By the time Acadia and Quebec were being established early in the seventeenth century, Newfoundland had already been the annual destination for thousands of European fishermen for nearly a century. In a strictly Eurocentric sense, Newfoundland has an older history than any other part of Canada, a point which was greatly reinforced by the recent confirmation that the Norse were present in Newfoundland five centuries before John Cabot's voyage of "discovery"Ã‚Â in 1497. Clearly, history has been important in defining and shaping Newfoundland, and it should therefore come as no surprise that efforts began as early as the eighteenth century to explain that history.
For the longest time, those efforts have been dominated by the way in which the fishery and trade gave Newfoundland and Labrador both economic and strategic value to Europeans. Prominent subthemes, such as the appearance and growth of a resident population, Newfoundland's constitutional development, and Newfoundland's place within the context of the competition between the North Atlantic powers, were invariably explained in terms of efforts to nurture and protect that fishery and its trade. The formative role played by scholarly inquiry into the fishery and trade in the development of staple economic theory helped reinforce the tendency to equate Newfoundland history with the history of the cod fishery. Thus, the slow rate of population growth was attributed to the fishing industry's antipathy to settlement, wars were perceived as expressions of the competition for control over the fishery, and the administrative structure that emerged in Newfoundland was linked to the system by which the fishery and trade were regulated.
While there seemed much validity to this approach, scholarly activity today has departed substantially from it. The hostility between fishery and resident population has given way to a realization that neither could have persisted without the other; a symbiosis, sometimes inadvertent, sometimes deliberate, always uneasy, enabled both the fishery and the permanent population to grow in the eighteenth century, and also accounts for Britain's success in Newfoundland over France. Much more work is being done on the intricate structure of the fishing industry and trade: where did the capital come from to invest in the fishery in the first place? How did the fishing industry and trade function? Why did the fishing industry and trade favour some European ports and not others? What determined the kind of cure in which a particular port or region would specialize? Interest is belatedly being shown in the role played by consumer demand and consumer preferences in Europe in shaping the origins and development of the Newfoundland fisheries and trade.
As we learn more about the industry, we also learn much more about the people who were employed by it - how they were recruited, where they were recruited, why they were recruited. This in turn has contributed to an improved understanding of the origins of Newfoundland's resident population, for we now realize that the fishery did not resist settlement but rather that it was responsible for generating settlement. A wide variety of disciplines - anthropology, sociology, geography, economics, legal history, religious studies, archaeology, and others - have contributed to a more discerning perception of the origins and growth of early Newfoundland society. In short, there is now a much livelier interest in the people of Newfoundland and not just in their economic mainstay, and one of the striking features of this interest is its interdisciplinary character.
All this and much more is discussed in "A Reader's Guide to the History of Newfoundland and Labrador to 1869"; this is an extensively annotated guide to the literature (including books, periodical articles, book chapters and essays, dissertations, and reputable websites) relating to the history of Newfoundland and Labrador from medieval times up to (roughly) 1869. It is updated regularly as new publications come to my attention. It can be accessed here.