Research Notes

Imports to Newfoundland in the Late Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries

Joshua Tavenor
Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador

1 THE ENGLISH SHORE-BASED fishery in the late seventeenth century relied heavily on trade ships, particularly those engaged in the sack trade, to bring fish to market and to supply the Newfoundland fishery with goods. While the sack ships’ purpose to go to Newfoundland was to buy fish for further trade, these ships seldom arrived empty. 1 Seeing the need for goods in Newfoundland, ships arrived with cargoes for the consumption by the island’s population or for use in the fishery itself. Documents on shipping show that the trade to Newfoundland was not simple. Instead, the imports to Newfoundland involved a complex trade with many ports, commodities, nations, and routes.

2 Three commodities that illustrate the complexity of this trade are provisions, alcohol, and salt. These commodities are well documented in such sources as merchant accounts, legal records, official reports, and journals. Using documents from the Colonial Office Files and other sources, some of which are constructed as tables here, this essay illustrates importation to Newfoundland as an international trade withlinkstoEngland,SouthernEurope,NewEngland,theCaribbean,andelsewhere. 2 What emerges from these documents is the diversity of imports coming from many sources through a transatlantic trade network. This trade, as illustrated by the diversity of imports, illustrates Newfoundland’s deep involvement in an international economy and elevates its position from fishing outpost to an integrated part of the Atlantic world. 3


3 After early attempts to create largely self-sufficient settlements failed, trade became the provider of the requirements for life on the island. 4 Filling the basic needs for food and other provisions made up a large part of goods arriving at Newfoundland in this period. 5 Documents from various sources indicate that the goods imported for consumption went beyond the basic requirements of survival. Instead, trade both filled basic dietary requirements and provided goods that appealed to taste.

4 As the island proved unable to support European inhabitants through agriculture, early inhabitants relied on imported goods to survive. 6 Provisions consisted of meats, grains, cheeses, livestock, and other items, which came mostly from Ireland, England, and New England; ships coming directly from England and Ireland to trade or to engage in the fishery were the largest suppliers of provisions. England’s role in provisioning is apparent in the ships landing at St. John’s from April to September 1700, as recorded in the journal of the merchant Robert Holdsworth. 7 According to Holdsworth’s Journal, 25 ships arrived from the British Isles, and of these 10 carried provisions (Table 1). 8 New England also was heavily involved in provisioning Newfoundland. New England traders sailed to Newfoundland early in the year, before European ships arrived, providing foodstuffs along with cattle, swine, and building materials. In a report on the fishery, Josiah Crowe states that without the trade from New England early in the year the inhabitants of Newfoundland would starve. 9

5 With the need for imported foodstuffs, the diet of inhabitants relied on goods that were easily transportable and non-perishable. Salted or pickled pork and beef, bread, biscuit, peas, cheese, and butter made the diet of inhabitants comparable to that of contemporary sailors in many regards (see Table 2). 10 With the dependence on trade for food and the pressures that arose from this, inhabitants sought to diversify their food supply by keeping vegetable gardens, foraging for local berries, hunting game, and catching cod to offset this dependence and to supplement their diets. 11

6 Foodstuffs that went beyond the basic mariner’s diet were imported to Newfoundland as well. Fruits, anchovies, sugar, malt, flour, and molasses, among other commodities, came to Newfoundland, showing not only the different trades to Newfoundland but also the production of secondary consumable items by inhabitants on the island. 12 Some of these goods, such as fruits and anchovies, were products of Southern European countries, notably Portugal and Spain; others, such as sugar and molasses, came to Newfoundland from Boston or the sugar-producing colonies of the Caribbean. Similarly, cattle and swine brought from New England allowed for the raising of livestock for dairy products, as well as for fresh meat so that the people did not have to rely solely on preserved meats from Ireland and England. 13

Table 1. Ships and Cargoes at St. John’s in 1700
Thumbnail of Table 1 Display large image of Table 1
Table 2. Weekly Diet of a Mariner in 1702
Thumbnail of Table 2 Display large image of Table 2

7 Despite the island’s production of fish, the trade in provisions to Newfoundland made up a large portion of the imports. While much of the food imported reflected a diet similar to that of a mariner, there were exceptions to this; foods coming from Southern Europe often went beyond the mariner’s diet. While most of these supplies were brought with the intention of supplying the nutritional needs of the islanders, others were intended to satisfy people’s tastes.


8 Imports often went well beyond the basic provision of the fishery; for example, alcohol is a significant import in both the quantity and the number of regions involved in its trade. Alcohol shows a side of the trade that focused more on the demand for goods by inhabitants rather than on the bare requirements of the fishery and survival. Regional differences had a significant impact on the production and trade of alcohol. The varieties of alcohol traded to Newfoundland show the extent to which the island was connected to the Atlantic world. Particularly notable is the intersection of New World and Old World goods, with both wine and brandy arriving from Europe and rum originating from the sugar cane plantations of the Americas.

9 Wine and brandy often came to the island from France and the Iberian Peninsula, alongside shipments of salt. This is seen in reports such as John Berry’s 1675 records and Robert Holdsworth’s 1700 list, both of which include accounts of suppliers of alcohol. 14 Wine in particular had an important place in the Atlantic world and a number of trade links to Newfoundland. Similar to Newfoundland’s fish, the wines of Iberia, and Portugal in particular, were traded with the aim of fulfilling local demands by supplying goods to foreign markets in exchange for other goods. 15 Newfoundland became linked to Portugal and Spain through two trades, the first being the buying of salt for the fishery and the second being the trade of fish to Europe. The first of these trades was by English ships that sailed to Iberian ports to take on salt before sailing for Newfoundland. 16 These voyages provided opportunities to acquire other goods, such as wine, as part of the main cargo or as portage to sell later. These opportunities for further profit were seldom missed. 17

10 Alcohol made its way into Newfoundland through other means and forms than the wines and brandies of Europe. New England traders brought alcohol to Newfoundland and also bought wine and other goods from European sack ships at the island. In this trade, which took advantage of the relatively close distance between New England and Newfoundland, New England’s merchant ships quickly purchased or traded goods for fish before their European counterparts arrived. This fish was then sold or traded to European sack ships. While some praised this trade as a means to ensure survival on the island, it also came under scrutiny as a potential threat to the fishery and the fish trade because it endangered English dominance. 18

11 New England’s access to the sugar-producing plantations, such as Barbados, brought rum, molasses, and sugar to Newfoundland. Rum in particular draws a lot of attention in reports for a number of reasons. Made from sugar cane, rum was a distinctly New World product and competed with the traditional brandy- and wine-producing regions of France and Southern Europe. 19 An example of this trade is in 1708 when Robert Holmes, a merchant of Salem, Massachusetts, reported selling five and a half hogsheads of rum at Newfoundland at ^60:16:00 total. 20

12 Rum appears as an imported good in Robert Holdworth’s 1700 list five times, with three ships carrying it from Barbados and two from Boston. By 1715 these numbers increased dramatically. 21 In an account of the liquors imported to Newfoundland in that year, 19 ships, including four from New England, are listed as carrying rum. The other 15 ships arrived from the Leeward Islands and other sugar-producing islands in the Caribbean. 22 This link between the sugar-producing islands and Newfoundland rises out of a mutual market relation. Fish that was too low in quality for European markets was bought as food for the slaves working on sugar plantations. In turn, rum from these plantations was traded to Newfoundland. 23 Rum was not the only consumable import from Barbados and the Leeward Island. Sugar and molasses, used in baking and in other ways, were also shipped to Newfoundland. Molasses, for example, was used in combination with spruce to create an alcoholic beverage. 24

13 The import of alcohol from Southern Europe, New England, and the sugar-producing islands of the Caribbean clearly shows that the trade was not limited to supplying the bare necessities of fishery. Alcohol, in its many forms and sources, was imported in large quantities to meet the demands of the island’s inhabitants. These broad sources of goods not only reflect the imports to Newfoundland; they also show the wide demand for Newfoundland’s fish and the interconnected nature of Atlantic trade.


14 The English cod fishery required a number of specific goods, many of which had to be imported due to limitation in production or the lack of supply in Newfoundland. Tackle (hooks, lines, nets, etc.) and salt were two required goods that had to be imported. While the tackle for the fishery was provided relatively easily by England, Ireland, and New England, salt required a more elaborate trade. 25 The need to ship fish over long distances and to store it for extended periods of time made salt a necessity. 26 Salt was not produced in significant quantities in England or New England, forcing ships supplying the fishery to go further abroad for cargoes. This is seen in Holdsworth’s chart (Table 1), where salt is the most frequently mentioned imported good (16 ships included salt among their listed cargoes). Interestingly, every ship listed as carrying salt from ports such as Lisbon, Porto, Cadiz, Alicante, and the Isle of May had their home ports in England. 27

15 Salt was not just brought to Newfoundland from a variety of sources; it was also required in huge quantities. As seen in Table 3, annual catches required as much as 4,109 tons of salt for curing. To reach these requirements, salt had to be imported from a variety of sources. One of the most significant sources of salt was the Isle of May, one of the Cape Verde Islands. The Isle of May listed 90 ships with 16,890 total tonnage loading salt at the island in 1715. In this account, Newfoundland is the third largest market for salt, with 15 ships at 2,600 tons placing it behind England, which had 32 ships, and the Baltic, which had 17. 28

16 The trade of salt to Newfoundland directly connected the island to the sources of many other goods. Ships often picked up goods that were traded from the same ports as salt. This is evidenced in Holdsworth’s list (Table 1) and in reports on the fishery in the Colonial Office files, which list ships carrying salt as also trading wine and oil. 29 For example, the 1715 answers to enquiries from the Board of Trade states that "From Leghorn, Lisbon, Fayal and others the English ships bring wine, lemon, anchovies, sweet oil, olives and such like to vend for fish; but of these are such small quantities brought that it’s not worth the naming." 30 These places, particularly Lisbon, traded salt to English ships going to Newfoundland. English ships were using these ports not just for salt but to obtain goods like those listed above for the extra value they entailed and for the safety of carrying diversified cargoes because of variable markets. 31 As a commodity, salt shows how imports dictated by necessity also provided new trade opportunities by connecting Newfoundland to different regions along the Atlantic.

Table 3. Salt Required to Cure Yearly Catches by the English in Newfoundland, 1701-1724
Thumbnail of Table 3 Display large image of Table 3


17 During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, trade to Newfoundland was a complex network that connected many goods, ports, ships, and routes. Trade connections were not arbitrary in nature. As seen in the documents examined above, the trade to Newfoundland made use of the local economies of many regions bordering the Atlantic Ocean to meet the island’s demands as well as to supply cod to Europe and the Caribbean. It is also notable that these trades allowed for a supply of goods that went beyond the explicit requirements for the fishery, as is seen in the quantity and variety of alcohol and non-staple foodstuffs arriving at Newfoundland. What these documents show is the breadth of trade to Newfoundland. Rather than being merely a fishing outpost with a need for basic supplies, Newfoundland had a significant and diverse trade with Europe and the New World. For future research this breadth of trade and goods must be considered and examined further in order to understand how the trade affected both Newfoundland and the Atlantic as a whole.


This paper originated from my major research paper produced for the completion of the Masters of the Arts in History at Memorial University of Newfoundland and is available in the Centre for Newfoundland Studies and online. In addition to the many people and parties I am indebted to for the assistance on the original research paper, this essay could not have been completed without the invaluable comments and criticisms of the editor as well as the anonymous reviewers.

1 A sack ship was a category of ships that sought primarily to trade for fish in Newfoundland, rather than to catch and prepare fish for trade, as fishing ships did. These ships sailed for Newfoundland from Europe carrying provisions, salt, men, and other goods. Upon arrival sack ships sold or traded their cargo in exchange for cured fish and train oil (oil rendered from cod livers), which was taken to markets in Southern Europe such as in Portugal, Spain, and Italy. While sack ships are defined as trade ships on occasion, a sack ship participated in the fishery in order to secure a cargo of fish quickly. Peter Pope, Fish into Wine: The Newfoundland Plantation in the Seventeenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 104
2 While this essay focuses on the English shore, the French maintained significant shore-based and bank fisheries and consequent trade on the island. The French fisheries were based out of possessions such as Plaisance and Petit Nord in the seventeenth century and later along the French Shore as defined by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 and later by the Treaty of Versailles in 1783. CO 194/1, 62, 20 Jan. 1697; Fredrick Rowe, A History of Newfoundland and Labrador (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1980), 100, 140; Archibald Cummings, "Concerning the Value and State of the Trade at Newfoundland," 11 Dec. 1713, CO 194/5, 73-74.
3 Newfoundland’s place in an Atlantic world is an area of much recent study. Works such as Peter Pope’s Fish into Wine and W. Gordon Handcock’s So Longe as There Comes Noe Women: Origins of English Settlement in Newfoundland (St. John’s: Breakwater, 1989) have explored Newfoundland’s broader Atlantic connections through trade, settlement, and society. These works, along with many more, demonstrate that Newfoundland’s development was tied to vast international connections such as imports and exports. See also Keith Mercer, "The Role of the West Country Ports in the Debate over Settlement in Newfoundland, 1660-80," unpublished paper, Centre for Newfoundland Studies, 2002.
4 Following the failure of early attempts at settlement, in Cuper’s Cove by John Guy and in Ferryland by George Calvert, settlement became focused on the Planter. A Planter operated a shore-based fishery that employed servants to catch and cure cod. These Planters would sell or trade their catches in return for income and supplies. Planters made up the more wealthy section of society on the island who could afford more expensive and exotic goods. Pope, Fish into Wine, 207-14; Robert Holdsworth, "Journal Kept at St. John’s Newfoundland ... ," May 1701, CO 194/2, 123v-124; CO 195/2, 22.
5 Pope, Fish into Wine, 3-10; Handcock, So Longe as There Comes Noe Women; Sean T. Cadigan, Newfoundland and Labrador: A History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 45-46; John Underdown, "Answers to Enquiries," 1706, CO 194/3, 540-59.
6 Edward Wynne, Letter to Sir George Calvert, 28 Aug. 1621, in Gillian Cell, Newfoundland Discovered (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1982), 253-57; Richard Whitbourne, "Shewing the Commodities Thereof," in A Discourse and Discovery of New-Found-Land (New York: De Capo Press, 1971), 6-7; Underdown, "Answers to Enquiries," 1706.
7 Robert Holdsworth was the brother of Arthur Holdsworth, a merchant of Dartmouth, a port on the southwest coast of England. Along with his brother, Robert developed a family trade enterprise between Newfoundland and Portugal. In 1700, as captain of the Nicholas, Robert was the fishing admiral at St. John’s. The Holdsworths were a major merchant family whose involvement in the Newfoundland fishery dates back at least to 1650. D.B. Quinn, "Holdsworth, Arthur," Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume Two 1701-1740 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000); Pope, Fish into Wine, 145; Robert Holdsworth, "Journal Kept at St. John’s Newfoundland," May 1701, CO 194/2, 123v-124.
8 John Norris made a similar list in 1698 listing the ships arriving at Newfoundland, cargoes, destinations, etc. Norris looks at the entire island but not as much detail while Holdsworth focuses on St John’s. See John Norris, "A List of ships, with their lading, trading to Newfoundland this fishing season," 13 Nov. 1698, CO 194/1, 273-277; Holdsworth, "Journal Kept at St. John’s."
9 Robert Holmes, Bill of Lading, 21 Apr. 1708, Essex Institute, Essex County Court of Common Pleas, 3530.f.14; Josiah Crowe, "A Report on the State of Trade and Fishery ... ," 31 Oct. 1711, CO 194/5, 22-27.
10 C. Grant Head, Eighteenth Century Newfoundland, A Geographer’s Perspective (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1976), 100-32; Olaf Uwe Janzen, "A Scottish Venture in the Newfoundland Fish Trade, 1726-1727," in Janzen, ed., Merchant Organization and Maritime Trade in the North Atlantic, 1660-1815 (St. John’s: Research in Maritime History No. 15, 1998), 134; J.C. Notar, A Treasury for Dealing, Or Merchants, Cashkeepers ... (London, 1702), 103: Eighteenth Century Collection Online, GALE, MUN, 7 June 2010; Account of the Fishery at Newfoundland in 1677, CO 195/2, 22.
11 Seeds of both local and imported fruits and vegetables have been found present in a cesspit at Ferryland from the late seventeenth century. This suggests a combination diet of imported and local fruits and vegetables resulting from the exploitation of local resources as well as trade. See James A. Tuck, "Archaeology at Ferryland, Newfoundland," Newfoundland Studies 9, 2, (1993).
12 Sugar, flour, molasses, and malt were used to produce food for consumption.
13 John Underdown, "Answers to Additional Instructions," CO 194/3, 562-64.
14 John Berry, "A List of Those who have Furnished ... ," 1675, CO 1/35 (17iii), 157; Crowe, "A Report on the State of Trade and Fishery."
15 David Hancock, Oceans of Wine: Madeira and the Organization of the Atlantic World, 1640-1815. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 112-20.
16 Petition, 23 Dec. 1696, CO 194/1, 44; Note Regarding Convoy, 1702, CO 194/2, 335.
17 Olive oil was also a common import in this particular trade as its production areas and markets were often the same as those of wine. See Crowe, "A Report on the State of Trade and Fishery"; Holdsworth, "Journal Kept at St. John’s"; Peter E. Pope, "The Practice of Portage in the Early Modern North Atlantic: Introduction to an Issue in Maritime Historical Anthropology," Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 6 (1995): 24-29; Mar. 1703, CO 194/2, 342-58.
18 John J. McCusker and Russell R. Menard note that Newfoundland’s trade with Boston competed with English sack ships to change the source of supplies to Newfoundland, alter routes of dry fish to Europe, and draw more European ships into New England’s harbours. See McCusker and Menard, The Economy of British America 1607-1789 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), 114-16; Josiah Crowe, Letter regarding Abuses of Trade, 31 Oct. 1711, CO 194/5, 29-31; "Answers to Enquiries," 1715, CO 194/6, 28-32; Cpt. Scott C., Letter Regarding New England at Newfoundland, CO 194/6, 283-85.
19 Frederick H. Smith, Caribbean Rum: A Social and Economic History (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005), 71-81; Head, Eighteenth Century Newfoundland, 117.
20 This amount is from nine individual sales. Across these sales there were slight variations in price; the calculated value is the total of all the sales added together. The unit of measurement used in the document is gallons; it has been converted to hogsheads here for ease of reading. Robert Holmes, "A True Copy of an Account," 20 Nov. 1708, Essex Institute, Essex County Court of Common Pleas, 3530.f.14.
21 Holdsworth, "Journal Kept at St. John’s."
22 "An Account of What Liquors and other goods have been exported ... ," 1715, CO 194/6, 192-94.
23 R.C. Nash, "The Organization of Trade and Finance in the British Atlantic Economy, 1600-1830," in Peter A. Coclanis, ed., The Atlantic Economy during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005), 98-100; Head, Eighteenth Century Newfoundland, 114; Crowe, "A Report on the State of Trade and Fishery."
24 James Yonge notes in his journal that the alcoholic beverage derived from spruce and molasses was a remedy for scurvy. See Yonge, The Journal of James Yonge, ed. F.N.L. (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1963), 58-59; "Answers to Enquiries," 1714, CO 194/5, 182-87.
25 Underdown, "Answers to Enquiries," 1706.
26 Cod was cured in one of two ways, either as a wet cure (green cod) or dry cure. A wet cure required a greater quantity of salt but not the elaborate drying process needed to dry cure fish. Primarily, the French bank fishery, which remained offshore, used the wet-cure method. Dry-cured fish created a more marketable product but required shore space and time to spread out the fish and allow it to dry. This dry method was favoured by the English fishery, which had shore space and sold the fish to Southern European markets that favoured dry-cured cod. Green cod was only significantly marketable in northern France and Paris. Darlene Abreu-Ferreira, "The English Mercantile Community," Newfoundland Studies 19, 1 (2003): 134-37; Head, Eighteenth Century Newfoundland, 4-6; Pope, Fish into Wine, 12-15; Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Centuries, Vol. I, The Structures of Everyday Life, The Limits of the Possible, trans. Sian Reynolds (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), 218.
27 Holdsworth, "Journal Kept at St. John’s."
28 It should also be noted that in Holdsworth’s "Journal Kept at St. John’s" the Isle of May is listed as carrying only salt to Newfoundland; no other goods are listed. Also see "At the Isle of May in 1715," 1715, CO 194/5, 394-95.
29 Holdsworth, "Journal Kept at St. John’s"; "At the Isle of May in 1715."
30 This "Answer to Enquiries," 1715, is notable for mentioning that more sack ships in that year were going to Spain and Italy than to Portugal. This shows how flexible the trade could be from year to year.
31 Carrying a single good, or a very large quantity of one good, often ran the risk of becoming unprofitable due to various market factors such as a glut or arriving too late in the season. The risk was reduced by carrying a diversity of goods. See Janzen, "A Scottish Venture in the Newfoundland Fish Trade," 145-51; CO 194/1, 44.