OSBORN (Osborne), HENRY, naval officer and governor of Newfoundland; baptized 27 Aug. 1694, second son of Sir John Osborn and his second wife Martha Kelynge; m. Mary Hughes, and they had two sons and three daughters; d. 4 Feb. 1771 in London, England.
Henry Osborn entered the Royal Navy as a volunteer and in July 1717 was promoted lieutenant. Before he was appointed to the command of his first ship, the Squirrel, on 4 Jan. 1727/28, he served on board several famous vessels. In one of these, the Royal Oak, he saw action at the battle of Cape Passero, Sicily, in 1718. His appointment in 1729 as the first governor of Newfoundland was to involve him in conflict of a very different kind.
During the 17th century there had been increasing competition each fishing season between the West Country, or transient, fishermen and the inhabitants of Newfoundland over the possession of the best fishing “rooms” on the island. The act 10–11 William III, c.25, passed in 1698, attempted to remedy this problem by ordering that the transients were to have first possession of rooms each year; it assigned the settlement of disputes to fishing “admirals,” each of whom received this responsibility by being the first transient to enter a harbour in any year. The act had tacitly assumed that the population of Newfoundland would decrease when the transients were given more advantages in the fishery, but the War of the Spanish Succession hindered the activities of the fishing fleets and the island’s population actually increased. In the years after the treaty of Utrecht in 1713 the inhabitants not only generally disregarded the act but were lawless, especially during the winter. To remedy this situation, which was unfavourable for the fishery, the government decided in April 1729 to establish a governorship over the island. But instead of appointing a “Person skill’d in the Laws,” as had been recommended, it chose Osborn and thus commenced a system of naval rulers which was to last until 1841. Osborn’s authority was far from extensive: he was given the power to appoint civil magistrates, but he was not to contravene the act of 1698, and he was to defer to Lord Vere Beauclerk, the commodore of the squadron which sailed to Newfoundland each year for the protection of the fisheries.
Osborn began his governorship in the fishing season of 1729 by visiting all the principal places on the island. He then divided Newfoundland into six districts and appointed for each constables and magistrates with authority to function during the winter season [see William Keen*]. There were no persons on the island skilled in civil government, and Osborn had to make the best choices possible from a limited number of settlers, who were not always willing to place duty before self-interest. In addition, the fishing admirals refused to accept the authority of the magistrates, whom they dubbed “winter justices.” Osborn, who remained in Newfoundland as governor only during the summer fishing season, was dismayed on his return in 1730 to discover that the magistrates had been intimidated almost to inaction by the aggressive conduct of the admirals.
Among Osborn’s instructions was one empowering him to select places for court houses and jails, but no money was provided for him to construct needed buildings. To raise these funds Osborn therefore imposed a tax of fish on each vessel. The legality of this action was challenged by the transient fishermen, although fortunately for Osborn not in the British courts, since he would then have faced prosecution. Osborn and Beauclerk appealed to the Board of Trade for a decision. It approved Osborn’s action in the one instance only because of the necessity and because the action had not been challenged in British courts. The decision was a poor consolation for the risks taken. The obvious solution for the difficulty was a proper civil government for the island, but the probability of strong West Country parliamentary opposition to such a move made it beyond practical politics at the time.
In the autumn of 1730 the Board of Trade took up Osborn’s request for a ruling on the conflicting jurisdictions of the fishing admirals and the magistrates. According to the legal advice it obtained, the admirals’ authority was limited to disputes concerning property in fishing rooms and other conveniences under the act of 1698, and there was no contradiction between their powers and those of the magistrates; moreover, the establishment of magistrates was found not to contravene the act of 1698. As a result of this ruling the government became more willing to support the governor’s authority against the criticisms of the West Country merchants.
Osborn did not relinquish his governorship until June 1731 because of a delay in preparing the commission of his successor, George Clinton*. He then returned to his normal duties as a naval officer, in which he experienced the most successful part of his career. Promoted admiral of the blue in February 1757, the following year he commanded the squadron which captured the Marquis Duquesne’s ship and obliged another French force to abandon its attempt to reach Louisbourg, Île Royale (Cape Breton Island). The inability of the French to reinforce the fortress was undoubtedly a major factor in its fall to Jeffery Amherst the same year. Osborn’s active naval service ended in July 1758 when he suffered a paralysing stroke. He was nevertheless promoted vice-admiral of England in January 1763, and he represented Bedfordshire in parliament from 1758 to 1761. A contemporary opinion of his character was given by John Charnock who praised his bravery and devotion to his country but considered him to have been of “a cold, saturnine disposition, ill-habituated to the warmth of sincere friendship.”
National Maritime Museum, CAL/1–6. Charnock, Biographia navalis, IV, 199–203. DNB. R. H. Bonnycastle, Newfoundland in 1842; a sequel to “The Canadas in 1841” (2v., London, 1842), I, 88–103. R. G. Lounsbury, The British fishery at Newfoundland, 1634–1763 (New Haven, Conn., 1934; repr. New York, 1969), 275–83. Prowse, History of Nfld. (1895), 286–89. John Reeves, History of the government of the island of Newfoundland . . . (London, 1793; repr. New York and East Ardsley, Eng., 1967), 62–101.