Newfoundland’s West Coast and the Gulf of St. Lawrence Fishery, ca. 1755–83: A Case Study of War, Fish, and Empire

William Faden, The United States of North America, with the British & Spanish territories according to the treaty of 1784 (1785), Library of Congress, detail

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This is the third in a series of excerpts from The Greater Gulf: Essays on the Environmental History of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, recently published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

This essay explores the contested environmental space and history of Newfoundland’s west coast in the period between the Seven Years War and the end of the American War of Independence, both critical turning points of international history.  In order to understand how these larger and well known events intersected with this region’s little-known history, I argue that one needs to look not only at some of the “missed connections” in the documentary record and but also at how this coast’s “nature,” its maritime environment, was inseparable from certain geopolitical interests of the mid-seventeenth century.  That little is known about the region in this period is understandable, for at first glance, Newfoundland’s west coast is characterized on maps and in the literature as a marginal extension of the “northeastern borderlands,” a peripheral, comparatively isolated, and sparsely populated space existing within a larger transoceanic metropolitan-based hinterland/borderland that encompassed the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and of minimal importance.  

However, as the following analysis will demonstrate, this coastline was intimately connected to the Gulf region, immensely valuable, and exploited by British, French, and American fishery and therefore was anything but historically inconsequential for economic and military strategic reasons. But to understand better why control of Newfoundland’s west coast and its natural resources in relation to the Gulf of St. Lawrence resonated internationally, requires going beyond existing imperial, diplomatic, military, and economic history of the region by “putting the ocean back in Atlantic history,” as environmental historian Jeffrey Bolster has suggested. In other words, by forging new connections and  integrating the environmental history of Newfoundland’s Gulf coast – its land- and marine-based topography and resources – together with political, diplomatic, and economic agendas of the day, a better understanding emerges of why there was any international interest  in this littoral, let alone to claim it represented a central focus in efforts to diffuse the likelihood of future conflict between Britain, France, and the United States.  This study also answers in greater depth why this resource-rich coastline was also deliberately left unsettled.  Finally, this imperial and colonial contest over access to this fishery sheds further light on the known history of Aboriginal groups of southern Labrador and western Newfoundland – the Inuit, the Innu, the Mi’kmaq, and the Beothuk – who were affected by their incursions.  

William Faden, The United States of North America, with the British & Spanish territories according to the treaty of 1784 (1785), Library of Congress, detail

Many excellent studies of the Newfoundland fishery exist, though more often than not they emphasize the Banks fishery of Newfoundland’s eastern and southern shores or the old French Shore along the northern coast as opposed to the west coast.  Moreover, only a handful of studies have specifically addressed what was happening there in the 1760s and 1770s or have connected this region to the train of events from the Seven Years War through to the end of the American Revolution.  Yet this very events resulted in the creation of a new French Shore, a sanctuary for France’s migratory fishery, for which the entire west coast was set aside. Our understanding of this region of the Gulf has begun to change in more recent years, as a spate of studies in ethnohistory, anthropology, archaeology, environmental studies, and history of Labrador’s south coast and Newfoundland’s Petit Nord [Great Northern Peninsula] have surfaced, thus paving the way for a more integrated interpretation than was hitherto possible. 

. . . when access to this fishery was threatened such, as during the Seven Years War and American Revolution, the fate of the Newfoundland fishery came to occupy the attention of the highest levels of government in France, Britain, and the United States.  On both sides of the Atlantic, its economic and strategic roles engendered public discussion and, perhaps surprisingly, received notice in the speeches and writings of well-known contemporaries such as Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Jean-Paul Marat. 

. . . The geopolitical significance of the western Newfoundland (and Strait of Belle Isle) fishery cannot be divorced from neither diplomatic history or environmental history to explain why and how this remote and largely uninhabited coastline affected war and peace in the eighteenth century. The history of this peripheral bio-region with its complex “fishery” requires going beyond standard “national” histories and incorporating its ecological context.

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