Newfoundland Celebrates 500 Years | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Newfoundland Celebrates 500 Years

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on June 23, 1997. Partner content is not updated.

These days, the classrooms and corridors of Matthew Elementary School in Bonavista, Nfld., are like a shrine to John Cabot.

Newfoundland Celebrates 500 Years

These days, the classrooms and corridors of Matthew Elementary School in Bonavista, Nfld., are like a shrine to John Cabot. A brightly colored mural documents the life and times of the 15th-century Anglo-Italian explorer who in 1497 became, in the view of many historians, the first European to set foot in what is now Canada since the Vikings landed 500 years earlier. Elsewhere, a large map charts the course of the Matthew, the replica of Cabot's original ship that is wending its way from Bristol, England, to Bonavista, where it is due to land on June 24 - a key event in Newfoundland's yearlong 500th-anniversary celebrations. "With every passing day, this thing is becoming more real," says teacher Aubrey Dawe, who documents his students' Cabot-related efforts on the school's Internet Web site. "The children's enthusiasm keeps growing by leaps and bounds."

The 450 students at Matthew Elementary - named after Cabot's famous vessel - are among the thousands of Newfoundlanders, both home and away, who are getting ready for what some are calling "the party of the century." Among a people renowned for kicking up their heels, that is no mean challenge, and together the governments of Newfoundland and Canada are spending $20 million to make it happen. Some 1,400 artists from across the province have been recruited to stage more than 75 major events and projects, celebrating the province's rich culture and history through music, dance and poetry. At the same time, more than 70 communities are hosting "come-home year" festivities, enticing back friends and family who moved to mainland Canada in search of jobs - an exodus that has accelerated since the 1992 cod moratorium cost over 30,000 fishery workers their jobs. But while they have scattered across the country, few have lost touch with their roots. And it is that pride of place, says Newfoundland Tourism Minister Sandra Kelly, which is central to this year's celebrations. "Part of what we're seeing," says Kelly, "is a great need to say, 'We've been here 500 years. Look at what we've accomplished and just look at what we have.' "

While events marking the 500th anniversary have been under way since January, the festivities are just now shifting into high gear. Last week, scholars and historical buffs gathered in St. John's and Bonavista for a five-day symposium on Cabot. This week, 27 international choirs will assemble for an 11-day "sharing the voices" festival. But the biggest event of all is slated to happen on June 24, when the 23-m, 50-tonne Matthew sails into Bonavista harbor - where many historians believe Cabot originally landed. There, the ship's 19-member crew - among them four Canadians - will be greeted by Queen Elizabeth II. As many as 30,000 people are expected to descend that day on Bonavista, a community of about 4,600 people huddled along the coast, a four-hour drive north from St. John's.

After Bonavista, the Matthew is slated to make 16 other ports of call in Newfoundland through the course of the summer before leaving for Nova Scotia. The wooden square-rigger and its crew have been tested by the elements, including one mid-Atlantic storm that featured 110 km/h winds and 15-m-high waves. "It's the strongest boat I've ever sailed on," crew member John Jack Smith told Maclean's last week in a ship-to-shore interview via satellite telephone. The 77-year-old Smith, who began his sailing career in 1935 and now resides in Ottawa, added: "She certainly proved herself in that storm. She was on top of all the waves - I think you could have walked around the deck in your slippers."

Back on shore, parts of the island are gripped with something akin to Matthew mania. The town of Bonavista is spending $1.8 million to build its own wooden replica of the ship, which it plans to display as a tourist attraction. In St. John's, yet another giant rendering of the Matthew - this one made out of chocolate - is on display at the Hotel Newfoundland, while souvenir Matthew mugs, cups and T-shirts abound. Duelling beer companies have also got into the act. Labatt, an official sponsor of the Matthew voyage, launched its own line of Cabot beer. Molson responded by declaring its popular Newfoundland brand, Black Horse, "the unofficial brew of Cabot's crew." Black Horse beer cases now show Cabot hoisting a beer, along with the inscription: "After 500 years, a guy can sure work up a thirst." Labatt executives were not amused.

In perhaps the most unusual Cabot stunt so far, a St. John's hairdresser brought in a model and had her hair cut in the shape of the Matthew - proceedings that were duly videotaped and broadcast on the local television news. All of this hoopla, says Gerald Pocius, a folklorist at Memorial University in St. John's, reflects the way popular culture tries to make sense of a historical figure or event by latching onto an enduring and concrete symbol - in this case, the Matthew. In terms of Cabot, adds Pocius, this is even more pronounced because of the paucity of historical records about who he was and what he did on his voyages. "The question," he says, "becomes, how do you celebrate something you know nothing about?"

John Cabot is an enigma wrapped inside a mystery. Cabot's records of his voyages have vanished - some believe they were destroyed by a jealous son, Sebastian - and his crew left no accounts. The only information comes through the letters of two English agents of the era and from correspondence by a London merchant, John Day.

Born near Naples around 1455 and christened Giovanni Caboto, the explorer was raised in Genoa - making him of the same generation and city as Christopher Columbus. Like Columbus, Cabot was apparently obsessed with finding a western sea route to the riches of Asia. But he was upstaged by his countryman, who is generally credited with discovering the New World in 1492. Following that disappointment, Cabot moved to Bristol and appealed to Henry VII to bankroll his own, more northerly, voyage.

After reaching the other side, Cabot planted a cross and claimed the country for the king of England. But the scarcity of records makes it impossible to say with certainty where he landed. Various historians have argued for several spots, including Cape Bonavista, northern Cape Breton Island, and in the area of the Strait of Belle Isle, between Labrador and the northwestern tip of Newfoundland.

Wherever he came ashore, an abiding irony of Cabot's 1497 voyage is that the explorer and his benefactors viewed it as a disappointment. It quickly became apparent that Cabot - who died during a return voyage to the New World in 1498 - had not discovered a quick route to Asia. What he had stumbled upon, however, was one of the richest fisheries in the world, with the cod so plentiful they at times literally stilled his ship's progress. But Britain already had a vibrant fishery, and so, for the next century, it was left mainly to the French, Portuguese and Spanish to exploit the riches off the shores of Cabot's "New Founde Lande." The British formally established sovereignty over Newfoundland in 1713. But it was not until the late 18th century that the first major wave of settlers arrived from Britain, giving birth to a number of fishing communities - including Bonavista - along Newfoundland's starkly beautiful coastline.

"The Haywards go back to 1770 in Bonavista," says Wilson Hayward, as he leans forward from his living-room couch to make a point. The 71-year-old fisherman comes from a long line of men and women who made their living from the sea. He would still be fishing today, he says, except for the 1992 cod moratorium. "We didn't class fishing as hard work," he explains. "Fishing was a pleasure."

There is, in fact, a kind of poetry to the way Hayward talks about the heyday of the fishery, with its plentiful cod and capelin - a small fish sometimes used as cod bait. "Some evenings, beautiful evenings, you'd see the capelin coming in to shore to spawn," he recalls. "The wind would be calm, but when the capelin came it would be like spots of wind on the water and you'd see the cod jump up out of the water, and go down again. They'd be at the capelin, see? So we'd come in, the capelin would come in, and the old folks would be on the banks. And we'd say, 'Boys, let's go in and get a good sleep. Tomorrow morning the fish will be there for us.' "

Like most other Newfoundland inshore fishermen - those who ply the waters no further than a dozen kilometres off the coastline - Hayward blames the decimation of the cod on the gillnetters and the huge dragger ships that first appeared in the 1940s. Those boats went further offshore, he notes, into areas that had never been fished before - including the spawning grounds of the cod. "They put their big dragnets out on the bottom and they cleaned it out," says Hayward. Now, with reports of cod returning to coastal waters, Hayward would like to see the Bonavista inshore fishery reopened - but with a ban forever placed on the draggers. "People could make money, pay their bills, build homes and pay taxes," he says.

Hayward's neighbor, Heber John Keel, echoes that sentiment. The 77-year-old Keel is disturbed by the idleness he sees in Bonavista since the cod moratorium put many fishery workers on the dole year-round. Keel recalls the stories of hardship passed on by his father, who was a friend of the legendary Joey Smallwood, himself the eldest of 13 children in a poor family from the tiny outport of Gambo. Smallwood's answer to the island's economic woes was to push for union with Canada, a goal he achieved in 1949 after a slim majority of Newfoundlanders approved the move.

Keel knows that many Newfoundlanders still rue the day they joined Canada. For them, the island's golden era began in 1832 - when Newfoundland wrested control over its own government from Britain - and ended in 1934, when the island, faced with crushing debts, reverted to colonial rule. But Keel will have none of it. Union with Canada 15 tumultuous years later, he says, brought the economic security Newfoundland needed. "If we didn't have Confederation," he adds, "I don't know where she would have went to."

In many ways, Bonavista today reflects the uncertain future that still confronts much of Newfoundland. Even as the town prepares for its moment in the spotlight, the supper-table talk is of friends and family who are leaving - or thinking about it - in search of better lives on the mainland.

In recent years, Newfoundland governments have tried to address that exodus by expanding the province's economic base. The $5.8-billion Hibernia offshore oil rig, which is expected to begin drilling on the Grand Banks by mid-August, will provide some much-needed economic relief. But it is also essential, says Premier Brian Tobin, to foster growth in other sectors, including tourism, aquaculture and high technology. Tobin - whose public persona in some ways resembles the ebullient Smallwood - exudes confidence. "We've got business to do and we know how to do it," he says.

Still, in rural Newfoundland at least, such unbridled optimism is hard to find. The focus remains on reopening the cod fishery - which began to happen, on a very limited basis, this spring. In the meantime, a sense of humor helps to leaven the mood. In anticipation of the Queen's one-day visit, Bonavista residents have watched in amusement as long-neglected roads receive a paving and RCMP divers sweep the harbor for signs of sabotage. And they gently dismiss outsiders' concerns about how they plan to accommodate thousands of visitors when Bonavista's few bed-and-breakfast establishments have been solidly booked for as long as three years (many will stay with friends or family; others will have to camp). "We're not trying to fool anyone," says the town's mayor, Don Tremblett. "You just can't go to an international event in a small community and expect to find a place to stay."

Among the visitors will be representatives of the Ottawa-based Assembly of First Nations. By staging protests during the Queen's visit, the assembly hopes to make the point that Newfoundland has little reason to celebrate. They intend to emphasize that, in the 500 years since Cabot's landfall, native people suffered as a result of slaughter and disease.

Native protests and fishery woes may yet detract from the celebrations. But even Newfoundlanders who have seen better days appear in the mood to party. "Oh, it'll be a time," says Hayward of the Bonavista bash. "We'll be all right as long as we make sure that everyone has plenty to eat." It is the kind of hospitality - and common sense - that has helped Newfoundlanders survive for 500 years, and that should set them in good stead for the uncertain times ahead.


All that can safely be said about John Cabot's voyage to the New World in 1497 is that he left Bristol, England, in May of that year, discovered land somewhere along the eastern coast of what is now Canada, and returned to Bristol on or about Aug. 6. But because no firsthand records of the voyage survived, there is an ongoing - and heated - debate over where Cabot first set foot in Canada. Generations of Newfoundland schoolchildren learned that Cabot first spotted land off the northeastern coast of Newfoundland and exclaimed "O buono vista" (meaning "oh, happy sight" in Cabot's native Italian). But the residents of Cape Breton, N.S., are convinced that the landfall occurred near Cape North, on the northern tip of their island. And on June 28 - four days after Queen Elizabeth II attends the 500th-anniversary celebrations in Bonavista - Cape Bretoners will honor that tradition by gathering at Cape North for their own day of ceremony.

The Cape Breton commemorations - part of a summer-long series of special events marking the 500th, have failed to gain anything like the profile accorded Newfoundland's festivities. While organizers for Newfoundland's celebrations received $20 million in government funding, their Cape Breton counterparts received only $748,000. Even more telling, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Governor General Roméo LeBlanc, British High Commissioner Anthony Goodenough and Italian Ambassador Andrea Cambiaso all declined invitations to attend the June 28 ceremony in Cape North. "We're working in the shadow of Newfoundland," says Bob Doucette, head of the John Cabot Meeting Society, a nonprofit group that is spearheading the Cape Breton effort.

In part, Cape Bretoners have themselves to blame. While Newfoundland began organizing its effort in 1992, the Cape Breton group waited until May of last year to bring forward proposals of its own. Still, there is irony in the governmental and media indifference towards the Nova Scotian effort. Prior to Newfoundland entering Confederation in 1949, Canadian scholars mostly argued that Cabot landed in Cape Breton. Many still hold to that belief. Based on their interpretation of the historical records, storm conditions and the southward force of the Labrador current pushed Cabot's ship past an undetected Newfoundland to Cape Breton. Opposing scholars argue that Cabot could not have reached Cape Breton without first sighting Newfoundland. "No one is ever going to prove it one way or the other," observes Doucette. "We just don't want to be ignored."

Maclean's June 23, 1997