Newfoundland was a British dominion from 1907 to 1949. It was situated in northeastern North America along the Atlantic coast and comprised the island of Newfoundland and Labrador on the continental mainland to the northwest, with a combined area of 157,500 square miles (405,212 square kilometers). The dominion’s seat of government was the city of St. John’s. Before attaining dominion status, Newfoundland was a British colony, self-governing from 1855. Newfoundland was one of the original “dominions” within the meaning of the Statute of Westminster of 1931 and accordingly enjoyed a constitutional status equivalent to the other dominions at the time. The official name of the dominion was “Newfoundland” and not, as is sometimes reported, “Dominion of Newfoundland”. The Union Flag was adopted by the legislature as the official national flag of Newfoundland on May 15, 1931, before which time the Newfoundland Red Ensign, as civil ensign of Newfoundland, was used as the national flag (though not adopted by the legislature).
In 1934, Newfoundland became the only dominion to give up its self-governing status, ending 79 years of self-government. On February 16, 1934, the UK government appointed six commissioners, three from Newfoundland and three from the UK, with the Governor as chairman. The system of a six-member Commission of Government continued to govern Newfoundland until it became the tenth province to enter the Canadian Confederation on March 31, 1949, as “Newfoundland.” On December 6, 2001, an amendment was made to the Constitution of Canada to change the province’s official name to Newfoundland and Labrador.
With an area of 42,031 square miles (108,860 square kilometers), Newfoundland is the world’s 16th-largest island, Canada’s fourth-largest island, and the largest Canadian island outside the North. The capital, St. John’s, is located on the southeastern coast of the island; Cape Spear, just south of the capital, is the easternmost point of North America, excluding Greenland. It had 29 percent of the dominion’s land area. The island is separated from the Labrador Peninsula by the Strait of Belle Isle and from Cape Breton Island by the Cabot Strait. It blocks the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River, creating the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, the world’s largest estuary. Newfoundland’s nearest neighbor is the French overseas community of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. Labrador occupies the eastern part of the Labrador Peninsula. It is bordered to the west and the south by the Canadian province of Quebec.
The name “Newfoundland” is a translation of the Portuguese Terra Nova, that is also reflected in the French name for the Province’s island part (Terre-Neuve). The influence of early Portuguese exploration is also reflected in the name of Labrador, which derives from the surname of the Portuguese navigator João Fernandes Lavrador.
Human habitation in Newfoundland and Labrador can be traced back about 9,000 years. The Maritime Archaic peoples were groups of Archaic cultures of sea-mammal hunters in the subarctic. They prospered along the Atlantic Coast of North America from about 7000 BC to 1500 BC. Their settlements included longhouses and boat-topped temporary or seasonal houses. They engaged in long-distance trade, using as currency white chert, a rock quarried from northern Labrador to Maine. The southern branch of these people was established on the north peninsula of Newfoundland by 5,000 years ago. The Maritime Archaic period is best known from a mortuary site in Newfoundland at Port au Choix.
The Maritime Archaic peoples were gradually displaced by people of the Dorset Culture (Late Paleo-Eskimo) who also occupied Port au Choix. The number of their sites discovered on Newfoundland indicates they may have been the most numerous group of Aboriginal people to live there. They thrived from about 2000 BC to AD 800. Many of their sites were located on exposed headlands and outer islands. They were more oriented to the sea than earlier peoples, and had developed sleds and boats similar to kayaks. They burned seal blubber in soapstone lamps.
Many of these sites, such as Port au Choix, recently excavated by Memorial archaeologist, Priscilla Renouf, are quite large and show evidence of a long-term commitment to place. Renouf has excavated huge amounts of harp seal bones at Port au Choix, indicating that this place was a prime location for the hunting of these animals.
The people of the Dorset Culture (800 BC – AD 1500) were highly adapted to living in a very cold climate, and much of their food came from hunting sea mammals through holes in the ice. The massive decline in sea ice during the Medieval Warm Period would have had a devastating impact upon their way of life.
The appearance of the Beothuk culture is believed to be the most recent cultural manifestation of peoples who first migrated from Labrador to Newfoundland around 1 AD. The Inuit, found mostly in Labrador, are the descendants of what anthropologists call the Thule people, who emerged from western Alaska around AD 1000 and spread eastwards across the High Arctic, reaching Labrador around 1300–1500. Researchers believe that the Dorset culture lacked the dogs, larger weapons and other technologies that gave the expanding Inuit people an advantage. Over time, groups started to focus on resources available to them locally.
The inhabitants eventually organized themselves into small bands of a few families, grouped into larger tribes and chieftainships. The Innu are the inhabitants of an area they refer to as Nitassinan, i.e. most of what is now referred to as northeastern Quebec and Labrador. Their subsistence activities were historically centered on hunting and trapping caribou, deer and small game. Coastal clans also practiced agriculture, fished and managed maple sugar bush. The Innu engaged in tribal warfare along the coast of Labrador with the Inuit groups that had significant populations.
The Mi’kmaq of southern Newfoundland spent most of their time on the shores harvesting seafood; during the winter they would move inland to the woods to hunt. Over time, the Mi’kmaq and Innu divided their lands into traditional “districts”. Each district was independently governed and had a district chief and a council. The council members were band chiefs, elders and other worthy community leaders. In addition to the district councils, the Mi’kmaq tribes also had a Grand Council or Santé Mawiómi, which according to oral tradition was formed before 1600.
The oldest confirmed accounts of European contact date from a thousand years ago as described in the Viking (Norse) Icelandic Sagas. Around the year 1001, the sagas refer to Leif Ericson landing in three places to the west, the first two being Helluland (possibly Baffin Island) and Markland (possibly Labrador). Leif’s third landing was at a place he called Vinland (possibly Newfoundland). Archaeological evidence of a Norse settlement was found in L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, which was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1978.
There are several other unconfirmed accounts of European discovery and exploration, one tale by men from the Channel Islands being blown off course in the late fifteenth century into a strange land full of fish, and another from Portuguese maps that depict the Terra do Bacalhau, or land of codfish, west of the Azores. The earliest, though, is the Voyage of Saint Brendan, the fantastical account of an Irish monk who made a sea voyage in the early sixth century. While the story itself became a part of myth and legend, some historians believe it is based on fact.
The next European visitors to Newfoundland were Portuguese, Basque, Spanish, French and English migratory fishermen.
In 1496, Genoese navigator John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) obtained a charter from English King Henry VII to “sail to all parts, countries and seas of the East, the West and of the North, under our banner and ensign and to set up our banner on any new-found-land” and on June 24, 1497, landed in Cape Bonavista. Historians disagree on whether Cabot landed in Nova Scotia in 1497 or in Newfoundland, or possibly Maine, if he landed at all, but Bonavista is recognized by the governments of Canada and the United Kingdom as being Cabot’s “official” landing place.
In 1499 and 1500, Portuguese mariners João Fernandes Lavrador and Pêro de Barcelos explored and mapped the coast the former’s name appearing as “Labrador” on topographical maps of the period. The Maggiolo’s World Map, 1511, shows a solid Eurasian continent running from Scandinavia around the North Pole, including Asia’s arctic coast, to Newfoundland-Labrador and Greenland. On the extreme northeast promontory of North America, Maggiolo place-names include Terra de los Ingres (Land of the English), and Terra de Lavorador de rey de portugall (Land of Lavrador of the King of Portugal). Further south, we notice Terra de corte reale de rey de portugall (Land of the Royal Court of the King of Portugal) and terra de pescaria (Fishing Land).
Based on the Treaty of Tordesillas, the Portuguese Crown claimed it had territorial rights in the area visited by John Cabot in 1497 and 1498. Subsequently, in 1501 and 1502 the Corte-Real brothers, Miguel and Gaspar, explored Newfoundland and Labrador, claiming them as part of the Portuguese Empire, in a failed attempt to find the Northwest Passage. After European settlement, colonists first called the island Terra Nova, from “New Land” in Portuguese and Latin.
In 1506, King Manuel I of Portugal created taxes for the cod fisheries in Newfoundland waters. João Álvares Fagundes and Pêro de Barcelos established seasonal fishing outposts in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia around 1521, and older Portuguese settlements may have existed.
In 1542, Basque mariners came ashore at a natural harbor on the north east coast of the Strait of Belle Isle. They gave this “new land” its Latin name Terranova. A whaling station was set up around the bay, which they called Butus, now named Red Bay after the red terracotta roof tiles they brought with them. A whaling ship, the San Juan, sank there in 1565 and was raised in 1978.
Sometime before 1563, Basque fishermen, who had been fishing cod shoals off Newfoundland’s coasts since the beginning of the sixteenth century, founded Plaisance (today Placentia), a seasonal haven which French fishermen later also used. In the Newfoundland will, now in an archive in Spain, of the Basque seaman Domingo de Luca dated 1563 de Luca asks “that my body be buried in this port of Plazençia in the place where those who die here are usually buried.” This will is the oldest known civil document written in Canada.
Sir Humphrey Gilbert, under Royal Charter of Queen Elizabeth I of England, landed in St John’s on August 5, 1583, and formally claimed Newfoundland as England’s first overseas colony, thus officially establishing a fore-runner to the much later British Empire. Newfoundland is considered Britain’s oldest colony. At the time of English settlement, the Beothuk inhabited the island. These indigenous people spoke an Amerindian language of the same name. Later immigrants developed a variety of dialects associated with settlement on the island: Newfoundland English and Newfoundland French. In the nineteenth century, it also had a dialect of Irish known as Newfoundland Irish. Scottish Gaelic was spoken on the island during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly in the Codroy Valley area, chiefly by settlers from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The Gaelic names reflected the association with fishing: in Scottish Gaelic, it was called Eilean a’ Trosg, or literally, “Island of the Cod”. Similarly, the Irish Gaelic name Talamh an Éisc means “Land of the Fish”.
Though English fishing boats had visited Newfoundland continuously since Cabot’s second voyage in 1498 and seasonal fishing camps had existed for a century prior, the Basque, French, and Portuguese had done likewise. In 1585, however, this changed: Bernard Drake led a devastating raid on the Spanish and Portuguese fisheries from which they never recovered. This provided an opportunity to secure the island and led to the appointment of Proprietary Governors to establish colonial settlements on the island from 1610 to 1728.
On July 5, 1610, John Guy set sail from Bristol, England with 39 other colonists. Guy became governor of the first British settlement at Cuper’s Cove. This, and other early attempts at permanent settlement failed to make a profit for the English investors, but some settlers remained, forming the very earliest modern European population on the island. By 1620, the fishermen of England’s West Country dominated the east coast of Newfoundland. French fishermen dominated the island’s south coast and Northern Peninsula. Other settlements included Bristol’s Hope, Renews, New Cambriol, South Falkland and Avalon (which became a province in 1623). The first governor given jurisdiction over all of Newfoundland was Sir David Kirke in 1638.
Explorers realized that the waters around Newfoundland had the best fishing in the North Atlantic. By 1620, 300 fishing boats worked the Grand Banks, employing some 10,000 sailors; many continuing to come from the Basque Country, Normandy, or Brittany. They dried and salted cod on the coast and sold it to Spain and Portugal. Heavy investment by Sir George Calvert, 1st Baron Baltimore, in the 1620s in wharves, warehouses, and fishing stations failed to pay off. French raids hurt the business, and the weather was terrible, so he redirected his attention to his other colony in Maryland.
After Calvert left, small-scale entrepreneurs such as Sir David Kirke made good use of the facilities. Kirke became the first governor of Newfoundland in 1638. A triangular trade with New England, the West Indies, and Europe gave Newfoundland an important economic role. By the 1670s, there were 1700 permanent residents and another 4500 in the summer months.
In 1655, France appointed a governor in Plaisance, the formerly Basque fishing settlement, thus starting a formal French colonization period in Newfoundland as well as a period of periodic war and unrest between England and France in the region. The Mi’kmaq, as allies of the French, were amenable to limited French settlement in their midst and fought alongside them against the English. English attacks on Placentia provoked retaliation by New France explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville who during King William’s War in the 1690s destroyed nearly every English settlement on the island. The entire population of the English colony was either killed, captured for ransom, or sentenced to expulsion to England, with the exception of those who withstood the attack at Carbonear Island and those in the then remote Bonavista.
After France lost political control of the area after the Siege of Port Royal in 1710, the Mí’kmaq engaged in warfare with the British throughout Dummer’s War (1722–1725), King George’s War (1744–1748), Father Le Loutre’s War (1749–1755) and the French and Indian War (1754–1763). The French colonization period lasted until the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession: France ceded to the British its claims to Newfoundland (including its claims to the shores of Hudson Bay) and to the French possessions in Acadia. Afterward, under the supervision of the last French governor, the French population of Plaisance moved to Île Royale (now Cape Breton Island), part of Acadia which remained then under French control.
After 1713, with the Treaty of Utrecht, the French ceded control of south and north shores of Newfoundland to the British. French fishermen gained the right to land and cure fish on the “French Shore” on the western coast. They kept only the nearby islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, located in the fish-rich Grand Banks off the south coast; they gave up their French Shore rights in 1904. In 1783, the British signed the Treaty of Paris with the United States that gave American fishermen similar rights along the coast. These rights were reaffirmed by treaties in 1818, 1854 and 1871 and confirmed by arbitration in 1910. Despite some early settlements by the English, the Crown discouraged permanent, year-round settlement of Newfoundland by migratory fishery workers.
During the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), control of Newfoundland once again became a major source of conflict between Britain, France and Spain who all pressed for a share in the valuable fisheries there. Britain’s victories around the globe led William Pitt to insist that nobody other than Britain should have access to Newfoundland. The Battle of Signal Hill took place in Newfoundland in 1762 when a French force landed and tried to occupy the island, only to be repulsed by the British.
From 1763 to 1767 James Cook made a detailed survey of the coasts of Newfoundland and southern Labrador while commander of the HMS Grenville. The following year, 1768, Cook began his first circumnavigation of the world. In 1796, a Franco-Spanish expedition again succeeded in raiding the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador, destroying many of the settlements.
In 1854 the British government established Newfoundland’s responsible government. In 1855, Philip Francis Little, a native of Prince Edward Island, won a parliamentary majority over Hugh Hoyles and the Conservatives. Little formed the first Newfoundland administration (1855-1858).
January 1, 1857, saw the issue of the first postage stamps of Newfoundland, portraying a rose, thistle and shamrock. The denominations of these stamps were in pence and they were inscribed ST. JOHN’S NEWFOUNDLAND (Scott #1-9). The designs, engraving of dies and plates, and printing were done by Perkins, Bacon & Co., London. The first stamps were on thick, porous wove paper with mesh and without watermarks. The set consisted of nine imperforate values: 1 penny brown violet, 2 pence scarlet vermilion, 3 pence green, 4 pence scarlet vermilion, 5 pence brown violet, 6 pence scarlet vermilion, 6½ pence scarlet vermilion, 8 pence scarlet vermilion, and 1 shilling scarlet vermilion. Thus, Newfoundland was provided with a more extensive assortment of denominations than any of the other British North American colonies.
Further printings from the same plates, but in different colors, were made in 1860 (Scott #11-15) and in 1861-62 (two printings, Scott #15A-23). These were on thinner wove paper without mesh, bearing the papermarker’s watermark, STACEY WISE 1858. This watermark shows occasionally on all the stamps of this issue. The paper, although thinner than that of 1857, varies considerably in thickness, particularly in the 1861 printings.
The 1857 consignment included 70,000 one penny stamps; by the end of 1858, only 3,321 had been sold. Naturally, no further supply was ordered in 1860 but the November 1861 printing (Scott #15A) included 10,080 which were never really required, the 1857 stamps being still available after the change to dollar currency. The 1861 printing was in a different color (violet brown), but at least two sheets were in a different color, reddish brown (Scott #16). These are not shown in the Perkins, Bacon & Co. records and were probably the first printed. It has been surmised that the ink was found to be too fluid and was thickened which changed its color.
The 1857 issue had 3,000 2 pence stamps that were shipped with the other values in the set but were not put on sale until February 15. By December 31, 1858, only 652 had been sold. Oddly, a further 5,000 were ordered in 1860 (Scott #11, orange). It seems likely that the sale of this stamp increased considerably in 1859, possibly by being used to make up the 6-pence Packet rate to England for letters up to one-half ounce. The 6 pence stamp supplies may have been exhausted early in that year. Each of the two consignments in 1861 had 5,000 of the 2 pence stamps in rose (Scott #17).
Sixteen thousand of the 3 pence stamps in green were in the 1857 set, paying the internal letter rate. Some 4,320 were sold in two years. Six thousand were received in 1860 and the July and November 1861 consignments (Scott #11A) had 20,000 and 50,000 respectively. There were remainders of these for many years. The 1857 stamp is rare, especially unused, and the majority of the stamps alleged to be Scott #3 are actually #11A on fairly thick sheets of the watermarked paper.
Five thousand scarlet vermilion 4 pence stamps were issued in 1857. This value was used on letters to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and to the United States via Halifax. In two years, 3,500 were used and so it was reasonable that another 5,000 were ordered in the orange printing of 1860 (Scott #12); 18,000 rose stamps were printed in July 1861 and 20,000 in November (Scott #18). Of these, 18,141 were still in stock in April 1889.
Eleven thousand of the 1857 5 pence value were ordered in the first printing, which was in the same shade as of 1 penny of this set, brown violet. In two years, only 84 were sold! Despite this, 20,000 were ordered in 1860 (Scott #12A, violet brown) and 10,000 in November 1861 (Scott #19, reddish brown and #19a, orange brown). Of these, 17,205 remained in stock in April 1889.
Of the 5,000 scarlet vermilion 6 pence stamps released in 1857, 4,403 were sold by the end of 1858. The value must have been exhausted soon afterwards, and its rate must have been paid by multiples of the lower denominations or bisects of the one shilling stamp. Ten thousand orange stamps were printed in 1861 (Scott #13) and 70,000 rose in 1861 (Scott #20). The remainders in 1889 totaled 29,937 and the stamps were available until well into the twentieth century.
The 6½ pence denomination was not used much. Two thousand were issued in 1857 and just 325 were sold in two years. It was not reordered in 1860. However, one sheet in orange exists — a trial sheet pulled from the plate before it was realized that the denomination was not included in the order. It is mentioned in Scott as a “souvenir” but no catalogue number is assigned. Fifteen thousand of this value in rose were printed in 1861 (Scott #21).
The 8 pence value served no reasonable postal purpose and it is difficult to comprehend why 8,000 were printed in 1857. On cover, it is usually only seen bisected to pay the 4 pence rate (double internal book and magazines per ounce). Only 179 were sold in two years, and the denomination was not reprinted in 1860, but 10,000 were printed in rose in November 1861 (Scott #22). These stamps, however, were not issued before the introduction of the dollar currency and all used copies are philatelic usages from a later period.
The one shilling scarlet vermilion printing of 1857 comprised 2,000 stamps, of which 284 were sold by the end of 1858. In 1860, one thousand were printed in orange (Scott #15), the smallest number of any Newfoundland stamp and only twice the number of the famous one penny and 2 pence “Post Office” Mauritius. Two sheets are known on laid paper, one horizontally and one vertically laid. These were probably trial proofs taken after cleaning and preparing the plate and before regular printing commenced. Fifteen thousand of the 1 shilling denomination were printed in rose in 1861 (Scott #23).
Formal mail service to and from the Labrador began in 1863 when the Newfoundland let the first mail contract. In 1865, Newfoundland issued its first stamps in dollar currency, including the first pictorials: 2 cent green portraying a codfish (Scott #24), 5 cent brown harp seal (Scott #25), 10 cent black with a portrait of Prince Albert (Scott #27), 12 cent pale red brown Queen Victoria (Scott #28), 13 cent orange fishing ship (Scott #30), and 24 cent blue Queen Victoria on thin transluscent paper (Scott #31). These were simply inscribed NEWFOUNDLAND.
The island rejected confederation with Canada in the 1869 general election. Prime Minister of Canada Sir John Thompson came very close to negotiating Newfoundland’s entry into Confederation in 1892.
Newfoundland remained a colony until acquiring Dominion status in 1907. A dominion constituted a self-governing state of the British Empire or British Commonwealth and the Dominion of Newfoundland was relatively autonomous from British rule.
The European immigrants, mostly English, Scots, Irish and French, built a society in the New World unlike the ones they had left. It was also different from those other immigrants would build on the North American mainland. As a fish-exporting society, Newfoundland was in contact with many ports and societies around the Atlantic rim. Its geographic location and political distinctiveness isolated it from its closest neighbors, Canada and the United States. Internally, most of its population was spread widely around a rugged coastline in small outport settlements. Many were distant from larger centers of population and isolated for long periods by winter ice or bad weather. These conditions had an effect on the cultures of the immigrants. They generated new ways of thinking and acting. Newfoundland and Labrador developed a wide variety of distinctive customs, beliefs, stories, songs and dialects.
The First World War had a powerful and lasting effect on the society. From a population of about a quarter of a million, 5,482 men went overseas. Nearly 1,500 were killed and 2,300 wounded. On July 1, 1916, on the first day on the Somme at Beaumont-Hamel, France, 753 men of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment went over the top of a trench. The next morning, only 68 men answered the roll-call. Despite 90 percent casualties, the regiment went on to serve with distinction in several subsequent battles, earning the prefix “Royal”. Newfoundland lost about one-quarter of its young men in the First World War, which had lasting effects on that generation and the next. Even now, when the rest of Canada celebrates the founding of the country on July 1, many Newfoundlanders take part in solemn ceremonies of remembrance.
After the war, Newfoundland along with the other dominions sent a separate delegation to the Paris Peace Conference but, unlike the other dominions, Newfoundland neither signed the Treaty of Versailles in her own right nor sought separate membership in the League of Nations.
In the 1920s, political scandals wracked the dominion. In 1923, the attorney general arrested Newfoundland’s prime minister Sir Richard Squires on charges of corruption. Despite his release soon after on bail, the British-led Hollis Walker commission reviewed the scandal. Soon after, the Squires government fell. Squires returned to power in 1928 because of the unpopularity of his successors, the pro-business Walter Stanley Monroe and (briefly) Frederick C. Alderdice (Monroe’s cousin), but found himself governing a country suffering from the Great Depression.
Since the early 1800s, Newfoundland and Quebec (or Lower Canada) had been in a border dispute over the Labrador region. The Judicial Committee of the Imperial Privy Council resolved this dispute with a ruling on 1 April 1927. Prior to 1867, the Quebec North Shore portion of the “Labrador coast” had shuttled back and forth between the colonies of Lower Canada and Newfoundland. Maps up to 1927 showed the coastal region as part of Newfoundland, with an undefined boundary. The Privy Council ruling established a boundary along the drainage divide separating waters that flowed through the territory to the Labrador coast, although following two straight lines from the Romaine River along the 52nd parallel, then south near 57 degrees west longitude to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Modern day Labrador was now considered part of the dominion of Newfoundland. Quebec has long rejected the outcome, and Quebec’s provincially issued maps do not mark the boundary in the same way as boundaries with Ontario and New Brunswick.
During the first half of the twentieth century, some of the largest iron ore deposits in the world were discovered in the western part of Labrador and adjacent areas of Quebec.
As a small country which relied primarily upon the export of fish, paper, and minerals, Newfoundland was hit very hard by the Great Depression. Economic frustration combined with anger over government corruption led to a general dissatisfaction with democratic government. On April 5, 1932, a crowd of 10,000 people marched on the Colonial Building (seat of the House of Assembly) and forced Prime Minister Squires to flee. Squires lost an election held later in 1932. The next government, led once more by Alderdice, called upon the British government to take direct control until Newfoundland could become self-sustaining. The United Kingdom, concerned over Newfoundland’s likelihood of defaulting on its war-debt payments, established the Newfoundland Royal Commission, headed by a Scottish peer, William Mackenzie, 1st Baron Amulree. Its report, released in 1933, assessed Newfoundland’s political culture as intrinsically corrupt and its economic prospects as bleak, and advocated the abolition of responsible government and its replacement by a Commission of the British Government. Acting on the report’s recommendations, Alderdice’s government voted itself out of existence in December 1933.
On February 16, 1934, the Commission of Government took control, ending 79 years of responsible government. Newfoundland remained a dominion in name only. Newfoundland was ruled by a governor who reported to the colonial secretary in London. The Commission consisted of seven persons appointed by the British government. For 15 years no elections took place, and no legislature was convened.
The severe worldwide Great Depression persisted until the Second World War broke out in 1939.
The Second World War also had a lasting effect on Newfoundland. Given its strategic location in the Battle of the Atlantic, the Allies (especially the United States of America) built many military bases there. Large numbers of unskilled men gained the first paychecks they had seen in years by working on construction and in dockside crews. National income doubled as an economic boom took place in the Avalon Peninsula and to a lesser degree in Gander, Botwood, and Stephenville.
In particular, the United States assigned forces to the military bases at Argentia, Gander, Stephenville, Goose Bay and St. John’s. The U.S. became the main supplier, and American money and influence diffused rapidly from the military, naval, and air bases. Prosperity returned to the fishing industry by 1943. Government revenues, aided by inflation and new income, quadrupled, even though Newfoundland had tax rates much lower than those in Canada, Britain, or the United States. To the astonishment of all, Newfoundland started financing loans to London. Wartime prosperity ended the long depression and reopened the question of political status.
The American Bases Act became law in Newfoundland on June 11, 1941, with American personnel creating drastic social change on the island. This included significant intermarriage between Newfoundland women and American personnel. A new political party formed in Newfoundland to support closer ties with the U.S., the Economic Union Party. Advocates of union with Canada denounced the Economic Union Party as republican, disloyal and anti-British, no American initiative for union was ever created.
Labrador played strategic roles during both World War II and the Cold War. In October 1943, a German U-boat crew installed an automated weather station on the northern tip of Labrador near Cape Chidley, code–named Weather Station Kurt; the installation of the equipment was the only (known) armed, German military operation on the North American mainland during the war. The station broadcast weather observations to the German navy for only a few days, but was not discovered until the 1980s when a historian, working with the Canadian Coast Guard, identified its location and mounted an expedition to recover it. The station is now exhibited in the Canadian War Museum.
The Canadian government built a major air force base at Goose Bay, at the head of Lake Melville during the Second World War, a site selected because of its topography, access to the sea, defensible location, and minimal fog. During the Second World War and the Cold War, the base was also home to American, British, and later German, Dutch, and Italian detachments. Today, Serco, the company contracted to operate CFB Goose Bay is one of the largest employer for the community of Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Additionally, both the Royal Canadian Air Force and United States Air Force built and operated a number of radar stations along coastal Labrador as part of the Pinetree Line, Mid-Canada Line and DEW Line systems. Today the remaining stations are automated as part of the North Warning System, however the military settlements during the early part of the Cold War surrounding these stations have largely continued as local Innu and Inuit populations have clustered near their port and airfield facilities.
As soon as prosperity returned during the war, agitation began to end the Commission of Government. Newfoundland, with a population of 313,000 (plus 5,200 in Labrador), seemed too small to be independent. In 1945, London announced that a Newfoundland National Convention would be elected to advise on what constitutional choices should be voted on by referendum. Union with the United States was a possibility, but Britain rejected the option and offered instead two options, return to dominion status or continuation of the unpopular Commission. Canada cooperated with Britain to ensure that the option of closer ties with America was not on the referendum.
In 1946, an election took place to determine the membership of the Newfoundland National Convention, charged with deciding the future of Newfoundland. The Convention voted to hold a referendum to decide between continuing the Commission of Government or restoring responsible government. The Confederates were led by the charismatic Joseph Smallwood, a former radio broadcaster, who had developed socialist political inclinations while working for a socialist newspaper in New York City. His policies as premier were closer to liberalism than socialism. He moved for the inclusion of a third option — that of confederation with Canada. The Convention defeated his motion, but he did not give up, instead gathering more than 5,000 petition signatures within a fortnight, which he sent to London through the governor. Britain insisted that it would not give Newfoundland any further financial assistance, but added this third option of having Newfoundland join Canada to the ballot.
After much debate, the first referendum took place on June 3, 1948, to decide between continuing with the Commission of Government, reverting to dominion status, or joining the Canadian Confederation. Three parties participated in the referendum campaign: Smallwood’s Confederate Association campaigned for the confederation option while in the anti-confederation campaign Peter Cashin’s Responsible Government League and Chesley Crosbie’s Economic Union Party (both of which called for a vote for responsible government) took part. No party advocated petitioning Britain to continue the Commission of Government.
The result proved inconclusive, with 44.5 percent supporting the restoration of dominion status, 41.1 percent for confederation with Canada, and 14.3 percent for continuing the Commission of Government. Between the first and second referendums, rumor had it that Catholic bishops were using their religious influence to alter the outcome of the votes. The Orange Order, incensed, called on all its members to vote for confederation, as the Catholics voted for responsible government. The Protestants of Newfoundland outnumbered the Catholics by a ratio of 2:1.
Some commentators believe that this sectarian divide influenced the outcome of the second referendum, on July 22, 1948, which asked Newfoundlanders to choose between confederation and dominion status. The populations of Newfoundland and Labrador voted 52.3% to 47.7% in favor of joining Canada as provinces. Opposition was concentrated among residents of the capital St. John’s, and on the Avalon Peninsula.
Newfoundland joined Canada in the last hours of March 31, 1949. Its permanent population was only 6,000 at the time. Following confederation, Smallwood led Newfoundland for decades as the elected premier. He was said to have a “cult of personality” among his many supporters. Some residents featured photographs of “Joey” in their living rooms in a place of prominence.
Union with Canada has done little to reduce Newfoundlanders’ self-image as a unique group. In 2003, 72% of residents responding identified first as Newfoundlanders, secondarily as Canadians. Separatist sentiment is low, though, less than 12% in the same 2003 study.
On April 1, 1949, the day following Newfoundland joining the Confederation, Canada Post Office issued a 4-cent stamp featuring the Matthew, the ship sailed by John Cabot when he discovered Newfoundland in 1497 (Scott #282). This was the first time a FIRST DAY OF ISSUE cancellation was produced by Canada Post Office. The stamp design was based on a model of the Matthew which had been built by Ernest Maunder of St. John’s in 1947 at the request of the Newfoundland Historical Society. Stamp designer Herman Herbert Schwartz used a photograph of Maunder’s model taken on his lawn with “the wind billowing out the sails”.
Two years previously, on June 23, 1947, Newfoundland had released its final general issue stamp; four postage due stamps would be the last issued by the dominion in early 1949. Scott #270 also featured the Matthew, this time from the deck, commemorating the 450th anniversary of Cabot’s arrival off Cape Bonavista. The 5-cent rose violet stamp, was engraved and perforated 12½.
John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) was born in Italy, the son of Giulio Caboto and his wife; he had a brother Piero. He is known today as Giovanni Caboto in Italy (as Zuan Chabotto in Venetian), in English as John Cabot, in French as Jean Cabot, and in Spanish as Juan Caboto. The non-Italian forms are derived from how his name was recorded in related fifteenth-century documents. In Venice he signed his names as “Zuan Chabotto“, “Zuan” being a form of “John” typical to Venice. He continued to use this form in England, at least among Italians. He was referred to by his Italian banker in London as ‘Giovanni Chabbote‘, in the only known contemporary document to use this version of his first name.
Gaeta (in the Kingdom of Naples, present-day Province of Latina) and Castiglione Chiavarese (in the Republic of Genoa) have both been proposed as birthplaces. The main evidence for Gaeta are records of a Caboto family residing there until the mid-fifteenth century, but ceasing to be traceable after 1443. Pedro de Ayala, the Spanish envoy and Cabot’s contemporary in London, described him in a letter to the Spanish Crown in 1498 as “another Genoese like Columbus”. John Cabot’s son, Sebastian, said his father originally came from Genoa. In 1476, Cabot was made a citizen of the Republic of Venice, which required a minimum of fifteen years’ residency in the city; thus he must have lived in Venice since at least 1461.
Cabot may have been born slightly earlier than 1450, which is the approximate date most commonly given for his birth. In 1471, he was accepted into the religious confraternity of Saint John the Evangelist. Since this was one of the city’s prestigious confraternities, his acceptance suggests that he was already a respected member of the community.
Following his gaining full Venetian citizenship in 1476, Caboto would have been eligible to engage in maritime trade, including the trade to the eastern Mediterranean that was the source of much of Venice’s wealth. He presumably entered this trade shortly thereafter. A 1483 document refers to his selling a slave in Crete whom he had acquired while in the territories of the Sultan of Egypt, which then comprised most of what is now Israel, Syria and Lebanon. This is not sufficient to prove Cabot’s later assertion that he had visited Mecca, which he said in 1497 to the Milanese ambassador in London. In this Mediterranean trade, he may have acquired better knowledge of the origins of the oriental (West Asian) merchandise he would have been dealing in (such as spices and silks) than most Europeans at that time.
“Zuan Cabotto” (i.e. John Cabot) is mentioned in a variety of Venetian records of the 1480s. These indicate that by 1484 he was married to Mattea and already had at least two sons. Cabot’s sons are Ludovico, Sebastian, and Sancto. The Venetian sources contain references to Cabot’s being involved in house building in the city. He may have relied on this experience when seeking work later in Spain as a civil engineer.
Cabot appears to have got into financial trouble in the late 1480s and left Venice as an insolvent debtor by November 5, 1488. He moved to Valencia, Spain, where his creditors attempted to have him arrested by sending a lettera di raccomandazione a giustizia (“a letter of recommendation to justice”) to the authorities. While in Valencia, “John Cabot Montecalunya” (as he is referred to in local documents) proposed plans for improvements to the harbor. These proposals were rejected, however. Early in 1494, he moved on to Seville, where he proposed, was contracted to build and, for five months, worked on the construction of a stone bridge over the Guadalquivir river. This project was abandoned following a decision of the City Council on December 24, 1494. After this, Cabot appears to have sought support in Seville and Lisbon for an Atlantic expedition, before moving to London to seek funding and political support. He likely reached England in mid-1495.
Like other Italian explorers, including Christopher Columbus, Cabot led an expedition on commission to another European nation, in his case, England. Historians had thought that, on arrival in England, Cabot went to Bristol, a major maritime center, to seek financial backers. This was the only English city to have had a prior history of undertaking exploratory expeditions into the Atlantic. Cabot’s royal patent (issued by the Crown in 1496) stated that all expeditions should be undertaken from Bristol, so his primary financial supporters likely were based in that city. In any case, it also stipulated that the commerce resulting from any discoveries must be conducted with England alone.
In the late twentieth century, British historian Alwyn Ruddock claimed to have found documentation that Cabot went first to London, where he received some financial backing from its Italian community. She suggested one patron was Father Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis, an Augustinian friar who was also the deputy to Adriano Castellesi, the papal tax collector. Dr. Ruddock suggested that Carbonariis accompanied Cabot’s 1498 expedition. She also suggested that the friar, on good terms with the King, introduced the explorer to King Henry VII. Beyond this, Ruddock claimed that Cabot received a loan from an Italian banking house in London. As Ruddock ordered the destruction of all her research notes on her death in 2005, scholars have had to duplicate her research and rediscover documents.
The Cabot Project was formed at the University of Bristol in 2009 to research Cabot and the Bristol expeditions. Dr Francesco Guidi Bruscoli (University of Florence) found some of Ruddock’s documentation, confirming that Cabot received money in March 1496 from the Bardi family banking firm of Florence. The bankers located in London provided fifty nobles (£16 13s. 4d.) to support Cabot’s expedition to “go and find the new land”. This payment from the Florentine merchants would have represented a substantial contribution, although it was not enough to completely finance the expedition.
On March 5, 1496, King Henry VII gave Cabot and his three sons letters patent with the following charge for exploration:
“…free authority, faculty and power to sail to all parts, regions and coasts of the eastern, western and northern sea, under our banners, flags and ensigns, with five ships or vessels of whatsoever burden and quality they may be, and with so many and with such mariners and men as they may wish to take with them in the said ships, at their own proper costs and charges, to find, discover and investigate whatsoever islands, countries, regions or provinces of heathens and infidels, in whatsoever part of the world placed, which before this time were unknown to all Christians.“
Since Cabot received his royal patent in March 1496, it is believed he made his first expedition from Bristol that summer. A winter 1497-98 letter from John Day (a Bristol merchant) to an addressee believed to be Christopher Columbus refers briefly to it, but writes mostly about the second, 1497 voyage. He notes, “Since your Lordship wants information relating to the first voyage, here is what happened: he went with one ship, his crew confused him, he was short of supplies and ran into bad weather, and he decided to turn back.”
Information about the second expedition, made in 1497, is mainly derived from four short letters and the following full entry for 1496/7 in the 1565 Chronicles of Bristol:
“This year, on St. John the Baptist’s Day [June 24, 1497], the land of America was found by the Merchants of Bristow in a shippe of Bristowe, called the Mathew; the which said the ship departed from the port of Bristowe, the second day of May, and came home again the 6th of August next following.“
The “John Day letter” provides considerable information about this second voyage. It was written during the winter of 1497-1498 by Bristol merchant John Day (alias Hugh Say of London) to a man who is likely Christopher Columbus. Day is believed to have been familiar with the key figures of the expedition and thus able to report on it. If the lands Cabot had discovered lay west of the meridian laid down in the Treaty of Tordesillas, or if he intended to sail further west, Columbus would likely have believed that these voyages challenged his monopoly rights for westward exploration.
In addition to these letters, Dr Alwyn Ruddock claimed to have found another, written on August 10, 1497, by the London-based bankers of Fr. Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis. This letter has yet to be found. From various written comments made by Ruddock, the letter did not appear to contain a detailed account of the voyage. Ruddock said the letter contained “new evidence supporting the claim that seamen of Bristol had already discovered land across the ocean before John Cabot’s arrival in England.” She contended that Bristol seamen had reached North America two decades before Cabot’s expedition.
The known sources do not concur on all aspects of the events, and none can be assumed to be entirely reliable. The crew was said to have included an unnamed Burgundian (modern- day Netherlands) and a Genoese barber, who presumably accompanied the expedition as the ship’s surgeon. It is likely that two ranking Bristol merchants were part of the expedition. One was probably William Weston, who had not been identified as part of Cabot’s expedition before the find of a new document in the late twentieth century. His participation was confirmed by a document found in the early twenty-first century noting his reward from the King in January 1498 after the ship returned. More importantly, in 2009 historian Evan Jones confirmed that Weston had undertaken an independent voyage to the New Found Land in 1499, probably under Cabot’s patent, as the first Englishman to lead an expedition to North America.
Lack of clear documentation has also been a problem in studying the history of Cabot’s ship, the Matthew. Even its name has been questioned, with some authors suggesting that it was actually named Mattea after Cabot’s wife. Until the 1950s, all that was known about its size is that it was a small ship carrying about 18 men, but the discovery of the “John Day letter” saying that “in his voyage he had only one ship of fifty ‘toneles’ and twenty men and food for seven or eight months” provided more certainty about its size. The ship is described on the Heritage Newfoundland & Labrador website as a navicula, “meaning a relatively small vessel, of 50 toneles — able to carry 50 tons of wine or other cargo. It was decked, with a high sterncastle and three masts. The two forward masts carried square mainsails to propel the vessel forward. The rear mast was rigged with a lateen sail running in the same direction as the keel, which helped the vessel sail into the wind.”
The age of the ship is also uncertain. The name Matthew does not appear in the 1492-1493 customs accounts, so it was either fairly new or an older ship renamed or a foreign ship. It has been suggested that it probably was an ordinary Bristol merchant ship hired for the occasion. The name Matthew appears in documents in 1503-1504 and 1510-1511 but in a 1513 survey there is reference to a ‘new Matthew‘ and references to this ship afterward leave out the ‘new’ suggesting that Cabot’s Matthew no longer existed.
Cabot departed either May 2 or 20, 1497, and sailed to Dursey Head (latitude 51°36N), Ireland, from where he sailed due west across the Atlantic, expecting to reach Asia, making landfall somewhere on the coast of North America on June 24, 1497. The exact location of the landfall has long been disputed, with different communities vying for the honor. Historians have proposed Cape Bonavista and St. John’s in Newfoundland; Cape Breton Island (Nova Scotia); as well as Labrador and Maine in the United States as possibilities.
Since the discovery of the “John Day letter” in the 1950s, it seems most likely that the initial landfall was either on Newfoundland or Cape Breton Island. This is because Day’s letter implies that the coastline explored in 1497 lay between the latitudes of the Bordeaux River in France and Dursey Head in southern Ireland. The initial landfall seems to have taken place close to the southern latitude, with the expedition returning home after reaching the northern one.
For the 500th-anniversary celebrations, the governments of Canada and the United Kingdom designated Cape Bonavista in Newfoundland as the “official” landing place. Here in 1997, Queen Elizabeth II, along with members of the Italian and Canadian governments, greeted the replica Matthew of Bristol, following its celebratory crossing of the Atlantic. Cabot’s expedition is believed to be the first by Europeans to mainland North America since the Vikings five hundred years before.
Cabot is reported to have landed only once during the expedition and did not advance “beyond the shooting distance of a crossbow”. Pasqualigo and Day both state that the expedition made no contact with any native people; crew found the remains of a fire, a human trail, nets and a wooden tool. The crew appeared to have remained on land just long enough to take on fresh water; they also raised the Venetian and Papal banners, claiming the land for the King of England and recognizing the religious authority of the Roman Catholic Church. After this landing, Cabot spent some weeks “discovering the coast,” with most “discovered after turning back.”
Cabot probably departed on July 20. On the homeward voyage, his sailors incorrectly thought they were going too far north, so Cabot sailed a more southerly course, reaching Brittany instead of England. On August 6, he arrived back in Bristol. On return to Bristol, Cabot rode to London to report to the King. On August 10, 1497, he was given a reward of £10 — equivalent to about two years’ pay for an ordinary laborer or craftsman. The explorer was feted; Soncino wrote on August 23 that Cabot “is called the Great Admiral and vast honour is paid to him and he goes dressed in silk, and these English run after him like mad”.
Such adulation was short-lived, for over the next few months the King’s attention was occupied by the Second Cornish Uprising of 1497, led by Perkin Warbeck. Once Henry’s throne was secure, he gave more thought to Cabot. On September 26, just a few days after the collapse of the revolt, the King made an award of £2 to Cabot. In December 1497, the explorer was awarded a pension of £20 per year.
On February 3, 1498 he was given new letters patent covering the voyage and to help him prepare a new expedition. The Great Chronicle of London (1189–1512) reports that Cabot departed with a fleet of five ships from Bristol at the beginning of May 1498, one of which had been prepared by the King. Some of the ships were said to be carrying merchandise, including cloth, caps, lace points and other “trifles”. This suggests that Cabot intended to engage in trade on this expedition. The Spanish envoy in London reported in July that one of the ships had been caught in a storm and been forced to land in Ireland, but that Cabot and the other four ships had continued on.
For centuries no other records were found (or at least published) that relate to this expedition; it was long believed that Cabot and his fleet were lost at sea. But at least one of the men scheduled to accompany the expedition, Lancelot Thirkill of London, is recorded as living in London in 1501.
The historian Alwyn Ruddock worked on Cabot and his era for 35 years. She suggested that Cabot and his expedition successfully returned to England in the spring of 1500. She claimed their return followed an epic two-year exploration of the east coast of North America, south into the Chesapeake Bay area and perhaps as far as the Spanish territories in the Caribbean. Her evidence included the well-known world map of the Spanish cartographer Juan de la Cosa. His chart included the North American coast and seas ‘discovered by the English’ between 1497 and 1500.
Dr. Ruddock suggested Fr. Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis and the other friars who accompanied the 1498 expedition had stayed in Newfoundland and founded a mission. If Carbonariis founded a settlement in North America, it would have been the first Christian settlement on the continent, and may have included a church, the only medieval church to have been built there.
Ruddock also claimed that William Weston of Bristol, a supporter of Cabot, undertook an independent expedition to North America in 1499, sailing north from Newfoundland up to the Hudson Strait. If correct, this was probably the first Northwest Passage expedition. In 2009, Evan Jones confirmed that William Weston (who was not previously known to have been involved) led an expedition from Bristol with royal support to the “new found land” in 1499 or 1500, making him the first Englishman to lead exploration of North America. This find has changed the understanding of English roles in exploration of that continent.
King Henry VII continued to support exploration from Bristol. The king granted Hugh Eliot, Robert Thorne and his son a bounty of ₤20 in January 1502 for purchasing the Gabriel, a ship for an expedition voyage that summer. Later in 1502 or early 1503, he paid Eliot a reward of ₤100 for a voyage, or voyages, in “2 ships to the Isle of new finding,” as Newfoundland was called. This amount was larger than any previously accounted for in royal support of the explorations.
The circumstances of John Cabot’s death appear obscure and contradictory. He was last mentioned as a member of an expedition led by his son Sebastian in 1508-1509. Nothing is known about Cabot after that; perhaps he died during the journey, or more likely shortly after returning.
The Cabot Project at the University of Bristol was organized in 2009 to search for the evidence on which Ruddock’s claims rest, as well as to undertake related studies of Cabot and his expeditions. The lead researchers on the project, Evan Jones and Margaret Condon, claim to have found further evidence to support aspects of Ruddock’s case, including some of the information she intended to use to argue for a successful return of the 1498 expedition to Bristol. These appear to place John Cabot in London by May 1500, albeit Jones and Condon have yet to publish their documentation.
The Project is collaborating on an archaeological excavation at the community of Carbonear, Newfoundland, located at Conception Bay and believed the likely location for Carbonariis’ mission settlement. The Archaeology of Historic Carbonear Project, carried out by Memorial University of Newfoundland, has conducted summer fieldwork each season since 2011. So far, it has found evidence of planter habitation since the late seventeenth century and of trade with Spain through Bilbao, including a Spanish coin minted in Peru.
To celebrate the 500th anniversary of Cabot’s voyage, a replica of Matthew was built in Bristol by Storms’l Services, a precursor of the Bristol Classic Boat Company. The design was by naval architect Colin Mudie. She was dedicated in a ceremony during the first International Festival of the Sea, held in Bristol’s Floating Harbour in 1996. The next year, she reconstructed Cabot’s original journey on the 500th anniversary of the landmark voyage. On June 24, 1997, the replica of Matthew was welcomed into port at Bonavista by Queen Elizabeth II.
The replica is 78 feet (24 meters) in length overall with a beam of 20 feet, 6 inches (6.25 meters) with a draft of 7 feet (2.1 meters) and 2,360 square feet (219 square meters) of sail.
On February 29, 2012, Matthew‘s ownership was transferred to The Matthew of Bristol Trust, and she was relocated to her new home outside Bristol’s M Shed museum. In June 2012, she took part in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee pageant on the River Thames.