In the sixteenth century, England’s first North American possession, the island of Newfoundland, marked the northwestern edge of the known world to Europeans. Its Grand Banks was one of the world’s richest breeding grounds for codfish, and it became the site of an international fishery. Settlement of the island began in the early seventeenth century, initiating a lengthy dispute among English fishing interests. The fishery also fueled English-French imperial rivalry over the island. By the early eighteenth century, England had assumed sole possession of Newfoundland.
Within a decade of Giovanni Caboto’s ( John Cabot’s) voyage to Newfoundland in 1497, fishing vessels from Spain, Portugal, and France conducted a migratory fishery in its waters. Between 1530 and 1600, the Basques operated cod, seal, and whale fisheries off Newfoundland and Labrador. Although Europeans did not settle the island, some erected temporary structures and encountered the island’s native inhabitants. The Beothuk, an Algonquianspeaking people numbering between 500 and 700, lived by hunting, gathering, and fishing. Over the colonial period, as meetings with Europeans became more frequent and hostile, the Beothuks gradually withdrew to the interior.
In 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed Newfoundland for Queen Elizabeth I. By the early seventeenth century, the Iberian fisheries declined and were superseded by those of the English and the French. The English practiced a dry fishery (as opposed to the European green or wet fishery whereby ships returned directly to Europe from the fishing grounds with a heavily salted catch), which required the presence of shore stations to lightly salt and sun-dry the catch prior to returning home. Attentions turned to year-round settlement of the island, which prompted a bitter and long-standing debate in England between the West Country migratory (or ship) fishing interest and the resident fishing interest.
English policy toward settlement in Newfoundland was noncommittal for much of the colonial period, and although the resident fishery was not officially encouraged, the English government realized that some settlement was necessary to protect its claim over the island. Several officially sponsored attempts at colonization occurred in the first half of the seventeenth century, the first one being John Guy’s colony at Cuper’s Cove (Cupids) in 1610. Others followed, including George Calvert’s (Lord Baltimore) colony of Avalon between 1619 and 1625. Frustrated by the colony’s lack of progress, Lord Baltimore abandoned the settlement and founded a new colony in Maryland. The most successful of the colonies was David Kirke’s Ferryland, which functioned between 1638 and 1652. Although these all failed to become self-sufficient and profitable for their investors and officially came to an end, many settlers remained. By 1670, English settlement on the island was firmly established.