Bonavista - Bruce Whiffen - E-Book

Bonavista E-Book

Bruce Whiffen

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"Today, Bonavista has stabilized its population with signs of growth in the past few years, its business start-up rates are the highest in the province, vacant buildings are harder and harder to come by, and new families continue to move in each year. On this current trajectory, the town of Bonavista will be around for centuries to come, a beacon for tourism, rural economic development, research, and specialty manufacturing.” — From the Foreword by John Norman, Mayor of Bonavista Bonavista tells the story of a town, Bonavista, located along the eastern shoreline of Newfoundland. The settlement began to take hold in the 1600s, initially from people of southern England, mostly, and thereafter by men and women of Ireland. While earning a living from the sea through the 1700s and 1800s, the town grew into prominence as a major fishing hub of Newfoundland. Religion, education, and mercantilism all played a role as Bonavista transformed itself through the centuries. Even war between the French and English found its way to Bonavista's shores. Growth continued through the 1900s, culminating in the cod moratorium of 1992 and the emergence of tourism. Today, Bonavista continues to play a vibrant role as Newfoundland and Labrador establishes its place in the twenty-first century.

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Seitenzahl: 429


Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Title: Bonavista / Bruce Whiffen.

Names: Whiffen, Bruce, 1957- author.

Description: Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: Canadiana (print) 2021023265X | Canadiana (ebook) 20210232706 | ISBN 9781774570203 (softcover) | ISBN 9781774570210 (EPUB) | ISBN 9781774570234 (PDF)

Subjects: LCSH: Bonavista (N.L.)—History. | LCSH: Bonavista (N.L.)—Biography. | LCSH: Natural history—Newfoundland and Labrador—Bonavista.

Classification: LCC FC2199.B65 W45 2021 | DDC 971.8—dc23

© 2021 by Bruce Whiffen

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of the work covered by the copyright hereon may be reproduced or used in any form or by any means—graphic, electronic or mechanical—without the written permission of the publisher. Any request for photocopying, recording, taping, or information storage and retrieval systems of any part of this book shall be directed to Access Copyright, The Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency, 1 Yonge Street, Suite 800, Toronto, ON M5E 1E5. This applies to classroom use as well.



This paper has been certified to meet the environmental and social standards of the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) and comes from responsibly managed forests, and verified recycled sources.

Cover design by Graham Blair


TELEPHONE: (709) 739-4477 FAX: (709) 739-4420 TOLL-FREE: 1-866-739-4420


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The publisher acknowledges the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, Department of Tourism, Culture, Industry and Innovation for our publishing activities. We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, which last year invested $157 million to bring the arts to Canadians throughout the country. Nous remercions le Conseil des arts du Canada de son soutien. L’an dernier, le Conseil a investi 157 millions de dollars pour mettre de l’art dans la vie des Canadiennes et des Canadiens de tout le pays

To my Mother, Abbie Ellis-Whiffen


Foreword by John Norman, Mayor of Bonavista




2.Natural History


3.Indigenous Peoples

4.The 1500s

5.Early Settlement


7.Queen Anne’s War

8.The Whipping Post

9.Captain George Ridei

10.French Presence


11.The Bonavista Map and Register of Fishing Rooms

12.The Introduction of Religion

13.John Bland

14.Medical Practitioners

15.The Hosier and Alexander and Mifflin Families


17.Winter Housing


19.Women in the Early Years


20.Hardship and Heroism

21.Cape Bonavista Lighthouse


23.The Ryans

24.The SS Greenland Disaster

25.World War II


27.Adult Education

28.Northern Cod and the Moratorium



30.Tourism and Tomorrow

Closing Remarks


Appendices 1-12



“… a hardier, healthier or better looking race of men are not to be found upon the face of the globe!” Rev. Philip Tocque (Wandering Thoughts), writing about the men of Bonavista.

“The woman was more than fifty per cent.” Josiah Hobbs, speaking about “the role of the fisherman’s wife,” from Hilda Chaulk Murray (More than 50%).


by John Norman, Mayor of Bonavista

The town of Bonavista, one of North America’s oldest English settlements, has stood on the coastal edge of the North Atlantic Ocean for centuries, forever tied historically, culturally, and socio-economically to the sea, to its fisheries resources, and to its paralleled hardships. This strong connection has resulted in a built landscape and a people moulded and toughened by the salty air, strong winds, and coastal storms, as well as the many fluctuations a resource-based economy can face.

Growing up in Bonavista in the 1990s meant that you were growing up in a once prosperous and proud community that was now beginning to die. With the collapse of the cod fishery went the core reasons for communities such as Bonavista to exist. It was, since the 1600s, built by the fishery and for the fishery. Like any economy and community, it evolved and shifted over time, but its tie to the sea was unchangeable in the eyes of almost everyone. As a young boy, the Bonavista of the 1990s was crumbling; the fishery was predominantly gone, replaced only partly by shellfish. The population exodus began as the much smaller crab industry needed far fewer workers and fishermen. Homes became abandoned, stores began to downsize and close. The community of almost 5,000 quickly fell to below 4,000, and as a child you noticed that some of your friends began to move away, simply not show up to class at the elementary school one Monday morning. It is forever engraved in my mind, the actual dissolution of my hometown.

Though the cod moratorium announcement caused a shock wave through the community and province, I was luckily not directly impacted as a young boy, having parents working in other sectors; nobody in our house lost their jobs. But nonetheless, the cod closure affected us all in some way or form. How could it not affect you when your childhood home began to collapse like the cod stock itself?

Bonavista needed a new way forward, as the crab fishery would only play a supporting role in stabilizing the town, its economy, and population. Vitality was fading each year, but throughout these emptying streets, we found the most important assets Bonavista had to offer for economic diversification: our fishery had left us with a historic built landscape of provincial and even national significance! In the mid-1990s, an inventory of heritage buildings was completed by the town’s newly formed Bonavista Historic Townscape Foundation. On the list were just over 1,000 buildings of heritage value. This was an inventory unlike any other on the island, outside of the city of St. John’s. Bonavista never had a “Great Fire” like so many of the larger historic towns along the coast, and we also never had major development pressures causing significant demolition. The town simply grew outward over the centuries, in all directions moving away from the water’s edge. As a result of these factors, buildings tied to the once prosperous cod fishery remained standing, often vacant or underutilized, buildings of over a dozen architectural styles from the last four centuries. Churches, halls, schools, homes, and outbuildings of all scales, in various neighbourhoods and in great density—this was Bonavista’s big opportunity!

Starting small with select restoration works, the Townscape Foundation was put into action by the town hall to promote and encourage economic activity and diversity. For years the organization funnelled government money from all levels into projects big and small around the community, from multi-million dollar streetscapes through downtown and the harbour, to restoration of private homes through heritage grants. The organization even successfully restored and reopened Newfoundland’s oldest operating theatre, the Garrick. Once more, Bonavista was active day and night, jobs were being created, and the private sector, encouraged by what was happening, began to invest.

Today, Bonavista has stabilized its population with signs of growth in the past few years, its business start-up rates are the highest in the province, vacant buildings are harder and harder to come by, and new families continue to move in each year. On this current trajectory, the town of Bonavista will be around for centuries to come, a beacon for tourism, rural economic development, research, and specialty manufacturing. The simple idea of repurposing and revitalizing existing assets, strengthening the sense of place and pride within the community, while making shrewd public and private investments, has paid off. One of Newfoundland’s most historic communities remains a living, breathing, authentic coastal fishing town with a diversified economy and social fabric.

John NormanMayor of Bonavista


Bonavista was written as an effort not just to provide a history of the town, but to do so in a manner that provided insight specifically into the people who lived there and how they contributed to the town as it exists today. I wanted to write about why they came to Bonavista (there were many reasons) and how they survived. I needed to talk about their challenges, whether in terms of the tough environment in which they lived, the economic conditions of the day, or the dispiriting efforts at supporting a family in the midst of hardship. I also wanted to talk about their hopes for themselves, their families, and their communities. My focus needed to be on individuals and the lives they led.

Before writing about those who lived in Bonavista, however, it’s necessary to “set the stage.” The first few chapters of this book talk about the natural history of Bonavista and the surrounding area. Of necessity, we need to describe the local geography, the continental shelf, and the Labrador Current (among other components of the physical environment) in order to give the reader a sense of Bonavista’s environment. We need to talk about the climatology and weather extremes, the ice age, and the fish and mammals that inhabited the region. From there, we discuss the Indigenous peoples of Newfoundland and their habitation.

As Europeans crossed the Atlantic, it’s important to follow progress from the early fishery in the 1500s to ultimate settlement. As Bonavista grew into a community, we will meet the individuals who played a significant role during the early years of settlement. Rev. Henry Jones and Magistrate John Bland were just two of many individuals who helped early settlers build a community in the 1700s. With the rapid influx of people from England and Ireland in the early 1800s, and the advent of Representative Government in 1832, Bonavista residents began to play a more important role themselves in the growth of the town. Schools, business establishments, and churches all became entrenched in the fabric of Bonavista as we moved from the 1800s into the last century and today. We meet those from Bonavista or with a strong ancestral connection to Bonavista—either on the sea or through business. We’ll also see how Bonavista residents played a role in supporting the war effort, helped bring Confederation to Newfoundland, and played a leadership role in international governance of cod stocks. And finally, we’ll meet a young man from another part of Newfoundland who came to Bonavista to teach and spent a lifetime serving his new home.

I have relied, for the most part, upon contemporary documents. While also relying on history books in general, I have frequently drawn from journals and diaries written by people living in Bonavista, court and colonial office records, petitions, newspaper articles of the time, and books written by individuals visiting and working at Bonavista. In many cases, I have quoted directly from them, rather than summarized the intent, not only because it preserved accuracy, but because it is more satisfying to see and read original documents than to read from a secondary source. I believe, for example, that there is a closer connection to Bonavista by reading a letter by Rev. Henry Jones in 1725, in his own words, about Bonavista, written while living in Bonavista, than a summary of his correspondence written by another hand. I hope that the reader will feel that way as well.

Having said that, I have taken some liberties when recording the written word. Surnames and place names, for example, were often recorded according to how the writer thought those names were spelled. To avoid distraction, I’ve adopted a single spelling in most cases. Even though “Bonavista” may have been referenced as “Bona Vista” or “Port Bonavist,” I have normally kept to the accepted spelling. The same applies to “Hicks” and “Abbott” and a host of other surnames which have been spelled variously over the course of years. With respect to Canaille, however, I have retained its original spelling, “Cor-neil” or “Cornail,” from the 1700s to recognize and preserve what I believe to have been the original pronunciation of that part of southern Bonavista. Also, I have occasionally made minor edits to phrasing or spelling of the written word for ease in reading, while ensuring that the intention of the original writer has not been changed.

Surnames were notoriously written in many different ways, for a variety of different reasons, by the early historians, ministers, magistrates, and merchants of Newfoundland. For the most part, I’ve taken the liberty of using the most recent spelling throughout. One exception is Skiffington. In the late 1600s and through the 1700s, “Skeffington” is used almost exclusively. “Skiffington” begins with the introduction of church records in 1786. I have also tended to use the contemporary spelling of Mifflin/Mifflen. “Mifflen” was used in the 1700s and 1800s, while “Mifflin” is commonplace at Bonavista today.

On various occasions, I’ve encountered petitions, letters, lists, etc. that form an important part of the story of Bonavista but which, if embedded in the story being told at the moment, would detract or slow the narration. In those cases, I have saved those documents as appendices at the end of the book. The reader is encouraged to read each appendix (particularly the letters and petitions), as they often speak not only to the realities of contemporary Bonavista, but to the heart of the author of the document as well. We learn about historical Bonavista best from those who lived it.

Any history book of a region, country, or community must face the challenge of discussing issues chronologically, while also trying to discuss specific themes (such as education or religion). It is impossible to discuss all themes in the 1600s, then all themes in the 1700s, and so on. Nor can we talk about religion from inception to present day, then education, and so on. It is necessary to write in chronological order while focusing on specific themes at each step. This necessitates some repetition—meaning that we may meet the same individuals on more than one occasion as we step forward in time through various topics. I offer my apologies to the reader for meeting some individuals on multiple occasions. Hopefully you will share my opinion that some of the more interesting inhabitants of Bonavista are worth reading about more than once.

Cape Bonavista is generally recognized as that landmark first sighted by John Cabot when he crossed the Atlantic from England in 1497. However, in the absence of conclusive proof, other sites have been proposed and debated. This book does not try to clarify the issue. Whether or not Cabot sighted Cape Bonavista and landed nearby is not critical to the story of the town of Bonavista. We write about the 500th anniversary celebrations of Cabot’s landfall at Bonavista to highlight the important part played by local inhabitants within the larger goals of the province. This book, instead, is focused on the growth of the town of Bonavista itself and the important role it played not only when Newfoundland was in its infancy, but through the years and up to present day.

I have invariably spoken of “Newfoundland” to reference the island of Newfoundland, leaving “Newfoundland and Labrador” to designate the province within Canada.



Bernice Mouland, born and raised in Bonavista, was attending a Christmas concert at Bonavista in 1960 when she first met George Clements. George was originally from Grand Bank and, for his first teaching assignment, had chosen to work at the Salvation Army School at Bonavista. Bernice’s good friend Mer-vie Mouland was dating Ben Snook (George’s good friend from Grand Bank and also a teacher). The young gentlemen, still teenagers, escorted Bernice and Mervie back to their homes after the concert. Bernice remembered George as being very quiet—on the walk home, they hardly spoke to each other.

The following summer, Bernice and George both attended teacher training at St. John’s, and Bernice began working as a teacher at the United Church School in Bonavista, on Coster Street. They were married a short while later and raised two children. Bernice left teaching and managed the Sears store. George continued his teaching profession: first at the Salvation Army School, then the “Cove School,” and eventually the United Church School. During his first twelve years of teaching, he also returned to Memorial University during the summer until he completed his education degree. Later, he accepted a position as instructor at the Bonavista District Vocational School, followed by principal at the Eastern Community College. He retired in 1991. He loved his work and, in Bernice’s words, “never mentioned moving somewhere else.” Bonavista was home.

George began volunteering shortly after arriving in Bonavista and, according to Bernice, “he never stopped his volunteer work.” And he had the medals and certificates of merit to prove it.

Meanwhile, in the mid-1990s, Newfoundland and Labrador, including Bonavista, was dealing with the aftermath of the 1992 cod moratorium. The Government of Canada had shut down the cod fishery, and much of the province was suffering the economic consequences. Tourism was being looked upon as an opportunity for diversity. History had recorded that John Cabot sighted Cape Bonavista on June 24, 1497—so the 500th anniversary of that historic transatlantic voyage was quickly approaching.

The provincial Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation was tasked with leading the initiative. While activities were being planned throughout the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, the focus would be the arrival of the Matthew, John Cabot’s ship, at Bonavista on that historic anniversary—June 24, 1997. In 1995, they looked to the town council of Bonavista and Mayor Don Tremblett to choose a resident to lead the local celebrations and activities. Council asked George Clements if he would do it. It was, in the words of Brent Meade, the event coordinator, a “no-brainer.” Bernice told the author that “George never said no to anyone in his life…. He was very enthusiastic about it.”

The Vista ’97 Committee, which Clements led, was responsible for four full days of events, from June 23 to June 26, throughout the community. The highlight was, of course, the sailing of the Matthew into Bonavista Harbour at 3:00 p.m. on June 24 after its trek across the North Atlantic. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip would be in attendance, accompanied by the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, Brian Tobin, and a long list of other dignitaries. With Clements in charge, the Vista ’97 Committee, with an executive team, a dozen subcommittees, and a few hundred volunteers, were responsible for pulling it off. Practically everyone was a local resident of the area. George managed the executive committee, coordinated local service groups, provided leadership to the subcommittees and volunteer groups, coordinated external engagements, and met and coordinated other events with provincial government officials. Bernice said that “sometimes, I didn’t see him for days.”

George was well-chosen as chairman of the Vista ’97 Committee. Through years of teaching, he knew how to work toward a long-term goal— one day at a time. He knew the town well and had the respect of the community. Committee members conveyed that he could be quiet, thoughtful, and a good listener, but knew when to speak up and direct the team when it was required. He was not the same young man Bernice had met in 1960. We might even say that Bonavista had prepared him well for the responsibility for which he had been selected.

The big day, June 24, 1997, finally arrived. Bernice and George’s home was full of guests. In fact, the RCMP, who were responsible for security for the Queen and Prince Philip, had recommended that George and Bernice move out of their home during the event—a recommendation which they politely declined. In the early morning, the Queen was in St. John’s, and Prince Philip was in Gander. The Queen flew to Bonavista via helicopter and was accompanied by the Honourable Fred Mifflin, the Member of Parliament for the district. Upon arrival at Bonavista, they went to Bonavista Harbour to officially open the Ryan Premises. Gordon Bradley, as chair of the Bonavista Historical Society, introduced the Queen to the National Historic Site. From there, the Queen did a brief walkabout, a visit to Golden Heights Manor, and then continued on to Discovery Collegiate.

George and Bernice greeted the Queen at Discovery Collegiate at 11:00 a.m. (Prince Philip was, at that time, on his way to Bonavista from Gander.) On meeting the Queen, Bernice said, “I can’t describe it. I was overwhelmed. But it was like I met a friend down the street. She put me at ease.” As Brian and wife Jodean Tobin led the Queen through the line of dignitaries, George and Bernice awaited the arrival of Prince Philip. At a critical moment, George was taken aside by a phone call, just as Prince Philip arrived outside. Bernice was left to go outside to welcome the Duke of Edinburgh herself.

Left: Bernice (Mouland) Clements and Prince Philip, June 24, 1997. (Bernice Clements)

Right: The Queen and George Clements, June 24, 1997. (Bernice Clements)

Bernice was the daughter of Clarence and Florence (Butler) Mouland of Mockbeggar, one of the oldest parts of Bonavista running along the western shore just north of the harbour. Her father was a Bonavista fisherman, as was his father, and his father before him. Perhaps it was appropriate that the daughter of a long line of families of the Bonavista fishery found herself welcoming the Duke of Edinburgh to Bonavista. “He was very down-to-earth, very pleasant,” said Bernice, who took the Prince through the welcoming line.

Eventually, everyone gathered at the Discovery Collegiate gymnasium for the luncheon. With about 200 guests in attendance, George Clements officially welcomed Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to Bonavista.

Rev. Dr. Arthur Butt, a minister at Bonavista on two separate occasions, said the grace. George and Bernice sat between the Queen (to George’s left) and Prince Philip. Bernice said she felt that she would be “too nervous to eat,” while having been told by Mary Francis, the aide to the Queen, that she, the Queen, might not eat at all. In fact, according to Bernice, the Queen “cleaned her plate!” Meanwhile, Prince Philip and Bernice chatted about everything from whales to blueberries.

After lunch, the Queen and Prince Philip visited the war memorial on Church Street, where she laid a wreath and met local veterans, and from there, at 3:00 p.m., everyone went to Bonavista Harbour for the arrival of the Matthew. George and Bernice took their seats at the Royal Box—Bernice was sitting directly behind the Queen.

It was intensely cold on June 24, 1997, with a brisk north wind running off the Labrador Current. The temperature hovered around 1°C. But the Queen had a blanket and an electric heater. Bernice said it took her own feet two hours to thaw out. The ceremony opened with “God Save the Queen” and “O Canada.” The arrival of the Matthew into Bonavista Harbour was followed by ceremonies, music, and, of course, speeches. The event closed with the “Ode to Newfoundland.”

The celebrations did not finish until June 26, but for George and Bernice, the pressure event was over. Bernice said, “It was very draining … it was all on his shoulders.”

Among the recognition George received for his work with respect to the Vista ’97 celebrations, two were especially appreciated.

Mary Francis’s letter:

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh have asked me to write with a double “Thank You,” first for the delicious lunch which you hosted at Discovery Collegiate today and secondly for your personal contribution to the Matthew Landfall Re-enactment which followed. This has been an historic day for Bonavista. The guests you had gathered at lunch, bringing together national leaders and so many local volunteers, were testament to the enormous amount of work which has gone into the Vista ’97 celebrations. Her Majesty and His Royal Highness were struck by the atmosphere of warmth and co-operation which you had engendered.

The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh send their congratulations and best wishes to everyone that has played a part in Vista ’97, in this 500th anniversary year of John Cabot’s Landing in Newfoundland.

Yours truly,Mary Francis.

Thank you from Honourable Fred Mifflin, Minister of Veterans Affairs:

As a Member of Parliament, I convey to you my congratulations and heartfelt thanks on your personal contribution to the Cabot 500 Celebrations. The success of the spectacular landfall and re-enactment ceremonies that followed can be directly attributed to your dedication and leadership. On behalf of your community, your province and your country, I thank you for the awesome sight that will be etched forever in the memories of those who bore witness.

Honourable Fred Mifflin.

The Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers from the Governor General of Canada is awarded to Canadians who have made a significant and continual contribution to their community. On September 1, 2020, the Sovereign’s Medal was awarded to George Clements at Bonavista by the lieutenant-governor for Newfoundland and Labrador, Judy Foote.


To tell the history of Bonavista, we first need to understand the physical environment in which the people of Bonavista lived. From that environment, we can understand the opportunities afforded early settlers, and the challenges they were forced to confront. The continental shelf and the abundance of cod, the Labrador Current, ice floes, harsh shorelines and harsh winter storms, and even hurricanes all played a role in defining life in Bonavista. This chapter will also highlight why Bonavista is a place of beauty, where whales and icebergs, fossils and the Dungeon, all find a home.

i. Geology

As scientists have discovered over the past several years, the seven continents that presently share the surface of the earth with our oceans are not static, silent, and stagnant land masses. Instead, they are forever in motion, crashing into each other, moving farther apart, rifting over and sinking beneath each other, not unlike pans of ice sitting atop the Labrador Current and pushing into the northeast coast of Newfoundland. We think of these continents as frozen in time only because our own experiences are a blink of an eye in geological time.

Over 1 billion years ago, the surface of the earth was comprised of a single supercontinent, called Rodinia: a consequence of the merger of separate land masses throughout the globe. About 300 million years later, Rodinia slowly split into two continents, called Laurasia and Gondwana, separated by the Iapetus Ocean. A micro-continent, called Avalonia (named after the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland, and including, as we shall see, the Bonavista Peninsula), broke away from Gondwana. At that time, Avalonia was along latitude 60 degrees south, and therefore closer to the South Pole than Australia or where the southern tip of South America is today.

Continental shelf, Labrador Current, and Gulf Stream around Newfoundland. From “Water Masses and Nutrient Sources … ”, Journal of Marine Research 73(3), 2015/05/01, Townsend et al.

Around 400 million years ago, the continents throughout the globe reconnected into a single supercontinent, called Pangea, with Avalonia near its centre. Pangea divided into its components once again, eventually leading to the seven continents we know today. Avalonia, during the separation of Pangea, itself split in two, with each half attaching itself to a larger continent. Eastern Avalonia connected with today’s Europe. England, Wales, southern Ireland, parts of Belgium, northern France, southern Spain, and even parts of northwest Africa are all part of what was once Eastern Avalonia. Western Avalonia connected with eastern North America and eventually helped to define parts of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the New England states, as well as the entire Avalon, Burin, and Bonavista Peninsulas of Newfoundland.

The northern tip of the Bonavista Peninsula today hosts the community of Bonavista, the nearby Cape, and local geological formations such as the Dungeon and the “Spillars.” Eons ago, it found itself at the centre of Avalonia, which was itself at the centre of Pangea, Earth’s single supercontinent. For a brief period of geological time, then, one could say that Bonavista was the centre of the known universe!

As the new continents of North America and Europe slowly drifted away from each other, the valley separating these great continents slowly filled with salt water from the ocean to the south, to eventually form the North Atlantic Ocean. As the continent of North America continued its slow drift westward away from Europe, its trailing edge, closer to Europe and at a slightly lower elevation, became covered with the waters of the North Atlantic and formed the continental shelf, including that part of the shelf east of Newfoundland called the Grand Banks. The porous and fractured rock formations embedded within the Grand Banks led to the hydrocarbon reservoirs being recovered today.

ii. First Life

The development of life on earth began less than 4 billion years ago when conditions were conducive to the formation of single-cell organisms and bacteria. These building blocks to future life forms developed initially in the ocean and, within 1 billion years or so, slowly moved onto land. Life evolved from simple organisms to plant life. One billion years ago, plants became established on the surface of the earth.

The first complex multicellular organisms started in the ocean during what is called the Ediacaran Period (from 635 to 541 million years ago). These organisms lived at the bottom of the ocean. Although fossils from this period have been discovered worldwide, the first were discovered in 1868 by Alexander Murray on the Avalon Peninsula. A century later, in 1968, S. B. Misra discovered the oldest large and complex organisms in Earth’s history, at Mistaken Point, near Cape Race. Four decades later, in 2009, a team of researchers from Memorial University of Newfoundland, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Oxford discovered fossils at Port Union, a few miles south of Bonavista, dating from 560 million years ago, and therefore, perhaps, the oldest complex organisms yet discovered. There were a variety of life forms living on the bottom of the seabed, preserved in fossil form perhaps during an avalanche of mud and silt.

Embedded in the Ediacaran Period is the Avalon Explosion (named after the Avalon Peninsula) of about 575 million years ago. During this period, conditions were more conducive to growth and diversity, though most life forms succumbed to the later Cambrian Period. Nonetheless, Bonavista and environs, at a time when its home, the micro-continent Avalonia was forming off the shores of Gondwana, was host to the development of the first complex organisms on Earth.

The fossils that formed when Avalonia was a single, connected microcontinent remained with this micro-continent as it separated into its component parts through the ages. Hence the fossils that may be found near Bonavista, or at Mistaken Point on the Avalon Peninsula, also occur in North Africa, while the fossils on the west coast of Newfoundland, which originated at a time when this area was thousands of miles distant from eastern Newfoundland, are distinctly different.

The Dungeon, just outside Bonavista. (From

The unique nature of the geological formations around Bonavista, as well as the historic significance of the fossils, were formally recognized by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in July 2020. At an earlier UNESCO meeting in Paris, it was agreed that the Bonavista Discovery Geopark would join about 150 other Geoparks around the world. According to UNESCO, a Geopark is a “single, unified geographic (area) where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development … (thereby) raising awareness of the importance of the area’s geological heritage in history and society today.” The Discovery Geopark contains ten specific sites scattered throughout the northern half of the Bonavista Peninsula. They include unique geological formations (the Dungeon, Sea Arch, and the Devil’s Footprints), the impacts of tsunamis from centuries ago (Long Beach and the Lisbon earthquake), the unique adaptation of local inhabitants to the local environment (root cellars), and, in honour of the Beothuk language, “Haootia,” the chosen name for one of the oldest complex animal fossils in the world.

iii. Ocean Currents

Two-thirds of the surface of the earth are, in fact, oceans, and embedded within these oceans are the currents that define everything from life within the ocean to meteorological conditions over land. The two currents that have impacted Newfoundland through the millennia are the Gulf Stream to the south and the Labrador Current farther north.

We might say that the Gulf Stream has its origin as it passes from the Gulf of Mexico, south of Florida, and heads northward along the eastern seaboard of the United States, then turning eastward and tracking south of Newfoundland and the Grand Banks, and then continuing northeastward as the North Atlantic Drift. Meanwhile, the Labrador Current originates from cold arctic waters in the north and passes southward just east of Labrador and along the northeast coast of Newfoundland before turning westward along the south coast of the island. The Labrador Current carries icebergs from Greenland and pack ice from the Arctic Ocean along the northeast coast of Newfoundland, both of which are routinely seen in springtime off the coast of Bonavista.

The Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current provide the rich nutrient environment that sustain life, and the cod fishery, around Newfoundland. As noted by Dr. George Rose (Cod: An Ecological History of the North Atlantic Fisheries, see References), “The exchange of cooled Arctic water for warmer Gulf Stream waters is the key to the ample productivity of the North Atlantic. The exchange makes the northern waters warmer overall, but even more importantly, results in nutrient enrichment through a natural fertilizer pump into the sterile surface Arctic waters.” Evolutionary processes led to the appearance of cod, and related species, into the Grand Banks and surrounding continental shelf regions from 5 to 10 million years ago. Over time, the ocean off the coast of Newfoundland grew abundant in a variety of species of fish, birds, crustaceans, and mammals. Today, for example, schools of capelin (or caplin), each of which is no longer than a few inches, spawn along the beaches of Bonavista in season, chased by whales weighing several tons. Lobster and crab reside at the bottom of the oceans—puffins, seagulls, and a host of other birds fly overhead and inhabit the rocky shoreline. But it was the abundance of codfish that provided the motivation for the early fishery at Bonavista and, ultimately, to permanent settlement.

iv. The Ice Age

A brief 2.6 million years ago saw the beginning of the last ice age, more formally known as the Quaternary Glaciation, during which the Arctic ice cap, encompassing the North Pole, expanded deep into more southern latitudes. During the Last Glacial Period (from about 100,000 to 10,000 years ago), the glacial extent encompassed all of Canada, including Labrador, the island of Newfoundland, and extending into the Grand Banks. It is difficult to image this gigantic glacial sheet. At its maximum, it was over 10,000 feet thick, then tapered toward the margins. By comparison, Elliston Ridge (near Bonavista) is about 460 feet above sea level at its peak, Cabot Tower is 472 feet above sea level, and Gros Morne Mountain is 2,648 feet. Life throughout Newfoundland, including Bonavista, was laid bare. Then, 12,000 years ago, rapid warming resulted in a retreat of the ice sheet, and the island of Newfoundland was uncovered once again, though laid bare of life. This began the Holocene glacial retreat and the Holocene Period, and a rebirth of life in Canada, to Newfoundland, and into Bonavista.

More recent changes in climatic conditions have been relatively minor in comparison to the last ice age. One thousand years ago, temperatures were somewhat milder than today, with gradual cooling thereafter leading to the “Little Ice Age” from the 1500s to the mid-1800s. In Newfoundland, cold and warm periods have alternated through early fishing by Europeans in the 1500s through to the present day.

v. Climate

Meteorological conditions in Newfoundland during the winter season are among the most severe of any settled region on earth, with good reason. During the winter, North America is often covered with an extensive area of very cold, dry air (often referred to as the Polar Vortex) extending as far east as the eastern seaboard of the US through Quebec and into Labrador. Meanwhile, temperatures over the open ocean in the western area of the North Atlantic are quite warm (relatively speaking) and peak with the passage of the Gulf Stream. This very strong gradient between very cold arctic air over North America, and relatively warm air over the Gulf Stream and surrounding waters, is very unstable and gives rise to intense winter storms. These storms typically form along the eastern seaboard and then intensify rapidly as they approach Newfoundland before continuing northeastward toward Iceland. Hurricane-force winds, high waves, heavy snowfall, and occasionally prolonged periods of freezing rain, accompany these storms. As we shall see, coastal infrastructure (flakes, boats, homes) can be easy fodder for some of these storms. The Ocean Ranger disaster, the Newfoundland Sealing Disaster, and, as we will see, the disaster of the SS Greenland, were all precipitated by these types of storms.

Icebergs off shore from Mockbeggar. (Herman Callahan via Ross Abbott)

Although hurricanes are typically associated with southern climates, they occasionally invade eastern Canada. Newfoundland, lying farthest seaward, is most vulnerable. Under normal circumstances, these late summer, early fall storms will dissipate as they pass over the colder waters around Newfoundland. Occasionally, however, they are able to draw upon energy within the upper atmosphere and redevelop as a post-tropical storm. Hurricane Igor struck Newfoundland in 2010 with widespread damage. We shall see the impacts of other tropical storms later.

A discussion of weather conditions in Newfoundland would not be complete without a recognition of its fog. We’ve already discussed the warm waters of the Gulf Stream south of Newfoundland and the Labrador Current, which passes northeast, and east of Newfoundland, before turning westward along the south coast of the island. Air over the Gulf Stream and waters farther south are naturally very warm and moisture-laden. As this air moves northward and passes over the Labrador Current, it cools, leading to condensation of the moisture in the air to form small, suspended water droplets. These water droplets are fog, and as they severely restrict visibility, they have had a serious, even devastating impact on those living within the marine environment.


Referenced books by Dr. Martha Hickman Hild and Dr. George A. Rose are especially insightful in providing a general description of the geology and natural environment of Newfoundland.

UNESCO Geopark:

Discovery Geopark:



Habitation of the Americas is generally believed to have begun after the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago as people crossed the Bering Strait into Alaska and southward into Canada. As the most easterly point of North America, separated by the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the island of Newfoundland was one of the last areas to be inhabited. The early inhabitants are known as the Maritime Archaic Indians. The time of initial habitation in Newfoundland is unknown, but 4,000 years ago, they were well-established along the coast of the island. Although they were apparently well-adapted to life along the coast, they seem to have disappeared suddenly about 3,000 years ago. Around that same time, in geological terms, the early and late Palaeo-Eskimos (the latter group usually referred to as Dorset) established themselves along coastal Labrador and in Newfoundland.

One thousand years ago, the early Beothuk, known as the Little Passage people (named after a site at Little Passage on the south coast), lived along Newfoundland’s coastline. They were the ancestors of those Beothuk who witnessed the arrival of the first Europeans.

When Cabot first landed in Newfoundland, and as others first fished from its shores, the hunter-gatherer Beothuk numbered about 1,000 souls, scattered throughout the island. They visited the coastlines of Newfoundland during the spring and summer seasons in search of fish, seals, sea mammals, and birds, then moved inland during the fall and winter to hunt and trap caribou and other mammals. They lived in tents in summer and semi-subterranean houses in winter.

John Day, a Bristol merchant, wrote in a letter a few months after John Cabot’s return to Bristol that, when Cabot and his crew went ashore, they raised a cross and banner of England, claiming the land for King Henry VII. Later, in Day’s words, “they found a trail that went inland, they saw a site where a fire had been made, they saw manure of animals which they thought to be farm animals, and they saw a stick half-a-yard long pierced at both ends, carved and painted with brazil, and by such signs they believe the land to be inhabited.” Cabot and his men claimed this land for the King of England in the midst of an established habitation.

Less than 100 years later, Sir Richard Whitbourne made several trips to Newfoundland. He indicated that Trinity, Trinity Bay, was, in 1579, the most northerly fished harbour in the land “where our nation practises fishing,” and indicated that “the savage people of that country do there inhabit; many of them secretly every year come into Trinity Bay and Harbour, in the night time, purposely to steal sails, lines, hatches, hooks, knives and the like …” During the 1500s, the English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese all fished along the coastline of eastern Newfoundland and on the Grand Banks. As Whitbourne noted that the English did not fish farther north than Trinity, perhaps other nations were fishing at Bonavista and encountering those same peoples noted by Cabot.

As late as 1680, the mayor of Poole, southern England, reported that “The Indians having been so bold this last year as to come into our harbour (at Bonavista) and do mischief.” That the mayor of Poole referred to Bonavista as “our harbour” reflected the extent of activity between the two communities in later years.

The connection between the settlers at Bonavista and the Indigenous Beothuk was occasionally productive. George Cartwright, in 1770 (as related in Fay’s Life and Labour in Newfoundland), wrote that:

Formerly, a very beneficial barter was carried on in the neighbourhood of Bonavista, by some of the inhabitants of the harbour. They used to lay a variety of goods at a certain place, to which the Indians resorted, who took what they were in want of, and left furs in return. Once day, a villain hid himself near the deposits, and shot an Indian woman dead, as she was furnishing herself with what pleased her best. Since that time, they have always been hostile to Europeans. I fear that the race will be totally extinct in a few years.

Magistrate John Bland is discussed in greater detail in Chapter 13. His letters to the governor of Newfoundland, written during his tenure of over twenty years while in Bonavista in the late 1700s and early 1800s, indicate that a Beothuk presence at or near Bonavista had disappeared. What Bland knew of the Beothuk came from those in Bonavista who were engaged in the salmon and fur trade farther west, either deeper into Bonavista Bay or west of Greenspond toward Gander Bay. He wrote that “the Indians of this Island have a singular veneration for the Cross, and the furriers, it is said, by erecting a cruciform figure upon their winter houses have saved them from being destroyed during their absence in the summer.” Of one Beothuk in particular he wrote that “this savage, the first remembered to have been in our possession, was taken when a boy, and became uncommonly expert in all the branches of the Newfoundland business. An old man in this bay who knew June (the name given by the locals to the boy) told me that he frequently made visits to his parents in the heart of the country.” We don’t know for certain, but when Bland referred to “this bay,” he was likely referring to “Bonavista Bay” generally. Bland also recounted that “in the summer season, the Indians frequent the sea coasts, to provide stock for the winter … they have been known to adventure as far as the Funk Islands.”

While Bland, from his station in Bonavista, knew something of the Beothuk farther into Bonavista Bay and west of Greenspond, he was quick to relate that knowledge of them generally was sparse. “I cannot help holding an opinion,” Bland wrote, “that we know almost as little of the Newfoundland Indian as we do of the inhabitants of the interior of Africa.”

While Bland was able to provide general information about the Beothuk to the governor of Newfoundland, it was his broader sense of justice, injustice, and the future of the Beothuk that was most striking. He wrote that “they have been progressively driven from south to north and though their removal has been produced by a slow and silent operation, it has nevertheless had all the effect of a violent expulsion.” “It ought to be remembered that these savages have a natural right to this Island, and every invasion of a natural right is a violation of the principle of justice.”

Bland’s most prophetic commentary came in a letter to the governor’s office dated September 1, 1797. “In proportion as their means of procuring subsistence became narrowed, their population must necessarily have decreased and before the lapse of another century, the English nation, like the Spanish, may have affixed to its character the indelible reproach of having exterminated a whole race of people!” The last Beothuk, Shanawdithit, died of tuberculosis in St. John’s in 1829.


Information on pre-European settlement in Newfoundland is widely available. A good general source is:

Reference by the mayor of Poole is found on:

Bland’s quotes are taken from letters found in the D’Alberti Papers.

John Day’s Letter:

4 — THE 1500s

In the absence of definitive proof, Cape Bonavista is generally accepted as that landmark first sighted by John Cabot upon crossing the North Atlantic. And although Mason’s map, which denotes Cape Bonavista as land first visited by John Cabot, has been used as evidence to that end, historians may never resolve the question with certainty. In any event, John Cabot did not, of course, actually “discover” Newfoundland. As we’ve seen from Chapter 3, Newfoundland was inhabited by the Beothuk and others long before Cabot, and long before those Europeans who followed Cabot in search of fish.

John Mason map of Newfoundland, 1617. Unlike convention, north is at the bottom, south at the top. At the tip of the Bonavista Peninsula is written “Bona Vista a Caboto primum reperta” (first seen by Cabot). Centre for Newfoundland Studies, QEII Library, Memorial University.

When Cabot returned to England, reports circulated on the abundance of cod in Newfoundland. Raimondo de Soncino was ambassador in London for the Duke of Milan. In a letter to the Duke written a few short months after Cabot and his crew returned to Bristol, he wrote:

The said Master Zoanne, being a foreigner and a poor man, would not be believed if the crew, who are nearly all English and from Bristol, did not testify that what he says is true. This Master Zoanne has a drawing of the world on a map and also on a solid globe, which he has made, and shows the point he reached … and they affirm that the sea is covered with fish which are caught not merely with nets but with baskets, a stone being attached to make the basket sink in the water, and this I heard the said Master Zoanne relate. And said Englishmen, his companions, say that they will fetch so many fish that this kingdom will have no more need of Iceland, from which country there comes a very great store of fish which are called stock-fish.

Very little is known of the early years following Cabot’s sighting of Cape Bonavista. It is generally believed that fishermen from England, France, Spain, and Portugal crossed the North Atlantic each year and fished on the Grand Banks or established a seasonal base along the eastern coastline of Newfoundland. At the shoreline facilities they built wharves, stages, flakes, and temporary living facilities while fishing near shore in small boats that had been transported across the Atlantic. They arrived in the spring and returned to Europe in the fall. Those who participated were born, lived, and died in Europe and the British Isles. They could not, in fairness, be called the early settlers of Newfoundland since they visited these shores for brief periods of time simply to earn a living. This was business, albeit conducted from afar, but business nonetheless.

This fishery became known as the migratory fishery. We can’t be certain to what extent the various nations of Europe participated in the migratory fishery over eastern Newfoundland in the 1500s. Handcock has suggested that in the early years, nations may have claimed various harbours for their own. English Harbour, near Bonavista, for example, may have identified a common area for English fishermen. This, in fact, is supported by Sir Richard Whit-bourne, who indicated in 1579 that Trinity “standeth northmost of any harbour in the land where our nation practiseth fishing,” thus implying that any fishing at Bonavista would have been conducted by other nations.

In the 1600s, the English began to assert dominance at Newfoundland, including Bonavista. Whereas in 1579, Whitbourne indicated that the English did not fish farther north than Trinity, in the second half of his Discourse (written around 1620) he indicates otherwise.

“Cape Bonavista is the headland on the north side of the entrance to Trinity Bay, and there is a reasonably good harbour, where ships do yearly vie to fish, called the harbour of Bonavista, and divers (various) small islands are near thereunto; where yearly breed great abundance of divers forts of sea fowl, of which birds and their eggs, men may take so many of them as they lift.”

The Western Charter of 1634 and King William’s Act (1699) formed the framework for English law in Newfoundland during the 1600s and early 1700s (see Bannister in Notes). Newfoundland would not formally become a British colony until the early 1800s. Before that time, Newfoundland was seen as a seasonal fishing station to be used as a base for commercial enterprises by the West Country merchants in England. To help maintain law and order at each location along the coastline of Newfoundland, such as at Bonavista, the first master of an English ship to arrive at a shore base after March 25 of a given year was given the title of fishing admiral for that location and was responsible, and even given authority, for maintaining law and order for the year. The fishing admiral also had choice of the best of the various Ship’s Rooms (such as wharves, stageheads, flakes) erected along the coastline. The second and third masters to arrive were respectively called the vice and rear admirals and chose their Ship’s Rooms accordingly. The Ship’s Rooms evolved over the years, as we will see in Chapters 5 and 11.