Local History

In 15th century Europe there was an increasing consciousness of the Atlantic as an ocean containing valuable undiscovered islands. Giovanni Caboto, the freelance Venetian explorer, was contracted by England’s Henry VII to find new lands, and that “inevitable” route to the Orient. Caboto set sail in his ship the Matthew. When Cabot first saw land at Cape Bonavista, he’s reputed to have said (probably yelled... the Atlantic Ocean was as wide, mysterious and frightening to the 15th century explorer as deep outer space is to us today) “Oh, Happy Sight!” which in his native Italian would’ve been “O Buono Vista!”

The harbour is anything but ideal, but even without an enviable anchorage, Bonavista became one of the most important towns in Newfoundland. The primary reason: close access to the rich fishing and sealing grounds to the north of the peninsula. The Spanish, Portuguese, French and English fished off Cape Bonavista during the 1500s.

The cape was a most important navigational point on the island for early explorers and fishermen.

The story of Bonavista can be a pivotal chapter in the story of settlement in Newfoundland. By seeing Bonavista develop, we get a greater appreciation of the province. Bonavista was home to powerful and influential merchants, skippers and clergy. They have left a legacy, a legacy which is ours to visit, photograph and sometimes even touch.

Over the centuries, successive generations carved the cultural landscape out of this coastal environment, and it is a reflection of their long and fascinating history. Situated on the headland, jutting out into the North Atlantic, Bonavista is one of the most easterly located communities on the continent. The ocean and salt spray have been constant companions of residents here since the 17th century, when the earliest fishers established their fishing plantations or rooms on the landwash from the low beaches of Mockbeggar to the imposing cliffs of Cape Bonavista.

While the English West Company merchants preferred the safe and ample nearby harbour of Trinity for their operators, many early planters choose Bonavista because the turbulent waters around the headland contained some of the richest stocks of cod to be found in Newfoundland. With the growth in Bonavista's population, the merchants soon established branch operations here to buy the planters' fish and to sell them goods.

We must remember it wasn’t in the best financial interest of any European power to settle Newfoundland. The riches weren’t on land, they were in the water. Sparing the expense of establishing communities on land allowed the governments of the day to benefit from the exploitation of the plentiful codfish. The famous explorer/cartographer Capt. James Cook, who made Bonavista his headquarters while mapping the coast in 1763, notes the area was settled on or before 1660. In 1677, Bonavista was the second largest town on the island, with 18 houses. St. John's had forty-five.

Through the 1700s and the 1800s, Bonavista continued to maintain a position of significance. Portugal, France and Spain were leaders in the international fishery, visiting Newfoundland on a regular basis. Bonavista was the centre of the northern fishery and was even attacked several times by the French. For a century it was the most northern community in Newfoundland.

The town grew, and it grew quickly. Unlike many early settlements, Bonavista was built on an open plain, not in a steep cove. Streets criss-cross and intersect, join and rejoin.
Light industry developed to support the community: coopers built and repaired barrels, while cooblers built and repaired footwear. Tinsmiths and blacksmiths forged all manner of items, including lamps, grapnels and horseshoes.

Bonavista’s rule was further entrenched by the development of the Fishermen’s Protective Union in the early 1900s, and the creation of Port Union nearby. During the peak years of 1891-1901, the Bonavista Peninsula's population of about 20,000 was centred in Bonavista. The Bonavista Cold Storage Co. fish plant, now a Fishery Products International operation, became the center of fishery production after the decline of salt fish markets.

Source: www.bonavsita.net







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