Early Modern Times – cod’s own country

Early Modern Times - cod's own country

Dear readers,

I’ve recently returned from a fabulous trip to St. John’s, Newfoundland, and environs–my first excursion in that province. Highlights (besides the warm hospitality, of course) included a visit to the easternmost point in North America, Cape Spear (photographed above by me). Let us consider how early modern European explorers and settlers came upon and tussled over this region, with rich fishing waters such that it could be described as ‘cod’s own country’.

In 1497, the English king Henry VII commissioned the Venetian navigator John Cabot to sail westwards: Cabot famously came across the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, with its then abundant cod. Unlike Columbus, he was aware that this was not Asia, and claimed the territory for England before returning to Bristol. He was sent back on a second expedition in 1498, equipped with 5 ships and 300 men. His own vessel was lost off the coast of Newfoundland. His death was ruled suspicious, i.e., in fishy circumstances, while fellow voyagers might well have thought, ‘there go I but for the grace of cod’.

Cabot was followed by Gaspar Corte-Real, a Portuguese explorer who sailed around some of the island’s numerous bays and capes. Corte-Real was a native of the Azores Islands. In 1500, he likely sailed from Greenland to Newfoundland, exploring the coast of Labrador as well. His expedition captured several Indigenous persons he came upon, and perhaps for his sins his vessel disappeared. Gaspar’s brother Miguel embarked on a search, but his ship was also lost at sea. Another brother was refused permission to look for Gaspar and Miguel: the crown regarded this family as having Corte-Really bad luck, as his intrepid siblings never lived long enough to become Portugeezers.

In the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the waters around Newfoundland were hotly disputed between European powers. In 1535-36, Jacques Cartier demonstrated that Newfoundland was an island by sailing through the Cabot Strait and Strait of Belle Isle–even if sceptics weren’t sure if Cartier was being strait with them. The Grand Banks were filled with Basque, Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English fishermen. In 1563, Elizabeth I granted a charter to Sir Humphrey Gilbert to establish a colony in Newfoundland, despite the heavy Iberian presence. English merchants took control of trade in the area, and several colonies followed. The French, however, didn’t recognise English presumptions and sought dominion over Newfoundland. By 1696-97, the Montreal-born Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville was raiding settlements on the island and laying claim to St. John’s. English colonists asked themselves why d’Iberville was so Moyne with them.

Anglo-French rivalry in Newfoundland reached a climax in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-13). French forces destroyed the English settlement at Bonavista, and again captured St. John’s in 1708. The British in turn seized Port Royal in what would become Nova Scotia and thus acquired Acadia in 1710. In the Treaty of Utrecht which ended the war, Île Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island) and Île-Royale (Cape Breton) went to France, but Newfoundland went to Britain (50 years later, of course, these French gains would be ceded to Britain). For those on the French side who wanted to keep Newfoundland, the 1713 treaty was an act of Utreachery. Given the popularity of battered cod and chips in Atlantic Canada, the British acquisition of Newfoundland could be interpreted as initiating a ‘fish-and-chips’-style imperialism against their historical rivals: the ambitions of the French were fried by the British, who chipped away at the French empire in North America; British adversaries just wouldn’t allow the French to poutine their territorial and maritime claims.

Till next time,

Simon Kow

Early Modern cod-fearing Studies Program

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