The town of Carbonear is one of the oldest permanent settlements in Newfoundland and among the oldest settlements in North America lending to a rich and interesting history.
There are a number of different theories about the origin of the town's name. Possibly from the Spanish word "carbonera" (charcoal kiln); Carbonera, a town near Venice Italy where John Cabot is believed to have been born; or from a number of French words, most likely "Charbonnier" or "Carbonnier". One of the more recent and more interesting theories is by Alwyn Ruddock of the University of London, one of the world's foremost experts on John Cabot's expeditions to the New World. She suggests that a group of reformed Augustinian friars led by the high ranking Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis, accompanied Cabot on his second voyage in 1498 to establish a religious community in Newfoundland for the Augustinian order of the Carbonara. She believes that the settlement was established, though was probably short-lived, and a church built in the name of the order, the modern name of the town being a surviving relic. If true, Carbonear would not only have been the first Christian settlement of any kind in North America, but would have been home to the oldest, and only, medieval church built in North America. Evan Jones of the University of Bristol is currently carrying out further investigations of Dr Ruddock's claims.
At any rate, by the time the British began permanent colonization of the island in the early 17th century, the name Carbonear was already being used by the seasonal fishermen familiar with the area. Most of the area's land had been granted to Sir Percival Willoughby, and one of Carbonear's first residents was Nicholas Guy, co-founder of the first British colony in Canada at Cuper's Cove (now Cupids), founder of the Bristol's Hope Colony (now Harbour Grace), and father of the first English child born in Canada. He moved there from the other colonies by no later 1631 to fish and farm the land with his family in an agreement with Willoughby, and the Guy family remained the predominant planter family in Carbonear throughout the 17th century.
At about this time legend tells of an Irish princess of the O'Conner family, Sheila NaGeira, who settled in Carbonear after being rescued by the privateer Peter Easton and marrying his first officer Gilbert Pike. Much is known about Easton and his exploits, but hard evidence of NaGeira has yet to be found. That has not stopped the legend's story of romance, pirates, and New World adventure from inspiring much research and numerous works of fiction on the topic.
By the late 17th century, unlike many settlements in Newfoundland from this period where men outnumbered the women by a ratio of ten to one, Carbonear was a true community with many women and children helping to grow the town's prosperity. Unfortunately, this prosperity also made it a target for England's enemies, and when war broke out with France it came under the attack of the French captain Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville during the Avalon Peninsula Campaign. The citizens survived by retreating to the fortified Carbonear Island, but the town, documented by the French as being "very well-established" containing properties that were "the best-built in all of Newfoundland", was burned to the ground. During four months of raids Iberville was responsible for the destruction of thirty-six Newfoundland settlements and by the end of March 1697, only Bonavista and Carbonear Island remained in English hands.
With the rise of the seal hunt and the Labrador cod fishery, Carbonear became a major commercial centre in the 19th century. More sea captains were produced in Carbonear for the foreign fishing trade than from any other Newfoundland outport in this era. Violent political riots here in the early and mid-19th century led to the dissolution of the Newfoundland Legislature in 1841 and the suspension of the constitution. In fact, political riots were so common here during this period, especially during elections, the term Carbonearism arose to describe the behaviour. Rail service began in 1898 (with a 1st class ticket to St. John's costing $2) and expanded with a new rail station in 1917 operating until the closure of the rail line in 1984.
In the late 20th century the economy was forced to diversify. The seal hunt and the Labrador fishery had almost disappeared, as did Carbonear's importance as a shipbuilding centre, and therefore its value as an international port of trade. Fish processing continued to be the primary industry until the collapse of the cod fishery in the early 1990s. The fish processing plant has been converted to process crab and most recently seal. To counter the collapsing economy, Carbonear is evolving. With two college campuses, a shopping centre, a major hospital, and three long-term care facilities the town has energized its importance as a regional retail, service, transportation, government, and cultural centre, earning it the nickname "Hub of the Bay".