Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 23
by David Lee
Part II: The Fisheries of Gaspé
Of Cod and Other Fish
The fishing industry dominated all forms of life in Gaspé. As Abbé Ferland observed,1 there was no way to escape the odour of cod. Few people in the district were not dependent on the fisheries; most men and adolescent boys worked on the fishing boats while the women, girls and younger boys worked on the beach curing the fish. The merchants, clergymen, doctors and lawyers who provided services in the district were quite likely to be paid in fish. The fishermen bought their store goods with fish and paid their church tithes with it; they manured their gardens with fish and made soap from it. And naturally fish dominated everyone's diet.
Abbé Ferland claimed that the Gaspé fishermen would not eat the best quality cod, "la morue marchande" which was exported to Europe, because they found it "trop insipide" and preferred the cod sent to feed the slaves of the West Indies and Brazil, "la morue de réfection." They shunned the good fish and ate "la chair tachetée [qui] dnéote que les mouches y ont déposé leurs oeufs. Ces matières étrangères produisent de la fermentation dans les parties voisines et leur donnent un goût plus piquant." They also ate the lean parts of whale meat but not the blubber although the Indians ate it.2
The Gaspé fisheries enjoyed two advantages over other dry-cod producing areas in North America, particularly Newfoundland. Since there was little spring fog in Chaleur Bay, cod could be caught and cured up to six weeks earlier than at Newfoundland and spring was the season when the cod swarmed in their greatest numbers along the shore. However, the shipping lanes around both Gaspé and Newfoundland suffered from the menace of icefields in the spring. On the richest Gaspé fishery, extending from Cap des Rosiers to Cap d'Espoir, the season lasted from May to mid-November and actually encompassed two seasons. The spring and summer season was the most productive, supplying the ships which left for Europe before the autumn freeze-up. The fall and winter season consisted of whatever cod could be caught after the ships left. Some of this fish was eaten locally, but most was sent to Europe in the spring after the ice had left the shores. There was also some winter fishing "tommy-cod fishing" done through the ice of the St. Lawrence River.3
The other advantage of the Gaspé fisheries was that the fishermen had to go only two or three miles from shore to find plentiful fish; thus, only small, relatively inexpensive boats were required. The berges or chaloupes they used were 18 to 20 feet long in the keel and 6-1/2 feet wide in the beam. They were outfitted with two sprit sails, oars, compass, anchor and a small cooking stove. They could carry up to eight quintals of fish, which was more than the two-man crew could normally catch (or "make" as it was termed in Gaspé) in one day. In a good year one berge could make as much as 300 quintals. The berges were pointed at both ends and appeared fragile, but were solidly made and could withstand fairly heavy seas. Normally the keel was made of birch, the timbers of cedar and the planks of pine or cedar; there was usually no deck. A fisherman could buy a berge in 1777 for less than £8 and by the 1830s they were reported to cost from "nine to ten Pounds in goods or Provisions sold at an advance of about seventy-five per cent."4
Larger vessels were employed in whaling and in fishing for cod on the Orphan Banks, which were farther out in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The "bankers" carried six to ten men and could stay at sea for a few days until they were full. They were more costly and by the 1860s even the large Gaspé fishing companies had given up and allowed the banks to become dominated by American fishermen.5
No fisherman was truly self-employed for he was dependent on the powerful merchants to purchase his fish and market it. The fishermen were subject to three systems. Some men were employed directly by the merchant-exporters to work on the firms' boats and beaches, and were paid in credit at their stores. Most fishermen turned over their catch to the merchants to pay for the provisions and equipment which they had earlier been advanced on credit. A third group were those who worked for la moitié de ligne; they worked for bourgeois who provided the fishermen with berges and bait in return for half the value of the fish that they caught. This meant that the two fishermen in each berge each received only one-quarter of the proceeds of their lines (and they supplied their own lines). The bourgeois received all the fish at the beach and arranged for its curing and sale to the exporters; the fisherman's share of the catch was then credited to his account at the company store. Under this system the fisherman in effect worked for the bourgeois, but received his payment in the end from the large companies.6
Beginning in the late 18th century, shoremen were brought down from the St. Lawrence river parishes to supplement local labour. The planters had hiring agents in the parishes, of which Saint-Thomas-de-Montmagny (near Quebec City) supplied the most men, and by 1820 their number was estimated at 500 out of a total of 1,800 working on the Gaspé fisheries. By the 1830s some were coming down to fish on their own. They were considered poorly-skilled fishermen, but they were able to make a little money by using the small, unappropriated beaches on the north shore between Matane and Cap-des-Rosiers. In 1832 a few were reported permanently settled at Sainte-Anne-des-Monts and in later years others settled the north shore, eking out a living by subsistence fishing, practising very little agriculture and cutting wood only in the winter.7 Although spring and summer were the busiest times, the winter, too, was a time of work. Wood had to be cut for fuel and building purposes, some fishermen had a few chickens and occasionally a cow to care for, and the fish-curing flakes on the beach and boats and nets had to be repaired. Some were lucky enough to get a few weeks' employment with the big fishing companies making the drums in which cod was sometimes packed. There were also a few winter jobs with the whalers making the barrels in which whale oil was exported.8
Few of these jobs paid workers in cash and, indeed, there was very little cash to be found anywhere in the Gaspé economy. The fisherman gained his necessities at the company store on credit and paid his account with fish during the fishing season. For larger transactions bills of exchange were used,9 but fish was the general medium of exchange. The best source of capelin for bait was Grande-Rivière; there the seigneur charged two and one-half quintals of cod for every boat which came to gather bait. The Roman Catholic priests of Gaspé were called missionaries, but the parishioners were expected to pay something toward their subsistence. The tithe could be in the form of grain or potatoes, but generally it was fish which the missionary could keep for himself or redeem for goods at the company store. At Percé parishioners were expected to pay the priest one-half quintal of cod for every boat they had, but there, as in most places in Gaspé, tithing was very irregular and unreliable; however, in 1838 the people of Paspébiac agreed to pay their priest one-half quintal of fish per family.10
Although the Gaspé fisheries had several advantages over competitors, one problem of which the local industry was always aware was pollution of the fishing waters. In 1765 a government surveyor visited Gaspé Bay and suggested that the French might have diminished the local cod fishery by throwing fish offal into the waters of the bay. The cod would eat the offal instead of the bait offered by the fishermen and it also hurt the quality of the fish that fed on the offal.11 Renewal of the Gaspé fisheries under British sovereignty increased pollution. As early as 1769 the problem was considered serious at Pabos and a petition from the few residents complained particularly about the behaviour of fishermen from the thirteen colonies to the south.
Over the years numerous petitions were sent by Gaspé fishermen imploring the government to impose and enforce laws prohibiting visiting fishermen from throwing fish offal into the water.13 They always blamed visiting fishermen and their accusation may have been accurate; local fishermen found it easier to dispose of their refuse and, of course, had a greater interest in the long-term welfare of the fisheries. Legislation introduced in 178814 prohibited the dumping of ballast in Gaspé harbours and of fish guts, offal or gurry within two miles of shore, but it was not enforceable because of the weak judicial system in Gaspé. Besides, the dumping of fish refuse farther out at sea harmed the fisheries just as much for the cod was a migratory fish. In 1824 the assembly passed new legislation which forbade dumping offal within six leagues of shore.15
Americans were considered the worst culprits because not only did they throw their refuse overboard, but also their fishing depleted the supply available to Gaspé fishermen. Charles Robin noted in 1772 how early the presence of American fishermen on the Orphan Banks was felt on the Chaleur Bay fisheries.16 During the American revolutionary war when very few fish were taken, Nicholas Cox noted that the fishery quickly recovered.17 Americans who came later to catch mackerel also affected the Gaspé cod fishery because the local fishermen used the mackerel for bait to catch cod.18
The treaty of 1818 between the United States and Great Britain forbade American fishermen to catch, dry or cure fish within three miles of British territory though they could land for wood, water, shelter and repairs; however, restrictions against coming ashore only meant that they had to dispose of their refuse at sea. By this time, Gaspé residents suspected that they dumped at sea in order to distract the cod from leaving the banks to follow "their natural course near the shores."19 M.H. Perley noted that although the "Crown Officers in England" had interpreted that the three-mile provision should be measured from the headlands, Americans were still fishing in Chaleur Bay in 1850.20
It is difficult to determine the exact impact of American fishermen on the Gaspé fisheries, but we do know that exports of most Gaspé fish rose fairly steadily during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Codfish production for example, was reported to have been 28,000 to 30,000 quintals in 1777, the year before American privateers ravaged the Gaspé fisheries,21 but during the years of the American Revolution, cod production was probably no higher than that required for local consumption. The fishery must have recovered quickly after the war for 25,500 quintals were exported from Gaspé in 1784.22 During the 19th century, exports continued to increase: in 1811 they were reported at 26,691 quintals and, with a few minor declines, rose to 62,747 quintals by 1835. Statistics after this year are incomplete; however, exports for later years have been found:
Total figures for cod exports would be higher for it was shipped in other measures than quintals; for example, casks, hogsheads, barrels, pacquets, caisses, tierces, kegs, firkins, bundles and boxes. Other cod products exported included tongues, sounds (cod heads) and cod-liver oil. Further, total cod production in the District of Gaspé would have been even greater for a good deal was consumed locally.23
In 1861 Gaspé Bay was declared a free port, thus attracting a great deal of shipping to Gaspé; many of these ships took cod on their return voyages. The destinations of the 351 ships which cleared the port of Gaspé Bay that year are shown below.24
Pierre Fortin, stipendiary magistrate charged with supervising the fisheries in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, enumerated many examples of shipping leaving the Gaspé district in his report for the year 1864. Following are a few examples.25
(1) One Charles Robin and Company ship left Paspébiac in June taking cod to Rio de Janeiro; it returned (via New York with freight) in time to take a larger cargo of cod to Brazil again in November.
(2) Another made two trips to Boston early in the year; returning the second time, it "touched at Sydney" to bring coal to Paspébiac, then took cod to Naples in October.
(3) Another brought salt from Jersey in the spring; took cod, oats, herring, shingles and other products to Barbados in June; returned with sugar and molasses in September, and took cod to Brazil in October.
(4) J. and Elias Collas of Jersey launched a 94-ton ship from their Pointe-Saint-Pierre shipyard in the fall which went to Portugal in November with cod.
(5) A ship belonging to John Fauvel of Pointe-Saint-Pierre arrived in Gaspé Bay in May from Jersey with general cargo, left for Cadiz in June with cod, returned in ballast, and left in November to take cod to Naples.
Although cod was the main source of income for Gaspésians, other types of fishing were carried on. Whaling began in Gaspé Bay about the turn of the 19th century; according to tradition, an American from Nantucket instructed the Boyle brothers of Gaspé Bay in his methods of whaling.26 Whaling, a high-risk enterprise, was never actively encouraged by the government. It required a good deal of capital even to begin because it required schooners large enough to carry about 12 men and capable of operating on the high seas (primarily the north shore of the gulf). One season of poor sailing weather could completely ruin a whaler.27
Over the years the gulf whale population declined because of overkilling and the whalers moved into the Strait of Belle Isle and the Atlantic along the Labrador coast, but by the 1860s even these areas were depleted. Fortin tried in vain to encourage the Gaspé whalers to go farther afield, to the Greenland coast, for example; he claimed that they were notoriously bad navigators and gave as an example the fact that the ships taking Gaspé cod to the world markets were still captained by foreigners (presumably Jerseymen).28
Little whale meat was exported. It was the oil, refined for lanterns, which led men to pursue whales. The oil-refining operations were based at L'Anse-aux-Cousins and Penouil in Gaspé Bay. The task of reducing the blubber to oil and preparing casks for its handling is reported to have employed about 100 people, employment which would have lasted about two and a half months in the autumn after the whaling season ended.29 Although the production figures shown below are scanty, they indicate that whaling was a very capricious enterprise.
In 1810 the 27 whales caught produced 480 barrels or 60 tons of oil; valued at £31 per ton, the yield was £1,860. In 1864 oil was valued at 65 cents per gallon.
Salmon exports from the Gaspé district generally came from the Cascapédia and Restigouche rivers. Salmon experienced a dramatic decline in mid-century and only strong legislative measures saved them from extinction. Despite charges that the Restigouche Indians were the chief cause for the decline, many other factors were involved. The Indians were accused of taking salmon before they spawned, but it was Europeans who totally blocked some streams with nets and dams for lumber mills or who choked the rivers with sawdust. There had long been laws governing the salmon fisheries, but there were no means of enforcing them until the mid-1850s when Fortin was made stipendiary magistrate to oversee the Gaspé fisheries. Subsequently an overseer was appointed for the Restigouche River only; in 1861 he reported no breach in the fishing rules and a consequent increase of 60 barrels caught in the river that year.30 Fortin noted that a Mr. Price had constructed a fine fish-way on the Matane River, but no salmon had been seen above it; before Price's milldam had been built the river had produced 25 to 30 barrels a year.31
In 1790 the Restigouche River alone is estimated to have produced 6,000 barrels of salmon; by 1823 production had fallen to 1,000 barrels. By the 1850s salmon had almost totally disappeared from the district, but came back slowly during the following decade. The figures below show the amount exported from the Gaspé district in the 1860s.
In the 1860s sport fishermen using the artificial fly first began to fish the magnificent salmon rivers of Gaspé and licensing of the sport began to bring in some revenue. It was probably Jefferson Davis's visit to Gaspé in 1866 (when he caught 160 salmon) that brought Gaspé salmon to the attention of sport fishermen.32
Charles Robin mentioned gathering oysters as early as 1769, but they never became a popular object of the Gaspé fishermen's search. In 1859 Fortin transplanted a number of oysters from Caraquet to Gaspé Bay "according to the latest and most generally adopted European method." Few survived and Fortin attributed the failure to the muddy bottom of the bay.33
Many other fish were caught, especially for bait. Capelin, the chief food of the cod, were netted along the shores of Gaspé and were also popular for manuring local gardens, a practice which was later forbidden. Capelin were especially plentiful at the beginning of the fishing season, but if they became scarce as the season progressed, the fishermen turned to herring, then mackerel and later even to squid, smelt and trout.34 Other fish exported from Gaspé in small amounts included pickled and smoked herring, trout, shad, eels, sardines and mackerel.
Although mackerel were plentiful in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Gaspé fishermen left them to American fishermen who pursued them with scores of ships. Fortin particularly lamented the lack of adventure among Gaspé fishermen who would not pursue whales to Greenland or take advantage of local mackerel resources. The United States market was enormous and American fishermen came long distances to fish in international waters just off the Gaspé coast, but Gaspé fishermen preferred the easier life of fishing for cod in coastal waters.
Sir William Dawson felt the Gulf of St. Lawrence mackerel fisheries should be left to the Americans. Mackerel, he said, was a "vagrant," making the fishery unreliable from year to year. Further, fishing on the open seas raised the risk of calamity; the cod fishery was much safer and more dependable. Dawson added, "Our comparatively thinly settled coasts could ill afford the frequent unsuccessful voyages and terrible disasters and loss of life that attend the American mackerel fisheries."35
It is interesting that lobsters, although abundant in Gaspé, were never exported. Indeed they were seldom eaten locally, the fishermen rejecting them as nothing more than a nuisance which often tore their nets. Not until the 1870s when American businessmen set up canneries on Chaleur Bay were the Gaspé lobster resources exploited.36
Gaspé Fishing Companies
Gaspé Bay and Paspébiac were the two major centres for the exportation of cod and for the first 30 years of the 19th century two Jersey companies shared the Gaspé fisheries on a non-competitive basis. Francis and Philip Janvrin dominated the fisheries of Gaspé Bay and even held shares in Charles Robin and Company, which controlled the fisheries on Chaleur Bay, including Percé. Many smaller companies tried to compete with the two large firms and some succeeded, especially later in the 19th century, but many failed, particularly in the 18th century.
In the period from 1760 to 1775 there were numerous traders, many operating out of Quebec on a small scale along the coasts, who bartered salt, fishing equipment and provisions, for fish, furs and skins. An early example was William Van Felson, a native of Holland, who took a 15-ton schooner to Gaspé in 1763 with a cargo of "Sea stores & utenzils for the fishery"; he continued trading at Bonaventure until the American Revolution.37
Beginning in 1766 a Quebec-based trader, William Smith, with two merchant partners in London had erected several store houses at Paspébiac and Bonaventure and traded goods with the Indians for the salmon they caught on the Cascapédia and Restigouche rivers.38 As noted earlier, John Shoolbred took over these operations but was driven out by American privateers in 1779.
Charles Robin first came to trade along Chaleur Bay in 1766 and, like Van Felson and Smith, resided on the fisheries much of the time; however, his supply base was Jersey rather than Quebec. Other small-scale merchants who came to trade seasonally along the Gaspé coast included a firm from Halifax.39
Guernsey fishermen who were also traders are known to have been on the Forillon shore of Gaspé Bay by at least 1767.40 The LeMesurier and Bonamy families are shown on a census of 1777 as having 17 fishing boats and, besides their families, 58 people working for them (probably brought in every spring for the fishing season). After the revolutionary war the business was run by Thomas LeMesurier and his brothers and by 1789 they were reported to be bringing in 100 fishermen from Guernsey every season and exporting 10,000 to 12,000 quintals of cod to Europe.41 Charles Robin later commented that it was not a profitable business and apparently the LeMesuriers sold out to the Janvrins in 1792.42 Some of the Guernsey people, among them the Bonamy and LeMesurier families, remained on the Forillon peninsula and were joined by workers from Jersey brought out by the Janvrin Company.43
Francis Janvrin was a shareholder in Charles Robin and Company as early as 1787 and he and his sons continued as shareholders for at least 50 years.44 The Janvrins, emulating the Robin firm, established their first fishing operations at Cape Breton Island in 1783 and then expanded to the District of Gaspé. Although some of the Janvrin family came out to Cape Breton to direct the fisheries there, their operations in Gaspé were run by a resident agent who received occasional visits from the Janvrins living at Cape Breton. Their first fishing station, slow to prosper, was at Grande-Grève, but success eventually came and the company flourished and expanded.
The devastating war in Europe in the first years of the 19th century resulted in a greatly increased demand for fish and in response the Janvrin company established new fishing stations at Gaspé Bay, Pointe-Saint-Pierre, Mal Bay, Cap-des-Rosiers and Anse-aux-Griffons. Their business was extensive, exporting dried cod to Brazil as well as Europe. They entered an agreement not to compete in the North American fisheries with some Guernsey fishing companies known as the "Arichat and Gaspé Society." The Janvrins were to have no Guernsey competition in Cape Breton and Gaspé Bay in return for not entering the Newfoundland fisheries.45 Further, the Janvrins and the Robins did not trespass on their respective fishing areas in Gaspé.
The Janvrins sold their fishing business it is not known why to two Jerseymen who had been general managers for Charles Robin and Company. John Fauvel, who had worked at Paspébiac, seems to have purchased the Mal Bay fishing post.46 In 1857 William Fruing bought the fishing stations of Gaspé Bay and the Forillon peninsula. In 1861 the Fruing company was reported to be exporting 18,000 quintals of cod to several Mediterranean countries.47
The Janvrins and their successors nearly monopolized the Gaspé fisheries from Mal Bay to Anse-aux-Griffons. Only one merchant, the Loyalist Daniel McPherson from Philadelphia, successfully competed with the Janvrins, but he depended heavily on them for supplies.48 Charles Robin indicates that McPherson's "Fishery and supplying business," established at Douglastown in the 1780s, enjoyed only modest success, but by 1802 McPherson had gained enough to buy the seigneury of Ile aux Grues (Crane Island) near Quebec to which he soon retired. His business then appears to have been continued by his son John and son-in-law Henry Johnston who added to McPherson's business by acquiring the Janvrin properties at Pointe-Saint-Pierre49
Many investors had lost a great deal of money attempting to establish fishing posts in Gaspé after the American Revolution and Robin lists a dozen firms that failed with heavy losses.50 Charles Robin flourished on Chaleur Bay, but only by means of great self-sacrifice, energy and business acumen; meanwhile the Janvrins hung on until the world market improved after 1800. They virtually had Gaspé Bay, with its excellent harbour and curing beaches (especially at Grande-Grève, the best beach in the Gaspé district) to themselves, their only competition being the small business run by McPherson on the south shore of Gaspé Bay.
These firms dominated the Gaspé fishing industry between 1790 and 1830 except for a few pedlars who sailed along the coasts of Gaspé every summer touching at each small port and cove. These itinerant traders were often able to sell goods at prices considerably lower than those offered by the large companies, but they seldom had any salt and usually sold their goods for cash only. (Both salt and cash were scarce in Gaspé.) Some of these independent merchants did take fish, but there were complaints that they traded alcohol for fish and corrupted the poor fishermen.51
It was difficult for an entrepreneur to break into the Gaspé fishing industry which was so firmly controlled by the two large companies. The first man to successfully break into the monopoly and offer true competition was John LeBoutillier. He, too, had come from Jersey at an early age to work for the Robins. About 1830 he established a small fishing post at Percé. He appears to have received some financial backing from François Buteau, a Quebec merchant who had been trading seasonally in Gaspé for 20 years and who participated in the fishing industry at his seigneury of Sainte-Anne-des-Monts. Starting cautiously and at first specialising in the export of "la morue de réfection" to Quebec, they were soon able to expand and by 1836 added posts at Anse-aux-Griffons and Paspébiac. Buteau apparently left the firm early, but LeBoutillier was soon joined by his sons and the firm grew; however, it never reached the proportions of Charles Robin and Company. In 1850 they were reported to be exporting 20,000 quintals of fish a year (compared to the 40,000-50,000 quintals exported by the Robin Company) and by the 1860s they had posts at Gaspé Bay, Percé and Anse-aux-Griffons.52
About 1838 three brothers who had been working for Charles Robin and Company began a merchandising and fish exporting business on the Paspébiac barachois adjacent to the Robins. David, Amy and Edward LeBoutillier were Jerseymen, but only distantly related to John LeBoutillier. The LeBoutillier brothers seem to have been the first Gaspé fishing firm to establish a fishing post on the Labrador coast. They opened posts at Ile de Bonaventure and Miscou Island as well, but their headquarters and shipping centre remained at Paspébiac. From there they were reported, in 1852, to be exporting about 20,000 quintals of cod.53
The LeBoutilliers showed that competition with the two large firms was possible and several other people quickly followed their lead. The Jersey firm of Hamon and LeGros began a fishery at Newport in the early 1830s and the Quebec-based firm of Georges and Ferdinand Boissonault opened one at Bonaventure. Though this end of Chaleur Bay was not rich in cod, by 1850 the two brothers had 150 boats in service there, each of which brought in about 100 quintals a season. Around 1843 William Hyman, a native of Russia, began a small operation on the Forillon peninsula which lasted into the 1960s.54
None of these companies fished for whales; that was left to the specialists the Boyle family of Gaspé Bay. Von Iffland noted in 1821 that the Boyles had, at L'Anse-aux-Cousins, "des fourneaux avec des chaudières énormes où ils font bouillir la chair de ces poissons après l'avoir coupée en morceaux. Des tubes, à ce qu'il m'a paru, transportent l'huile dans un grand réservoir." By the 1830s the refining operations had been moved to Penouil where the Boyles and others erected "quelques chétives baraques; là sont amoncelées des masses de lard de baleine, que l'on fait fondre dans d'immenses chaudiéres, afin d'en extraire les matières grasses et huileuses."55
In 1818 the assembly of Lower Canada discussed various problems in Gaspé and Jean Taschereau spoke at length about the need to get more Québécois merchants interested in the district because its economy was dominated by outsiders.56 Of all the Gaspé entrepreneurs noted above, only François Buteau, the Boissoneault brothers and perhaps the Boyle family were native to Canada and they were not leaders in their field.
The majority of the capital and management for the Gaspé fishing industry came from the Channel Islands because people there were willing to risk the large initial investment required to become established in the fishing industry. As important as the capital were the many hard years they were willing to invest in directing the fisheries. The fate of two such investors, Frederick Haldimand and Charles Robin, will be examined to show that the fishing industry dominated not only the lives of the fishermen, but also the lives of management.