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A history steeped in tradition

Special to the Daily/Dennis Jones
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Like a fine vintage wine, Vinland, as the Norse called Newfoundland over 1,000 years ago, is historically complex with rich cultural flavors of Portugal, France, England and Ireland.

The Vikings made their way here in open boats around 1,000 AD, for an unknown reason, staying only a few years.

Not for another five centuries is there evidence that a European set foot in New Founde Lande, not until 1497 with the arrival of John Cabot, a Venetian, sailing under the English flag. His “discovery” set off a 500 year competition for the vast, fertile fisheries off the island’s rugged and dangerous coasts.



History is anchored in every cove and inlet, every headland and pond, in its place names, and the rich vocabulary and dialects of its people. With its own 5,000 word dictionary, there is a wealth of slang. I have met people I simply could not understand even though they were speaking “English.”

Take words like marl, which means “to meander,” as in “I think I’ll marl down the road fer a spurt.” Or dwall, which means “to sleep or nap,” as in “I dwalled fer a spurt dere.” “It started a bit mauzy but now the sun is splittin’ the rocks,” means “today started overcast and drizzly but now it’s sunny.”



Newfie place names are rife with multi-cultural connections like Port Au Basque and Port Au Choix on the west coast. Many names have gotten corrupted over the centuries. Veralum becomes Ferryland, Quitouche, an Indian word for breast, becomes Kitchuses, the French Toulinguet becomes Twillingate. And then there are those towns with cute names like Heart’s Desire, Cupids, Happy Adventure, Leading Tickles and Dildo.

The overarching theme though is fishing, whaling and sealing. The vast fisheries brought Europeans every summer for hundreds of years. In April there was great competition to be first across the treacherous north Atlantic to lay claim to the limited prime spots ashore. Latecomers were relegated to precarious fishing stages perched on the ubiquitous rocky cliffs above the pounding surf.

From these stages they would venture into the cold, unforgiving sea for fish so plentiful you could catch them by simply “lowering a basket into the water.” Returning to shore they would gut them, split them and lay them out on “flakes” to dry. Once dry, the cod would be salted and packed in barrels for the trip back to Europe in the fall.



Initially, very few people over-wintered. It was illegal because of the profits made in England on selling supplies. Royal licenses were issued for enterprises like the Colony of Avalon on the southeast coast around 1620. Later, people came to escape the crushing poverty and tyranny of Europe.

Life was very hard, winters long and dark. Tiny outports of three or four families lived a precarious, isolated existence. Starvation, plague and death were frequent visitors.

Over the centuries, population eventually increased St. John’s, with its large, sheltered harbour, became the mercantile, political and cultural center. It traded hands between the French and English several times until becoming permanently English in 1762.

The large influx of Irish in the 19th century brought their rich, musical tradition. Celtic influence permeates the Avalon peninsula. At lunch in Auntie Crea’s, in the pubs of George Street and the street corners of Water Street, the lively sounds of Newfoundland music give testament to its Celtic history and traditions.

Sadly, with the decimation of the cod fishery from over fishing in the 1970s and ’80s, the traditional way of life has all but disappeared. The fishing moratorium in 1992 brought an end to 500 years of earning a livelihood from the sea.

Outports disappeared, processing factories closed while fiercely independent fishermen went on the dole. Small town populations were decimated with the exodus to other provinces where a living could be made.

A much smaller crab and shrimp fishery provides some relief. But with the cod season limited to two weeks a year and five fish a day, a way of life has ended.

The future though is looking up. Off shore oil and gas is bringing new prosperity.

Exiles are returning and new vitality stirs the brisk salt air, bolstering the resilience of a proud, independent people.

Have a travel essay you’d like to share with Vail Daily readers? E-mail High Life Editor Caramie Schnell at cschnell@vaildaily.com.


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