Discovery Day in Newfoundland Labrador

Today, the closest Monday to June 24, is Discovery Day in the province of Newfoundland Labrador. Legend has it that the Genoese explorer Giovanni Caboto, also known as John Cabot, made it across the Atlantic from Bristol, England on June 24, 1497. In so doing he discovered what we now call Newfoundland and, since the day of discovery was also the Feast of St. John the Baptist, the harbour he arrived at bears that name as does the city that has grown up around it—my home. Today is a provincial government holiday and various activities take place throughout the city of St. John’s to commemorate that grand discovery.


Looking out at the Atlantic from atop Signal Hill. At the top, far left, a pod of humpbacks was splashing about, blowing off and, generally enjoying a great feed of…whatever.

This legend is so very typical. It reeks of greatness. Think of that proud captain on the stout, sturdy little 50-tonne “Matthew,” crewed by 18-20 people. In through the narrows it sailed. That part itself was no mean feat, considering the steepness of the surrounding hills, the unpredictability of the winds, and most of all, the narrowness—the name exists for a reason—of the channel that separates the harbor from the ocean. Weeks at sea then, first, on what we now as the Grand Banks, cod fish so plentiful that they could be hauled up out of the ocean in baskets. Now this, a harbor that was completely sheltered from the elements, easily defended and just the perfect size to accommodate what would prove to be huge fleets of fishing vessels, all looking for shelter and re-supply. What a discovery! This beautiful, bountiful land, so ripe for development; a promise like no other for the future.

Yes, legends. Great but, neither entirely believable nor entirely discountable. Stuck fast somewhere in between; too wondrous to be ignored and always useful. A great story such as this one can be spun off to so many other purposes: promote tourism; establish sovereignty; give the masses something to celebrate. Lots of uses. After all, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

The city of Saint John's. In all likelihood the earliest city in North America founded by the colonizing Europeans. By no means the oldest city though--much larger and far older cities predated the European incursion.

The city of Saint John’s. In all likelihood the oldest city in North America founded by the colonizing Europeans. By no means the oldest city though–much larger and far older cities predated the European incursion.

Facts? Well isn’t it well-known that John Cabot discovered the New World and founded the city of St. John’s in 1497? No, not exactly. It depends on who you ask. Cape Bretoners and people who live on the coast of Maine know how to make a convincing case to show that their place was the first and most important port of call. You don’t even have to leave the island of Newfoundland to get controversy. There are many here (including the Federal Government) who judge Bonavista to be a safer bet for the place where Caboto made landfall. First, the cape is imposing and rather hard to miss but, more importantly, many mariners at that time navigated by maintaining constant latitude. Bonavista is closer in latitude to Bristol than is St. John’s. Of course, St. Anthony is almost dead west of Bristol. Now, you don’t hear too many from there claiming Caboto as their own…but then again they have undisputed claim to Sir. Wilfrid Grenfell and he’s probably a better choice for a hero anyway. Nonetheless, if I had to guess, it would be mine.

And the Basque whalers and other fishers? We have evidence that shows they were located in various parts of the province, particularly Red Bay (which, just this weekend was granted UNESCO World Heritage status for just that reason) prosecuting a very lucrative fishery. In particular the bowhead and right wales provided great wealth to the Basque. Given the richness of the fishery as well as the well-known Basque aversion to ‘headlines’ it’s reasonable to figure it likely that the fisheries were well underway long before the “voyage of discovery.” Perhaps instead of saying that Caboto discovered the new world it might be more accurate to say that he may, instead, have blown the lid off a well-kept trade secret!

the Harbour-front, St. John's. While there are still quite a few fishing vessels here, mostly on the opposite side, the majority of the economic value today is derived from the offshore Oil and Gas industry.

The Harbour-front, St. John’s. While there are still quite a few fishing vessels here, mostly on the opposite side, the majority of the economic value today is derived from the Oil and Gas industry. Offshore upply vessels can be seen at the far left and far right.

There’s also the indisputable evidence of the Norse visits and settlements here, 500 years prior to any of this. According to the Greenland Saga, around 986 Bjarni Herjólfsson was blown off course on his way to Greenland and found a new land further to the west: a land of stones, (probably Baffin Island), a land of trees (probably Labrador) and a land of wild grapes (could be anywhere from the northern tip of Newfoundland to the coast of Maine). Later, long after his return, he sold the ship to Leifr Eiríksson (sometimes referred to as Leif the Lucky) who, along with 30-40 others established a short-lived settlement, probably at what is now L’Anse Aux Meadows. Maybe not just there; it’s possible there were many other places. Sadly, modern development all along the likely sites has permanently erased the easily-found archaeological remnants. For the Norse, it was probably mostly about the abundant, high-quality timber, so vital to a seafaring people and so hard to find at home. A cooling climate and even chillier relations with the local inhabitants probably ended the settlement effort.

Local inhabitants?

How’s that again?

Didn’t Leif/the Basque Whalers/Caboto/whomever discover the new world? How could there be people there already? “How” indeed. If there is, in fact, a point to this admittedly meandering post, we are about to arrive at it.

When Columbus landed in the islands off North America he found them already inhabited by people he subsequently decimated. When the various colonizing vessels landed on the coasts further north they did not find vast, empty lands ready to be developed for the first time. They found, rather, beautiful, highly developed farmlands inhabited by equally well-developed cultures, who were subsequently decimated. While Newfoundland was nowhere near as highly-populated as were the lands further south there were far from empty too. Mi’kmaq, Innu, Inuit and, of course, Beothuk not only were well-established but were, in reality, just the current in a long line of peoples who had inhabited this place long before the Europeans arrived.

But you’d never say, judging by many popular recounts of history, especially movies. It usually goes something like this:

  • Chapter 1: short romp through the people who lived here before Caboto.
  • Chapters 2-50: a chronological listing of every European military conquest or significant economic activity in or around the city of St. John’s or Placentia.

Through it all you are generally left with the impression that (a) the aboriginals were quaint but they did very little that mattered before 1497 and, wow, aren’t they lucky the Europeans came along, else this silly stone age cuteness would still be happening and (b) my, weren’t they awfully rude, refusing to get off that land WE need and refusing to lose that silly way of life, Tsk Tsk and (c) what happened in most other places—outport fishing communities and aboriginal settlements—simply did not matter at all, certainly not enough that it’s worth writing down.

Worth a visit and worth staying for. Prosperous and peaceful--what more could you ask for?

Worth a visit and worth staying for. Prosperous and peaceful–what more could you ask for?

That is changing, thankfully. Year by year new discoveries are coming to light as the land offers up the secrets it wishes to. Bit by bit the point of view is changing as evidence piles up and attitudes change, in keeping with the needs of the day.

So, here it is, discovery day. The legend continues. John Cabot hats, pictures of the “Matthew” and, all over, celebrations of that fateful discovery.

So much left to discover. We can only see a little of what's ahead.

So much left to discover. We can only see a little of what’s ahead.

Not exactly so for me, though. Discovery is something else. I am not a newcomer; certainly not a conqueror. I am, rather of this beautiful land and am as much a part of it as are the rocks beneath my feet. Discovery matters little to the land; it will be here long after I am gone; long after we all are gone. For now, though, I can exist here along with all the others. Together, hopefully, we can continue to discover the wonders our land feels like letting us see. That, alone, is cause for celebration.


About Maurice A. Barry

Coordinator: Teaching and Learning Commons, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Parent & Husband. eLearning consultant/coordinator. Program Development Specialist - eLearning (Department of Education; Retired). Writer: over 40 Math/Physics texts/webs. Developer & Manager of web content. Geek. Not into awards but loves comments.
This entry was posted in Canada, Entertainment, Newfoundland and Labrador, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Discovery Day in Newfoundland Labrador

  1. TamrahJo says:

    The saying, “History is written by the winners” is so apt, and yet, I can’t help but hope that each new discovery, each grander appreciation for what we can learn from the layers of time, will lead to the revision of so many of those old, dusty, “Hey, King, look at what grande riches I got for our country and this is how I persevered and conquered..” tomes…..

  2. Fascinating history.

  3. elkement says:

    I really enjoyed this thoughtful post! A question to the expert in education: Has the way history is taught changed? I can recall bad history teachers who were focusing exactly on those “discoveries” and how they injected progress and technology into those the stone age-y villages, and I think it gives you a distorted angle on history.
    I like the Canary Islands – but reading typical tourist guides gives you the same feeling: Though the Spanish invaders are considered evil some extent, the culture of the native inhabitants is presented as archaic, quaint, quirky, and obsolete.

    • History gets a bad reputation for at least two reasons.

      It’s virtually impossible to separate the study of history from the values of the time through which it is taught. That is, when looking at any particular time we tend to layer on top the values of the particular time. In a time when imperialism was important, then, history was primarily about conquering new lands and giving them your values, and so on. For the past few centuries and until recently (and maybe to this day–it depends on who you ask) in North America the original aboriginal cultures were depicted as ‘less’ and the people were mostly treated as objects; things that did not need much attention. The older history books, then, gave the impression that the ‘indians’ were unwanted savages, trying to prevent the ‘white people’ from properly developing the land as was, apparently, their destiny. I’d like to think that short sighted–and erroneous–view is on the decline but I know there are still many who hang on to the foolish views.

      Then there’s the notion of teaching ‘stuff’ that can be tested easily. Instead of expecting students to dig in to the facts and put forward ideas that could be supported by them it was much easier to just get the students to state back the facts (which, themselves, were often just plain wrong, as it torns out). In my province it’s not supposed to be that way. While there is an expectation that the students do need to learn items of knowledge, the curriculum has a clear expectation that the students are expected to do something with those facts! On the provincial assessments for high-school social studies courses the recommendation is that grades be weighted about 35% for students demonstrating knowledge. Demonsttrating slightly higher level thought–application–also should account for a further 30-35% of the final grade and higher level, integrative, thought should account for the remaining 30-35%.

      On the matter of how it is taught in classrooms, as you might expect, there’s a huge variance. These days there’s a fairly lively social-studies-teachers’ community that has developed quite a wide variety of teaching techniques that go well beyond the old ‘stand and deliver lectures’ methods. Of course some still persist with that but better alternatives are easy to find.

  4. SJ O'Hart says:

    How interesting! For me, until now, John Cabot has only been a name, about whom my knowledge was a general haze.Thanks for enlightening me – as your posts always do! 🙂

  5. Mjollnir says:

    Excellent post Maurice. I didn’t know much about Cabot to be honest but living where I do I’m fairly well aware of Eriksson and L’Anse aux Meadows. Nice to see a few more photos of your natural habitat! 😀

  6. Maurice looks like a piece of paradise to me, beautiful photo’s, we are waiting for the whales here too. Every year it is something I do with my mum and when you see one it is an awesome feeling and one I never grow tired of. Thank you for this lovely informative post.

    • You’re welcome! They come along the shores around about this time each year, chasing the krill, caplin and herring which they found so tasty. In centuries past, whaling was an extremely dangerous but even more extremely lucrative industry. Whale oil was a very valuable material and was sold all throughout Europe. Fortunately we no longer need to destroy those beautiful creatures in the name of industry. Now, instead, we use the much more environmentally-friendly petroleum. Oh, wait… :>(
      Some things don’t change, I fear.
      But still, at least the whales have rebounded and, as long as we don’t, collectively, kill the oceans they should be okay.

  7. You made the best paragraph your last. The points you make along the way however are well taken and simply show the difficulties in recounting, and studying, history (and an all histories). So problematic and influenced by who recounts, who is asked to recount, who counts and who doesn’t count, who writes, and who is asked to write. And the list goes on. Can we ever know any true historical sequence-of-events? Anyway, thanks for opening my eyes to the problematica associated with your own local story. Beautiful place … more pictures please! D

  8. Tracy says:

    I come from Bristol Maurice though I live further north now. There’s always been much pride in the city about Cabot’s voyage and the Matthew (a replica was built some years ago and its simply stunning, even if its largely based on impressions of how the ship looked.) It’s said Cabot was really looking for Asia when he came upon ‘New found land’ and although Europeans ‘discovering’ other lands has resulted in mayhem for indigenous people the world over, as a Bristolian this voyage and the connections it made hold a special place in my history.

    • The replica is over here now and,while currently in need of repair, I have no doubt that the money will be found. Regardless of who can claim the right of discovery–and I maintain that knowledge of our shores was always”sort of known” the fact remains that Caboto’s voyage was significant in that it signified a turning point. After that voyage it was clear that there was economic justification for further voyages. And so it went… Of course the following 500 years were far from sedate.My hometown’s sovereignty was bitterly contested. Still is, I suppose, but to a lesser extent.

  9. jennypellett says:

    So…I discovered something on Discovery Day – thank you, really interesting stuff about John Cabot who, until now, was only ever a trivial pursuit answer for an old explorer. Now I can win with confidence 🙂

  10. tkmorin says:

    Wow, Maurice, you certainly covered a lot here, eh? Fantastic post, thank you. Really interesting! 🙂

  11. Very interesting post, fascinating history – and a very beautiful land! You also made me smile with you “quick” comments! Great read.

  12. Sam Boswell says:

    Hello, Maurice.
    Thanks for the guided tour, gorgeous landscapes and political exposé.
    In Australia we have our own national Sorry Day on May 26 commemorating mistreatment of indigenous people. Similarly, ‘settlement’ or ‘foundation’ are terms that have seen postcolonial re-interpretation as ‘invasion’. Much less comfortable, but an improvement on the honesty scale.
    You remind me that our stories, along with their re-telling, are powerful.

  13. I couldn’t get over your never let the facts get in the way of the story comment. Classic journalist comment that. Apart from that, great history lesson, love learning about your home.

    • Thanks! I got that comment from someone else a long time ago and let’s just say it holds ‘special significance’ for much of the ‘official’ stuff read 🙂

      By the way, last night I read of your ‘buscapades.’ Comment to follow later on tonight. Summer chores are dipping deeply into my blogging time…as is the case for just about everyone I suppose.

      • Nothing wrong with reading and replying later. I usually do it for thoughtful posts except I was alert enough today to read and comment at once.

        for many reasons, summer eats into our blogging, such a nuisance.

        Love your take on ‘never let the facts’

Comments are Welcome!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s