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Battle Harbour

Battle Harbour, is located on the south eastern coast of Labrador, at the eastern most edge of a cluster of small islands dotting the mouth of St. Lewis Inlet. It emerged in the 19th century as the major commercial and operational centre in coastal Labrador and it consists of the settlement area of Battle Island which contains the mercantile complex, the church, a village, and the former fishing rooms on Great Caribou and Gunning Islands. The landward boundary of the community is defined by steep-sloped barren hills.

The Battle Harbour complex is the most intact example of the numerous traditional mercantile premises that were built up and sustained in Newfoundland and Labrador by the salt fish industry and was functional up until the fisheries moratorium in 1992. Premises like these were set up around the province by merchants as self contained businesses as they would bring the required labour force to operate with them when they came to set up their enterprise.

Throughout its history Battle Harbour has been primarily a mercantile establishment with a small attached, dependent community. Battle Harbour has always been dominated physically by the mercantile complex-the water front wharves, board walks, storehouses, warehouses, retail store/office, dwellings, cooperage, fish flakes, and processing facilities. Like other mercantile settlements in coastal Newfoundland and Labrador, Battle Harbour had a single merchant firm which was able to exert a virtual monopoly over trade within the region.

The Slade firm originally claimed ownership of the whole Battle Island, or, at least, virtually all the portion suitable for a fishing settlement. This right was passed on to Baine, Johnston and Company (1871), and its successors Earle Freighting Services (1955) and in 1992 the Battle Harbour Historic Trust. Anyone who wished to build on or occupy Battle Island had to seek the patronage of the firm. At various times land was given to or leased to different institutions-the Anglican Church, International Grenfell Mission, Marconi Corporation, Newfoundland Rangers and the RCMP. Land was also made available to individual families under the condition that the occupants would not engage in trade or otherwise interfere with the firm. In practice the company dispensed land for which it had little use.

John Slade of Poole who, by the late 1750s, was well established in the West Country-Newfoundland fishery, with major premises at Twillingate ventured into Labrador, establishing a station first at Chateau Bay before continuing north beyond Cape St. Charles in the early 1770s.

Battle Harbour proved to be an opportune choice for him to set up a business enterprise as not only did the narrow channel separating Great Caribou and Battle Islands provide safe anchorage, with a foreshore suitable for erecting dwellings and capable of supporting year-round habitation, but its location would later offer strategic advantages in subsequent developments in the Labrador fishery. It’s most important characteristic from the very beginning, however, was its location with respect to the seasonal availability of seals, salmon, cod and waterfowl.

The diary of Isaac Lester (John Slade’s next door neighbour in Poole) indicates that Slade was cod fishing on the coast of Labrador by 1767, but exactly where is uncertain. It is also uncertain when Slade and Co. began operating at Battle Harbour however by the mid-1780s the company had expanded its operations at Battle Harbour to include the exploitation of salmon and fowl, as well as seals and cod. The Slade ledgers list eleven “peoples” at Battle Harbour in 1787-8, with an additional fifteen in nearby areas.

By the last decade of the 18th century, Slade’s mercantile premises at Battle Harbour formed the nucleus of one of Labrador’s earliest communities. The Slade ledgers indicate that there were a minimum of 77 men engaged in fishing and sealing between 1793 and 1811.

Many of Slade’s employees in the beginning came out from England as salaried workers or indentured servants. Once their appointments or apprenticeships ended, a few stayed on in Labrador, supporting themselves in the summer by salmon and cod fishing, and in the winter by sealing, hunting and fur trapping. They survived by taking supplies from the company and giving up their catches under the truck or credit system. Slade’s, like other mercantile establishments, quickly saw the benefits of such arrangements as it created a servitude dependence on the merchant which created for the merchant a secure customer base. 

The 19th century witnessed several major structural changes in the British-Newfoundland fisheries on the coast of Labrador. Firstly, the British migratory fishery established after 1763 and conducted by firms using imported servant labour (from England, Ireland and Newfoundland) became increasingly a resident, family dominated enterprise as employees became livyers and merchants became middle-men for settlers and brokers between the sources of supplies and markets. Secondly, there was a dramatic growth of a Newfoundland migratory fishery reminiscent of the Old West of England fishery in Newfoundland. Thirdly, Newfoundland ports and merchants replaced British ports and entrepreneurs. In Labrador this process was completed in 1871 when Baine, Johnston and Co. of St. John’s purchased the Battle Harbour premises of T. and D. Slade of Poole. 

The development of the Labrador migratory fishery had important implications for Slade’s mercantile establishment. Schooner crews (floaters) flocked to Battle Harbour in great numbers en-route north and south along the Labrador coast, and many actually fished among the Battle Islands. Battle Harbour also became one of the main fishing areas for seasonal Newfoundland migrants known as ‘stationers’ who relied upon the local mercantile establishment for almost all their supplies.

In the context of the Newfoundland based migratory fishery and the early settlement of southern coastal Labrador, places such as Battle Harbour, Cape Charles, and Venison Island performed the same functions that Trinity, Carbonear, and Fogo had played earlier in the island’s historic West of England migratory fishery.

In 1991 the owner of the Battle Harbour salt fish complex, Earle Brothers Freighting Services Ltd. of Carbonear, donated all of the mercantile buildings and infrastructure to the newly incorporated Battle Harbour Historic Trust, a registered non-profit charity founded to oversee the restoration, preservation and presentation of Battle Harbour’s structure and history. By 1997, the Battle Harbour Historic Trust (BHHT) had restored approximately 20 buildings, reinstated wharves, drying flakes, decking and walkways, and established an interpretation programme to aid in the presentation of the community’s long and varied history. Today the site operates seasonally between May to October as a national historic district. Please visit the following website to learn more about the work of the Battle Harbour Historic Trust and this sites history: www.battleharbour.com

Source: With notes from the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada Agenda Paper on Battle Harbour, Labrador by Dr. Chesley W. Sanger, 1996. Centre for Newfoundland Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland.