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Newfoundland cliffs and sea

Up and down the rock-ribbed Atlantic coast of Newfoundland are centuries-old fishing villages.

Hospitality draws newcomers

Thousands of air passengers were forced to land in Newfoundland when America closed its air space on 11 September 2001 and they were stranded there for days. They were treated so kindly that some of the passengers have returned and bought summer homes on the rugged island that (with 42,000 square miles) is rather bigger than Ireland but has only half a million people.

Map of Newfoundland and Labrador

Newfoundland is the island at bottom right. It is now part of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Labrador lies to the north.

The people of Newfoundland are mainly of British origin, with the majority coming from four western counties in England - Devon, Dorset, Somerset, and Cornwall. Perhaps 20% are descended from Irish settlers. In villages along the 10,000 miles of Newfoundland’s sea-sculpted coast, the 17th century accents of West Country people and Irish can still be heard.

Outside the modern university capital of St. John’s, houses are often built of two-frame construction, painted in bright colours and scattered in safe harbours near wharves and fish-drying platforms.

Newfoundland frame house

A frame-built house in Newfoundland, typical -
though each is unique - of the older style.


Five hundred years before Christopher Columbus, around AD 1000, when Northern Europe and the Arctic were experiencing several centuries of warmer weather, Leif Ericson (sometimes spelled Leifr Eiríksson) led Vikings south from Iceland to Baffin Island, sailed south along the coast of Labrador, and discovered the land he called Vinland, a Norse word meaning grassland.

It is now believed that the remains of the Viking settlement have been found on Newfoundland in L’Anse aux Meadows. Despite pastureland and ponds and lakes, the Norse did not stay long. They found the several thousand natives, whom they called skrælingar, very unfriendly, perhaps a response to Viking manners, and they abandoned their settlement.

Ireland’s Saint Brendan, the Welsh Prince Madoc, and the Scottish Prince Henry Sinclair, Earl of the Orkneys, were all said to have voyaged west and to have bumped into Newfoundland before the 14th century. Thrusting into the Atlantic at the entrance to the Gulf of St Lawrence, the island is hard to miss, but the official discoverer was John Cabot, a Genoese-Venetian navigator sailing under the English flag. He brought enthralling reports about fishing on the Grand Banks to his Bristol backers in 1497.

Well he might. The Grand Banks were the richest fishing grounds in the world. Just a few decades later, English, French, Spanish and Portuguese fishermen were contesting for catches.

Fishing – wealth, music and disaster

The Spanish, Portuguese and French concentrated on fishing for cod on the Banks; the catch was salted on board ships and brought back to Europe where it became a favorite staple food. “On the Grand Banks and other banks offshore it was reasonably simple to seek out the fish stocks at any time during the season, but inshore, where most of the English fished, a knowledge of the fishing grounds took years to acquire, and was added to in each generation. The inshore fishery was dependent on the cod migrating from their offshore feeding and breeding grounds, each year in early summer, and each harbour and inlet had certain peculiarities” (Shannon Ryan, Memorial University of Newfoundland, History of Newfoundland Cod Fishery, 1990.)

The British also developed a system which combined light salting for a short period, followed by thorough washing, and drying in the open air. The result was the lightly salted product for which Newfoundland became famous. Everyone used hook and line, an old and environmentally friendly way of fishing.

At first fishermen were not encouraged to live year-round. The British government treated the island as if it were a gigantic fishing vessel with crews moving on and off. But over the centuries English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish fishermen did stay, and brought their families, and their musical and storytelling traditions. Eventually, and somewhat reluctantly, their independent descendants voted to join Canada in 1949.

The ruggedness of the land meant people depended on each other. They were hospitable to visitors, and they loved to meet to sing and tell stories. They were also vulnerable.

As fishing modernized, demand and greed drove huge foreign catches off the Grand Banks. The foreign fleets were no longer using hook and line. They were making huge kills, including young fish, and they were underreporting catches. As a result the young cod never reached adulthood when, around the age of seven, they spawned. The destruction of the fishing grounds will sound eerily familiar to British fishermen whose livelihood was destroyed by fishing practices allowed by the European Union. Changes in water temperature were also said to be a factor.

Happy Newfoundland family

Image: Humber Valley Real Estate, Newfoundland


The extent of the catastrophe was plain in 1990. In a desperate effort to save the industry, Canada shut down fishing. Overnight, 40,000 jobs in Newfoundland were lost. This was a terrible blow. Thousands of men left, to go into lumber or mining in other provinces in Canada. The moratorium was lifted in 1994.

There has been a recovery, but the housing market has stayed flat. Newfoundland, after all, is a bit off the beaten track. However, It attracts those who love beauty and the hospitality of Newfoundlanders.

They remain welcoming and helpful. For most of their lives they have never locked their doors.



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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass