TAVERNER, WILLIAM, planter, trader, and surveyor; b. possibly in Bay de Verde, Nfld., about 1680, perhaps the son of William Taverner, a planter; d. probably at Poole, Dorset, England, 7 July 1768.
Information about William Taverner’s early life is difficult to find and substantiate. Apparently he was a member of the Taverner family of Poole and Bay de Verde, Nfld. – a moderately well-off group which divided its time between Poole and Newfoundland. From at least 1698 he was owner of a plantation in St John’s. A document found in Dorset mentions that another planter’s son, John Masters, was apprenticed to William about 1700–1. In 1702 William is mentioned as a planter of Trinity and a trader from Poole to Trinity. It appears that he captained Newfoundland fishing vessels and led a privateering raid on the French fisheries. About 1705 he was able to move his wife Rachel and his family to Poole and to live there himself during the winters. By that time he owned one small vessel, the William.
William Taverner and his brother, Abraham, emerge in 1708 as opponents of Major Thomas Lloyd*, commander of the Newfoundland garrison. Abraham, an obscure figure, was Newfoundland agent for the London merchant, James Campbell, who had extensive plantations at Bay de Verde. Campbell was financial agent in London for Captain John Moody* who had been commander of the Newfoundland garrison during Lloyd’s absence in 1704–5 and who was an avowed adversary of Lloyd. Although many of the Newfoundland planters tried to keep away from both Lloyd and Moody, William Taverner led a group which, early in 1708, complained about Lloyd’s exploitation of the colonists.
By 1712 he began to present memoranda to the Board of Trade on the French possessions in Newfoundland and elsewhere on the Gulf of St Lawrence. Some of his London associates regarded him, by 1713, as an expert on the location, character, and potentialities of the fishery based at Placentia (formerly Plaisance) and extending to southwest Newfoundland, an area ceded to Great Britain by the treaty of Utrecht. Taverner had also been involved in a plan to develop cod fisheries in the Newfoundland manner on the northwest coast of Scotland, a venture by the London fish merchants who found the war interfered with the Newfoundland fishery.
On 21 July 1713 Taverner was commissioned as “Surveyor of such part of the coast of Newfoundland and the Islands adjacent as the French have usually fished upon and wherewith our subjects are at present unacquainted.” Frequently consulted by the Board of Trade during the next eight months, he was able to pass on useful information as well as advice about the situation in the newly acquired territories. When Taverner arrived at Placentia on 27 June 1714, Lieutenant-Colonel Moody, who had been designated deputy governor of Placentia, put a ship at his disposal to begin the survey. On 23 July Taverner set out to discover the nature and extent of the outlying French settlements on the island of Saint-Pierre and elsewhere, to report what French ships were fishing, and to carry through a charting operation designed to provide sailing information for English fishermen.
The transition from French to British control was difficult; the French under the supervision of Philippe Pastour* de Costebelle were evacuating the population to Île Royale (Cape Breton Island) and threatening those who remained and took the oath of allegiance that they would be treated as traitors. At Saint-Pierre Taverner had a lively summer trying to impose the oath of allegiance on the French. He had some trouble too with one William Cleeves of Poole over the sale of salt, and was accused by him of charging the French for surveying their plantations, of compounding with French ships which came to trade, and of engaging in trade on his own account, sending home, for example, ten hogsheads of oil to Poole. On 22 Sept. 1714 Taverner returned to Placentia and made a full and interesting report. He thought the possibilities of exploiting the salmon fishery were good and was most optimistic about building up a fur trade, having engaged a Canadian with a knowledge of Indian languages to make contacts for him.
Meantime, back in England, there was some discussion about whether Taverner’s appointment should be continued: the fishing ports wished the survey completed, though only the Londoners named Taverner as surveyor, so it may be the accusation made in 1715 that he was appointed to serve sectional interests (those of the Londoners against the Westerners) had some foundation. Many Western merchants protested that Taverner was unqualified for the surveying work. William Cleeves’ complaints caused Taverner’s wife some anxiety but she put up a spirited defence of her husband and pointed out that his salary of 20 shillings a day had not been paid, so that she was in grave financial difficulties. The arrival in February 1715 of his report together with his “new chart of the islands and harbor of St. Peter’s [Saint-Pierre], with the island of Columba and the adjacent rocks,” stifled criticism and led to his getting his salary, expenses, and – most important – reappointment. Taverner continued his work in 1715. With his second report was a “new chart or map of Newfoundland from Cape St. Mary’s to Cape Lahun [Cape La Hune],” which it was suggested should be published at public expense.
In the winter of 1715–16 Taverner was again in England explaining to the Board of Trade the complex position of the former French coasts. At Placentia Moody had bought foreshore rights from departing French settlers, and Taverner had made similar purchases on Saint-Pierre despite the fact that this action was in direct defiance of the policy of the Committee for Trade and Plantations. Consequently Taverner and Moody deprived the English fishing captains of the free “fishing rooms” – spaces for handling and drying the fish – to which they claimed they were entitled. Taverner maintained that he had protected the handful of French who remained at Saint-Pierre from intimidation by William Cleeves and others, and had left adequate “fishing rooms” free for such vessels as appeared. Taverner seems to have convinced the Board of Trade that the charges against him were exaggerated, it being understood that he might have to make some money to supplement his irregularly paid salary but that he ought not to oppress his countrymen in the process. He returned to Newfoundland on 8 March 1716. In 1718 the Board of Trade reported his services were satisfactory and it seems that in this year he wound up his survey of the former French possessions in Newfoundland and was paid off.
From 1718 to 1725 it seems probable that he fished and traded annually from Poole with the Placentia–Saint-Pierre region. In March 1726 he was involved with other Poole merchants (having apparently cut his links with the Londoners) in a plan to develop the salmon fisheries of southern Newfoundland. He offered to combine a reconnaissance of the fishery, which he was about to make, with a survey of the west and northwest coasts of Newfoundland. He had earlier drawn attention to the continued French and Basque presence on the south coast near Cape Ray, but the west coast was still unknown to the English. He undertook at his former rate of pay to complete a survey in two and half years. This time his plans were supported by both London and Westerners, showing that the value of his earlier work was appreciated by the fishing interests; his plans were also endorsed by the Board of Trade. This second survey, carried out between 1726 and 1728, has not left much in the way of documentation, but as a result he was able to disturb the virtual monopoly held by the Basques on the west coast fishery. He also had begun to engage experimentally in fishing and trade in the area.
By 1729 Taverner was operating on his own account also in the Strait of Belle Isle and met some resistance from Breton fishermen at Cap de Grat (Cape Bauld). At this time he evidently resided in St. John’s for part of the summer and his attempt to collect rents from some properties he had earlier held caused trouble. He proposed to sail right round Newfoundland in 1730, hoping for some financial assistance from the government. It is unlikely that he obtained further subsidies, though he continued his trade with the outlying parts of Newfoundland. Taverner made an important report early in 1734, showing that the French sent Indian hunting parties in winter from Île Royale to western Newfoundland, thus prejudicing the English market for furs, and that a settlement of French runaways had grown up at Port aux Basques, which was becoming a centre for illegal trade by the French in fish, oil, and furs. He was anxious that this should be stopped, and suggested he be appointed to do it. His offer was not taken up, but Lord Muskerry, who was going out as governor, was told to instruct the French to leave and to expel them if necessary. It was perhaps thought that Taverner was getting rather old for further services, and indeed he is found in 1739 asking for a gratuity for what he had done.
The outbreak of war with Spain and the growth of friction with France led the fishing interests early in 1740 to raise the question of further fortifications in Newfoundland, and Taverner appeared for the last time before the Board on 14 Feb. 1740 to give his advice. He presented an elaborate review of the fishery 1736–39, showing that it represented a turnover of £227,000 per annum, and employed 8,000 men and 21,500 tons of shipping so that it deserved full protection.
William Taverner was a remarkably regular and persistent trader in the fishery and his ships can be traced back and forward across the Atlantic to the mid-1750s. By this time his son William was also a ship’s captain and an agent for some of the Poole merchants trading to Trinity. In 1762 the son was a signatory to a petition concerning the French capture of part of Newfoundland. The father’s signature does not appear and one presumes that he was no longer active.
William Taverner did good work in opening up the former French shore in southern Newfoundland to the knowledge of Englishmen, though his surveys were, after 1714, verbal reports rather than sailing charts, and it is not known how efficient a cartographer he was. He also pioneered English trade and fishery in the French areas and was the first to make effective use of the west coast, which Englishmen had avoided.
PRO, CO 326/15 (Ind. 8315), p.13, no.6 (F. A. Assiotti, “List of maps,” ms list, 1780, records the chart of Saint-Pierre as published, but no copy of it, nor of the subsequent chart, has been located). PRO, CO 194/10, ff.86, 116; CSP, Col., 1706–8, 1708–9, 1712–14, 1714–15, 1716–17, 1717–18, 1722–23, 1726–27, 1728–29, 1730, 1734–35; CTP, 1708–14; JTP, 1704–1708/9, 1708/9–1714/15, 1714/15–1718, 1722/23–1728, 1728/29–1734, 1734/35–1741. A. M. Field, “The development of government in Newfoundland, 1638–1713” (unpublished ma thesis, University of London, 1924). Lounsbury, British fishery at Nfld. Keith Matthews, “A history of the west of England-Newfoundland fishery” (unpublished phd thesis, University of Oxford, 1968). Janet Paterson, “The history of Newfoundland, 1713–63” (unpublished ma thesis, University of London, 1931). J. D. Rogers, Newfoundland (C. P. Lucas, Historical geography of the British colonies (dominions), V, pt.iv, Oxford, 1911; 2nd ed., 1931).