The discovery of Newfoundland is credited to Sir John Cabot who landed near Cape Bonavista in June 1497. On his return to England he reported the existence of great quantities of fish in the waters surrounding the new island. Within a few years fishermen from all the western European countries were making annual trips to Newfoundland. Although no permanent settlements were made, the temporary summer stations of these men are perpetuated in such names as English Harbour, Frenchman's Arm, Spaniard Bay, Portuguese Cove, Biscay Bay, Port aux Basques and Harbour Breton. Because of its harbour, St. John's very early became the principal fishing port.
For many years no country laid claim to territorial sovereignty but, gradually, the English became most numerous and on August 5, 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert took possession of the island in the name of the English crown. In the year 1600, there were about 10,000 fishermen and 200 ships from England engaged in the Newfoundland fisheries and the total catch was worth about $500,000. In 1610, the first permanent colony was established at Cupids in Conception Bay, by John Guy, a merchant from Bristol. Later this colony was governed by Captain John Mason. Other early attempts at settlement on the Avalon peninsula were the efforts of Sir William Vaughan at Trepassey ( 1617), Lord Falkland's colony at Renews and Sir George Calvert's (afterwards Lord Baltimore) establishment at Ferryland ( 1621). In 1622, many of Sir William Alexander's colonists, en route to Nova Scotia, joined the fishermen at St. John's. By 1629, there were about 350 English families resident between Cape Race and Bonavista. In 1638, the whole colony was given to Sir David Kirke who brought out a hundred colonists to Ferryland. By 1650, the colony contained a population of about 2,000. There were no further official attempts at colonization, in fact, permanent settlement was definitely discouraged because it was felt to be prejudicial to the interests of the fishing fleet from the homeland. This policy, known to historians as "the Old Colonial System", remained in vogue until the 19th century.
In 1662, French fishermen settled at Placentia, on the west side of the Avalon peninsula, where there was an excellent harbour. Here they built forts, maintained garrisons and, by times, waged war on the English colonists. The treaty of Utrecht, in 1713, gave the whole island to Britain and most of the French colonists were removed to Cape Breton. The French, however, retained the fishing rights on the northeastern and western shores, and by the treaty of Paris in 1763, they were given the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon. The French rights to the fisheries were terminated in 1904, in return for territory in Africa, but the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon still belong to France. The general effect of the French treaty rights was to discourage settlement in those parts of the island.
In spite of the early beginnings of colonization the growth of population was very slow and three hundred years after the discovery the island contained less than 25,000 people. The early colonists were mostly from the southwestern parts of England but during the eighteenth century a number of people from the south of Ireland were brought over. The number of Irish immigrants increased greatly during the next century when because of overcrowding and crop failure huge numbers left Ireland for the New World. There were also a few from other parts of the British Isles. Since the early part of the nineteenth century the population of Newfoundland has increased tenfold, but many people born on the island have emigrated to new homes in Canada and the United States.