Friday, January 10, 2014

Winter's Food Supply

During his initial years establishing the cod fishery in the Bay of Chaleur, Charles Robin (1743-1824) kept a journal in which he recorded his observations and reflections on daily life. Normally, these entrepreneurial Englishmen returned to Jersey for the winter, but because the company had already established a permanent fishing station in Cape Breton at Arichat, a few of the men, including Charles, stayed for the winter and did whatever work they could. For the most part this meant chopping wood and carrying out routine maintenance. In fact, as the journal entries show, most of their energy was expended in staying alive. Of course, that meant protecting whatever food they had grown or caught before winter arrived from the threats of the weather and the various predators and vermin that were equally occupied with trying to stay alive. As this entry from December 19, 1768 illustrates, even when an adequate food supply has been gathered and stored, the struggle to maintain it can be fierce:
This evening put some poison mixed with vinegar and molasses, in the store, fish house, underground cellar, and our house, having secured everything in the best manner we could. I can no longer have the patience to see the rats destroying everything. We found five drowned in the pickle of the pork barrel, near a dozen starved in a hogshead where we had some greens which they destroyed in spite of us, a keg of oil eaten through and part of the oil gone, a moose skin entirely eaten up. In our cellar they destroy what little potatoes and turnips we have although we cover well the barrels. They cut holes through every night and in the fish house they are tearing the fish in pieces.  
As winter progressed, and weather permitted, the men moved around among the small communities that had been established in the Canso area, in part for companionship, but more importantly to trade for foodstuffs that were either running out, or completely exhausted. Everywhere they went, they encountered others facing the same challenges, with some having reached an extreme state of desperation. The following journal entry from April 29, 1769 demonstrates the extent of the toll that winter had taken: 
I went on board the New England vessels, to try to get some bread, but they could not spare me any, having given already some to two or three families at Canso, who have wintered at Crow Harbour in Chedabouctou, but were obliged to leave that place about six weeks ago for want of provisions after having eaten all their dogs and cats - they had a young mulatto girl, whom they were going to kill had not a boat come to their assistance.