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Past Imperfect


Britain sent 66 governors to Newfoundland during the 220 years before Confederation.

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 1600s 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 1600s. 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 "permanent" 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 1700s - 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 (1793-1815) 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 70s 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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