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.
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.