Economic History
Content provided by: Cindy Gibbons, Historic Site Supervisor, Red Bay National Historic Site of Canada
The economy of Labrador's Aboriginal peoples has always been based upon the resources of the land and the sea. Europeans have exploited these same resources since the early 16th century.

Cod fishermen from Brittany in northern France and the Basque Country, situated in northeastern Spain and southwestern France, arrived in Labrador soon after the famed voyages of "discovery" of the late 15th century. Their cargos of dried, salted cod were in demand in the markets of a largely Roman Catholic Europe.

It was no doubt the Basque cod fishers who alerted their countrymen to the large numbers of right and bowhead whales migrating through the Strait of Belle Isle each year. The Basques, who are credited with inventing commercial whaling as early as the 11th century, had by this time depleted the number of whales in their own Bay of Biscay. By the middle of the 16th century the waters of the Strait of Belle Isle and processing stations at as many as fifteen ports along its northern shore had become the major supplier of whale oil in the European marketplace. Its uses included fuel for lighting and the manufacture of paint, varnish and soap.

Whaling along the Labrador coast had come to an end by the 1630s, but the French migratory cod fishery continued. Labrador was now part of New France. Exclusive rights to trade with Aboriginal people and exploit the seal and cod fisheries in certain areas, known as concessions, were granted to Quebecois entrepreneurs by the French king. One of the largest was granted to Augustin le Gardeur de Courtemanche in 1702; it included the area between the Kegaska River and Hamilton Inlet. Once Courtemanche's grant expired in 1712 the area was divided into a number of smaller concessions. This system continued until 1763, when the Treaty of Paris at the end of the Seven Years War awarded Labrador to the British.
As permanent settlement on the island of Newfoundland had replaced the migratory cod fishery, British merchants were quick to move into Labrador and attempt to re-establish it. For merchants like George Cartwright, Nicholas Darby, the Slades and the famed Hudson's Bay Company, the economy of the Labrador cod fishery was supplemented by the fur trade and seal and salmon fisheries. These enterprises required men to over-winter in Labrador. Inevitably, the winter men took native wives and made permanent homes in Labrador.

Permanent settlement was furthered after 1815. The end of the Napoleonic Wars brought French fishermen back to le Petit Nord. Newfoundlanders who had fished there during the war were forced to move further north in search of new fishing grounds. They brought their families to Labrador, providing more potential wives for the British fishermen.

Permanent settlement, of course, led to the establishment of various social institutions in Labrador, such as school, church and health systems. In the midst of the traditional economy these social systems have enabled Labrador to evolve in such a way that many people here still make a living from the land and from the sea: the methods have changed by the source remains the same.
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