The geographically isolated, economically marginalized, wet and windswept island off the eastern coast of Canada made of 43, 000 square miles of granite and 625 sq. mi. of fresh water, broken up by several million evergreen trees, thousands of moose, roughly half-a-million people, and quite possibly the worst climate in the world.

The Beothuk Indians were the tribe which originally inhabited the Island when Vikings, then later Portugeuse and English fishing vessels began to arrive. Development of the island was slow through the 16th and 17th centuries (mainly seasonal fishing villages established along the coast) but with the growth of the British Empire's hold on the Atlantic, and then the Irish Potato Famine, people from the British Isles streamed into Newfoundland as the price of fish rose. The make-up of the island increased radically and is now descended largely from the Anglo-Irish poor, espeically in St. John's, the capital, who were world-reknowned among the merchantile class for their hard work and low wages. The island was a British colony from the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) upto the end of WWII (1949) when the electorate voted (by a very narrow and now-somewhat contested margin) to join Canadian Confederation. Besides the Irish influence and the maritime culture, the Roman Catholic Church also played a large part in shaping islander's ethos, especially through the Catholic school system.

The early (and continued) poverty & black humor of the island is also reflected in the place names given over the years, which include Gripe Point, Bad Bay, Bleak Island, Misery Point, Famine Point, Wild Bight, Breakheart Point, Famish Gut, Savage Cove, Dead Man's Bay, Confusion Bay, Wreck Cove, Bareneed and Empty Basket.

The pre-history of the island are significant for two reasons : first, the last glaciation 10, 000 years ago (wherein much of Northeastern North America was covered) essentially shaped the geography of the island as it exists today. The immense weight of the Laurentide Ice Sheet created the thousands of tiny jagged coves, guts and gullies which spread along the entire coastline of the island. However, those same glaciers which carved out an ideal base of harbours for fishing off Newfoundland, also scoured away almost all the topsoil and left vast stretches of the interior barren with scrub and boulders. (Rowe, 4) As a result, cultivation on the vast majority of the island was next to impossible (which became a major hassle for later settlers).1

Archeological evidence indicates the Beothuk (BEE-othic) tribes inhabited the island for several thousand years even before the Vikings arrived c. 1000 AD. The Norsemen settled around the northmost tip of the Western island, L'Anse aux Meadows. In addition, there is some fairly serious historical debate over the authenticity of the Navigatio Sancti Brendani, which chronicles the voyage of Abbot Brendan and his monks across the Atlantic in the late 6th century. While this sounds implausible, the medieval Irish had already sailed & settled as far as the Faeroes & Iceland. Events like the siege of Lindisfarne in 793 sent monks scurrying westward in their curragh boats. The Norsemen wouldn’t catch up to them in this Westward migration until 874 AD. Finally, the charts of Bristol fishermen, from the period around 1325 indicate a large island to the far west, beyond Ireland, labelled Hy-Brasil (lit. ‘The Isle of the Blest’, which was a sort of a mythic Atlantis/Avalon of late medieval Irishmen). While the early Irish landing is still considered far-fetched, one needs to keep in mind the Viking hypothesis was considered equally absurd up until the archeological discoveries on the northern tip of the island in the 1950s.*

From John Cabot's (a.k.a. Giovanni Caboto) ‘discovery’ in 1497, ships from all over Western Europe came to Newfoundland's waters to fish, and soon founded the old town of St. John's (the oldest and most easterly city in North America) in the year 1528, during the latter part of the Renaissance.2
” 1506, the Portuguese had also established a fishery in Terra Nova - which in the 16th c. could be anywhere from the Strait of Belle Isle to New England...the Basques from both France and Spain had begun to arrive by about 1512...European familiarity with the peoples and lands of the Atlantic region grew...with the advent of a large-scale Basque whaling effort in the 1540s and an increased fur trade after 1580...England, France, Spain and Portugal sent together some 400 vessels & 12, 000 men a year.” #
Atlantic codfish, salmon, herring, mackerel & turbot were exported back to Europe in massive quantities, while bait fish (namely squid, mussels & capelin) became staples of local diet, even today. The seal hunt and commercial whaling also became major components of the early fishery, namely for seal pelts which were in fashion with European hat makers & blubber for British soap & lamp oil. (Rowe, 9-10)

Thanks to its closed, easily-defensible harbour and proximity to the fishing grounds, the city gained prominence as a commercial trading outpost for the Basque, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English throughout the 1500s- who were all at that time vying for control of the New World.3
"In the late 16th c., ships sent out from France, according to Harold Innis, were on average around 100 tons & carried a crew of 15-18 men...loaded with salt on the outward voyage, they returned with holds filled with fish. A vessel of some 100-150 tons could bring some 20, 000 - 25, 000 fish." (Griffith, 47)
By the 1590s, the rise of Britain's naval power had consolidated and their presence in Newfoundland grew. St. John's recorded the first permanent settlers in this period with a family named Oxford, who established a plantation in the early 1600's. Early attempts at settlement were attempted near Cupid’s Cove (est. 1610) on the west side of the Avalon Peninsula. While John Guy here records the first encounters with the native Beothuk and some exploration is accomplished, harsh winters, scurvy and poor material preparation led to their abandonment in under a decade. 1618 sees the landing of dozens of settlement ships from Bristol who establish Harbour Grace. In the 1650s, villages began to appear, along 15 separate settlements on the north "English Shore". These totalled roughly 350 families, or some 2000 souls, though written records of precisely who these people were - fishermen, wives, daughters, servants or artisans - is scanty. One significant aspect of this migration is to note the small European communities had little effect upon the remaining Beothuk. These clans had been much harder pressed to meet the earlier incursions of Mi'kmaq warbands from Cape Breton. By that point, the once great hunting Beothuks were reduced to looting abandoned winter camps and barns for tools (see Michael Crummey's historical novel River Thieves), in desperate hope these artifacts would enable them to eject their rivals from the Island.

The various European wars which took place between 1689 - 1713 led to a great deal of destruction and violence on the Island, esp. The War of the Spanish Succession. Many of the early inhabitants were killed, forcibly relocated or taken into French custody (the pop. dropped from 5000 in 1690 to 1130 in 1705). Settlement was largely abandoned during this period. However, things calmed noticeably with the Treaty of Utrecht, which forbade the French from all the most habitable parts of the island. To fill the new demand for peace time settlers, the Irish, in particular, moved to Newfoundland in droves after this point - in the 1720s there were roughly 3500 inhabitants, by 1750, this doubled to 7,000, and by 1774 some 12,000 souls had arrived, almost exclusively piss-poor Irish. Wharves, fish stores, and warehouses constructed to accommodate the trade spread and the oldest commercial street in North America was established to move goods to the new colony’s communities in Bay Bulls, Renews, Torbay (my hometown!), Harbour Grace, Carbonear, Brigus, Trinity & Bonavista (Rowe, 123-125).

Fishers, fishery servants, traders, and their families along with fishing captains, pirates, traders, privateers and naval officers mingled on the streets of St. John's going from storehouse, to warehouse to alehouse. 4 The port's centrality to the Atlantic fishery made it a prime military target, being a primary food supply.

The earliest battles for the city began in 1555 when the Basque aimed to capture St. John's from the French. Then in June 1665, the Dutch Admiral De Ruyter took St. John's from the English. Through the 17th and 18th centuries, the English and French engaged in on-going naval war with St. John's as a battle ground, until 1762 when British forces took the city. Between 1588 (the Armada) & 1815 (Waterloo), England was dragged into 16 majors wars as an active combatant for 111 of those 227 years; incl. the above-mentioned War of Spanish Succession and the War of the Austrian Succession (1739-1748), the Seven Years War, the American Revolutionary War (1775), the French Revolution and the War of 1812.

The early Irish Famines of the 1730s had sparked further migration to Newfoundland, with the Irish population on the island increasing thirteenfold between 1733 to 1753. With the Napoleonic Wars raging in 1791 throughout Europe prices for fish skyrocketed, attracting thousands of Irish immigrants who saw this 'gold rush' as an escape from poverty. Four thousand had arrived yearly from the Emerald Isle through most of the 1770s.5 This influx pushed the population of St. John's up to 10, 000 by the end of these wars in 1815. The economic boom of the fishery ended with the conclusion of the war and the island's economy soured. In 1892, ¾ of St. John's was destroyed by fire and the cost of restoration saddled the island with debt until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

This period was followed almost immediately by another boom of activity as American Armed Forces bases were constructed hurriedly around the island during WWII, as Newfoundland's location in the Atlantic became a springboard for overseas operations. After the war was over, the U.S. withdrew most of its personnel and closed the military installations during the 1950s and 1960s. Meanwhile, just after the war, Newfoundlanders voted against maintaining ties with Britain as a colony (by a very narrow margin), and joined Confederation, under the efforts of the campaigning premier as the time, Joey Smallwood.

Since then, the economic and environmental mis-management of the North Atlantic fishery, by both federal and provincial governments, led to the depletion of the resource by the early 1990s. The economy of the province, never robust to begin with, collapsed almost completely. Unemployment in many areas climbed to 70% - only recent discoveries of natural gas and revamped tourism projects (along with a small but growing high technology sector) begun to reverse this decline.
1 There were, however, vast swaths of wild berries growing along shore in almost every cove - there is some speculation that this ma even have been one of the reasons the Vikings put down on the island - to gather fruit & therefore stave off scurvy. The extreme precipitation (including some of the world’s thickest and most prevalent fogs) experienced throughout the year led to vast harvests of blueberry, raspberry, partridge berry, squash berry & cloudberry (aka bake apple, my favourite).
* Clearly, earlier voyages wouldn’t have done the transatlantic sail in the ‘let’s follow the lines of latitude mode of Columbus or Cabot - only ships that size could manage a 1600 m. continuous voyage like that. However, if you take a look at a detailed map of the North Atlantic, you can actually see that you travel from the shores of Western Europe and sail to any part of eastern North America without ever being more than 200 miles from land. The Irish monks could have easily pulled that off if they made landfall at Iceland. See McGhee, Robert. "Northern Approaches," The Beaver, URL: below.
2 The term 'discovery' is used here in the purely 'oh look at me I'm a legally chartered representative of a nation state making a claim on territory before any other European monarchs follow suit' sense.
# R. Pastore, “Aboriginal Peoples and European Contacts”, in The Atlantic Region To Confederation, 22. Through most of the 16th, the British largely ignored the region - and so the Portuguese capitalized on the lapse. However, Elizabeth I saw the future of England’s navy was tied to the sea-training provided to young boys, largely at the time though the fishery. By 1620, the fishery began to be dominated by the English, who sent 300 ships & 10,000 men of their own that year, in addition to the 200 vessels from other European states (Rowe, 97-99).
3 A sunken whaling vessel discovered on the seafloor off the mouth of the St. Lawrence indicates the Basques' whalers may have been active in the region as early as the 1440s (again, trumping the English). Similar unconfirmed stories appear about the cod fishermen of Bristol. The simple reason they never announced their discovery of the region was, frankly, to minimize commercial competition. As Robert Grenier (Canadian underwater archeologist) put it, the region was "the Saudi Arabia of the 16th century. Over 80 percent of the whale oil in the world came from here, and was used to create over 30 products."
4 On the subject of Atlantic pirates during this period, the worst of the bunch were without question the Sallee Rovers, a contingent of Barbary pirates from the sheltered port of Salé, Morocco who actually formed a kind of "nautical Foreign Legion" who sailed under the Turkish banner of the Ottomans. Many of the sea-raiders were actually outcast 'Moriscos' from Moorish Spain, having fled recently recaptured Valencia, and they swore revenge against all Christians for the expulsion at their hands. From 1609 to 1650, the Rovers (allied with the French) effectively wrested all control of the North Atlantic from England, which lost hundreds of vessels during the period. From the Tagus to Bristol and beyond, the Sallee Rovers were the sea-borne terrorists par excellence for nearly two centuries. The town of Poole, just as an example, lost 20 ships alone in four years. Since the job of a Sea rover was essentially to kidnap, steal or hijack anything not nailed down, the intense trade of the North Atlantic soon proved irresistible, and they ruthlessly pilfered the seas from Devon to St. John's until the English & Dutch navies teamed up in 1657 to bombard their North African headquarters into dust (Rowe, 137). Tangentially, the kidnapping of English sailors during this period, involved in the Newfoundland fishery, led to the first recorded European ‘pilgrimage’ to Mecca in the 17th century, detailed in Joseph PittsA faithful account of the religion and manners of the Mahometans (Exeter, 1704), see "Discovering Islam in Devon", updated 30 Aug 2001. (accessed April 2, 2002) and Richard Fletcher, Moorish Spain (London, 1992), 169.
5 The single biggest problem here, mixing the Irish into an oppressive environment where the English were still in control, the weather was bad & the winters long was, you guessed it, booze, which at the time was available in the form of rum from the West Indies or southern States at obscenely cheap prices. To give you idea how much these people drank, in 1772, St. John’s imported 121, 000 gallons for rum from New England and another 57, 000 from the West Indies. In 1813, 426, 000 gallons for rum & spirits were imported, at a time when all of the island had roughly 30, 000 inhabitants, meaning they were consuming roughly 100 pints of proof liquor, per year, every man, woman & child.
Rowe, F. W. History of Newfoundland & Labrador (McGraw-Hill, 1980)
N.E.S. Griffith, "Fish, Fur & Folk" in The Atlantic Region to Confederation ed. Buckner & Reid (Toronto: 1994)
Harold Innis, The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy (Toronto, 1978)
McGhee, R. "Northern Approaches," The Beaver. Vol. 72, June/July 1992 pp. 6-23. - Last Updated: 2001-03-17. Accessed April 2, 2002.
Newfoundland discovered: English attempts at colonisation... ed. Gillian T. Cell (London, 1982) - contains dozens of original letters, journals, inventories and publications from the 17th Century.