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A Month of: Brief Histories of British Empire Territories – Newfoundland



Newfoundland has strong claims to be the longest serving British Empire colony. Evidence exists that fishermen knew of the existence of Newfoundland and her rich fishing ground before Columbus formally discovered it in 1492.

Newfoundland was claimed by John Cabot for England and for the Crown in 1497. It was reclaimed by Sir Humphrey Gilbert who intended to exploit the regions’ natural resource of fishing rather than using the land for settlement.

In 1610 an attempt was made to form a permanent settlement on Newfoundland, however after it did not prove to be as profitable as the investors would have liked many abandoned the settlement. Some did stay on in Newfoundland to form the first European settlement. The settler’s at Cupid’s Cove had been supplied with ‘muskets, spades, mattocks, scythes, cheeses, barrels of ‘Irish beef’ and pork, a Bible and a book on ‘the General practice of physick’ ’.[i] The settler’s clearly wanted to make a good go of it.

Tensions between Britain and France during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were rocky at best and increased when the French colonized the St Lawrence waterways. To get to their new territory, the French had to pass close by Newfoundland. Tensions increased resulting in the Seven Years War which saw the banishment of France from Canada.


Newfoundland had long attracted British fishermen into the Atlantic, it was however, natural, easier to reach the fishing grounds from the new colonies in America, and so the fishing industry off the coast of Newfoundland benefitted New England as well as the old.[ii]

Newfoundland remained a loyal colony throughout the twentieth century, for example during the First World War the region suffered the highest casualty rate per population than any other of the participants, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment, for example, suffered a staggering 90% casualty rate on the first day of the Battle of the Somme alone. The survivors went on to serve in subsequent battles and were awarded with the prefix ‘Royal’ to the Regiments name.

It remained independent from Canada as they had little in common.

Economic hardships brought about by the 1930s depression forced Newfoundland to go bankrupt. Economic hardships alongside government corruption and political dissatisfaction led to the end of responsible government after a mob of 10,000 attacked the Colonial Building in 1931, forcing the Prime Minister to flee. He lost the election later on in the year. The next government as a result called upon Britain to take more direct control. In 1934 the Commission of Government took control suspending Newfoundland’s self-sustaining status. It remained a dominion in name only.

British officials went to Newfoundland to try and fix the nations finances, but the task proved difficult with the war debt and the cost of the railway increasing it created an unstable government debt/

The Second World War saw Newfoundland being used as a strategic position with the Allies building military bases and especially during the Battle of the Atlantic.

However, the Second World War highlighted Newfoundland’s dire financial state. An economy recover did however occur with the infusion of American money around Newfoundland’s military, naval and air bases and well as her fisheries.

America stepped in to defend the colony in the post-war period, after the political status debate reopened. The island ‘bit the bullet’ and applied to join the Canadian Federation.


[i] James, Lawrence, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire page 44

[ii] Ferguson, Niall, Empire pg 62

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