Below is an abbreviated history of Battle Harbour. If you would like to learn more detail on the Labrador fishery and Battle Harbour’s tremendous role in that endeavour, check out this link to an article produced by The Rooms. Fishing the Labrador Coast includes many photos of Historic Battle Harbour.
Battle Harbour: A quick overview
The record of people in the Battle Harbour area goes back thousands of years. The first humans arrived in southern Labrador almost 9000 years ago. Archaeological evidence suggests that these people were descended from Palaeo-Indians (palaeo old), the first human occupants of the hemisphere.
Over time, these first settlers developed a culture that was strongly dependent upon the resources of the sea, and as a result archaeologists refer to these people as members of the Maritime Archaic tradition, which is recognizable by about 7500 years ago in Labrador and about 5000 years ago on the island of Newfoundland. The Maritime Archaic tradition disappears from the archaeological record by about 3000 years ago.
About 4000 years ago, a people archaeologists call Palaeo-Eskimos reached northern Labrador, and sometime before 3000 years ago they reached the island portion of the province. The last of the Palaeo-Eskimos appear to have died out before 1000 years ago on the island and a few centuries later in Labrador.
The ancestors of the Labrador Inuit are a people archaeologists call the Thule. The earliest Thule sites in northern Labrador are dated to 700 to 800 BP and within a few centuries the Thule had occupied the coast of Labrador.
The historic record shows evidence of hostility between the Inuit and Europeans after the latter arrived to Labrador in the mid-1500’s. One common theory for the name “Battle Harbour” comes from battles between the Inuit and Europeans, including the British in the area. In 1765 the British-Inuit Treaty was signed in Chateau Bay,40 kilometres from Battle Harbour. This agreement was ended a decade of strife and loss of life between the warring “nations.” The Treaty allowed the British to engage in a seasonal commercial fishery in Inuit territory while the Inuit retained all rights and ownership of their land. This territory is now known as NunatuKavut and is inhabited by the descendants of the Treaty – the Southern Inuit.
While an exact date of Battle Harbour as a fishing station has not been established, it is known that the firm of John Slade & Company of Poole, England was using the island in 1771, and may have been doing so as early as 1750. At that time, being located on the southeast coast of Labrador, Battle Harbour was the natural stopover for ships heading north “On the Labrador.” Battle Harbour soon became the unofficial capital of Labrador.
The town grew rapidly and by 1848, Church of England Bishop Field estimated a population of 350 people and commissioned the building of a school and a church. St. James the Apostle Church, designed by the noted ecclesiastical architect William Grey, was consecrated in 1857. It is the only surviving example of Grey’s work.
Dr. Wilfred Grenfell visited Battle Harbour in 1892 as part of the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen (later the International Grenfell Association). Concerned that such a large population had no medical facilities, Dr. Grenfell established his first hospital, the first one in the province outside of St. John’s.
The Canadian Marconi Company built two wireless towers at Battle Harbour, the only telegraph station in Labrador to operate all year long. Stan Brazill – was one of its most famous operators. This station became a part of history in 1909, when the famed Arctic explorer, Robert E. Peary, having visited Battle Harbour on several of his northern expeditions with Captain Bob Bartlett, used it to wire his claim of reaching the North Pole to the New York Times.
The Newfoundland Rangers kept the peace in Battle Harbour over the early years. In 1950, after Newfoundland joined Confederation with Canada, Constable Robert Forward initiated a Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment on the island.
Battle Harbour operated without significant change through the sale of the site to Baine Johnston and Company in 1871, and then to Earle Freighting Service Limited of Carbonear in 1955. Some residents moved to mainland communities like Mary’s Harbour. When fire destroyed Dr. Grenfell’s hospital on Battle Island in 1930, it was rebuilt in Mary’s Harbour.
The remaining residents of Battle Harbour were eventually moved in the government relocation programs of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many families kept summer houses at Battle Harbour and still go there today. The Earles continued to operate the site in much the same manner as always until the cod moratorium and the final decline of the inshore fishery in 1990. At that time the family generously donated the site to the newly formed Battle Harbour Historic Trust.
During the following two decades, Gordon C. Slade, founding Chair and Managing Director of the Battle Harbour Historic Trust (BHHT), led the restoration of the fishing community’s buildings, wharves and flakes to their original state. He and the BHHT worked relentlessly to promote the site’s heritage and tourism value, and in 1997, Battle Harbour was recognized as one of Canada’s National Historic Districts – the only one where a visitor can spend the night. Slade’s initiative and efforts to preserve this traditional fishing village were further recognized in 2002 with the awarding of a Gold Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographic Society.