18th century trade

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18th century trade


The area of the Canadian Atlantic coast fished by Jersey vessels

This article by Alec Podger was first published in the 1981 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

Two fleets

The background to this period is interesting in itself, and well worth recounting, as it undoubtedly had repercussions amongst local merchants and seamen. Jersey had many ships which in peacetime carried on two separate types of trade, the largest (both in type and in number) going to Newfoundland or thereabouts in early spring or summer for cod, and returning in Autumn, usually via Spanish or Mediterranean ports.

The smaller group carried out coastal trading (not forgetting to include smuggling) with English and French ports.

In wartime a large proportion of these ships, expecially the Newfoundlanders, took out Letters of Marque which enabled them to become armed traders, or privateers, and so to capture enemy vessels for their own profit. Without these letters all countries would have had them hung as pirates, but the system of Letters of Marque was an ancient international method of each country enlarging its own naval forces at no cost to itself when war broke out.

Some great changes had taken place in world affairs over the 20 years or so previous to the Battle of Jersey in 1781. In 1761 the British Government had awarded John Harrison £20,000 for his invention of a reliable chronometer. This at last enabled seamen to calculate longitude with accuracy, and Rear-Admiral Philip de Carteret, of Trinity Manor, set out in 1766 in HMS Swallow to map the Pacific Ocean, becoming one of the first British seamen after Drake to circumnavigate the world.

He was followed a few years later by Capt James Cook, discoverer of Australia. Both made large areas of the Pacific Ocean accurately known for the first time. Further help to seamen was the publication of the first Nautical Almanack in 1767.

In 1763 the Seven Years' War had ended with the British acquisition of Canada from the French, and this particular event had immediate repercussions for Jersey, as it opened up an entirely new field for its fishermen. From the mid-1500s ships had gone from Jersey and Guernsey to Terreneuve, or Newfoundland, almost every year for the cod which were to be found in great abundance around its shores.

Robin brothers

Now two brothers, Charles and Philip Robin, of St Aubin, were among a very small number of English merchants who saw the possibility of thousands of square miles of new fishing grounds in the Gulf of the St Lawrence River, behind Newfoundland. They set up fishing-stations on the newly-acquired southern shores of the Gulf, in particular on the Gaspe peninsula.

In Newfoundland the ancient system still operated by which the first vessel to anchor in a bay each year became 'admiral' of that bay, and others could only fish there if granted permission by the 'admiral'. It was a rough-and-ready method of policing, satisfactory when only a few ships were around, but quite inadequate when English, Channel Islands, French and Portuguese fishermen all aimed for a region in which fish in that particular year were plentiful.

A few firms had managed to set up permanent settlements here and there, but the situation was very brittle, and fights between crews and shoremen were not uncommon, especially between those of different nationalities.

Ships normally aimed to arrive off Newfoundland in early April, or in July, because of the heavy and persistent fogs in May and June. The fishing season was from June to October, and at the period we are discussing most Jersey vessels seem to have been aiming to arrive in the second half of July. Labrador, which was administered as part of Newfoundland, was almost uninhabited, but its coasts swarmed with fishermen in summer.

Newfoundland was still by far the most important area for local fishermen, but they were beginning to spread out now, and one commonly reads of ships which "have left for Terreneuve, Nova Scotia or Canada". In other words, destination subject to availability of fish at any given season.

The Gaspe coast was being rapidly developed by Charles Robin, the driving force of the two brothers, who set up his first settlement at Paspebiac in 1766, and almost immediately began to expand by the addition of further settlements along the coast. His work was seriously hampered by the American War of Independence (1775-1783) but from then on enlarged rapidly, until his firm had a virtual monopoly of the fishing-rights over an enormous area.

A later historian of the area felt compelled to write:-

"When Charles Robin came to Gaspe the fishing was scattered in small establishments without organisation. Though his purpose was to seek locations for new establishments on the capital he represented, yet the outcome was the development of a concern with interests so wide upon the coast and influences so commanding upon the greater part of the fishing industry as to practically consolidate and control the entire business without serious competition for nearly a century, and to set the pace for all future undertakings along this line."
(Clarke's Sketches of Gaspe.)

The firm still exists today, under the name Robin, Jones and Whitman, though it's Jersey connections are now very tenuous.


Newfoundland, on the other hand, became at this period largely peopled with fishermen from the Channel Islands, and their families, together with a number from Devon and Cornwall. According to Baker's A Guide to Jersey and Guernsey, (1839) 45 vessels were trading to Newfoundland and the surrounding regions from Jersey in 1771, while my own records show that 60 were working there from Jersey in 1786/87. Fortunes varied considerably from time to time, or from place to place, as a few examples from a single season will show.

"4 August 1787. The Liberty, Capt Philippe Dumaresq. News has been received of her arrival at Bonne Baye. She has suffered much from the ice." "20th October, 1787. The Dauphin, Capt Le Roux, arrived on the 16th from the Baye de Fortune, with 78 men, and has been less than 14 days on the journey". (A very quick journey. AP) "The longboats of that bay have not taken, on the whole, more than 200 quintaux, although some have taken 300 or 320."

(The quintal is a slightly unclear measure, being usually 100 lb, sometimes 112 lb, and even 128 lb for the Brazil trade.)

"20 October 1787. The Adventure, Capt Torre. Arrived from S Sebastien on the 13th, where he has discharged his codfish. He sold most of his cargo at a very advantageous price, as high as 26-28 livres per quintal." "27th October, 1787. The Beaver, Capt Cleo Le Couteur. Arrived from Port Dauphin after an 18-day passage. The fish was very poor. The longboats have not taken 100 quintaux." "3rd November, 1787. The Swallow, Capt Heulin (sic). Arrived at Bilbao on the 29th October, where he has sold very well. She had not been on the bank at Terre¬Neuve for five days before she had caught 3500 cod, and since they did not have sufficient salt, they were obliged to stop fishing, although on the last day they caught 1500 cod. This ship met an English ship in the Channel, which pressed three men from them."

(Extracts from the Gazette de l'lle de Jersey, dates as shown.)

This last comment brings in a new factor. The press gang still operated at this time, and commanders of naval ships had the right to impress when at sea if necessary. The Channel Islands were exempt, except for naval deserters and non-native seamen found ashore, but Channel Islanders found on English ships or ashore in England were not exempt. Whether the three men impressed in this case were not Jerseymen, or whether the naval captain 'overlooked' the law is not clear.

The trade routes followed by Jersey-based ships

Catholic countries

Most of the cod was sold to Mediterranean ports, where there was a large demand due to the countries in that region being largely Roman Catholic, and having regular 'fish-days' every week. Cargoes of wine, brandy, dried fruit, citrus fruit and salt were brought back from these ports, and often taken straight to some English or Northern European port, then returning home to Jersey with a third cargo, though some came straight back to the Island.

There was also heavy demand for fish in Brazil, and crews going there were paid danger-money to compensate for the possibility of yellow fever. They brought back coffee and sugar, much of which went straight to Scandinavia, returning from there with masts and spars, which were in constant demand, as the average life of these on an ocean-going vessel was about three years.

Some, however, called at Dantzic for a cargo of wheat or barley, or Holland for a cargo of brandy, cheese, roofing tiles and barrel hoops. The demand for the latter was also extremely high, barrels being the general form of container for almost everything - cider (which was still a substantial export), small casks for smuggling brandy, but especially larger casks for use in the cod-fisheries, as well as for general agricultural storage.

Another new venture in America at this time was the mahogany trade. Britain had acquired British Honduras, or Belize, in the Gulf of Mexico, in 1783, and one or two local firms immediately moved in to trade there in hardwoods.

Again according to the Gazette, on 30 September 1786, "The Henriette, Capt Jam. Poingdestre, has arrived from the Bay of Honduras with a cargo of about 420 tons of Mahogany and Logwood. It is to leave here for London."

And 6 January 1787: “The Betsey, Capt D Ste Croix. Arrived from the Bay of Honduras on the 4th. The vessel has been 15 weeks on the journey" (normally six or seven weeks. AP) "during which time they have suffered much from the bad weather. The crew have also suffered from lack of provisions, and one of the mariners died in Guernsey as a result of the fatigue and starvation during the voyage."


The cargo of mahogany was sold by auction in Jersey in the following month. This became a regular trade, and gave rise to the popularity of mahogany for furniture and stairways, etc., during the 19th century.

Almost all of the vessels trading with America were brigs or brigantines, and these terms were used very loosely, for the same vessel is often described in both ways when it is clear that no change of rig has taken place. This same looseness of definition also appears with the smaller vessels, which are often indiscriminately referred to at various times as either cutters or sloops (one reference in the Gazette actually stating that there was for sale "the cutter or sloop now in St Aubin's Harbour .... "). The task of ship recognition at this period is not made easier in consequence!

It was mainly cutters that traded to England, Ireland and France, bringing wine, brandy, oxen, fruit, linen, cotton and pottery from France, and also (a sign of considerable prosperity) quantities of young fruit-trees such as peach, nectarine, pear, pomegranate, gooseberry, etc. Flour, wool and coal came from England. The principal exports were cattle and stockings, the latter still employing half of the population (or 10,000 people) in knitting 6,000 pairs a week, and, of course, fish. In times of peace and when there was a good harvest substantial quantities of wheat were also exported, and the potato trade was just beginning, but the war conditions prevailing from 1776-1783, and later from 1793-1815, meant that the island had to become as self-sufficient as possible, and these trades then ceased.

There was also, after the American War, a surprising amount of passenger traffic. The Fortune, Guernsey Packet, Liberty Packet, Postillon, and Southampton Packet all running to Southampton, Guernsey or St Malo/Granville as frequently and regularly as weather would permit.

It is well-known that the Channel Islands were centres of smuggling during the 18th and early 19th centuries. At least in the first half of the 18th century the islanders did not look upon this as smuggling at all, but as a continuation of the centuries-old right to trade with England free of all duties. It is true that this right only applied to goods "the growth and/or manufacture of the islands", which obviously excluded, for instance, taking French brandy to England.

In the eyes of the islanders, but not of the English customs authorities, this was overcome by importing such goods from France, maturing them in the islands, and then exporting them to England. This trade was principally operated from Guernsey, which had much better facilities in the way of cellar-storage than Jersey.

Neither did Jersey boats do much as smugglers, though of course it did occur, but most of the smuggling from Jersey took place in English boats with the connivance of the local merchants who supplied the goods. A further reason why Jersey had a lesser part to play in this trade than Guernsey is simply that the run from the island to England was both shorter and less obstructed by reefs than that from Jersey, making the risks of capture less likely. Morality had nothing to do with it.

Customs Officers

In 1767 the British Government had at last forced the Channel Islands to accept Customs Officers, which they had been trying to do for about 40 years. The islanders had argued on two main counts: (a) that it was against their ancient rights of self-government, and (b) that if the 'trade' (smuggling) was lost to the islands it would be taken up by France, which would mean loss to Britain, as, while it remained, the profits made in the islands were spent largely in England.

The latter may seem today a somewhat singular argument, but was nevertheless proved to be correct. As soon as the Customs Officers arrived in the islands in 1767 the French Government passed a set of laws making certain Channel ports 'free ports'. The principal one of these in the west was Roscoff, in Brittany, while Dunkirk covered the eastern end of the Channel, and smaller ones lay between.

The loss of gold to Britain was almost immediately noticed, and after a year or two in the islands the Customs men simply vanish into oblivion, but the damage was done. The French 'free ports' remained a severe drain on Britain's currency until import tariffs on spirits were drastically reduced in the 1840s.

There appears to have been what might almost be described as a clear rift in Jersey between the merchants and the States in the second half of the 18th century. The merchants were clearly forward-looking and adventurous, out to seize every available new opening for more trade and profit.

In 1768 they had formed the Chamber of Commerce only a few months after that of New York, which was the first of such Chambers anywhere in the world. The Jersey Chamber spent much time trying to get the States to provide better harbour facilities, and they also badgered the British Government for better trade facilities, for at this period British Navigation Acts made it illegal, for instance, for them to sell fish in the West Indies and collect a cargo in return.

They could sell their fish, for which there was great demand, but only for cash, and hence they had to go on to Brazil, Honduras or Spain for a return cargo. Neither were they allowed to export from Jersey olive-oil, rum, molasses, or tobacco; - not even sufficient for their own use on the voyage.

The States, on the other hand, moved very slowly indeed, and there seems to be reasonable evidence that they did so simply because they were not going to have any outside organisation telling them what was necessary for the island.

St Aubin's Harbour

In the 1780s the main harbour was still that at St Aubin, and even this consisted only of the one (southern) pier, and the old pier at St Aubin's Fort. The road now leading along the harbour-side towards the Bulwarks and the southern pier did not exist, this area consisting of a series of private wharves.

Goods to and from the pier had to go over the sands, or at high tide by what is now known as Bulwarks Hill and the Rue au Moestre. Neither was the coast road from St Helier to St Aubin in existence until the early 19th century, the sands or a path through the then existing sand-dunes being considered adequate.

At St Helier the small pier at La Folie existed, though it was never in good condition. Clearly these were very inadequate facilities for some 50 or 60 ocean-going vessels, even though most of these were under 100 tons burthen.

At last, in 1788, the States really did move, and invited Smeaton, designer of the Eddystone Lighthouse and the leading harbour engineer of the day, to advise them. Not liking his plan they rejected it, and began, in 1790, the construction of the New North Quay in accordance with their own ideas.

This was completed 25 years later, in 1815. By then the merchants were also building with their own money the other quay known as Commercial Buildings, using for infilling large quantities of stone removed from the Mont de la Ville as a consequence of the building of Fort Regent at that time. By the late 1820s they at last had a harbour.

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