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magazine / ja97

July/August 1997 issue


FEATURE

Cabot, cod and the colonists
When John Cabot crossed the Atlantic 500 years ago he was seeking a route to the Orient. But the merchants who were paying for his voyage were after something less exotic — cod. That conflicted journey shaped the history of Newfoundland
By Heather Pringle

BILL GILBERT clambers up a steep slope covered in springy heath and turns, gazing down at the tiny Newfoundland harbour that once cradled Sea Forest Plantation. Along the cove below, tiny spruce trees sprinkle the lowlands; rust-red heath and low-bush blueberry carpet the rocky ground. Tidy houses, each painted a fresh white, dot the harbour’s edge. The water shimmers like foil. Zipping up his polar fleece against the cold, Gilbert surveys the little harbour where merchants sought their fortunes nearly 400 years ago. "I think the brewhouse was probably down around there somewhere," he says softly, pointing to a small saltwater pond. "And they were building boats, so there would have been some sort of shipyard or boatyard."


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Founded in 1610, a decade before the Pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving at Plymouth, Sea Forest Plantation, also known as Cupers Cove, was Canada’s first official English colony. Financed by the London and Bristol Company, a small coterie of merchants from England’s two greatest ports, the fledgling plantation became a small outpost in a wild land, the culmination of more than a century of searching for new fishing grounds to feed a hungry Europe. Long lost to time and memory in the modern village of Cupids, tucked on the northern shore of the Avalon Peninsula, the colony remained for centuries little more than an entry in the history books. Two years ago, however, Gilbert and his crew unearthed the first traces of its ruins: the corner of a 17th-century wooden house complete with a massive stone fireplace.

Over the past two summers, the unassuming archeologist and his team of eight have exhumed thousands of relics — pieces of early 17th-century smoking pipes, case bottles (an early form of glass bottle made in England), handmade iron nails, trade beads and coarse English earthenware. While the colonists at Cupers Cove experimented with mineral exploration, fur trading, agriculture and sawmilling, their lives depended on the harbour and the ocean beyond. "In order to survive here," says Gilbert, "they really needed to fish."

But by the time these first settlers were wandering the primeval forests of the coast, European ships had been harvesting cod in the seas off Newfoundland for more than a century. For decades, historians have suggested that Giovanni Caboto, or John Cabot as he is now better known, stumbled on the region’s cod-rich waters 500 years ago this summer by accident as he scoured the seas for a western route to Asia’s spices, teas and porcelains. Many researchers have also dismissed Newfoundland’s earliest colonies as dismal failures, suggesting they collapsed within a few short years of their founding. Newfoundland, or so the story went, remained the almost exclusive preserve of Beothuk and Mi’Kmaq hunters and fleets of seasonal European fishers until the 18th century.

In recent years, however, archeologists, geographers and historians have uncovered a different tale. Poring over documents in European archives and excavating early colonial sites along Newfoundland’s English Shore, they are exhuming new evidence of pre-Cabot exploration and 17th-century settlement in the North Atlantic. The history of the early fishing captains of the North Atlantic, who were little interested in leaving behind records of their voyages and routes for competitors to read, is gradually being revealed. It is a tale woven from a host of seemingly unrelated threads — the Catholic calendar in medieval Europe, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the market for olive oil in the Mediterranean, and the Spanish quest for gold in the New World.

Far from being the first European to reach North America, say researchers such as Newfoundland geographer Gordon Handcock, Cabot likely sailed with some knowledge of the New World gleaned from earlier English mariners. Moreover, while the famous Italian navigator undertook his historic 1497 voyage to scout a route to the wealth of Cathay and Cipango in Asia, those financing both him and the first colonies of Newfoundland sought something more essential to Europeans — new fishing grounds to replace the overcrowded, some say exhausted, waters of Europe. The early colonies that followed were successful, shaping Newfoundland lives for generations. "The result of Cabot was the fishery," says Peter Pope, an archeologist at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s. "That’s not what he intended, but that was what happened."

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