500 years of his­tory?


Last sum­mer’s cel­e­bra­tion of the 400th an­niver­sary of John Guy’s found­ing of Cupids re­minds us that we have not been here in New­found­land nearly as long as we think we have. There was a great deal of talk about our “500 years of his­tory.” But his­tor­i­cal fact be­lies that. The 1610 Guy ex­pe­di­tion was the first of­fi­cial set­tle­ment in the New Found Lande, as our is­land was then known to Euro­peans.

John Cabot “dis­cov­ered” New­found­land in 1497, al­though there is ev­i­dence to sup­port the ar­gu­ment that he knew pre­cisely where he was go­ing and what he ex­pected to find. Sea­men from Eng­land’s West Coun­try had been sail­ing west­ward into the At­lantic for gen­er­a­tions in search of cod­fish.

Al­though Cabot’s voy­age caused lit­tle ex­cite­ment in Eng­land, ever in­creas­ing num­bers of mariners sailed back and forth be­tween New­found­land and Eng­land in the years af­ter his voy­age. Those who re­turned safely brought car­goes of salt bulk cod­fish, a com­mod­ity in great de­mand in Eng­land and through­out Europe.

We do not know their names, but we do know by early in the 1600’s the mer­chants who spon­sored their voy­ages de­cided the time had come to found a per­ma­nent set­tle­ment. Salt cod­fish was money in their purses. They wanted more money, and more fish would help them to get it.

King James I gave them a charter to found a colony, as long as the new set­tle­ment did not in­ter­fere with the ex­ist­ing fish­ery. They re­cruited Guy, and Cupids was the re­sult.

Cupids was not the first Euro­pean set­tle­ment in New­found­land, of course. A half millennium be­fore Cabot saw Cape Bon­av­ista, Norse­men from Ice­land had built per­ma­nent habi­ta­tions at L’Anse aux Mead­ows, on the tip of the Great North­ern Penin­sula. The com­mu­nity lasted for about 30 years, be­fore the Skrael­ings (an abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple) forced them to leave.

Ships went back and forth be­tween Green­land and New­found­land for those 30 years. Long be­fore Cabot and Guy, how­ever, the Vik­ing set­tle­ment had faded into the mists of time.

Guy’s colony was the of­fi­cial start of set­tle­ment on the is­land by Euro­peans. The com­mu­nity of Cupids it­self dwin­dled, but did not dis­ap­pear: de­scen­dants of the ear­lier set­tlers were still liv­ing there in 1696, when the French and their In­dian al­lies rav­aged the English Shore be­tween Trepassey and Bon­av­ista.

By then, men and women from Cupids and oth­ers newly ar­rived from Eng­land had set­tled along the north shore of Con­cep­tion Bay, from Car­bon­ear and Har­bour Grace to Bri­gus. These com­mu­ni­ties grew slowly but steadily un­til they, too, were de­stroyed by the French raids. (Car­bon­ear Is­land was the only place to put up a suc­cess­ful re­sis­tance.)

A lit­tle fur­ther to the east, along the At­lantic coast south of St. John’s, Sir Ge­orge Calvert’s colony of Avalon was founded in 1621.

New­found­land’s per­ma­nent Euro­pean pop­u­la­tion re­mained small through­out the 1600’s. There is con­vinc­ing ev­i­dence that very few of the thou­sands who came in the spring to fish spent the win­ters here. A re­cent schol­arly study es­ti­mates that the “per- ma­nent” pop­u­la­tion of New­found­land by 1660 was no more than 1,500 souls, scat­tered in tiny set­tle­ments be­tween Bon­av­ista and Trepassey.

By 1700, the year-round pop­u­la­tion was be­tween 2,000 and 3,000. The long and strongly-held be­lief that this ex­traor­di­nar­ily slow growth was the re­sult of the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment’s pro­hi­bi­tion against per­ma­nent set­tle­ment, in the in­ter­est of pre­serv­ing the mo­nop­oly of the West Coun­try mer­chants, is one of the great myths of New­found­land’s his­tory. His­to­ri­ans and an­thro­pol­o­gists have ex­posed this in many books and ar­ti­cles pub­lished over the last 40 years.

The suc­ceed­ing cen­tury — the 1700’s — saw a greatly in­creased rate of growth. By 1790, as many as 10,000 peo­ple lived on the is­land. The French Rev­o­lu­tion­ary and Napoleonic Wars be­tween Eng­land and France (17931815) brought about the end of the mi­gra­tory fish­ery, which saw crews brought out from Eng­land each spring and home again each fall. The pop­u­la­tion grew quickly as a re­sult. The 10,000 here in 1790 had be­come 20,000 by 1804, and 60,000 by 1827.

Large scale im­mi­gra­tion from Bri­tain and else­where ended in the 1820s. The growth in our pop­u­la­tion since then has been nat­u­ral, brought about by more births than deaths each year. By 1911 there were 250,000 of us, and we had be­come 360,000 by 1949, when we joined Canada.

The num­bers grew very rapidly dur­ing the first 15 or 16 years of Con­fed­er­a­tion. Joey Small­wood, in 1965, ex­u­ber­antly cel­e­brated the birth of the 500,000 New­found­lan­der — a lit­tle boy named Bernard Joseph Hynes in Twill­ingate. The peak was in the early 70’s, at 580,000. Since then, a steady de­cline — which now ap­pears to have been halted, if not re­versed — has brought us to be­tween 500,000 and 510,000.

Only a hand­ful among us are de­scended from the men and women who came with Guy and Calvert. For most of us, the “500 years of his­tory” that we hear so much about be­gan a lit­tle more than 200 years ago, dur­ing the era of great im­mi­gra­tion. We have not been around as long as we like to think we have.

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