Cod Fishing in New France
In 1683, Jacques de Meulles, the Intendant of New France, wrote: “One might say that this fishery is a Peru and if it were carried out only by the king’s subjects, this country [New France] would soon be flourishing.”
Cod fishing off the coasts of New France was highly profitable for France. As well as the migratory fishing conducted on the banks of Newfoundland, there was also the so-called “sedentary fishing” conducted at fixed points along the coast, where dried and salted cod was prepared. It is this latter activity that concerns us here.
A vast territory
For fishermen, the territory that could be used for sedentary fishing included the estuary of the Saint Lawrence, Chaleur Bay, Acadia, Cap-Breton Island or Île-Royale, Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, Newfoundland and Labrador. According to statistics, 172,260 fishermen came just from the ports of Granville and Saint-Malo to work in one or more of these regions between 1670 to 1763. According to Jean Talon, all these people involved in the cod fisheries brought back about 10 million livres to the metropole every year.
The fishermen established permanently in Newfoundland had come over directly from France. In 1686, the island had 643 inhabitants. Between 1700 and 1711, 200 more arrived each year in Plaisance alone. Each spring, this small capital saw its population almost double with the annual arrival of migrants. For example, in 1711, a total of 189 people lived in Plaisance, while 352 seasonal workers arrived for the new season. In general, established and hired fishermen took catches worth 3,000,000 livres a year.
The island of Cape Breton, or Île-Royale, welcomed its first 200 inhabitants after the signature of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713). More would soon arrive and, by 1752, the island was home to 5,845 inhabitants in 1752, though a large portion of this population were soldiers. This was because one of the main for the colony's existence was to block the British forces threatening the Saint Lawrence Valley. In any case, the resident fishermen’s activities paid back dividends to the homeland. Indeed, in 1752, the value of cod dried on Île-Royale reached 1,771,960 livres. The same went for fishing seasons, such as in 1730, when the haul was valued at 3,490,200 livres according to French rates.
Acadia had a very early experience of fishing enterprises. Those of Nicolas Denys are perhaps the best known; he developed establishments in the Gaspé Peninsula, in Chaleur Bay, Miscou, the island of Cape Breton, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. He had many competitors, including Armand Lalloue de Rivedoux and the Marquis Charles Coningan, Charles de Menou d’Aulnay, Emmanuel Le Borgne, as well as his own nephew Pierre Denys de La Ronde. Another producer, the Compagnie de la pêche sédentaire d’Acadie (1683-1714) invested enormous sums in the development of the industry and the settlement of colonists. But all this ended up being in vain, since, by the end of its operations, the company had accrued 426,774 livres in losses.
There was also the coast of Labrador, where hundreds of metropolitan fishermen arrived each year. “The state should see Labrador as its Peru”, wrote François Martel de Brouague in 1715, who soon became the King’s Commanding officer in this sector. Here, the Basques hunted whales while the Bretons and the Normands focused on codfish, but this did not prevent the Canadians from also reaping the rewards of the region. For example, in 1717, it cost the Seminary of Quebec 13,770 livres to send La Sainte-Famille (30 men) to fish there. This effort brought in a tidy 24,000 livres. However, few people actually lived in the region. Françoise Niellon estimated that at most 160 people had set up home there by the eve of the Conquest.
The Canadians of the Saint Lawrence Valley began focusing on cod from the 1670s. While they were less numerous than those coming from France, they reached the Gulf of Saint Lawrence so quickly that the King had to split the territory between the two groups. In 1681 an Ordonnance de la Marine reserved a large part of the Gaspé Peninsula for the production spaces of French crews. Furthermore, the Canadians had to give them priority in the Saint Lawrence estuary and off the coast of Labrador.
Despite this restriction, Canadians industrialists quickly developed a chain of well-equipped fishing establishments at Anticosti, Mingan, the Bay of Phélypeaux, Mont-Louis, Grand-Étang, Percé, Gaspé, Grande-Rivière and Pabos, as well as many ofthers places that were just as lucrative. Investors included state officials such as Denis Riverin, seigneurs like Pierre Denys de La Ronde, the great explorer Louis Jolliet, merchants such as Jean Gatin or Saint-Jean, the fugitive Pierre Revol, and even such a well-established institution as the Seminary of Quebec.
Published in may 2021