Newfoundland and the Early Modern Period

In August 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert landed in St. John’s Harbour and took formal possession of the Island of Newfound Land in the name of Elizabeth I, Queen of England.  This was not the first time Europeans had come ashore on the Island.  Vikings arrived and stayed for a while in the 11th Century, John Cabot probably visited in 1497, and Basque fishermen set foot on Newfoundland’s shore to repair their nets, patch up their fishing vessels, and prepare their catches for European markets.   Gilbert’s visit to St. John’s was less about laying claim to the land, and more about extorting supplies  from the Portuguese fishing crews he knew would be in the harbour (A Short History of Newfoundland and Labrador, 31).   But Gilbert’s arrival staked a claim for the English Crown, and establishing a connection with England that would lead to the development of English settlements along the coast.

England’s claim was contested by other European rivals, most notably France, who wanted access to the rich fishing grounds off the coast.  For a time France maintained a military presence in what is now called Placentia Bay, to the west of St. John’s, in an effort to protect its lucrative fishing industry in the new world.   This region became known as the French Shore.  The English also wanted to protect their claims to the fishing grounds along the coast, and wanted to establish colonies in the new world.  The English territory along the Eastern Coast of the Island became known as the English Shore.  English settlement to the region came in fits and starts, beginning with the Colony of Cupper’s Cove in 1610.  Cupper’s Cove, or Cupids as it is now known, was the first English settlement in Canada.  Other colonies followed, including Lord Baltimore’s colony in Ferryland.  As with many of Newfoundland’s coastal settlements, Ferryland had earlier European inhabitants.  Portuguese fishermen had established a fishing station there in the early 1500s.  Breton fishermen had stayed there in the later sixteenth century, only to be displaced later by fishermen from the West Country.  Baltimore’s colonists did not arrive until 1621.

Relations between the two societies were generally civil, although tensions were not far from the surface, and were often effected by events elsewhere in the world (A Short History, 38-9).  European wars in the 17th and 18th Centuries had ripple effects on the western side of the Atlantic, and French and English soldiers fought and pillaged in Newfoundland, as they did elsewhere in North America and in Europe.  War between the Dutch and the English also led to Dutch attacks on the English Shore.  During the latter half of the 1600s in particular, several communities, including Cupids, St. John’s and Ferryland were burned to the ground.  Some of the most extreme violence occurred during King William’s War.  The English sacked Placentia in 1694, and French and Canadian troops destroyed many of the settlements along the English Shore in 1697, deporting their inhabitants (A Short History, 43).  English settlers returned to the Shore not long after this, however, and with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, France relinquished its claims to the Island.   The Newfound Land became an English possession.  By then there were several thousand permanent residents on the Island, the nucleus of Newfoundland’s early European population.


Newfoundland Historical Society.  A short history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, N.L. : Boulder Publications, 2008.

Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage. Exploration and Settlement. 2007.

O’Neill, Paul. The oldest city : the story of St. John’s, Newfoundland. Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, N.L. : Boulder Publications, 2003.

*Detail in the site header is from John Mason’s map of Newfoundland, ca. 1617. Centre for Newfoundland Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Click here
to see the complete map and to find out more about it.

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