A Newfoundland PLANTER as
described by Governor Hamilton to
Viscount Melville at the Admiralty, October 18, 1820:
"Almost every fifth fisherman is what is termed a Planter, particularly in the outports of the Island. This means a man who has a boat of his own, which he employs during the fishing season to catch fish for himself. These he cures on his flakes; and when dry and fit for market, he carries them to the merchant, in lieu of the supplies furnished his family thro' the year. The boat is usually manned
with four men, either from his own family or servants, the latter of whom are paid at the rate of about ten to fifteen or even twenty pounds each for the season, five months, and found in provisions. In lieu of servants the planter sometimes has what is called a shareman, which means a man who does not have wages or provisions, but claims one half of the fish taken by himself, which he cures and disposes of as he pleases."
In Newfoundland the term planter has several meanings, but was used most often to refer to the owner of fishing premises (a ``plantation'') or a vessel. In the early 1600s, a resident fisherman (as opposed to an English migratory fisherman) was considered a planter.
William Vaughan used the word in this sense in his Golden Fleece;``And likewise the planters themselves may fish for Cod there a moneth before our English men can arrive thither'' (1626). By the late 1700s and early 1800s a system of credit supply had become established in the Island fishery which gave rise to the more commonly understood meaning of planter -- the owner of a fishing vessel. Yet the concept of planter was somewhat ambiguous, as reflected in the term planter-fisherman.
The planter system in practice is illustrated by an account given by Philip Henry Gosse qv, a clerk with Slade, Elson and Company in 1828. In 1828 there were approximately 70 planters in Carbonear out of a total population of roughly 2500, and a third of these dealt with Slade, Elson and Company. In preparation for the March seal hunt, the planters received equipment and supplies on credit from the merchants. The planter then hired a crew from fishermen registered with the firm. At the end of the season the proceeds of the hunt were divided into shares. The merchant and planter each received a third of the proceeds, and the remainder was divided among the crew.
Throughout the 1800s planters comprised a more or less distinct social class in Newfoundland between the often wealthy English merchants and ordinary fishermen. Some people in this ``middle class'' were quite prosperous, many becoming involved in the political affairs of the Island. But others were less fortunate. Planters were neither importers nor exporters and so had no control over the prices of supplies or catches. Like ordinary fishermen, they were dependent on the vagaries of weather, ice, bait supply and market conditions, and were often in debt to the merchants. Functioning between merchants and ordinary fishermen, the planter played an important role into the twentieth century when the credit system began to decline.
In Labrador, the term planter could take on slightly different meanings. A planter could be any Newfoundland fisherman who came to Labrador for the summer fishery, operating from a ``station'' or ``room'' (premises) on the coast. As the resident population of Labrador grew, a planter could be a settler of European or mixed European and Inuit descent who was engaged in the fishery or in trapping.
Newfoundland and Labrador, Harry Cuff Publications, 1998.