By: Melissa Samms
The western part of the island of Newfoundland was generally ignored by English authorities for much of our history. As a result, it can be difficult to find early records of specific communities on the southwest coast in English.
The earliest English record I have been able to find about Port aux Basques is from 1734; a man who traded along the south coast named William Taverner made a report back to the Board of Trade and Plantations in England. He told them that there was a group of French deserters and natives from Île Royale (Cape Breton) living at Port aux Basques, creating a centre for illegal French trading.
The Treaty of Utrecht signed in 1713 had made it illegal for the French to settle in Newfoundland at all. Taverner was unsurprisingly very anxious that any illegal trading be stopped – until this point he was almost the only legal (which is to say: English) trader along the southern and western coasts and the west coast was practically a Basque monopoly.
Taverner suggested that he be appointed (and funded) to put a stop to illegal French settlers in the area, but instead Lord Muskerry (Governor at the time) was told to instruct the French to leave and expel them if necessary. I have been unable to find correspondence from the Governor’s office for this period, which may simply be because Muskerry was only in the role for a year. As far as I can tell, it was a fairly hands-off period from England, and governance was passed along extremely frequently. Were the orders to expel the trespassers followed? Taverner continued to trade along the south and west coasts of Newfoundland into the 1750’s – did he take matters into his own hands or did he make the most of things and start trading with the new locals?
Regardless of what followed, this is the earliest reference I have been able to find to a modern town on the southwest coast. Port aux Basques’ name has survived for 287 years!