The Channel Islands are located on the south side of the English Channel just off the coast of France. They have a total area of 194 square kilometres and consist of four major islands: Jersey, Guernsey, Sark, and Alderney. Beginning in about 300 B.C.E, the Channel Islands entered a period of nearly six centuries as part of the Roman Empire’s province of Gaul. With the decline of Roman rule in the fifth century, the islands were settled by refugees from England, and in the ninth century Bretons arrived. It was under Breton influence that the inhabitants accepted Christianity.
The Channel Islands were conquered in 933 by the Normans; and in 1066, when William II of Normandy became king of England, they came under the English crown. During succeeding centuries marked by wars between England and France, the Channel Islands remained for the most part under British rule. Today they are dependencies of the United Kingdom but not part of it, being administered under their own laws and customs through two governments or bailiwicks: Jersey and Guernsey. In contrast to the rest of the United Kingdom, Jersey and Guernsey are not part of the European Union (although some EU policies apply in the islands); this status is indicated on their citizens’ distinct passports. In 1990 the Channel Islands had a population of 143,683.
Even though the islands became attached to the English crown, their links with Normandy persisted, notably through migration in both directions. English influence, superimposed on Norman and French influence, was felt initially in urban areas and increased over time, especially with the development of communications and tourism. Traditionally, French was the language of the upper classes, and Norman patois, a dialect of French with numerous expressions borrowed from English as well as words derived from Scandinavian languages, was the language of the masses. In the twentieth century, both French and Norman French have increasingly given way to English, which today is the common spoken language of the islands. Nevertheless, French is still the official language of Jersey, and in both Jersey and Guernsey one can still hear Norman French spoken by some older people. Anglicanism is the official religion, although other Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church are also present.
Early in their history, Channel Islanders became skilled at protecting their islands during the long and virtually incessant wars between France and England. Economically, they learned how to take advantage of their geographical situation. By the sixteenth century, Jersey and Guernsey enjoyed prosperity as a result of their semiofficial status as commercial entrepôts between France and England, their licit and illicit trade, and their participation in both English and French commercial adventures in the New World. The economy of the Channel Islands was directed towards the sea: fishing, trade, smuggling, and piracy. In the twentieth century, the islands have found new vocations in dairy farming and tourism.
It was primarily fishing and trade that brought people from Jersey and Guernsey to Canada. Early on, Channel Islanders fished the banks of Newfoundland; the first written reference to their presence dates to 1591. Nine years later the new governor of Jersey, Sir Walter Raleigh, stimulated the growth of the North American fishery by encouraging the island’s entrepreneurs to outfit ships for the new lands. When the French left the south coast of Newfoundland after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 the Channel Islanders’ commercial presence in the region increased. In 1731 there were seventeen ships and 1500 people in the employ of Jersey firms in Atlantic Canada; this figure does not include the numerous people from Jersey who were employed by shipowners from Guernsey, England, and France. The 943 fishers from the Channel Islands in Newfoundland in 1765 represented 10 percent of the total number of fishers.
Fishing boats from Jersey and Guernsey left in the spring and returned in the fall. However, a few people had to stay the winter to take care of the shore structures and prepare the next fishing season. Such were the hesitant beginnings of permanent settlement. Although their numbers were dwarfed by the English and Irish, Channel Islanders were the third largest group of pioneers in Newfoundland.
After the conquest, entrepreneurs from the Channel Islands entered the Gulf of St Lawrence. Each year, about fifty Jersey ships with crews totalling 2,500 people fished off the coast of Canada. A number of firms moved towards a sedentary fishery during this period, establishing permanent settlements and recruiting fishers from the local population.
As much as possible, Jersey entrepreneurs avoided gens de règle – sailors and artisans accustomed to the Canadian fishery – in favour of gens d’entreprise, who came from the most rural parishes of the island and had little experience of working for wages. Almost all the skilled workers, day-labourers, and sailors came from the Channel Islands. Mostly farmers and agricultural workers, whose wives and children took care of their farms while they were away, they left Jersey after the spring communion and hoped to be back in time for the harvest. Clerks were recruited in the schools of Jersey, where the most promising teenagers had already begun an apprenticeship that they would complete in Atlantic Canada. These young people had to sign on for five years, and they worked extremely hard.
It was under the umbrella of the fish companies that Channel Islanders settled in Atlantic Canada. The companies did not openly discourage people who contracted with them from settling on the coast when their contracts were up. Even families that immigrated independently were undoubtedly attracted by the availability of credit offered by the companies and the guarantee of being able to sell cod to them.
The Channel Islands did not make a large numerical contribution to Canada’s population. In 1871 when the presence of Channel Islanders in Canada was at its height, there were 852 people born in Jersey and Guernsey in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario. Even on the Gaspé coast, the 397 people from Jersey and Guernsey represented only 1.3 percent of the population at the time. The only significant concentrations of Channel Islanders in Atlantic Canada were in Arichat on Isle Madame, off the southwest coast of Cape Breton, and in Paspébiac in the Gaspé. Both of these were headquarters for the large fish companies. Only in Grande-Grave and Malbay, also in the Gaspé, did immigrants from the Channel Islands represent a majority of the population.
There has been virtually no immigration from the Channel Islands to Canada since 1930. In fact, an indeterminate number of people from Jersey have returned to their native island or emigrated to the United States. Some, however, chose to stay, continuing to work for the few remaining fish companies. Although these companies had become Canadian, they were still managed by people from Jersey or thoroughly anglicized Canadians of Jersey origin, and as much as possible continued to hire clerks whose family origins were in Jersey.
From their base in Newfoundland, Channel Islanders moved quickly into the Gulf of St Lawrence after Canada was definitively ceded to Britain in 1763, taking advantage of their knowledge of French to establish economic relations with the Acadian population. Jersey and Guernsey entrepreneurs set up shop in Labrador, Cape Breton, the Gaspé, and New Brunswick. Three brothers, Philip, Jacques (John), and Charles Robin, established Robin, Pipon and Company of Isle Madame in 1765 and John Robin and Company a little later. After initially employing seasonal fishers from Jersey, the Robin brothers quickly transformed their fishing station in Arichat, Cape Breton, into a sedentary fishery. In 1766 the youngest of the Robin brothers, Charles, explored Chaleur Bay and established trade relations with the Acadians and aboriginals who lived there, as well as with other merchants who had preceded him. Charles came back the next year and set up a small station on the sandbar at Paspébiac, which would become the company’s headquarters. In constant contact with Jersey and taking advantage of Channel Islanders’ long experience in the Newfoundland fisheries, the Robins reaped all the benefits that came from the establishment of permanent stations. Unlike their competitors, they could receive fish from local fishers early in the spring. The company sought to involve increasing numbers of fishers in this trade.
To a large extent, the Jersey system was based on the dependency of the client fishers, to whom the company provided merchandise on credit through the year; the fishers reimbursed the company with fish at the end of the season. The high price of the supplies meant that the value of the credit was greater than that of the fish, so that the fishers ended up in debt at the end of the season and were virtually forced to fish for the same company the next year. Indebtedness, however, did not always have negative consequences. The best producers were often the most indebted, and others never or almost never went into debt. There were even some places where the Channel Island firms were not able to make the inhabitants dependent: fishers worked for themselves and sold their catch to the merchant of their choice, without incurring obligations. And there was always competition in the form of coasting vessels that took clients away from the Channel Island entrepreneurs.
Firms from the Channel Islands, and especially from Jersey, dominated the maritime economy of the Gulf of St Lawrence in the nineteenth century. They operated in Newfoundland, in Cape Breton, in the Gaspé, in New Brunswick, on the lower north shore of the St Lawrence, and in Labrador. In all these areas, the fishery was based on the same system of keeping client fishers dependent through credit. Operating in so many fishing areas enhanced profitability as the firms could make up losses incurred in one region with profits earned in another. All in all, the Channel Island firms employed at least 4,000 people. A quarter of these were Channel Islanders, mostly from Jersey with a smaller number from Guernsey.
The companies’ main product was dried cod, although they also exported ancillary products where the opportunity and the need existed. The main markets were Italy, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, and the British West Indies, with cod from Atlantic Canada also being sold in the United States, in Jersey, in England, and on the home market. Having sold fish in these countries, the firms brought back other commodities – rum, sugar, molasses, fruit, salt, and fabricated goods – which they sold to the client fishers.
Charles Robin and Company was the firm with the most extensive interests in the Gulf of St Lawrence. From Paspébiac, its headquarters and main shipping port, it dealt with more client fishers than any of its competitors. In addition to its presence in the Gaspé, the firm had operations on the east coast of New Brunswick, in Cape Breton, and on the lower north shore of the St Lawrence. Its output of dried cod alone (the company also shipped other fish and oil) increased from 27,000 quintals (1.4 million kilograms) in 1828 to 57,000 quintals (2.9 million kilograms) in 1865, making it the largest fish exporter in Atlantic Canada. The company had a workforce of about 750 people, including some sixty clerks and artisans. In addition, import-export firms established by members of the Robin family helped Charles Robin and Company penetrate international markets. Thus, the company controlled all aspects of the dried cod trade, from financing and shipbuilding, through the catch, to sales. A number of other Channel Island entrepreneurs started out with Charles Robin and Company, notably William Fruing, who started his business in 1832, John LeBoutillier (1833), LeBoutillier Bros. (1838), and, later on, John Fauvel and John and Elias Collas.
In 1870 the Robin empire was capitalized at more than $1 million. However, like the other Channel Island companies, it would soon face major problems. It continued to operate with tried and true methods, but these methods were becoming a force of inertia in the changing world of the late nineteenth century. It stuck with a traditional labour-intensive fishery based on outdated techniques. The advent of the steamship and railway transport, which led to a revival of competition, also hurt the Channel Island firms. Import-export operations became less profitable. The difficulty of maintaining a balance between “good” and “bad” debts – not a new problem, but one that grew in proportion to the increase in competition – also contributed to the companies’ woes. The companies were afraid that their client fishers would leave them, and so they loaned money to insolvent individuals and increased the prices they paid producers while lowering consumer prices, all in an unfavourable international context.
In the late 1860s, the Labrador firms became the first to experience problems; they collapsed in 1873 in the wake of the failure of two Jersey banks, the Mercantile Bank and the Joint Stock Bank. In Newfoundland, the Jersey firms initiated a strategy of cutting back, but were still unable to survive. Another bank failure, that of the Jersey Commercial Bank in 1886, undermined the foundations of the Channel Island fishing companies in Atlantic Canada, and they vanished one by one. The largest ones, however, formed partnerships with Canadian interests. In 1904, after several reorganizations, Charles Robin and Company moved its head office from Jersey to Halifax, where it merged two years later with two other firms, A.G. Jones and A.H. Whitman, to form Robin, Jones and Whitman. From 1912 on, Robin, Jones and Whitman emphasized the retail side of its operations, and it established a department store chain. It declined over a period of seventy years, however, finally shutting down for good in the 1980s.
Observers have often noted the multiple business and family relations that the Jersey merchants maintained with one another, both in Jersey and in Canada. Thus, John LeBoutillier married the daughter of Philip Robin, Jr, Charles Robin’s nephew, and one of LeBoutillier’s sons married John Fauvel’s daughter. At the same time, however, old rivalries were brought over from the islands to the new world. The DeGruchy family, enemies of the Robins for many generations, was involved in a number of cod fishing operations in Newfoundland. The DeGruchys became the second-largest Channel Island firm in North America and even tried to compete with the Robins in the Gaspé. The animosity between these two giants was such that it is still enshrined in the collective memory in Jersey.
The Protestant entrepreneurs from the Channel Islands were aware of the power of the Roman Catholic Church and maintained cordial relations with members of the clergy. They participated generously in the construction and ornamentation of Catholic churches and opened their wallets for parish bazaars. The entrepreneurs did not look kindly on the Papists, however, with whom they lived and did business. When possible, Charles Robin and Company did not hire Catholics except as fishers. As late as the 1940s, a Channel Island employee who married a Catholic woman had to leave the company and risked being held in contempt by his family. Even members of the Robin family itself had to conform to this practice. While other companies did hire Catholics, the Fruings would send people from Jersey back to their native island if they were suspected of being attracted to Roman Catholicism.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as lay and religious elites made their influence felt at the local and regional levels, relations between the Channel Island companies and those elites soured. Some merchants took a very dim view of the Catholic clergy, with its promotion of temperance, agriculture, education, and cooperatives. The growth in the number of priests and the intensification of their zeal increased the church’s control. The large Jersey companies even gradually stopped selling alcohol in their stores.
Along with the great economic power they enjoyed, the Jersey entrepreneurs also wielded power in the political and social spheres. The LeMesuriers were one of the most prominent families in Newfoundland, and members of the family occupied a number of political and administrative posts. The Bourinots held a similar position in Cape Breton. Isaac LeVesconte launched a career in Nova Scotia and federal politics from his base in Isle Madame. Charles Robin used his influence with political authorities and had no difficulty putting pressure on successive lieutenant-governors of the Gaspé. At the turn of the nineteenth century he was one of the most powerful figures in Atlantic Canada. His grandnephew John Gosset, the chief manager of the Robin company in Canada, was a member of the legislature, as were David and John LeBoutillier. John LeBoutillier also became a member of the legislative council of Canada in 1867. Joshua Alexandre, the manager of the Fruing company in Shippagan, held a seat in New Brunswick’s provincial assembly from 1842 to 1846. To elect “their” candidates, the companies put pressure on the dealers and fishers, sometimes resorting to threats and violence.
People from Jersey and Guernsey also dominated local political life, where their influence far surpassed their meagre numbers but was an accurate representation of their social position. They were mayors, town councillors, sheriffs, customs agents, justices of the peace, school commissioners, secretaries of municipal councils and school boards, postmasters, and telegraph operators. In addition, they were frequently chosen as jurors. Living among largely illiterate populations, the Channel Islanders appear to have benefited from their few years of education.
The years after 1870, however, saw the rise in Atlantic Canada of a regional and local petty bourgeoisie that used politics to weaken the influence of the companies, which slowly lost their social and political ascendancy. However, they continued to have ways of resisting. The Fruing company could still secure the arrest for debt of a Grande-Grave resident who had encouraged his neighbours to vote for the opponent of the company candidate. Robin, Jones and Whitman, along with some small Channel Island entrepreneurs who had managed to survive, was able to weaken substantially the first fishing cooperatives in the Gaspé after World War I.
The Channel Island entrepreneurs’ relations with local populations were largely conditioned by the commercial system based on the dependency of the client fishers. But an old song sung by the Acadians of Chéticamp in Cape Breton, an isolated community where conditions were favourable to control by the Robin company, makes it clear that the fishers were not dupes: “Quand vous prenez du poisson, ils sont doux comme des moutons. Quand vous allez à leur boutique, ils sont rudes comme des lions ...” (“When you bring them fish, they’re as gentle as sheep. When you go to their store, they’re as rough as lions ...”) Sometimes mockery could give way to resistance. Catholic fishers refused to fish during major religious holidays. One year in Blanc-Sablon on the lower North Shore, fishers from the Gaspé Peninsula recruited by the DeQuetteville company insisted on being sent home three weeks earlier than anticipated.
Local rebellions against the Jersey companies broke out on at least two occasions. In 1879 the forcible evacuation of a few families of squatters who had settled on lands belonging to the Robin company in Chéticamp provoked a riot; the manager from Jersey had to leave. Thirty years later a grassroots revolt shook the little village of Rivière-au-Renard in the Gaspé. The local fishers, dissatisfied with the price being offered by the Jersey companies, found another buyer, who sent a schooner. After behind-the-scenes dealings with the Jersey companies, the schooner left without a single cod on board. Some fifty fishers showed up at the Fruing store and violence broke out. The federal government sent a frigate and two detachments at the companies’ request. Twenty-two fishers were brought before the courts and imprisoned.
Relations between immigrants from the Channel Islands and other elements of the population were generally marked by tolerance, and episodes of violence were rare. In places where there were a number of ethnic groups and not enough Channel Islanders to constitute a community, a sense of neighbourliness developed. People shared a common occupation, fishing. They shopped at the same store and danced at the same weddings. Indeed, Channel Islanders in such places generally married out of the group, because there were few women from the Channel Islands in Atlantic Canada and marrying a relative was to be avoided.
People from Guernsey, along with Jersey fishers brought over by the Janvrin company, formed small Protestant communities at the eastern tip of the Gaspé Peninsula. Geographical isolation and the practice of marrying within the community allowed these villages to retain their ethnic identity, including their distinctive Norman French. This dialect was sufficiently different from the French of Quebec and Acadia that French Canadians and Acadians considered it a foreign language. Immigrants from the Channel Islands, on the other hand, were generally able to understand Acadian and Quebec French, having been exposed to metropolitan French in their islands of origin. They would resort to patois in the presence of francophones or anglophones to communicate personal or business information among themselves.
These small communities, however, were exceptions. Almost invariably, immigrants from the Channel Islands became acculturated. Thus, the Robins of Old Fort Island, while continuing to practise Anglicanism, became anglicized, as did most of their fellow Channel Islanders in Newfoundland. Those who ended up in the midst of Irish and Acadian populations became Roman Catholics, especially when they did not have the services of Protestant missionaries. In almost all cases, from the second generation on, Channel Island identity and Norman patois disappeared. In places where Protestantism and Catholicism coexisted, Channel Islanders married Protestant partners and as a result became anglicized, even when they made up a majority of the population. A socio-political and socio-economic environment in which English predominated also undoubtedly contributed to their choice.
By 1950 there were only a few dozen people born in the Channel Islands left in Atlantic Canada. Twenty-five years later, the decline of the Atlantic provinces, along with the phenomena of regionalization and ethnic revival that had galvanized the French Canadians and Acadians, had brought the group further down the road to extinction. Only a few salty expressions were left from their Norman patois. The collective memory, and to a certain extent regional historical literature, had retained mostly negative images of the “Robins,” as Channel Islanders are still called in Acadia and the Gaspé, and the remaining members of the group were on the defensive.
Although few in number, Channel Islanders played a determining role in the development of the maritime societies of Atlantic Canada, especially in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In Newfoundland and Labrador, on the North Shore of the St Lawrence, in the Gaspé and New Brunswick, their commercial activities often led to permanent settlement and contributed to the shaping of societies that long remained dependent on the cod fishery. To use a colourful Jersey expression, the Channel Islanders stamped these regions with the seal of their bailiwick.
Numerous historical works, of varying quality, deal with the Channel Islands. Among the most useful are George Reginald Balleine, A Biographical Dictionary of Jersey (London, c. 1948); A History of the Island of Jersey (London, 1950); and especially A.G. Jamieson, ed., A People of the Sea (London, 1986). Pierre Dalido’s sociological study Jersey, île agricole anglo-normande (Vannes, France, 1951) is also worthwhile.
The only synthesis on the presence of Channel Islanders in Canada is Yves Frenette’s pamphlet The Anglo-Normans in Eastern Canada, tr. Carole Dolan (Ottawa, 1996). However, much documentation on their presence in the Atlantic region can be found in regional history journals, especially the journal published under various names by the Société Historique de la Gaspésie since 1963 (Revue d’histoire de la Gaspésie, Revue d’histoire et de traditions populaires de la Gaspésie, and Gaspésie). The journal’s special issue on “La présence jersiaise en Gaspésie,” under the authorship of John P. LeGarignon, is of particular interest: vol.16, nos.2–3 (1978), 49–199. Books, articles, and theses on regional and local history also contain much information, especially Paul Charest, “Le peuplement permanent de la Basse Côte Nord,” Recherches sociographiques, vols.1–2 (1970), 9–90; Marc Desjardins and Yves Frenette, Histoire de la Gaspésie (Montreal, 1981); C. Grant Head, Eighteenth Century Newfoundland: A Geographer’s Perspective (Toronto, 1976); J.J. Manion, ed., The Peopling of Newfoundland: Essays in Historical Geography (St. John’s, 1977); Stephen J. Hornsby, Nineteenth-Century Cape Breton: A Historical Geography (Montreal, 1992); and Anselme Chiasson, Chéticamp: History and Acadian Traditions (St. John’s, 1986).
The aspect of this history that has been most extensively written about is the role of the Jersey and Guernsey companies in the development of Atlantic Canada. First, there are the letters, account books, and other documents generated by the entrepreneurs and the people who worked for them. These documents are contained in archives in the Channel Islands and several Canadian provinces. The most significant source consists of the papers of Charles Robin and Company, and these are in the National Archives of Canada. Reports of the fisheries departments of the Atlantic provinces and Quebec also contain valuable material.
Any list of studies of the role of the Channel Island entrepreneurs needs to begin with Harold Innis’s classic The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy (Toronto, 1940). There are also a number of specialized works on the Jersey companies: A.C. Saunders, Jersey in the 18th and 19th Centuries (Jersey, 1930); André Lepage, “Le capitalisme marchand et la pêche à la morue en Gaspésie: la Charles Robin Company dans la baie des Chaleurs, 1820–1870” (Ph.D. thesis, Laval University, 1983); Roch Samson, Pêcheurs et marchands de la baie de Gaspé au XIXe siècle: las rapports de production entre la compagnie William Hyman et ses pêcheurs-clients (Ottawa, 1984); and Rosemary Ommer, From Outpost to Outport: A Structural Analysis of the Jersey-Gaspé Cod Fishery, 1767– 1886 (Montreal, 1991). There are articles of varying lengths on the major entrepreneurs in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography (Toronto, 1966– ). The article on the renowned Charles Robin, by David Lee, is in volume 6 (1987), 652–4. Lee has also written a book on the same subject, The Robins in Gaspé, 1766–1825 (Toronto, 1984).
Information can be gleaned as well from contemporary accounts, such as Sir Richard Henry Bonnycastle, The Canadas in 1841 (London, 1841); Thomas Pye, Canadian Scenery: District of Gaspé (Montreal, 1966); and John Mason Clarke, The Heart of Gaspé: Sketches in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (New York, 1913). Finally, there are stimulating reflections on the assimilation of Channel Islanders in Raymond Mougeon, “Malbay: A Sociolinguistic Study” (Ph.D. thesis, McGill University, 1973).