The Deep Roots Of Bonavista

January 1, 1997 by David G. Bradley

Standing atop White Rock, overlooking the town of Bonavista, Nfld., on a blustery, bone-chilling, January morning, it is hard to imagine why fishing people settled here. It is the most easterly town in North America, sitting at the narrow tip of the Bonavista Peninsula where Bonavista and Trinity bays converge. With the North Atlantic crashing upon a coastline of steep, jagged cliffs, rugged outcrops of semi-immersed rock, wind-swept beaches and no semblance of a natural shelter for boats, it gives the impression that only the most daring, or foolhardy, could have chosen the place.

The absence of a natural harbor was a major handicap to survival here. A 17th century visitor described the harbor as, “an opening wilde road…very ffowle ground,” where four cables were required for each vessel instead of the usual two, nor legend has it, did the disadvantages of Bonavista harbor escape the notice of explorer John Cabot. Upon spotting Cape Bonavista on June 24, 1497, after an arduous voyage of many weeks, he paused only long enough to shout joyfully along with his crew: “Oh good sight, oh good sight”, thus giving the place its name, before sailing up Bonavista Bay to land at the safer haven of Keels.

Despite this handicap, Bonavista inhabitants were among the early European arrivals to Newfoundland. They were there by the mid-17th century but the first census, a list of planters, mainly resident property owners who ran fishing operations, did not appear until 1675. Among these 1675 planters were a Skiffington, Crew and Kates (Keats), names that can be found here today. The early census returns indicate a relatively heavy population for Bonavista and in 1699, its 446 inhabitants made it the most populated harbor on the island.

During the following 100 years, the population of Bonavista fluctuated as did that of Newfoundland generally because of wars and the developments in the migratory and resident fisheries. By the end of the 18th century, the majority of permanent inhabitants had arrived. Today, most residents can find references to their ancestors in the earliest surviving Church of England baptism, burial and marriage register that dates from 1786, and also from headstones in the cemetery that go back a half century to 1725. These early inhabitants hailed from the west of England, primarily the counties of Dorset, Devon, Hampshire and Somerset. But they also came from the southeastern counties of Ireland.

People accepted the harsh environmental conditions because the rough waters along the shoreline contained some of the most abundant fishing stocks in the waters around the island. These fishing grounds enticed people to settle here and, along with land-based resources, provided the economic base necessary for the population to survive through the generations. And, fortunately, the many beaches provided access to the shoreline for the construction of wharves, stages and flakes, all necessary to the trade.

Bonavista’s historical significance stems primarily from its position as the largest, one of the oldest, and, arguably, the most prosperous inshore fishing town in Newfoundland. But that is cold comfort these days. in 1992, the inshore cod fishery, was closed along with other fisheries because stocks had collapsed, giving every indication that the final chapter of that long history was at hand. While there has been some improvement in the condition of cod stocks since then, it may be many years before there is a return to a full-scale commercial inshore cod fishery in Newfoundland generally, especially on the northeast coast, including Bonavista and the Labrador coast. Thus, there are fears that fish stocks will never recover sufficiently to permit a viable commercial fishery in some areas; that far fewer people will be employed if and when the fishery is re-opened; and that the inshore sector will be unduly restricted despite its advantages from a conservation perspective in favor of the offshore sector which processors claim, is more “efficient” because it employs less people. There is also the fear that communities with a strong historical attachment to both processing and catching fish, will lose their processing plants because the provincial government will permit the transfer of processing licenses to the large, “modern,” but unoccupied offshore sector plants. This, they feel, would allow companies to convince their shareholders that wanton investment in these giant fish factories in the 1980s was not complete folly. Finally, there is the fear that many people will be forced to join the legions of those who have already left the province in recent years, causing some communities to die. If the worst fears are realized, and large sections of rural Newfoundland are eviscerated, either by the absence of codfish or unwise reorganization of the future fishery, an important era in Canadian history will end without ever having been fully studied and understood by Canadians.

On the surface, it seems frivolous and callous to lament the obscurity of history when so many people face difficult futures. People everywhere have a strong attachment to their communities, but in Newfoundland the bond seems to be intensified by a complex myriad of historical, cultural, social, environmental and economic factors. Many of the people who are ultimately displaced from the traditional industry will be forced to abandon their community. That is an agonizing and enibittering prospect because deep roots are always the most painful to extract.

We must explore our past if we are to succeed in keeping our fishing communities alive. After all, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Newfoundland history is that people settled on the coast, survived and created stable, even vibrant, communities, now centuries old, despite considerable geographic and climatic obstacles. By delving into that past, reflecting on the initiative, ingenuity and independence of earlier inhabitants, and celebrating it, people may be inspired to find ways to contribute to the survival and well-being of their communities. Societies and communities that have a greater appreciation of their past are likely to be stronger than those where there is little interest in such matters. At Bonavista there is much history to explore and reflect upon.

Historic Bonavista

More than any other outport, Bonavista is the quintessential Newfoundland inshore fishing town. Neighboring Trinity was the mercantile centre in the region for the English west country migratory fishery in the 17th and 18th centuries, largely because of its fine harbor. But the Trinity merchants established branch operations at Bonavista to profit from the migratory and resident fisheries there. The end of the British migratory fishery during the first quarter of the 19th century and the subsequent withdrawal of British firms from Newfoundland changed the situation and precipitated the “rise of St. John’s.” St. John’s merchants expanded their sphere of influence by establishing agents or “connexions” with local traders in the outports. Bonavista was different in that local people, descendants of resident planters, became independent merchants, expanding outside of the immediate area, exporting their fish to market and importing supplies from abroad. This may have contributed to a greater degree of economic stability in the community during the second half of the 19th century and beyond than otherwise might have been the case.

Bonavista did not develop as a shipping port and mercantile centre for the Labrador and sealing fisheries as did St. John’s, Harbour Grace, Carbonear, Trinity, King’s Cove, Catalina, Twillingate and others because its inadequate harbor could not safely accommodate larger vessels. The reliance on inshore fishery, however, appears to have been advantageous in the second half of the 19th century as Newfoundland’s Labrador fishery declined and the sealing industry became consolidated at St. John’s. Many outports, including Trinity, declined as a result, but Bonavista experienced relatively steady growth. Its population jumped from 2,150 in 1857 to 3,463 in 1884. In this period, Bonavista became the mercantile centre of the region and one of the largest towns in Newfoundland.

Despite the relative success of the community, life was always a challenge. People worked extremely hard under harsh conditions and many suffered immensely in order to survive, but that is the story of Newfoundland. Whether on the exposed headlands or in the more sheltered bays, from earliest habitation in the 17th century up to the 1940s, the bulk of the population lived by participating in a single staple export industry–dried salt codfish. This was augmented by supplementary agriculture and a great deal of homespun ingenuity. Relatively poor soil and an often unforgiving maritime climate limited the potential for large scale agricultural production. Diet staples of flour and molasses as well as other goods were imported from Britain and the United States. Markets for dried salt cod were found primarily in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and the West Indies and thus, in order to get their produce to these distant ports, fishermen sold it to the same merchants from whom they bought the imported goods. From the 19th century, the medium of exchange between fisher and merchant was truck or, as it is more commonly know, the credit system. This system was exploitive because merchants had the distinct advantage of being able to dictate the price of both the goods sold and the fish bought from fishing crews. Only competition among firms and the determination of many fishers to negotiate acceptable terms, prevented the system from being completely skewed in the merchants’ favor. And both merchants and fishers were subjected to the vagaries of international markets.

Protecting boats and property on the exposed coastline at Bonavista was another concern. Storms were common during the fishing season, but especially in the spring and fall. Fishermen in Newfoundland built stages on their waterside property out over the water’s edge where they landed fish from their boats and performed the initial processing stages of heading, gutting, splitting, and salting: It was then left in bulk to absorb the salt and later washed before being dried on nearby flakes. in sheltered harbors, stages could be permanent structures but at Bonavista, they were built or “put out” each year. And in bad storms, stages, boats and gear could be lost.

On Sept. 20, 1880, Nicholas Ryan recounted one such incident in the firm’s business diary: “Yesterday, a terrific sea raged throughout the day, Wind north and east. From an early hour the streets were thronged with crowds eagerly watching for boats coming ashore of which unfortunately, there were quite a number. William and Geoff Cuffs boat, fish laden, was pierced by some floating wreck and sunk soon after. About 60 quintals of fish was saved toward nightfall when the wreck of their boat drifted ashore. Several boats were totally demolished. other (boats) succeeded in coming ashore in fair condition.” But not only material wreckage washed ashore that morning. Ryan wrote that, “(the) body of Squires who was drowned in company with Tremblett on 15th June last was recovered and interred today.”

On June 7, 1885, another storm wrought havoc on the town. Again, Ryan recorded the event in the diary: “A gale of momentous and unparalleled severity visited us yesterday, causing a loss to property to the amount of 5,000 pounds. Baine, Johnston and Co’s. barquentine, Christabel, drifted from her moorings at Swerry Head and held on at a cable’s length from Caplin Cove. One man lost. Schooners Sunburst, Minnies, First Trial, Saint’s craft of Goose Bay, and Ida May, totally lost. Joy’s, Paul’s, Hamp(ton)’s, Clarke’s, Goodland’s, Russell’s, Groves’, Skiffington’s and several other small boats came ashore.” With the bulk of the fishing season ahead, the storm devastated those affected. On June 9 Ryan reported: “(The) beach presents a scene of mutilated wreckage–boats, pieces of them, stage material, and other necessaries are strewn in all directions,” prompting him to add, “(A) great many fishermen have no means nor boats to fish in, and what they will do sorely puzzles them.”

The credit system, international markets, limitations of agriculture, and the climate, all affected people’s ability to earn a living. By the mid-1880s, there was a severe depression, stemming largely from the lethal combination of catch failure and market problems, which caused merchants to restrict credit to many fishing crews, placing their families in jeopardy. When catches were bad out at the headlands, it was worse up in the bays.

The severity of conditions at nearby Birchy and Amherst coves in 1887 was enough to startle even Magistrate Thomas Stabb, the government agent responsible for dispensing public relief, and notable for his contemptuous view of the poor. “I have had no application for relief from the able bodied in these coves,” he reported to the colonial secretary in December, “but from what I learn from clergymen and others and from enquiries personally made, I knew they are in a wretched state, the fishery being almost a total failure, and they having no other way or earning anything. Many have been living solely on potatoes since August … and now many have exhausted their small stocks. The magistrate also wrote that the people are far worse off in the way of clothing, many being nearly naked, making it almost impossible for them to do work on the roads in winter to any advantage.”

Such accounts of the past must be especially chilling to those who witnessed the equally harsh conditions in the 1930s and now see that a large proportion of the population is again staring into an economic abyss. But the past is instructive because most people survived these downturns,and carried on to prosper in better times, a testament to their perseverance and spirit. In recent years, dozens of community heritage organizations and museums have sprung up in fishing communities keen to preserve important aspects of their past. These organizations are motivated, in part, by self-preservation; the desire to breathe new life into their communities through tourism and other economic opportunities. This approach is presently being pursued at Bonavista. Conceived and initiated the Bonavista Historical Society, but embraced by a broad range of community groups, the historic district project is intended to preserve and revitalize the traditional cultural landscape in a manner that will contribute to the economic well-being of the town. its principal goal is to make Bonavistai its history and culture more appealing and accessible to visitors and residents. The project, will be based on the principle of sustainable community development which, in this case means, that the conservation and restoration work will rely on local designs, resources, materials and skills that have been neglected or discarded by most people since Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949. Bonavista is an ideal candidate for such a project. The cultural landscape is the most vivid physical representation of its long history as Newfoundland’s principal inshore fishing town and is therefore worthy of preservation.

The Cultural Landscape

Approximately 500 houses were built at Bonavista between 1857 and 1911 and these form the bulk of the traditional housing stock at Bonavista today. Most of the existing traditional commercial, institutional, fraternal, government and outbuildings were also constructed during this 50-year period of significant growth in the town. And, despite the loss of so many in the last 30 years, Bonavista has the largest number of heritage structures outside St. john’s.

The cultural landscape at Bonavista is immensely rich and diverse; perhaps the best surviving traditional landscape in outport Newfoundland. Bridge House, circa 1811, is the oldest documented house in Newfoundland and, if the history is correct, the Big Red Store at Mockbeggar, circa 1733, is the oldest structure. In 1987, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada designated the Ryan Premises, the best preserved set of mercantile buildings in the province (1869-1888), as a national histbric site. The designation commemorated Canada’s east coast fishery. The Ryan Premises, along with the Mockbeggar Property and the Cape Bonavista Lighthouse Provincial Historic Sites, adds to the variety of buildings and architectural styles. The Orange Hall, with its five-storey domed-roof tower, is probably the largest fraternal hall of wood construction in the country. Memorial United Church, which may be the largest wooden church in the country, seats more than 1,200 people. Built in 1918, the church has a name that commemorates those killed in WW I. The Roman Catholic church, built in 1842, is among the oldest on the island. Meanwhile the Keough building, circa 1860, predates the Ryan buildings and is therefore the oldest commercial structure on the harbor front. The FPI facility, opened as the Bonavista Cold Storage Company in 1939, is the oldest surviving fish plant on the island and, situated adjacent to the Ryan Premises and the Templeman/Swyers premises, it provides a fascinating physical illustration of that important shift in the fishing economy from dried, salt codfish to fresh, frozen fish.

There is a wide range of traditional houses, both in terms of architectural style and socio-economic status of the owners. There are hipped-roof, salt-box roof, low-gable, steep-gable, singlefront-peak-gable, double-front-peakgable, double-piercing-dormer-gable, and mansard-roof houses. They belonged to poorer fishing families, middling fishing families, prosperous fishing families, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, carpenters, sailors, captains, clerks, clerics, merchants, and other traders and shopkeepers. These buildings possess some architectural features that are rare or non-existent elsewhere,in Newfoundland, most notably the gable roundel and panel, which may have been an innovation of the Strathics, Bonavista’s premier builders between 1811-1940.

These various architectural styles are complemented by other aspects of the cultural landscape. Understandably, initial settlement occurred along the waterfront where the earliest inhabitants established their fishing rooms in the 17th century. Bonavista had a large population very early in its history, however, and most of the available land close to the Waterfront was occupied by the end of the 18th century. This forced later generations to settle further back from the shoreline and this in turn created the need for roads to connect them to the commercial and social centre of town. The result is an abundance of narrow lanes that intersect with and run in every direction. Thus, in contrast to many outports that possess only a single road following along the shoreline, Bonavista has a town centre with a complex road network running into it. Among other uses, the lanes provided access to large potato gardens maintained by many families on the perimeter of the town where few people lived. Again, this was necessary because little space existed along the crowded shoreline for agricultural production. The small kitchen gardens people maintained beside their houses could not supply sufficient produce to sustain them. Cape Bonavista, adjacent to the town, was the most heavily occupied of these areas. The large amount of relatively flat, arable land next to this summer fishing station made it an ideal location. Families who moved to the cape for the summer fishing season, or lived there throughout the year, could easily tend to their gardens. Fishing and farming went hand in hand at the cape as it did in other parts of town. It is also well known that many people who did not reside at the cape kept gardens there. Women, who usually looked after the family gardens, made the daily trek to the cape during the growing season from as far away as Canaille, an ancient section of town, a distance of approximately five kilometres. Many of these gardens exist today, although a large number have not been under cultivation in recent years.

Fencing was also a predominant aspect of the cultural landscape at Bonavista. Painted vertical paling, board and unfinished picket fences outlined the configuration of properties. Rather than being positioned in uniform rows, buildings often stood alone or at different angles to the road, making them more visible on the landscape. This irregular patterning of the landscape is medieval in influence unlike the orderly gridiron pattern found in most North American cities.

When you look at Bonavista, you quickly realize that societies have a responsibility to preserve the physical legacies of their past so as to prevent them from being lost forever. If permitted, history can become the preserve of archives and museums where documents and artifacts are locked away on shelves for the benefit of scholars, antiquarians and curiosity seekers But in communities like Sonavista, history is part of everyday life; it is evident to residents as they walk down the street, enter a friend’s house, go to church, attend a lodge meeting or lean on a neighbor’s fence. With proper attention, this cultural inheritance, bequeathed by earlier generations, can be preserved for all Canadians and in the process, help to instil a sense of pride and permanence in this historic fishing town.

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