of some ground to sow corn and garden seeds; in cutting of wood ( for charcoal); in working at the smith’s forge; in coasting both by land and sea to many places within the Bay of Conception; in making the frame of timber of a far greater and fairer house.”