The general belief of most who know anything about the historic development of Newfoundland as a colony of Britain is that it was originally thought of as a “fishing station” which was, initially at least, the domain of “West Country Merchants”. These merchants from the counties of Devon and Dorset for the most part (though many had ties to London), attempted to exclude other interests that might pose competition to their monopoly. And whilst there is much truth to this conventional wisdom, it of course neglects completely the presence in major parts of Newfoundland in the early days of French interests. That anomaly has yet to be properly addressed by historians.
But there was another group of Europeans who, for a short while at least in the 18th century, attempted to stake a claim to this territory, and more importantly for them, its lucrative fishery resources. This was the Scots. And they too have been all but forgotten by historians. Their attempts to “horn in” on the West Country Merchants’ monopoly took place in the early 1700s and were essentially abandoned before the end of that century for a variety of reasons.
The Voyage of the Christian, 1726-27
Some light has been shed upon this little known aspect of Newfoundland’s history through the efforts of Dr. Olaf Janzen, a professor of historical studies at Grenfell College, now retired. Here is his bio:
Dr. Janzen teaches North Atlantic, Military, and Newfoundland history. His research specialty is eighteenth-century Newfoundland, working on settlement history, piracy, privateering, and the defence of Newfoundland during that period. He is currently investigating the peace-time activities and role of the Royal Navy in Newfoundland waters between 1763 and 1775.
In the course of his research, he discovered that there were documents pertaining to Scottish interest in the Newfoundland fish trade in the 18th Century found in what was then known as the Scottish Record Office. In particular, his efforts focussed on one isolated endeavour, the Voyage of the Christian out of Greenock in 1726/27. This caught his attention not only because of the fact that it was almost unique in being an early attempt by Scottish interests to find a place in the trade dominated by the West Country Merchants, but also because that one voyage was extremely well documented in Journals and Letters belonging to the ship’s supercargo, a young man from Edinburgh named Edward Burd, Jr.
Early in his career, Dr. Janzen travelled to Scotland and spent a great deal of time searching through the Scottish National Archives for documents pertaining to this voyage. Having found and tabulated them, he meticulously transcribed the entire Journal and all of the Letters pertaining to the voyage that he could find.
Here is a complete inventory of the documents accessed and transcribed by Dr. Janzen:
finding aid – Scottish record office documents pertaining to the voyage of the christian (1726-1727)
Unfortunately, this wonderful resource has yet to be published and is not yet accessible online, though copies of his work have been sent to the Provincial Archives at The Rooms in St. John’s and can be accessed there. Copies of all the transcribed files and the index were also shared with Scotland’s People, the public face for most archival material in Scotland today. Scotland’s People and the National Records of Scotland grew out of the merger of the Scottish Record Office and General Register Office for Scotland in 2011. Finally, Dr. Janzen has kindly allowed me to have copies of all of his work related to the Voyage of the Christian, but I will not include them here since I have not been granted permission to do so.
I will be working on Dr. Janzen to encourage him to make this body of work available on Memorial University’s Digital Archives Initiative and will volunteer my time and my experience with that wonderful resource to assist in any way that I can.
Scottish National Archive Microfilm
In the course of my discussions with Dr. Janzen concerning this body of work, it came to my attention that there existed at The Provincial Archives in The Rooms a microfilm of documents pertaining to Scottish interests in Newfoundland, mostly from the 18th Century, which had been compiled from records held by the Scottish Record Office prior to the merger mentioned above. Dr. Janzen believed that it was most likely a copy of the same microfilm he had that he used as the source of his research on the voyage of the Christian. Nevertheless, I contacted Melanie Tucker at The Rooms and had her track it down for me so that I could view it on my next visit to determine if it contained anything new, that is to say, anything that Dr. Janzen had not already transcribed.
In September 2021, I was able to get to Newfoundland despite COVID travel restrictions and spent several days at the Provincial Archives reading room exploring various documents, mostly on microfilm, pertaining to my family history interests. During the course of that work, I accessed the microfilm that Melanie Tucker had found for me (MG 642 – PANL Reel #343). I made copies of every page on the microfilm to take home with me for later detailed analysis. But one thing was immediately obvious: this microfilm and its contents did not exactly match the one in the possession of Dr. Janzen. While it did contain the Journal of Edward Burd Jr. and some (but far from all) of the letters pertaining to the voyage of the Christian, it also contained other unrelated documents covering the entire 18th century and into the 19th century. The one thing that these documents held in common was that they pertained to Scottish interests in Newfoundland, primarily, but not exclusively, related to the fishery.
Here is a listing of the contents of this microfilm cross-referenced to the documents transcribed by Dr. Janzen and showing the new discoveries unrelated to the voyage of the Christian. The items highlighted in yellow are the same as documents found in Dr. Janzen’s collection. All the others are “new”.
From time to time, as the opportunity presents itself, I will transcribe selected files from this microfilm that are of special interest and post them here. I will also share certain of them which are of broader interest to Newfoundland history related Facebook pages.
Commercial losses due to the French Raids – 1700-1710
Here is the first of these documents. I present it as a PDF of the actual pages of the document and a Word file which is a transcript of those pages adhering as accurately as possible to the spelling and layout of the original document.
This first document pertains to the trials and tribulations of James Cameron, a Scottish Merchant based in London, who lost a fortune in several raids by the French between 1702 and 1710; raids which also cost the life of his Factor and several of his fishermen and the freedom of his brother and agent, Colin Campbell, who was twice captured by the French and held in prison for ransom, on one occasion an imprisonment of four years from 1705 to 1709. Campbell Appealed to the Queen for financial remuneration and was on the verge of success when the Queen died and a new Lord High Treasurer was appointed who evidently did not look with favour on this application. The end result is not revealed in the documents on this microfilm.
A Scottish Regiment Garrisoning Fort William – 1716
The second document on the microfilm is also an interesting glimpse into the involvement of the Scottish in Newfoundland in the early 1700s. Only in this instance, their involvement was as the garrison for St. John’s.
In particular, I found it interesting because it shows that unrest in the garrison in St. John’s predated the near riot at the end of the 18th century by over 80 years. Although we are not told the nationality of the foot soldiers who were near to mutiny, I suspect that since this “Company” or Regiment was clearly raised in Edinburgh, the soldiers would have been predominantly Scottish as opposed to the Irish soldiers in the Newfoundland Regiment in 1800.
Conditions were pretty rough for the soldiers in this situation and when they were being denied the opportunity to be cleared and stand down for a spell that they had been promised, insurrection was inevitable. One wonders whether the stern measures contemplated in this letter were ever needed.
Another thing that raised my interest is that these contingents sent to garrison St. John’s were considered companies to be bought and sold for profit. I had known that officers generally bought their ranks and received in compensation a generous salary, but more importantly prestige. I had never heard previously that an entire force could be bought, presumably in that case to make a profit in the sense of mercenaries.
The letter is also interesting because the identity of the recipient is never revealed. However, the fact that he was to receive the returns for the garrison suggests he must have been at least as senior as the writer of the letter and possibly more senior. I have a feeling that he was a Captain named Dalrymple, brother of the Captain of the same name mentioned in the letter. If so, he may very well have been an ancestor of mine as there were Dalrymple military men in my heritage on my Scottish war bride grandmother’s side.
The “return” referred to in this letter is actually an accounting of the number of officers, non-commissioned officers and enlisted recruits present in the garrison in the month of September 1716. As the letter complains, many of the senior officers were absent at the time of this accounting. Considering the risks of attack by the French at this time, this would have been of grave concern and may have contributed to the uneasiness amongst the rank and file who were left to wonder why they had not been given the order to stand down as promised whilst their officers returned to Britain, either to their homes or to the central command.
On November 18, 1716, a second letter was sent by Captain William Douglas to an unnamed recipient addressed only as “Sir”. But it is now clear from the context of this letter that it and the first letter were addressed to his superior officer, Brigadier General Grant. It was he who was placed in charge of the Regiment and was operating in that capacity from London according to the previous month’s return, though he may have travelled to Newfoundland at other times.
The letter reveals much about the practice of buying commissions in the British Army at that time, as we learn that a Mr. Pollock, a sixteen year old son of Sir Robert, has been taken on strength and his Lordship has requested he be made an officer, though at what level the letter does not reveal. Sir Robert proposes to pay the Regiment (or possibly Brigadier General Grant himself?) £100 for this appointment. So much for working your way up through the ranks!
There is also talk of “Squaring of the Companys [sic]”, presumably referring to an attempt to bring them up to a full strength of officers, since the previous letter and its annexed return clearly show that the ranks of officers are woefully understaffed.
A Connection Between Scotland, Newfoundland and Russia in the early 1800s
One very curious and interesting (to me at least) document found in my perusal of the microfilm (MG 642 Reel 343 SRO) sent by the Scottish Records Office to the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador some time before 1999 when it was restructured to form Scotland’s People and the National Records of Scotland is a letter from J. Rogerson in Dumcrieff, Scotland (I believe this is Dr. John Rogerson) to Alexander Rogerson in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1818. The connection to Newfoundland emerges only peripherally in the letter itself but my notes below explain it in greater detail.
This letter was written on thin paper on both sides and the ink ran through from one side to the other rendering most of the writing illegible. Because it is an important record of the trade that the Rogerson family carried out between Scotland, Newfoundland and Russia in the early 19th century I felt it was important enough to attempt to transcribe it even though most of the words cannot be made out. However, in the end the parts that could be interpreted were far too disjointed to make the effort worthwhile so instead I have simply synopsized the contents.
By way of explaining the Russia connection, two members of the Rogerson extended family were the personal surgeons of the Tsars of Russia – Dr. John Rogerson, FRS, FRSE, (1741-1823), ministered to Catherine the Great amongst others in the succession (Tsars Paul I and Alexander I). His maternal uncle, Dr. James Mounsey, had preceded him in this post ministering to Peter the Great amongst others and, at his suggestion, Dr. Rogerson was appointed after him to the post of court surgeon. These prestigious appointments inevitably led to trade opportunities.
The writer of this letter signs his name only as J. Rogerson which is not very informative. But his address is given as “Dumcrieff”, which provides the necessary clue to his identity. Dumcrieff was the estate purchased by Dr. John Rogerson upon his return from Russia in his retirement. He was responsible for the construction of the present mansion, which is now a luxurious holiday rental. In as much as Dr. John Rogerson was still living at the time of the writing of this letter, and the fact that the letter focuses on trade issues in Russia it can be said with almost certainty that he was the author of the letter.
The recipient of the letter is given as Alexander Rogerson, and his address is given as St. Petersburg, but the letter is sent in care of the Thompson Company on Broad Street in the City of London. Alexander can be none other than his grandnephew, the grandson of his brother William. And therein lies the connection to Newfoundland.
William was the patriarch of the Rogerson clan that came to Newfoundland and other parts of what later became Canada as merchants and traders starting in the early 1800s. Another grandson of William was Peter R. Rogerson, an important merchant based out of Harbour Grace starting in 1817 and later expanding into St. John’s. Peter was also appointed as a Member of the Executive Council when Representative Government came into being in Newfoundland. His company, P. Rogerson and sons, continued to be operated after his death by the last of his four sons, the Honourable James Johnstone Richardson, MHA.
As with all families in Newfoundland that occupied positions of prominence in commerce, the Rogersons were connected in business as well as through marital relationships with other major merchant families, including the Ayers, the Tessiers and the Carters.
The letter starts:
Dumcrieff, June 26, 1818
and 30th June
My Dear Alexander
The letter deals with financial matters James is asking Alexander to be conducted on his behalf in Russia. It is not clear if the two are business partners in these transactions or if this pertains to unfinished business after the departure of James from the Court and his return to Scotland. He has been back in Scotland since at least 1805 but it would seem that there is a sale of a house yet unfinished and other matters amounting to significant figures totalling upwards of 40,000 Rubles. Names prominently mentioned in this regard include a Mr. Wilson who may be an agent for James Rogerson as there is also mention of what to do with the current tenants as well as salaries for presumed employees.
There is a passing and undecipherable reference to a Mr. Wylie. This is of interest because, although his location at the time is not stated, it was an Alexander Wylie in St. John’s who was acting as local agent for Scottish merchants trying out the trade in cod fish and merchandise a few years later in the early 1820s. This could possibly be the same man. If so, this may imply some commerce between Newfoundland and Russia was also taking place through these Scottish entrepreneurs.
The family of a person named Dimitry [sic] is said to be paid or has been paid monthly and annual wages (salary) totalling 20,000 Rubles in all. The value of the Ruble fluctuated dramatically from year to year in that period of time. There were also two exchange rates, one for actual notes and coins (which was higher) and one for credit notes. 20,000 Rubles in cash would have amounted to between $10,000 and $20,000 US dollars at the time or twenty times that amount today. By comparison, a railway worker was earning 15 Rubles a year at that time. So the affairs in Russia of this retired surgeon to the Czars were quite considerable.
The letter turns at this point to more domestic concerns, including the doctor conferring with his wife on a suitable spouse for an acquaintance, the states of the weather (hotter than normal) and the resulting beneficial effects on crops but not on livestock. The marriage of his niece Ms. Bell to a cousin named William Carruthers is mentioned.
The salutation then reads (suggesting a close familial relationship):
Yours very affectionately
Here is a PDF version of the four pages of this letter. As explained above, there is no transcript because it was impossible to read enough of the contents to make a meaningful stab at a transcript.
A Young Scot’s First Impressions of Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders in 1820
Here’s another of the letters found on the microfilm collection of documents pertaining to early Scottish interests in Newfoundland that I have been transcribing or at least attempting to transcribe. As in the case of my last post, this one, and several which will follow, pertain to the Rogerson family of Dumfriesshire.
Here we see a young man of about 18 years of age apprenticed to the Scottish firm with a branch in St. John’s known as Hunter & Co. Records indicated that it operated in St. John’s from early in the 19th century until around 1840 when records run out. This letter was written in 1820.
I am speculating at this time that the writer of this letter, Samuel Rogerson, and his brother William to whom the letter is written were nephews of Peter R. Rogerson who arrived in Newfoundland around 1814 and started up his business in Harbour Grace in 1817, later to move to St. John’s. It is his line that leads to many of the more famous Rogersons in Newfoundland’s history.
Please note that this was a different age and that this young man expressed some rather stark and discriminatory ideas concerning, not just the indigenous people of Newfoundland, but also the Irish, and Newfoundlanders and Newfoundland in general. I do not feel it is historically justifiable to edit out these comments.
A Young Scot’s First Impressions of Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders in 1820 (PART TWO)
Another instalment in the saga of the Rogersons of Scotland and Newfoundland.
This letter is also composed by Samuel Rogerson, the apprentice to Mssrs. Hunter & Co. in St. John’s in 1820. This time he is writing to another brother named David at Leithenhall near Wamfray (by Moffat), Dumfries.
It is a very repetitious letter, telling mostly the same things as his earlier letter to his brother William, but as William lives at Gillesbie and probably does not see David regularly, it makes sense to ask the same things of the two of them so that at least one will respond to his requests.
Poking around in some Scottish census records I discovered that Samuel and David remained bachelors and were living with their spinster sister Janet (called Jean in the two letters) on Leithenhall farm for at least two decades (1841-1861) and three in the case of Janet (until 1871). So the merchant trade in Newfoundland apparently did not prove attractive to young Samuel.
A Young Scot’s First Impressions of Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders in 1820 (PART THREE)
Here is a letter to Samuel Rogerson in St. John’s from his sister Jean (or Janet on her baptismal record) written from Hallhills in Dumfriesshire near Applegarth Town, dated 21 August 1823.
There are no startling revelations here. Simply the news of births, marriage and deaths, along with comments on the weather, the successes and failures in the farming, and related news. We do learn that young Samuel had been ill the previous year but has now recovered.
Interestingly, though married (she refers to her husband, but not by name unfortunately) Jean addresses the letter as “Jean Rogerson” using her maiden name. I was not aware that was the practice in Scotland at the time.
A Young Scot’s First Impressions of Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders in 1820 (PART FOUR)
By 1830, Samuel Rogerson was still working for Messrs. Hunter and Co. in St. John’s. It isn’t known if he had risen in station with them or if he was still more or less a junior clerk at this time.
On June 28 1830, a friend from his neighbourhood in Scotland, Peter Clyde, who was, at that time, working in the lumber trade in the Miramichi are of New Brunswick, wrote Samuel a letter to catch up on news and incidentally hint at some potential business they could both profit from with his unnamed landlord who was building a schooner and intended to load it up with New Brunswick lumber and sail it to Newfoundland, there to sell the whole thing, schooner and all. The ship would not have been of any great interest in Newfoundland as there was already a brisk business in building and selling vessels of all kinds in that colony. But good lumber was getting scarce on the Island and it would fetch a good price there. It appears that two Scots intended to get in on this trade by collecting commissions for assisting in the sales.
A brief genealogy of the Rogerson family of Scotland and Newfoundland
The Rogerson family that came to Newfoundland in the late 1700s and early 1800s were representative of a very small group of Scots who made an effort to form ties between the two countries at that time. It seems that most tried and failed and returned to Scotland, but one line of the Rogerson family stayed and made significant contributions to Newfoundland in both business and politics, one member (the Honourable James Johnstone Rogerson, becoming the Receiver General and a member of the appointed Legislative Assembly. His father, who began the migration to Newfoundland, Peter Rogerson, also served as a Member of the Legislative Council for a while.
The letters transcribed above were written by or to a nephew of Peter Rogerson, Samuel, who served with his company after beginning his work in Newfoundland with the firm of Hunter and Company.
The family in Scotland and in Russia were also illustrious members of their professions as doctors and senior military officers. One of them, Col. William Rogerson of the 53rd Shropshire Regiment, was commissioned to write the history of his regiment. He penned the final article on the Scottish microfilm which pertains to the Rogerson family, a brief genealogy of some of the members of the family who came to Newfoundland.
MISCELLANEOUS DOCUMENTS ON THE SCOTTISH MICROFILM PERTAINING TO A VARIETY OF ACTIVITIES INVOLVING SCOTSMEN IN NEWFOUNDLAND BETWEEN 1767 AND 1807
Above and beyond the Documents pertaining the Voyage of the Christian in 1726 and the eclectic group of documents shown above, on the microfilm there were also several unrelated documents covering the period from 1767 to 1807 which appear to have had nothing in common on other than the fact that they pertained various Scottish ventures in Newfoundland during that time. These have been transcribed and are included below.
Two epitaphs for officers lost in the Battle of Signal Hill –
Capt. Roderick MacKenzie and Capt. Charles MacDonnell
The Battle of Signal Hill has strangely never attracted the public attention that the Battle of the Plains of Abraham has done despite the fact that it was the final battle between the French and English over domination of the North American continent.
The battle took place on September 15, 1762 and, as battles go, was rather bloodless, with 24 British casualties (killed and wounded) and 40 French casualties.
The names of those killed were apparently not recorded, or if they were, the list has not been well publicized. But two of the English casualties are known to us because their names appeared in the account of the battle prepared by Lt. Col. William Amherst, the British commanding officer. They were Captains Roderick MacKenzie and Charles MacDonnell, both being Scotsmen. Perhaps for this reason alone, the Scottish microfilm contains a single page transcript of the epitaphs of these two men. Their gravestones and the place where they are buried are long since forgotten and we owe a debt to the anonymous transcriber for preserving this much concerning the final resting place.
Letter from Subaltern John Peebles in St. John’s, Sept. 20 1762, to Fleming in Halifax recounting the events of the Battle of Signal Hill from his personal observations.
John Peebles was a young Scottish junior officer, not yet commissioned as an Ensign who participated in the Battle of Signal Hill, the final and conclusive battle of the Seven Years War which confirmed English dominion over all of what is now Canada. He wrote this letter to an unknown person in Halifax, possibly his superior officer, who may be named Fleming since Peebles concluded his remarks in wishing Mrs. Fleming well. The letter is a unique find in that it has never been published and it retells from the perspective of a junior member of the English forces the official report by the Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. William Amherst.
Letter from Allan MacDonald in London, Dec. 1, 1767,
to James Moray of Abercairny
Capt. Allan MacDonald (also seen as McDonald) was a Scottish soldier who was in charge of the British Army Garrison at Fort William in St. John’s after the Battle of Signal Hill, reporting directly to the Governor at the time, Sir Hugh Palliser. At the time that he wrote this letter he was a Captain (information from the Baptismal record of his daughter, Penelope Charlotte, at the Anglican Cathedral on Jan. 19, 1767). The pay for this rank could not have been very high judging by the way he poor-mouths his means in the letter, and the obsequious way in which he addresses the recipient, Sir James Moray of Abercairny.
The purpose of the letter is to offer his services to the Laird by providing lodging for his son in Newfoundland to promote his convalescence from what appears to be a case of Consumption (TB). MacDonald extols the healing properties of the environment in St. John’s in a very glowing manner, which seems suspiciously over the top, suggesting that he anticipated some reward for this service to the Laird’s son, perhaps via promotion in the ranks. I have not been able to determine what became of MacDonald after this letter was written. His name is too common to trace easily amongst the ranks of those who served in the British Army at that time.
Comments on Agitation for Newfoundland to Join Canada in 1895
Newfoundland was involved in the conferences in Québec and Charlottetown that led to Canadian Confederation in 1867 but chose not to become one of the new provinces at that time. Still there were staunch Confederates who did not give up that easily and their efforts very nearly bore fruit in 1895 but failed once again and the issue was dropped, for all intents and purposes until after WWII.
Therefore it should not be surprising that this movement caught the attention of many British politicians and leading officials, whether or not they personally had any attachment to Newfoundland. It seems that the Scottish Record Office found in this next document the reference to the 1895 move for Newfoundland to join Canada and made the assumption that the recipient, a Scot by the name of Sir Henry Loch, and the writer of the letter, Sir Graham Bower, were in some way personally associated with Newfoundland. From the contents of the letter it becomes clear that they were associated with one another in South African affairs, not those of Newfoundland, and the discussion concerning Newfoundland was only an aside comment on a current event of common interest in England at the time.
John Lees, Barrack Master in Newfoundland,
Request for a Transfer to Great Britain
In the letter above from Capt. Allan MacDonald to Sir James Moray, we see one account of the healthful and enjoyable environment in Newfoundland in the mid- to late-1700s. I surmised that this was suspect and self serving and far from an accurate description of prevailing conditions in St. John’s at the time.
Here we see the other side of the coin. John Lees, who had been Barrack Master in Newfoundland (at the time, this would mean the Barracks in St. John’s only) from 1777 up to 1796, the time of his writing the second letter below, essentially begging Lord Frederick Campbell, Lord Clerk Register of Scotland, his fellow Scotsman, but otherwise not associated in any way with Newfoundland, to intercede with the Secretary of War to transfer him back home to any Barracks, anywhere in Great Britain, in preference to having to spend his declining years in Newfoundland.
Even given their different stations and the more comfortable living conditions available to an Officer as compared to a Barrack Master, it seems clear that the letter of John Less presents a more realistic description of conditions in Newfoundland at that time. Lord Campbell was evidently unsuccessful in obtaining a transfer for John Lees in 1794 and Lees is again begging for such a transfer two years later. John Lees’ name appears frequently in documents amongst the Colonial Papers prior to, but not after, this time, so either he died on station or his request for a transfer was realized in 1796.
Letter from James Stewart to the Rt. Hon. Robert Dundas
19 June 1807
From this letter we learn that a British official, James Stewart, who had up until this time functioned in some capacity to advise on the restructuring of Prince Edward Island prior to the issuing of settlement grants there, had in 1807 been appointed to be the Pay Officer with the government in Newfoundland. Through this letter to the Rt. Honorable Robert Dundas, the 2nd Viscount Melville, who had been appointed as a Scottish Privy Counsellor in this same year, Stewart hoped to avoid his first winter in Newfoundland by offering his services to the Crown in London to settle the last details concerning the Prince Edward Island issue. This would depend upon the willingness of the Governor of Newfoundland, also appointed the same year, John Holloway, and the General serving as Commanding Officer of the Newfoundland Regiment at that time, John Skerrett, so the wily Stewart tried to persuade his fellow Scot, Robert Dundas first and, having done so, these other senior officials would feel obliged to accede to his strategy. The Scottish old boys club at play once again.