There could have been no lonelier night than the first one ashore in the chosen spot which is now known as Cupids.
The comfort and familiarity of the lush West Country, with its hamlets and candle-lit windows at night, its cottage chimneys curling smoke from glowing turf, coal and wood was far, far away.
Were some of those venturesome men hesitant to leave the bobbing but familiar ship — their home for perhaps six weeks? The shoreline was at least stable — but unknown.
As the first evening came and the light faded behind Cupids harbour, the evergreens would have blackened and the tangible world would have become that of wind and tide and the shouts of labour on a darkened stage.
I do not want imagination to create an incorrect picture. But when we get close to the long-departed as their handiwork returns to the light of day, it is easier to muse on them as real humans, rather than players in an academic tableau.
These were people accustomed to physical work, the kind of demanding tasks that allowed little time for homesickness, even in an age of reflection through poetry and prayer.
Likely they were akin to the same doughty stock as John Guy, who rose from humble ranks and became a company director and mayor of Bristol — a significant rise in those days of the “born great.”
When you look at the large rocks arranged 400 years ago to form a rampart for cannon and a cellar for food (the larder trumped even the house in building priority) you know that these were people with strength and the calloused hands and stooped backs that went with it.
With the detritus of four centuries scooped away, the rocks look as though they were placed there yesterday. Studying them from the boardwalks at the Cupids dig site, staring down into those neat grids which define the current work, you can suddenly feel that those people — born in the reign of Elizabeth I and who sailed in the time of James I — are not so very far away from you.
But you can also experience the opposite. How thoroughly the land obscures the scars we leave. How determined time is to place things behind it. A panel board depicts the roughly L-shaped house built by the colonists. And there were other structures: a mill, a forge, other cellars.
Yet time’s tools of water, wind, frost, erosion and dead plants are constantly employed so that even long before our time all of this infrastructure was hidden. When lead archeologist William Gilbert wrote (Riddle Fence, No. 6, 2010) about a 1995 survey at Cupids, he in fact showed how thoroughly hidden it was: “We narrowed down the location and after eight days found the site on a dry, level terrace at the bottom of Cupids Harbour.”
An indicator of how painstaking is the work of recovering the past here may be gathered from the fact that this discovery was 15 years ago and the work continues today.
What constitutes a failed settlement?
In the above-mentioned publication, there was an inserted sheet where Roy Dawe, chairman of Cupids 400 Inc., had argued against calling Guy’s colony “failed,” as editor Mark Callanan had done ever so casually. Dawe penned a very readable case. Gilbert’s article in that same magazine corrects a century-old mistake of the same nature by our too-celebrated historian Daniel Woodley Prowse.
Callanan was in good company: Prowse, in 1895, and two years later our renowned Moses Harvey in 1897, when he wrote a little book to celebrate Newfoundland in the context of Victoria’s diamond jubilee.
After naming the high and mighty who were “associated with the enterprise” at Cupids, Harvey wrote, “Guy was appointed governor of the proposed colony and came out with a body of settlers; but this attempt also proved a failure.” His use of “also” was in reference to Virginia, as he wrote, “but neither was this attempt successful at first.” Harvey does not provide proof of failure. The argument is far stronger for success.
Communities evolve (Harbour Grace was once more important than St. John’s), but as they tend to wax and wane, it’s a risky practice to start fixing “failure” points.
Cupids in my youth was hopelessly ho-hum. Today it is nothing short of amazing how history is becoming a new and potent economic driver for the town.
If in the coming years Cupids receives only a fraction of the money poured into the site of the first French settlement in North America (Quebec was founded by Champlain in 1608), what it will be in time is truly fair ground for today’s imagination.
Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist who has always been intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.