Captain James Cook\’s 1775 chart of Newfoundland

  Newfoundland and its associated fishing grounds were among the most valuable properties in the new world. France and Britain had long warred over the islands. Spain tried to claim a share of the fishing trade and Basque fishermen used the fishing grounds for hundreds of years. The French had largely been forced off the island by the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the War of Spanish Succession, although they still held the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon just a few miles off the south coast of Newfoundland. At the end of the French and Indian War these two small islands were France’s only holdings in North America.

As valuable as the island and its fishing was, the British government long discouraged permanent settlement on the island, preferring instead a mainly migratory population that followed the fishing trade. The fishing trade was

Fishing was a little different then

estimated to be worth about £600,000 per year. The island’s position on the globe also meant that’s its ports offered safe harbor during Atlantic crossings.

          The impact of the troubles in the thirteen American colonies was felt in Newfoundland before the actual fighting broke out. As mentioned before Newfoundland had a largely migratory population and needed to be provisioned from elsewhere. Boston became the primary supplier of provisions to Newfoundland and acted as a middleman in the trade of fish with the West Indies. Fisherman sent fish south and rum and molasses made their way north.
          Following the imposition Intolerable Acts of 1774, which shut down the port of Boston and imposed many other limitations on trade in the colonies in response to the Boston Tea Party and other troubles, the colonies declared an embargo on trade with the British. This included Newfoundland. When the fishing fleets arrived that summer, they found no supply of bread and flout to keep them fed. What had not arrived from the colonies could not be replaced from England or from Quebec although attempts were made.
          With the outbreak of the shooting war in 1775 the food shortage did not improve. The price of flour and bread tripled, people went hungry and there were reports of some starving to death. This led to more attempts at farming on the island and several people leaving their small outports and heading for the larger population centers like St. Johns.
          Many Americans saw the value of disrupting the British fishery at Newfoundland. Only the lack of a navy of any size prevented a full-on attack on the

Vice Admiral John Montagu

island. Vice-Admiral John Montagu, commander of the Newfoundland station, had only four ships and a few smaller armed vessels to attempt to defend the coast, the Grand Banks fishing grounds and to disrupt American shipping to Europe. This meant that American privateers could wreak havoc almost at will. Most privateers were after the profit of capturing a British merchant vessel so the small fishing ships were not valuable targets in and of themselves but taking a fishing ship allowed privateers to resupply their stocks of food, water, naval stores and in some cases even men. They also began to attack the small outport villages on the southern coast of Newfoundland.

          The presence of American privateers seriously cut into the fishing off Newfoundland. In addition, the threat of impressment onto the British men of war stationed at Newfoundland or making an Atlantic crossing gave even more incentive to fishermen to stay off the seas. For the first time the resident population of Newfoundland exceeded the


migratory population.[i]

          The entrance of the French into the war brought a whole new level of importance to Newfoundland. Shortly after receiving news of the new alliance in 1778, Admiral Montagu took his small force and conquered St. Pierre and Miquelon. The islands had no defenses and were of little value but it really was a thumb in the eye to the French. This led Count D’Estaing to write to George Washington that he had heard the islands had been ravaged and that “We hope that with your assistance the day will come, when France shall partake the Cod-fishery with other nations.”[ii]
          Benjamin Franklin also caught on to the French interest in Newfoundland. On February 25, 1779, he suggested an attack on Nova Scotia and Newfoundland say “Halifax being reduced, the small forts of Newfoundland would easily follow…” He also stated that the fishery was a source of money for the British and “a great Nursery of Seamen.” A place where the British could man their naval vessels with experienced sailors.[iii]
          When the English government finally got serious about negotiating a peace treaty to end the war the rights to fish around Newfoundland were not only incredibly important to the Americans, but a major sticking point for the British. On January 7, 1782, Robert R. Livingston, who had the unenviable task, as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, of trying to supervise the peace negotiations in Paris

Just when you were wondering what this blog had to do with anything  

from Philadelphia wrote to negotiator Benjamin Franklin; “The fisheries will probably be a source of Litigation, not because our rights are doubtfull, but because Great Britain has never paid much attention to rights which interfere with her Views.”

He went on to explain more fully:
The Arguments of which the People of America found their claim to fish on the Banks of Newfoundland, arise first from their having once formed a part of the British Empire, in which State they allways enjoyed as fully as the People of Britain themselves, the right of fishing on those banks. They have shared in all the Wars for the extension of that right, and Britain could with no more justice have excluded them from the Enjoyment of it (even supposing that one Nation could possess it to the exclusion of an other) while they formed a part of that Empire, than they could exclude the People of London or Bristol. If so the only enquiry is how have we lost this right, if we were Tenants in Common with Great Britain while United with her, we still continue so, unless by our own Act we have relinquished our Title. Had we parted with mutual Consent, we should doubtless have made partition of our common Rights by Treaty. But the oppressions of Great Britain forced us to a seperation, (which must be admitted, or we have no right to be independant) it cannot certainly be contended that those oppressions abridged our Rights or gave new ones to Britain, our rights then are not invalidated by this seperation, more particularly as we have kept up our Claim from the commencement of the War, and assigned the attempt of Great Britain to exclude us from the fisheries as one of the causes of our recurring to Arms.
The second Ground upon which we place our right to fish on the Banks of Newfoundland provided we do not come within such distance of the coasts of other powers as the law of Nations allows them to appropriate, is the right which Nature gives to all Mankind to use its common Benefits, so far as not to exclude others. The Sea cannot in its nature be appropriated. No Nation can put its mark upon it, Tho’ attempts have sometimes been made to set up an Empire over it, they have been considered as unjust usurpations, and resisted as such in turn by every Maritime Nation in Europe.[iv]
Interestingly, in November of 1782, John Adams used a nearly identical

John Adams and his \”original\” ideas

argument during a negotiation session with British agents. As he recounted in his diary:

When God Almighty made the Banks of Newfoundland at 300 Leagues Distance from the People of America and at 600 Leagues distance from those of France and England, did he not give as good a Right to the former as to the latter. If Heaven in the Creation gave a Right, it is ours at least as much as yours. If Occupation, Use, and Possession give a Right, We have it as clearly as you. If War and Blood and Treasure give a Right, ours is as good as yours. We have been constantly fighting in Canada, Cape Breton and Nova Scotia for the Defense of this Fishery, and have expended beyond all Proportion more than you. If then the Right cannot be denied, Why should it not be acknowledged? and put out of Dispute? Why should We leave Room for illiterate Fishermen to wrangle and chicane?       [v]
It seems reasonable that Adams may have seen Livingston’s letter to Franklin at some point but the terrible relationship between the two men would never have allowed Adams to give any credit to Livingston for the ideas.
          Ultimately the Treaty of Paris was finalized in 1783 and signed. It consisted of ten articles. The first was America independence from Great Britain. The second defined the borders of the new United States. The third reads thusly:
It is agreed that the People of the United States shall continue to enjoy unmolested the Right to take Fish of every kind on the Grand Bank and on all the other Banks of Newfoundland, also in the Gulph of St. Lawrence and at all other Places in the Sea where the Inhabitants of both Countries used at any time heretofore to fish. And also that the Inhabitants of the United States shall have Liberty to take Fish of every kind on such Part of the Coast of Newfoundland as British Fishermen shall use, (but not to dry or cure the same on that Island) and also on the Coasts Bays & Creeks of all other of his Britannic Majestys Dominions in America, and that the American Fishermen shall have Liberty to dry & cure Fish in any of the unsettled Bays Harbours and Creeks of Nova-Scotia, Magdalen Islands, and Labrador, so long as the same shall remain unsettled, but so soon as the same or either of them shall be settled, it shall not be lawful for the sd: Fishermen to dry or cure Fish at such Settlement, without a previous Agreement for that purpose with the Inhabitants, Proprietors or Possessors of the Ground.[vi]
After independence, a share of the fishing trade was considered one of the most important objectives of the American negotiators. Its not until the 7th article that they actually get around to ending hostility and stopping the war.

It was all about this beautiful, majestic, delicious creature

          The importance of Newfoundland to America cannot be overstated. The territory would flare up again during the quasi-war with France at the end of the 18th century. In the 19th century fisherman from all over the east coast, including the City of Hudson would sail for the Grand Banks. At the beginning of World War II Franklin Delano Roosevelt traded a bunch of broken down destroyers to the British for the rights to put a base on Newfoundland. The base ended up operating throughout the war and the rest of the 20th century, only being scaled down in the 1990’s. It seems that this rocky island has inextricably connected to the fate of the United States.

[i]Much of this information come from several ariticles by Olaf Janzen publish on and to Olaf Janzen’s article JANZEN, OLAF. \”The Royal Navy and the Defence of Newfoundland during the American Revolution.\” Acadiensis 14, no. 1 (1984): 28-48.
[ii] “To George Washington from Vice Admiral d’Estaing, 6 October 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 17, 15 September–31 October 1778, ed. Philander D. Chase. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008, pp. 279–280.]
[iii] “From Benjamin Franklin to Vergennes: Two Letters, 25 February 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, [Original source: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 28, November 1, 1778, through February 28, 1779, ed. Barbara B. Oberg. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990, pp. 603–607.]
[iv] “To Benjamin Franklin from Robert R. Livingston, 7 January 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, [Original source: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 36, November 1, 1781, through March 15, 1782, ed. Ellen R. Cohn. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 390–402.]
[v] “1782 November 29. Fryday.,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, [Original source: The Adams Papers, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, vol. 3, Diary, 1782–1804; Autobiography, Part One to October 1776, ed. L. H. Butterfield. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961, pp. 79–81.]
[vi] “Definitive Treaty of Peace between the United States and Great Britain, 3 September 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, [Original source: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 40, May 16 through September 15, 1783, ed. Ellen R. Cohn. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011, pp. 566–575.]