WEBB, JAMES, naval officer, governor of Newfoundland; b. probably in England; d. 14 May 1761 at Plymouth Sound, England.
James Webb served in the Royal Navy as a volunteer on the Success in 1728. He was made a frigate captain in 1746 after distinguishing himself by capturing many French privateers. Early in the Seven Years’ War Webb held a series of commands – the Speedwell, Sunderland, St Albans, and Hampton Court – and again proved effective in hunting down enemy ships. He was appointed governor of Newfoundland and commander of the annual squadron in May 1760, arriving in St John’s at the end of June on the Antelope. In August he sailed in quest of hostile ships fishing on the French shore, and in Noddy Harbour (near Quirpon, on the northern tip of the island) he quickly captured a French privateer, the Tavignon, with 3,600 quintals of fish, and burnt French boats and stages.
Shortly thereafter three Labrador Eskimos captured in the Strait of Belle Isle were brought to Webb, who treated them kindly and took them to Chateau Bay. His gifts to them included “some tallow to eat, it being a delicious dish to them as they are actually Canibals.” Subsequently over 20 canoes of Eskimos came to Chateau with whalebone to trade. Webb sealed a pact of friendship with a “King’s Son” by the present of an old deck awning. He described Chateau Bay as “one of the best harbours I ever see in my life nor can a ship go in or out the Straits but must be seen from thence,” and formally took possession of it for the crown, renaming it York Harbour and carefully charting its many arms.
Newfoundland in 1760 was peaceful and fairly prosperous. A permanent population of some 8,000 persons was mainly settled around the Avalon peninsula; 1,000 persons lived in St John’s. In July and September Webb held court there, hearing disputes arising from the fishery. He appointed magistrates and surrogates to administer justice in the outports, tried to suppress illegal trade, confirmed the land titles of several merchants and settlers, and sought a measure of justice for maltreated employees of fish merchants.
Early in November Webb escorted the laden fishing ships to Spanish and Portuguese markets. Webb was thanked by the British traders at Lisbon “for the great care he has taken of the Newfoundland trade this year, expressed to us by every Master of the merchant ships.” By mid February 1761 the Antelope was once again at Portsmouth. Webb busied himself refitting his squadron for the 1761 season, but later in February had to consult doctors in London, being “much afflicted with an nervous gouty disorder in my head, and have been so most all the voyage.” With country air he was able to rejoin his ship in mid March, and on 1 May reported to the admiralty from Plymouth that he was almost ready to sail. Fourteen days later he was dead
Webb and his family resided in Plympton, a small market town near Plymouth. He was apparently a man of considerable property, with substantial sums invested in stocks, perhaps the proceeds of prize money won over the years. His property was left to his wife Grace and his only child, a daughter.
James Webb was the right governor for Newfoundland in these times, when the chief need was effective naval protection for the fishery. In 1760 125 British fishing ships, carrying over 3,500 seamen, came to Newfoundland. The English fishermen and the Newfoundland inhabitants together produced over 400,000 quintals of fish, most of it exported to foreign markets. Not a ship was lost from enemy action, and the northern Newfoundland harbours were swept clear of privateers. Webb was not only an able naval commander. He grasped the importance of the northern fisheries and the possibilities of Chateau Bay as a base. His conciliatory overtures to the Eskimos foreshadowed the policies of later governors which brought the Labrador coast and its inhabitants firmly under British control.
PANL, Nfld., Dept. of Colonial Secretary, Letter books, III. PRO, Adm. 1/2665, 1/2666, 2/84, 6/13, 6/17, 36/4884, 51/50; CO 194/15, 195/8, 195/9; Prob. 11/868, f.305. Lloyd’s Evening Post and British Chronicle (London), 20 May 1761. London Chronicle, 16–19, 21–23 May 1761. PRO, JTP, 1759–1763. Charnock, Biographia navalis, VI. Prowse, History of Nfld.