During early August 2006 I was fortunate to be taken with four members of my family in an open fishing boat along the southern coast of Labrador from Red Bay to Chateau Bay, a bay well known before Cook but excellently charted by him in the autumn of 1763.
Chateau Bay, or York Harbour as it was known to the English, had been recognized during the Seven Years War as a natural base for an English fishery on the Labrador coast. Governor James Webb had in 1760 pursued some French ships off the northern coasts of Newfoundland and reported the discovery of "one of the best harbours in the world, of which I took possession for His Majesty, naming it York Harbour. From this harbour no ship can pass in or out of the straits of Belle Isle but what may be seen." The name "York Harbour" was applied to the whole of Chateau Bay, within which were several arms: Temple Bay, Pitts Harbour, Grenville Harbour, Henley Harbour, and Antelope Harbour. In 1762, Captain Nicholas Darby, who later became a prominent figure in the Labrador fishery, testified that the "Baye de Chateau is one of the finest harbours in the world," and he recommended the building of a fort there.
Cook was also very enthusiastic about the opportunities Chateau Bay offered, "Fishermen would certainly find their account in settling this place as cod and seals are here in great plenty, and Temple Bay and Pitts Harbour will afford timber for building, such as fir, spruce, juniper, and birch. Henley Harbour seems to be the most convenient place for curing of fish and Seal Islands for catching of seals, where there appears to have been a considerable seal fishery."
Cook did not visit Labrador again but without doubt his survey greatly encouraged the establishment of the British fishing base at Chateau Bay and the erection of the fort in 1766.
By coincidence Joseph Banks, who was later to travel with Cook on the Endeavour voyage, was present when this fort was built, being on board the Niger, members of the crew being involved in the building, as is recorded on the plaque now marking the place.
On our voyage we were accompanied by several dolphins and the occasional whale, and were surrounded by birds, but saw absolutely no other boats until we arrived in Henley Harbour. Between Red Bay and Chateau Bay there are no other proper harbours but our skipper, Ellis Stone, generously found us two or three moments of shelter from the sharp head-wind in a couple of coves.
After more than an hour and a half battling the wind we suddenly found ourselves rounding York Point, where we were confronted by a brilliant view of Chateau Bay with two islands standing out on the other side - each with a spectacular basaltic "castle" outlined on the horizon. These castles were of course the reason that Breton fishermen originally called this Harbour "Les Chateaux" and then a little later Basque fishermen called it "Chateo".
Some years ago I found some fascinating early 16th century documents for Chateau Bay, since when my children and grandchildren felt that the harbour was like a historic magnet where they could still meet people who care about the area and who still manage to live here each summer. Many of these people are members of the Stone family and we felt tremendously grateful to Ellis Stone, who was taking us back into history. Ellis had his schooling in Henley Harbour. When that school was built in 1851, there were more than 100 people living at Chateau Bay year-round. Unfortunately, since the government insisted on resettlement, there are now no families living permanently in Chateau Bay. In recent years the road from Red Bay has been extended so that it passes just north of Chateau Bay, past Cape Charles, Battle Harbour and Port Hope Simpson until it reaches Cartwright. Had that road been there some thirty years ago then it is highly likely that Chateau Bay would by now have a historic site as important as Red Bay.
Historic documents exist for Chateo and at least two 16th century shipwrecks are known. One sunk in 1565, the same year as the San Juan in Red Bay, and another in 1572, the Maria of Joanes de Portu. Moreover, the incredible beauty of those columnar cliffs is enough to impress any visitor, even if you have no interest in history.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 15, volume 30, number 2 (2007).
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