French Perceptions of Irish Catholics in Nineteenth-Century Newfoundland

Article excerpt

DESPITE THE LONG French presence in Newfoundland, the extensive body of French commentary about the island remains relatively unexplored. Yet, for centuries, the French have been writing about the place, and their discourse has sometimes conflicted with that of their British counterparts. One example of their interest is their preoccupation with Irish settlers, who with fishermen of the West Country formed the early Newfoundland population. The following extracts from French writing illustrate what the nineteenth-century French found remarkable about Irish settlers in two distinct areas: the west coast and St. John's.


After several centuries of fishing off the coast of Newfoundland and on the Grand Banks, French fishermen were forced to stay at home during the long hiatus brought about by the Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Arriving back in the early nineteenth century, they were at once confronted with English-speaking settiers installed in the harbours they had vacated on the west coast of the island. But even though that population had settled there illegally, in contravention of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), the French developed a policy of tolerance towards the new arrivals, most of them Irish. (1) Working in such close quarters, they soon formed their own ideas of the small diaspora that had taken root there, as well as certain attitudes towards the church hierarchy in St. John's. The French, who since the Revolution had created an officially lay society in which priests did not engage openly in politics, were surprised by both the size of the Irish community and the influence of the clergy. Their impressions were often cast in the language of caricature.

Before proceeding, let us first examine the relationship between French fishermen and the permanent population. The slow growth of Irish and English settlement on the north and west coasts of Newfoundland was partly a consequence of Anglo-French differences over the extent of French authority. Even though the French had abandoned their territorial claims to the island in 1713, they retained the right to a seasonal fishery on the coast between Cape Bonavista and Pointe Riche-the so-called French Shore or Treaty Shore--which was delineated in 1783 as the section between Cape St. John and Cape Ray (effectively, White Bay and all of the west coast).

This delineation created a climate of mistrust between the two powers, a mistrust brought about by a series of disputes over the ambiguity of language governing the use of the shoreline. It also discouraged settlement by English-speaking fishermen, but not completely. That is why the French naval officer Henri Jouan, who visited Newfoundland in 1841, sounded a note of alarm. The English-speaking population, he wrote, was spreading along the coast without any visible means of support other than the fishery, and they were demanding the right to remain there. Normally, he continued, French fishermen would not object to one or two families employed as custodians during the winter, but they were not willing to tolerate communities of 1,000 to 1,500, such as those forming in the Bay of Islands or Cape St. George. (2) From the French perspective, these settled populations were encroachments. Newfoundland had also elected its first assembly in 1832, giving itself influence over the whole island, including the French Shore, and forcing the French into sometimes awkward and absurd contrivances to preserve their equipment during the winter. But as a practical measure, the French continued to leave their stages, boats, and other property in the hands of trustworthy settlers (gardiens), thereby encouraging them to stay.

One of the earliest assessments we have of the relationship between French fishermen and the gardiens after the Treaty of Paris (1815) came from Francois Leconte, a French naval officer who in 1817 served in the fisheries protection squadron known as the Station Navale de Terre-Neuve. …