COLUMN: French visitors to Dildo, 1894

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In 1889, a Norwegian, Adolphe Nielsen (1850-1903), arrived in Newfoundland to supervise a Fish Farming Bureau that had been established by the island’s government.

French visitors

He chose Dildo as the site of a facility for the reproduction of cod and lobster, at the time the largest in the world.

Five years later, in 1894, two Frenchmen, Jean-Baptiste-Marie-Gaston Geraud and Henri-Augustin Colloch de Kerillis, paid a visit to Newfoundland. On July 23, the duo left St. John’s for Dildo, where they planned to "gather all the information and observations we could to describe in detail the types of activity on the fish farm and equipment used there." Their findings were published as "Le laboratoire maritime de Dildo (Terre-Neuve)" in the "Revue maritime et colonial" in 1895.

Their article is now one of the selections included in the book, "French Visitors to Newfoundland: An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century Travel Writings." The original French edition was edited by Ronald Rompkey; the English translation was done by Scott Jamieson and Anne Thareau.

Arriving in Broad Cove by train, Geraud and Colloch de Kerillis took a carriage to Dildo.

It was, they recall, a "pretty village on a green hillside (where) plant life ... was suddenly reborn when we approached the ocean."

Following a wait in the Trinity Bay town, they boarded a boat en route to the fish farm.

They write: "one sees a long island with a high wooded shore. Not a single house, building, or wharf can be seen, and if it were not for a flagpole that rose up among the trees one would believe that this tiny island was completely deserted. But the sailor at the tiller steers the boat towards a point on the south of the island and as soon as we round this point made up of beach rocks, we suddenly find ourselves in a cove where the entire fish farm, in a pleasant location, unfolds before us."

Nielsen takes the visitors to his fish farm, showing them the equipment he has put in place to "solve the problem of fish farming."

Nielsen’s guided tour of his laboratory convinces the Frenchmen that, first, he "wants to duplicate the conditions of natural incubation as much as possible and that ... a certain movement of the water is indispensable so that the eggs are in suspension" and, second, "that the type of movement that would most completely satisfy this requirement has not yet been found and that he is still searching."

Life in Dildo, Geraud and Colloch de Kerillis suggest, "is being fabricated with great intensity." At the same time, Nielsen’s work was being criticized. For one, was artificial procreation even a useful practice?

Meanwhile, the Frenchmen affirm that codfish were undeniably "becoming scarce and if we want to ensure the future fishery, we must compensate for what is caught each day … The codfish is becoming scarce in Newfoundland."

One would almost think they were writing in 2014!

They admire the Norwegian’s "efforts and the intelligence and practicability he has shown, as well as the results he has achieved." He may have ensured Dildo’s prosperity, they continue, "but he will not yet solve the more general problem, which requires increasing the fishermen’s confidence and guaranteeing a future on all of Newfoundland’s shores." For, Nielsen claims, "the cod’s disappearance from the coasts, as well as from Norway, is imminent."

His is a prescient observation almost 100 years before the Canadian government declared a moratorium on the northern cod fishery in 1992.

This is but one of 44 articles in the book. Others include a hike from Croque Harbour to Hare Bay (1816), botany in Bay St. George (1819), in port in St. John’s (1849), and an excursion around Bonne Bay (1886). There are also articles on local home remedies (1822), customs (1847), the cost of a plate of codfish (1853), politics (1859), weather, social habits, clergy, the railway (1883), and money (1884).

"The book," Rompkey writes, "attempts to capture the perception held by French visitors of Newfoundland’s transformation from colony to country."

Jamieson and Thareau are to be commended for translating into English these writings by French visitors to Newfoundland, extending from 1816 to 1907, including scientists, sailors, naval officers, journalists, doctors, artists, diplomats and geographers.

Much of what the "perceptive, educated, articulate, intelligent observers" see is "enlightening for today’s readers and maintain the spontaneity (and perhaps, occasionally, the superficiality) of eyewitness accounts. Some of these comments have proven to be surprisingly accurate, for example when it comes to whaling and the fishery."

"French Visitors to Newfoundland" is published by Memorial University’s Institute of Social and Economic Research.

— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at burtonj@nfld.net

Organizations: Institute of Social and Economic Research, The Compass

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Dildo, Broad Cove Trinity Bay Norway Hare Bay Bonne Bay Bay Roberts

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