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William Downing was the brother of John Downing, champion of settlers' rights in Newfoundland. Their father, also called John, was a former Governor of Newfoundland who arrived on the Island in 1641 and settled in St. John's. Like his brother, William was a settler in St. John's and by 1679 was a planter's agent.
Fighting for Settlers Rights
In 1680, William went to England to argue for settlers' rights like his brother had in 1676. Five years before all the English settlers had been told to leave Newfoundland. This did not happen and in 1677, the settler's right to stay on the Island was recognized. Still, things were unsettled in Newfoundland and people were worried about being attacked if a war broke out. Some were even thinking of asking for protection from the French in Placentia. William wanted a number of places, such as St. John's and Ferryland, to be fortified. He also wanted a governor and other officials appointed so that the settlers could be more secure in their homes. His plea for a governor was at first accepted on the condition that the settlers provide the money to pay him but later it was turned down.
A Hard Earned Success
William Downing died at sea on his return voyage to Newfoundland in 1681. His arguments, and those of men like his brother were similar to the arguments of Sir John Berry, who had spoken 20 years earlier. Over a period of time, their actions led to the rights of settlers being upheld.
In 1699, King William's Act was passed. Although the King William's Act was designed to help migratory fishermen, the act recognized that settlers had rights, too.