Historical fodder: Cannon find fires up historians in Newfoundland

14 Oct 2010

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It was the gun that helped England secure its first foothold in the future Canada four centuries ago.

Now, archeologists in Newfoundland have unearthed the 400-year-old remains of a cannon site built to defend Cupids, the 17th-century colony recently celebrated as Canada's earliest English settlement.

The stone base of the gun battery, discovered last month as part of an ongoing excavation in the historic Conception Bay village, is the most vivid reminder yet of the threats posed to England's fragile New World outpost by pirates and potential rivals from France.

Bill Gilbert, the lead archeologist at Cupids, said historians have long known that "piracy posed a real threat to the fledgling colony" and led its leaders to bolster the settlement's modest defences in 1612, two years after a colonizing party led by John Guy established the community.

France had just planted its flag at Quebec City in 1608. And while fishing fleets from several European nations had been sailing seasonally to Newfoundland for decades to catch cod or whales, the East Coast remained a dangerous frontier where English settlers faced not only foreign foes and pirates but also wary First Nations.

Last fall, the remains of a protective stone wall were discovered north of the original settlement site at Cupids, raising hopes that other defensive installations might be found overlooking the bay.

And that's exactly what happened a few weeks ago.

On Sept. 27, the rocky remnants of the gun base were located at a site offering "a commanding view of the river valley and harbour," said Gilbert.

Notably, the stone structure appears to match references in archival records describing fortification improvements to protect Cupids — known then as Cuper's Cove — from hostile forces.

A letter written on Sept. 3, 1612, by John Slany, the treasurer of the colony, explained how the upgrade of defence works would make Cupids "impregnable" against an attack "if the pirotts return" to menace settlers.

Another letter from colonist Henry Crout also highlighted the danger from "pirrats" and warned Guy that Cupids "should be made strounge" to fend off lawless sailors.

"There were no great riches in Newfoundland to attract pirates, but there were lots of skilled seamen, ships and supplies that came over every year as part of the seasonal migratory cod fishery," Gilbert told Postmedia News.

"Also, there were plenty of good harbours well away from the reach of English or other European authorities, where (the pirates) could rest and repair their vessels."

The most notorious of them was Peter Easton, who is known to have been lurking along Newfoundland's coast in 1612.

"From there, he left in the late summer of 1612 to attack the Spanish silver fleet off the Azores, and retired to the south of France a wealthy man," said Gilbert.

Last November, a few months ahead of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Cupids in August 1610, Prince Charles toured the archeological site and hailed the courage of Guy and his colonists for blazing a trail for Britain's future New World settlers.

"The story of Cupids is the story of Canada," said the future king, whose distant ancestors granted the royal charters securing Britain's claims to Newfoundland and other North American colonies.

"It is emblematic of the resilience and determination of those who came later to these shores in different times and in different circumstances," he noted. "The unifying factor, it seems to me, is that they all came with a purpose, a dream to create something new."

Like the remnants of the earliest French settlements at Saint Croix Island off New Brunswick's southern coast (1604) and at Quebec City, the archeological finds at Cupids represent the beginnings of a permanent European presence in the northern half of the New World.

There are very few archeological sites with older evidence than Cupids of an English presence in North America.

An archeological site on an island near Iqaluit has remains from an Arctic mining expedition headed by English explorer Martin Frobisher in the 1570s.

Remnants of Virginia's original Jamestown settlement date from 1607.

There are also plans in the works by Canadian and British experts to search the shoreline near Carbonear, N.L., for traces of a church or other buildings that may have been erected in the years following Anglo-Italian explorer John Cabot's 1497 discovery of a "new founde land" on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean.

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