Fishing was the first economic activity of Europeans in what is now Canada, and it persisted for centuries. Europe’s demand for fish was almost insatiable, due in large part to dietary restrictions requiring Catholics to be meat-free at least one day a week and on many holy days in the church calendar. The fisheries, however, were surpassed by other economic activities over time, and all of those successor activities — even the fur trade — required more settlement than did the fisheries. In short, other economic activities resulted in colonies being established. In contrast, the fisheries of the Grand Banks — a chain of shallows several kilometres offshore of Newfoundland providing some of the most fertile fishing grounds anywhere — actually deterred settlements on shore. These little colonies grew only slowly and very reluctantly.
At first it was an advantage to European empires to actively discourage settlement in Newfoundland and Labrador. For Britain, the Grand Banks became known as the nursery of the navy, as the annual fishing fleet’s voyages there provided a training program that produced capable sailors for the Royal Navy. By 1620 (at which point New France contained a few dozen settlers), 300 fishing boats worked the Grand Banks, employing some 10,000 sailors. In the absence of refrigeration, the catch was preserved by salting. Some Europeans had access to salt and so could clean and pack cod on board their ships without even setting foot on land. The British had a less reliable supply of salt, however, so they erected modest stations on the shoreline where they dried the fish, and they sold their surplus to Spain and Portugal.
As the plantation economies (see Section 6.5) grew in North America and the West Indies, there emerged a further market for Grand Banks fish from the burgeoning slave population. By the 1670s there were 1,700 permanent residents of Newfoundland and another 4,500 in the summer months. It took another century for this number to double.
Newfoundland fisheries formed one leg of three-legged trade between the colony, Spain and the Mediterranean, and England. A ship of 250 tons of cod could earn 14% profit on the Newfoundland-to-Spain leg, and about the same shipping goods (wine, fruit, olive oil, and cork) from Spain to England. But crossing the stormy Atlantic Ocean was dangerous; the cost of the risk was spread mostly by selling shares, mainly to merchants based in the port towns of the northeast Atlantic.
Under these circumstances of rigid mercantilism, there was effectively no colonial presence outside of a few key harbours. The requirement for government was likewise very small. Competition for prime harbour locations on which to establish fish drying racks was the driving force behind administration: whoever arrived first effectively formed the government for the season. Nowhere in North America was the relationship between economy and polity so clear.
- Long after the voyages of Cabot and Cartier, the fisheries of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Grand Banks were an international affair.
- The development of colonial settlements in Newfoundland was not in the best interest of imperial governments until the mid-18th century.
- The fisheries fit within a larger Atlantic economic order that included Europe, Africa, and the West Indies.