DARBY, NICHOLAS, ship captain and merchant; b. c. 1720; m. 4 July 1749 Hatty Vanacott of Bridgwater, England, and they had one son and one daughter; d. 5 Dec. 1785 in Russia.

From an early age Nicholas Darby was engaged in the Newfoundland fishing trade as a ship captain, particularly along the northern coasts of the island. He may have been born in St John’s and was certainly living there in 1758, when he joined with other merchants in subscribing for the building of a new church for Edward Langman, the Church of England missionary in St John’s. Darby had strong connections with the West Country and probably resided in Bristol during the winter.

Towards the end of the Seven Years’ War the British government asked merchants trading to Newfoundland for advice about the future defence of the island. Darby was sent by the Society of Merchant Venturers of Bristol to present its views to the Board of Trade, and he gave a detailed account of French fishing operations on the French Shore north of Cape Bonavista and their trade with the Labrador Inuit. In 1763 Darby himself took part in the fishery north of Cape Bonavista as part-owner of a vessel fitted out from Bristol.

In 1765 Darby embarked on a scheme that, as his daughter later wrote, was “as wild and romantic as it was perilous to hazard”: the establishment of seal, salmon, and cod fishing posts on the southern coast of Labrador around the Strait of Belle Isle, territory that had been British only since 1763. With 150 men from England, he made his initial headquarters at Chateau Bay, with which he was familiar.

Darby benefited initially from the policies of Governor Hugh Palliser. Determined to allow only English-based ship fishers on the Labrador coast, in August 1765 Palliser evicted the agent of the Quebec merchants Daniel Bayne* and William Brymer from their post at Cape Charles. The fishing station was then given to Darby, who made it his headquarters and constructed lodgings, a workshop, and a fishing stage. He also established fishing crews at other likely places in the region, such as Forteau and Île aux Bois (Que.).

Although Darby found the Labrador fisheries extremely productive, he soon encountered difficulties. His men refused to winter on the coast, and pillaging Inuit burnt houses and boats and destroyed his salt. Undaunted, he formed a partnership with Michael Miller, a Bristol merchant, and sailed to Labrador in the summer of 1766 with 180 men and ships and equipment worth over £8,000. Palliser built and garrisoned a blockhouse known as York Fort at Chateau Bay for his protection, and some of Darby’s men agreed to stay the winter. But he and his crews lacked the experience and technical knowledge necessary for successful sealing and found, as the Quebec merchants had before them, that experienced Canadians and permanent possession of the sealing places were required. In spite of financial losses, Darby was able to bring out 160 men in 1767, but he had difficulty controlling unruly crews and began to run foul of the authorities. In August, for instance, Palliser ordered the arrest of ten of his men on murder charges arising from fights at the posts.

The Cape Charles fishery ended abruptly in November 1767 when a band of Inuit, apparently seeking revenge for depredations by New England whalers, attacked a crew preparing for winter sealing. They killed three men, drove the rest off, stole some boats, and burnt vessels and equipment worth more than £4,000 [see Francis Lucas*]. Darby’s losses resulted in the dissolution of his partnership with Miller and in the scattering of his family. The house in Bristol had to be sold and the family moved to London. The children were placed in boarding schools, and without his knowledge Darby’s wife started a small school to earn money, which hurt and offended the proud man. He repeatedly petitioned the Privy Council for compensation, but without result.

By 1769, however, Darby was zealously promoting yet another scheme for exploiting the Labrador fisheries, and with the help of friends he was able to fit out a vessel from London. This time he hired four experienced Canadians for help in the winter fishery. It was a great success, and by the summer of 1770 Darby had seal oil and skins worth almost £1,000 ready for market. On 11 August, however, Lieutenant Samuel Davys of York Fort arrived at Darby’s post at Forteau and seized all his goods and equipment on the grounds that he was illegally employing Frenchmen and using French-built equipment. George Cartwright*, who had taken over Darby’s old post at Cape Charles, supplied Davys with a vessel to convey the confiscated goods and the four Canadians to St John’s.

In late October the Canadians appeared before Governor John Byron. Darby, marooned on the Labrador coast, was unable to defend himself, and the oil and sealskins were confiscated. Just as Bayne and Brymer had been evicted in 1765 in his favour, so Darby was in turn displaced, the fruits of his labour falling to officials such as Davys and traders now in official favour such as Cartwright. Eventually arriving back in England, Darby asked the Board of Trade for compensation; he claimed he did not know that his Canadians were French subjects “as has been pretended.” The board decided, however, that it had no jurisdiction in the case. The Court of King’s Bench awarded him £650 damages against Davys, an inadequate sum and in any case uncollectable.

Darby may have visited the Labrador coast after 1770; little is known of his later years. His daughter Mary, as the famous Perdita, swept the London stage and was briefly the mistress of the Prince of Wales. Contracting rheumatic fever at 24, she became an invalid and supported herself by writing poems and stories. According to her Memoirs, Darby commanded a small armed ship during the American revolution and later, at the age of 62, entered the Russian navy, dying three years later.

An able and courageous seaman, Darby was a pioneer in the attempt to establish a year-round fishery on the Labrador coast. However, his poor relations with the Inuit and his lack of technical knowledge of the winter fishery inevitably brought conflict and ruin. Later entrepreneurs were able to avoid these pitfalls at least in part: Cartwright, for example, gained the trust of the Inuit. It is only fair to add that in the 1770s British officialdom relaxed its tight hold over the Labrador fisheries, allowing traders to operate more freely and permitting them greater proprietary rights in their posts.

William H. Whiteley

BL, Add. mss 35915, ff.92–93. PANL, GN2/2, 20 Sept. 1763, 9, 15 Aug. 1767, 2 Oct. 1770. PRO, CO 194/15, ff.45–46; 194/16; 194/18, ff.82–84; 391/69, ff.310–11; 391/71; 391/78; 391/79; PC 2/113, ff.467, 576. Soc. of Merchant Venturers (Bristol, Eng.), Letterbooks and books of proceedings, 1762–63. George Cartwright, A journal of transactions and events, during a residence of nearly sixteen years on the coast of Labrador . . . (3v., Newark, Eng., 1792). Mary [Darby] Robinson, Memoirs of the late Mrs. Robinson, written by herself, ed. M. E. Robinson (4v., London, 1801), I, 18; II, 22. W. G. Gosling, Labrador: its discovery, exploration, and development (2nd ed., London, 1910). A. M. Lysaght, Joseph Banks in Newfoundland and Labrador, 1766: his diary, manuscripts and collections (London and Berkeley, Calif., 1971).

Cite This Article

William H. Whiteley, “DARBY, NICHOLAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed July 25, 2024, https://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/darby_nicholas_4E.html.

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Permalink:   https://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/darby_nicholas_4E.html
Author of Article:   William H. Whiteley
Title of Article:   DARBY, NICHOLAS
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1979
Year of revision:   1979
Access Date:   July 25, 2024