Newfoundland's 'Jersey Men'

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from an article in the Newfoundland Quarterly, 1950 by L E F English

Since the Norman conquest of England the Channel Islands, lying off the northwest coast of France, have belonged to Britain. In this group the largest two are Jersey and Guernsey. The former in particular holds interest for the student of Newfoundland history, because of its long association with the trade and settlement of what is now the tenth province of Canada.

Family names

We shall endeavour to briefly review the story of this connection, and show how many French family names so common in Newfoundland owe in reality their origin to Jersey fishermen and traders who played no small part in the building of our country.

Tradition carries us back to pre-Cabotian days, when, as some assert, seamen from the Bay of Biscay knew of the Grand Banks and the island of codfish further west. Of this there is no direct corroboration in written records.

It is claimed that Channel Island fishermen named St John's and the adjacent harbours of Petit Havre and Boulay, but again there is no confirmation beyond the fact that there are three such place names on the French side of the Channel.

The earliest records from which we can form historical evidence show that fishermen from Jersey and Guernsey frequented Newfoundland waters in the 16th century. In 1591 ships from Guernsey were refused permission from France to sail in company with French vessels to prosecute the cod fishery in Terre Neuve. It is definitely known that sailors from Jersey were in Newfoundland as early as 1560.

Many place names on the east and south coasts of the island were undoubtedly given by Jersey men. There is one name in Conception Bay which has puzzled students of nomenclature; it is the strange name of Bauline given to a fishing village. The late H W Le Messurier, who was a descendant from Jersey ancestry, gave as his opinion that the word is a corruption of Baleine, which is the name of a bay on the Isle of Sark in the Channel group.

Numbers of Jersey ships

In the discussions which preceded the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1793 there appears no mention of Jersey or Guernsey fishermen. Neither do we find any reference thereto in subsequent dealings with French settlers on the south coast of Newfoundland. Later there are some statistics in the British Colonial records: in 1732 the number of ships from Jersey is given as 24, by 1785 these had increased to 59.

As the Channel Islanders were British subjects they seized the opportunity to take over some of the more favoured fishing stations vacated by the French under treaty obligation. Rose Blanche, Harbour Breton, Grand Banque, St Lawrence, Burin, Oderin, Petit Fort, Placentia, Colinet, St Mary's, all had Jersey establishments at some time in the 18th century.

The names Jersey Harbour near Harbour Breton and Jersey Side at Placentia attest the presence of traders from the Channel. On the east coast they had fishing stations from Cape Race to St John's and at points in Conception Bay. Records show that in the latter bay the oldest Jersey association with the Newfoundland trade was established.

One de Quetteville had a station at Harbour Grace in the 16th century. Another Jerseyman named Guizot also had a room at Harbour Grace; his premises were located on the north side, while de Quetteville's were on the south side. There was a Jersey firm at Bay Roberts, and the historian Le Messurier was convinced that the name of this Conception Bay town was derived from a Jersey trader who settled there. There seems no other satisfactory explanation.

Trade vanishes

Until the beginning of the 19th century the Jersey trade with Newfoundland thrived, then it waned and gradually disappeared for the same reasons that forced the West England fishing fleet to abandon their annual ventures to our shores. We shall briefly state these causes of the cession.

First there was the fundamental matter of economy. When any industry becomes financially unsound it is perforce doomed to extinction. Then there was the growth of competition under less expense, a factor that ultimately drives the rival out of business. A third cause was the uncertainty of the costly venture for overseas fishermen. Successful seasons were often followed by several consecutive failures. Merchant adventurers of West England had strenuously and consistently opposed settlement in Newfoundland. They foresaw the obvious result, a resident population would become their rivals in the fish markets of Europe.

After the Wars of Napoleon this growth was rapid, and eventually English ships gave up the unequal competition. The Jerseymen who had business houses established in Newfoundland about that time availed of the opportunity to sell their properties. Prices of fish had dropped in southern Europe as soon as former belligerent countries were free to fish on the Banks. Competition of French and Portuguese ships and an increase of Norwegian fisheries all helped to make ready demand a thing of the past.

The Jersey association with Newfoundland left its mark, not only in place names but in family names and in racial characteristics. Something similar, though to a far less extent, a tide of immigration came as did the Irish in the 17th and 18th centuries. Young men employees of Jersey firms came and stayed and took as wives the daughters of English and of Irish blood.

Surnames

We may merely point to a few surnames such as Le Drew, Bonnel, Piccot, Pomeroy, Nicholle, Noel, Sacrey, Gushue (Guizot), Hawco, St Clair, Neville, Le Messurier, Puddester ( Point d'estre), St Croix, Hillier, and we indicate families at least partly of Jersey descent. The original French colonies on the south coast removed to Louisburg. It is not probable that in these nor in the Acadian descendants of St George's were there any of Jersey origin.

As the Channel Islanders were British subjects, they were immune from the harsh strictures imposed on the south coast French.

Another effect of the transient Jersey trade and the mingling of races in Newfoundland was an enrichment of the fisherman's vocabulary. We can still hear in our outports many words of French origin, and undoubtedly a number came from Jersey folk. Fishermen describe gloomy weather as a 'lourd day'. A sale of goods or household wares by auction was referred to by an older generation as a Vandu, no doubt this is from vendu, sold.

Even the nasal accent of the French 'en' is not missing. The terms 'jersey' and 'gansey' are still applied to a woollen sweater, obviously the latter is a corruption of Guernsey. A year-old seal is called a bedlamer, from 'bete de la mer'. The late W A Munn stated that the word 'talqual' which is used to indicate different qualities of dry fish sold and mixed, had its origin in the Channel Islands: it is a shortened form of 'talis qualis'. He also claimed that 'quintal' is a legacy from the days of Jersey planters.

Traditions

There are many traditions concerning the men from Jersey, tales that have been handed down through generations and are now fast fading because no local writer has seen fit to record them in prose or verse. These shrewd old traders were astute businessmen, and they knew the fishing industry in all its varied phases. They had frugality, watchfulness, and untiring energy. They were unrelenting in driving a bargain, and austere in their mode of living; in this way they seemed to have differed widely from the carefree sea dogs of West England and from the gay, restless Irish.

One of the outstanding attributes which legend related as characteristic of the old Jerseymen was a remarkable faculty of curing disease. There are instances of strange cures, one was that of a bone disease which modern medicos would diagnose as osteomylitis. The treatment consisted in finding a litter of nine pups and, by a process of vivisection, the backbone of each was applied in relays of three days to the affected member. A cure for stomach and other internal pains was to imbibe large quantities of sea water. For cuts and burns a special salve was obtained by crushing the parasite species known as the 'Sea Doctor', which clings to sore spots on a codfish, and mixing the pulverized material with judicious sprinklings of cod liver oil. For rheumatism and arthritis the great brown jellyfish was bottled and when dissolved sufficiently was applied to the affected parts with satisfactory result.

Superstitions

It should be noted that there are in Newfoundland today many traditions and superstitious practices that were common in mediaeval Europe. The first settlers arrived at a time when witches were still condemned to the ducking pool, and charms and spells and incantations were common means of seeking cure of disease. The evil eye, the widow's curse, the magic powers of a seventh son, and divers other mysterious agencies were resorted to in blessing or malediction. Portents of evil to come were observed in certain natural phenomena, such as the shape of the new moon, a lone black crow, or a howling dog.

On the contrary there were signs and symbols of good fortune, and among these we may mention picking up a horseshoe or seeing the new moon over the left shoulder. It is an interesting study to trace the origin of this phase of Newfoundland folklore. Among our legends there are many that come from England and Ireland, but there are strange beliefs, practices, and customs that were brought from continental Europe through French communication. The Jersey traders, fishermen, and settlers were the abiding links in this chain of conveyance. In the isolation of our outposts these traditions took root and survived, untouched by the march of modern progress.

In concluding this dissertation on the Jerseymen, and in this vein of thought thus stimulated by glances into the fascinating study of folklore, we shall revive something of Jersey legend that savours something of Conan Doyle and his stories of mysterious powers attributed to a certain sect in India.

Among the qualities of character and physical appearance which tradition ascribed to some of the old Channel Island merchants, were a saturnine reticence and the ability to transplant their bodies through air by a process of thought.

Flying home

A story is told of an old "Jawseyman" named Greeley who had a thriving business at Little Bell Island in Conception Bay. So passionately fond was he of his ancestral home in the Channel that he used his magic powers to revisit Jersey each weekend. It happened that a fisherman went down to the shore this Saturday evening to shoot for a Sunday dinner a sea duck or whatever wild fowl that chanced to wing its way in range of his long musket. Just at nightfall a giant bird was seen to pass eastward, and the hunter raised his trusty weapon and fired. The strange bird fell beyond a point of rock, and the fisherman on rushing to the spot found the bewildered and bewhiskered Jersey planter picking buckshot from his legs.

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