What natural resources served as the basis for the economic activities of early Canada and British North America (before 1840), and how did the nature of these resources affect the societies that developed upon them?
Until the invasion of European invaders, Native aboriginal people very much depended “on the resources of the region in which they lived and the precise combination of survival skills they possessed” (Bumsted 2002:5). This naturally, reflected on the “reciprocal relationship” that they shared with the English settlers. Initially, in the year 1577, rock and soil samples from Baffin Island set off speculation that they were “gold bearing” (Bumsted 2002:15). But, soon the contrary was found to be true. By the nineteen century, between 1815-40 more precisely, it was well established that, there were four main natural resources in the new world, and namely 1) fish and 2) fur 3) timber and 4) grain – mainly wheat. As an offshoot of business economy generated by these natural resources, shipping and ship building industries developed.
Cod fishing was carried out mainly in Newfoundland, and by 1815 the harvesting of Cod hit a stagnant phase. However, the abundance of fish led to other changes. For example, until then, smaller vessels were used to transport cargo. But the plentiful catch ensured that more shipping was done to carry the harvest out of the region.
Fur was one trade in which British North America could defeat competition from others. Though it had very little economic value by the nineteenth century, it did have a “non-economic” value of sorts, which was building relationship with the Native aboriginal population of the region. More importantly, it helped Great Britain retain its sovereign hold on almost the entire region of what is Canada today. “Fur trading stabilized” by the year 1821, “under the aegis of Hudson’s Bay Company” (Bumsted 2002:124). Sealing was resorted to, for their skins. Jukes (1842:82-3) gives a detailed picture of how seals were easily caught and “skinned”, stating that in one instance, nearly 2500 seals were caught (cited in Bumsted 2002: 125).
With local timber available, it also spurred the building of larger ships, capable of carrying more cargo, until finally technological advancement made wood obsolete in ship-building. Ultimately, ship-building became the “symbol of the mercantile resource economy’s limitations” (Bumsted 2002:129) as it could not keep pace with the technological progress in the industry, in other parts of the world.
Timber was another resource that was left for the English to indulge in. Areas like Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island were among the first to become involved in the felling and trading of Timber. The trade was greatly helped by the Napoleonic war which resulted in the closure of “the Baltic – the traditional source of British supply” (Bumsted 2002: 126). Saw mill owners and people who controlled timber industry were also powerful politicians of the province, and hence license to fell tress was obtained easily.
The other resource which was plentiful initially, and was however, over exploited by the English immigrants, was grain i.e. wheat. It soon became the most cultivated crop. Wheat harvested was either exported in grain form or, as flour. Lower Canada regions exhausted their soil through over-use, faster than Upper Canada region. However, soon the same problem limited the production of wheat in Upper Canada region too. The booming demand for wheat turned many a farmer into wheat experts (Bumsted 2002:127). Banking industry was slow to develop, and Bank of Montreal came into existence in 1817.
One can conclude that, prior to the 1840s the economy of British North America was mostly based on merchandise, and largely relied on natural resources of the region. The over-use of these resources and the lack of technological up-gradation led to their limited success in the later years.
Bumsted, J.M (2002). A History of the Canadian Peoples. Oxford University Press.
Jukes, J.B. (1842). Excursions in and about Newfoundland. London.