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.”

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