1886 – French Colonies and their resources



Once possessed of Canada and neighbouring States, exercising uncontrolled powers over the whole region watered by the Mississippi and its affluents, settling several islands .of the West Indies, and having important stations on the Brazilian and other coasts of South America, France now only holds in America the small islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, near Newfoundland, with Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Antilles, and with Cayenne or Guyana in South America.

The French indulge the hope of considerable growth in their political influence on the American continent through the opening of the Panama Canal, a work so much indebted to French financial faith, and to the genius of their countryman, M. de Lesseps.


These two little islands, lying off the south shore of Newfoundland, are all that remains of the magnificent domain once known as French America.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century France bid fair to establish an empire in America. The first to plant a colony in Brazil, it was driven off by Portugal. The first to form a settlement outside of Spanish America, and at one time practically lord of the north-east coast, the ruler of Canada, Labrador, and the Mississippi Valley, with a moral sway over many warlike Indian tribes, it has lost all its North-American possessions but the two rocky islets of St. Pierre and Miquelon.

When firmly seated in Canada, the French claimed Newfoundland, although clearly British by right of discovery. The conquest of Canada by Great Britain in 1755, and the vastly increased Newfoundland cod fishing ‘in English hands, led to that rectification under the treaty of Utrecht, 1763, by which the French only jetained those two small islands of all their vast possessions in America. This misfortune to France was only paralleled in India: where a supreme dominion in the East, apparently safely secured, slipped from their grasp, leaving only a few insignificant trading factories as the relic of empire.

St. Pierre and Miquelon were allowed solely on the ground of humanity, as an asylum for French fishermen in the stormy Atlantic. The first outbreak of hostilities, 1778, brought them under British rule. Given back in 1783, they were again seized in 1793, and their inhabitants sent to France. In the final arrangement, 1816, they were once more restored.

One condition has been openly unfulfilled, the French having fortified places, and established a military force there.

Brest had the honour of showing British seamen the value of Cod Fishing on the Banks of Newfoundland. Bretons, after whom Cape Breton was named, began with hook and line in 1504, seven years after the discovery of north-eastern America by John Cabot, in the service of our Henry VII. In 1535, the French laid claim to all that northern region for an indefinite space.

Wolfe’s victory at Quebec was followed by the gradual loss of all French America. English colonists, of what is now known as the United States, were jealous of French settlers northward on the St. Lawrence, while the feeling of national hostility was nurtured, on both sides, by the wish to retain the ground they held.

No one in these days can justify the French in sending scalping Indian hordes against English farmers, and no one can justify the British harshness in the expulsion of French settlers from their Acadian homesteads and Newfoundland fishing huts. M. Garneau ventures to assert that  » There is no example, in modern times, of punishment inflicted upon a peaceable and inoffensive people, with so much calculation, barbarity and sangfroid. » Longfellow’s Evangeline tells the sad story. Yet there is another side to the history.

As the French, especially from Brittany and Normandy, are still extensively engaged in cod fishing, it is gratifying to know that the hardy fishers of this nationality have so friendly a shore for shelter, and for their fish-drying operations, as these little islands.
St. Pierre, the lesser island, is the chief. In nearly 47° latitude, the same as that of the smiling valley of the Loire, the climate is very unlike that of La Belle France. The winter chain of frost and snow holds in with rigor, though the cold is not nearly so severe and prolonged as in the valley of the St. Lawrence. But the fog throws its white mantle over the landscape, adding a depressing obscurity to general inclement conditions.

Both islets are of primitive rock, a silicious porphyry prevailing, with hills rising a few hundred feet, and plateaus rather than plains. Miquelon, the larger, contains about •52,000 acres, and St. Pierre about 6,000. The latter is 4 miles in length and 2 in width. Its small eastern neighbour, the Isle of Dogs, is but half-a-mile long. The two smaller islands have a larger population than Miquelon has.

Miquelon consists of two islands, Great and Little Miquelon, connected by a narrow isthmus of sand, which is some times broken through in severe storms. The northern is a projection of very fine sand. In some old maps the two parts are quite isolated, the Little Miquelon being Langlade Island. A channel ran between them from 1757 to 1781, when the destroyers of the isthmus restored it.

Although larger than St. Pierre, it has not retained the seat of government any more than the chief population. The shelter in the port is slight. There is but a roadstead, and one subject to much alteration by moving sands. Both are provided with more rocks than trees, and the aspect from ship-board is that of desolation.

St. Pierre has a harbour, or, rather, a roadstead, having protection from the Isle of Dogs. The more open one of Miquelon is often completely blocked up with icebergs, not a craft being able to lie but on the shore in winter. St. Pierre is shielded from these unwieldly wanderers of the sea by other islands than the Isle of Dogs, as the Verte, Pigeons, Grand-Colombier, and Vainqueur.

Thankful as the islanders may be for the warm airs borne to them by the Gulf Stream, they are exposed by its powerful action to sudden changes in the depth of channels and bays, which are as inconvenient as dangerous.

The islands bear the record of stormy action on their shores and hills. But in every sheltered nook the fir and spruce may be seen, while shrubs only elsewhere withstand the rigorous blasts. The highest point is 700 feet. In so inhospitable a climate, the farmer has to contend with difficulties; but these are much increased by the harsh rocks and boulders, the small amount of humus, and the wide-spread peat, often treacherous under the feet. A few farms struggle on in Langlade.

The climate is thus described by M.M. Hue and Haurigot:  » The summer is without heat, it is the summer of Archangel; the winter is more lengthened than cold, it is the winter of the southern part of Sweden. » Its cheerlessness must strike one fresh from the boulevards of Paris.

The north wind of winter brings the poudrin, resembling the dust storm of Australia, but only of fine particles of snow, which darkens the air, burns the eyes, tears the throat, and is a real danger to the traveller away from home.

The fog is the most persistent of phenomena, and far worse in summer than winter. Unlike that of San Francisco, which lifts at mid-day, this of the southern Newfoundland region may abide for months together. Fog whistles and horns are in request. The song of the Siren fixed on shore has been heard as far as 20 miles. It is sounded for eight seconds twice every minute, and its mournful roar cannot increase the hilarity of the darkened neighbourhood.

« With little rain, and few storms, the dryness and stillness of the fog in the island form a peculiarity of its climate. When the aurora can be witnessed, its effects are as grand and beautiful as in the Arctic Circle.

It must not be imagined that the French colony is unhealthy. On the contrary, many have had their constitutions strengthened by a visit there in summer. Rheumatism is, however, a sore trial. Consumption has been relieved by a winter in this dry, frosty air, stilled and bracing.

It is no place for the cultivator; all persons seem more or less connected with fishing. In the winter, there is some sport in the pine forests, and profitable work in the chase of seals along shore. In these settlements some amusements are got up by the residents after the departure of the summer and autumn fishing vessels. But the fishing tackle needs be got in order by the men, while housewives have leisure to attend to toilet needs, neglected in the busy salting-down season.

During the warmer months, when the sea has been freed from icy encumbrance, men and women have enough to do. The cold, raw north is most favoured with fish. These swarm everywhere; men are in boats, women wade into shallow waters after the prey. The male population may have to encounter the greater dangers, but by no means are the sole workers, for girlhood and womanhood alike are busy at the preparation of fish for the distant market.

The Bank of St. Pierre is south of the island, and westward of the Great Bank of Newfoundland, which is the main cod fishing ground.

While the Atlantic has abysses nearly three miles down, it has remnants of ancient lands, lowered beneath the surface in the constant restlessness pervading every realm of earth. Parts may have struggled long with rising waters, but yielded after destructive inundations. The sand and ooze covered in the depths what had once glistened in the sun’s rays.

The Banks are, in fact, submarine islands, the lone remains of former continental lands. The fish, that had during the winter retreated for food into profounder portions of the northern Atlantic, crowd over the Banks in spring and summer, because of the vast amount of life ready for their nutriment.

Although these high lands in the ocean, 50 to 400 feet below the surface, really extend for 600 to 700 miles, the favourite ground seems to be an area of about 200 miles in length by a third as much in width.

The cold sea current, sweeping from the Polar regions round the eastern side of Newfoundland, encounters the warm current known as the Gulf Stream, fresh from tropical quarters. The meeting of such contrary conditions produces the fog phenomena, and may be the special attraction to animal nature. No fishery in the world can equal that of these Banks; and, although the ships from our islands are the most numerous, large fleets go thither every year from the ports of north-western France.

The Banks have been regarded by some writers as the burial ground of icebergs; not that the ice forms any portion, as that would return to the watery condition, but the materials which that ice broke off the rocks, when it glided down Greenland’s vales in glaciers, would be deposited below, when the berg, sailing with the Arctic flow, met the warm current from the Gulf of Mexico, and melted beneath the genial action. That process, carried on through the ages, may have reared such a monument, receiving also constant additions of sandy debris carried onward by the Gulf Stream, or the accumulation of such foreign matter may be resting on the yet descending fragments of the old Atlantic continent. A deep fosse traverses the Great Bank.

The prodigious amount of cod there, on this marvellous hunting ground. may be understood when it is known that over 9,000,000 eggs have been taken from one female fish.

By the month of April, the fleets from St. Malo, Fecamp, St. Brieuc and Dieppe have arrived off St. Pierre; and, while the major part of the crews are soon actively engaged with hook and line, or various netting arrangements, some are left ashore to get ready the curing houses. A large number of experienced fishermen, resident on the isles, join themselves to parties for the Banks.

In the Bank work, the use of the so-called scythe or mowing-line is prohibited under heavy penalties, but which is often thrown, nevertheless. This commits, one remarks, unheard-of ravages. The hand-line is that used by English and American fishers. The French call theirs the ligne de fond or ligne dormante, though the local name is tanti. A rope of enormous length has fixed on it, at a yard distance apart, a series of fish-hooks, duly baited.

The tubs containing the lines are put into a small flatbottomed boat manned by two sailors, and the several parties leave the anchored vessel for their trying labors. In such a sea, beset by heavy fogs, deafened by constant shrill warnings from craft around, and liable to sudden storms, this lonesome life of fishing from a Dory deserves a good return.
Not unfrequently, the little boat is run down by a steamer, suddenly plunging on through a thick fog.

After throwing over the line, which is provided with a float and a flag to mark the spot, the fishers return on board until early next morning. The captured cod aro thrown into thewell of the dory, and a record is kept of the produce of each boat. i

The next important business is the dressing and salting of the fish. If this be done on board, green cod is the result; to have dry cod, the work must be done on shore, and steamers are engaged for the purpose.

Arrived on shore, the fish are thrown out upon a stage or scaffold. The head and viscera are removed, the liver is carefully put aside, and, after salting is done, the fish is dried by the air and sun. When it is to be smoked, the fish is exposed, after being first salted for a fortnight, to a week’s smoking from wooden fires.

The barrel in which they are placed when finished has been prepared on shore during the winter.

It is a nice point to regulate the payment to the several persons engaged, as capitalists and fishers, in this marine harvest. Those who remain on the islands during the winter are supported, with their families, by patrons or contractors, who pay themselves subsequently from the share taken by the sailors. The magistrate has sometimes to settle a monetary dispute.

The French employ 80,000 tons of shipping in the cod fishery, and are as fully alive as the English rulers were in olden times to the value of that toil to the strength of the marine. A cod-fisher makes a brave and hardy man-ofwar’s-man.

The dry cod realize about ten times the returns from the sale of green cod. The cod-liver oil is a most important addition to profit.

St. Pierre and Miquelon enjoy a fairly prosperous time. French writers lament the quantity of bad brandy consumed there, but excuse the excesses from the hard life to which so reckless a body of men are exposed. The careful are able’ to return to France with a modest fortune in a few years.

For many years the French, having permission to establish curing houses on the west coast of Newfoundland, construed that privilege into a sole right of occupation, resenting the intrusion of any British settlers upon the soil of a British colony.
As, however, it gradually became known that that western was the better side of Newfoundland, with better land, better climate, with better timber and mineral resources, the interference of French fishermen was resented, and the whole of that coast has been extensively occupied by British subjects quite recently.

The French fishery at St. Pierre is a fluctuating one. In 1848 there were 17,000 employed; in 1864, only 7,220. This was further reduced to 5,620 ten years later. The English government affords no aid to the industry ; but the French one gives a considerable bounty to every man engaged on the Banks, amounting to 2| million francs in 1883. The trade that year was 28,099,000 francs, but in 1884 exports were 16,639,224 francs, and imports 12,692,425 francs. In 1844 the total trade was 7,779,091 francs.

A commandant rules over St. Pierre and Miquelon, but scarcely requires a council to share the burden of looking after some five thousand people. Of an import of over ten and a half million francs, about two-thirds come from foreign states; but out of fourteen and a half millions as export over three-fourths went to France. The tonnage was 194,000.
In one year recently there were 4,552,675 kilogrammes of dry cod, 16,223,495 of fresh cod, and 345,144 of the oil.

As one fair test of the climate being suitable to Europeans, it may be mentioned that the births average twice as many as the deaths. The islands are scarcely more than a half-yearly sojourn-place for cod fishermen from France. For many years Newfoundland was nothing more than that, though styled a British colony.

Education has not been neglected. The Sisters of St. Joseph de Cluny take the girls, and the brothers of St. Esprit train the boys. The Communal Schools of St. Pierre have 214 boys and 246 girls under Ploermel Brothers.

In 1886 M. Durassier complains bitterly of the way in which the English sought to deprive the French of long existing rights on the western coast of Newfoundland. He considers his people in recent negociations, brought « the most complete faith in the good faith of the English, » who have acted with duplicity in the lengthening of negociations with the view of gaining time, and so  » consecrate their successive encroachments by the prolongation of the accomplished fact. » He notes  » on the part of France a series of regrettable concessions. » In the map by M. Mager, 1885, the west side of the island of Newfoundland is seen marked with the French color, as in the isles of St. Pierre and Miquelon. But it is now officially settled that the coast is British, though French fishing stations thereon will be left undisturbed.

Grand Colombier

Le GrandColombier.com est un site recensant tout document historique ayant un lien avec les îles Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon : traités, cartographie, toponymie, archives, sources primaires, études, recherches, éphémérides. Le site est dirigé par Marc A. Cormier.

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