Conclusion

The field of Newfoundland history is in a healthy state of vigorous activity. What makes the field so exciting is the degree to which the substantial body of recent scholarly activity has generated as many questions as it has perhaps resolved. The era of the sixteenth century international fishery is a case in point. The basic details have been reasonably well understood aspects still require research. For instance, insufficient research has been done on the Portuguese participation in the fishery of that era. Nor do we yet fully understand why the English were so slow to participate in the fishery that they ostensibly discovered -- was it a lack of markets, a lack of capital, a lack of skills or experience? What enabled France to move so quickly to a position of dominance in the fishery? The study of the history of Newfoundland and Labrador offers all sorts of opportunities for those specializing in the relatively new field of environmental history. Time and again (as a search through this essay for the words “environment” and “environmental” will attest), the history of Newfoundland and Labrador has been conditioned by environmental realities – the provocative idea of aboriginal extinctions caused by the environmental limitations of the island of Newfoundland, posited by James Tuck and Ralph Pastore in their essay, “A Nice Place to Visit, but .... Prehistoric Human Extinctions on the Island of Newfoundland,” Canadian Journal of Archaeology IX: 1 (1985): 69-80. Or the controversy surrounding the belief that the Norse colony in Greenland died out because of the effects of environmental degradation. Or the possibility that environmental conditions caused the inshore cod fishery to fail after 1713, thereby triggering the development of a British bank fishery for the first time. Or the intriguing notion that the introduction of the potato early in the eighteenth century contributed to the ability of permanent inhabitancy to expand beyond its seventeenth-century limit of roughly 2,000 people. Newfoundland history is clearly fertile ground for environmental historians.

In short, though our understanding of Newfoundland society can no longer be said to be in its infant stage, there is nevertheless good reason to conclude that it has not yet matured. Far more local studies are needed, if only to overcome the tendency to divide island society into two homogeneous halves, one of West Country English extraction, the other of Irish extraction; thus, no study has been published on Harbour Grace, one of the most significant communities in eighteenth and early nineteenth century Newfoundland, though there are a number of publications that take advantage of the rich archival material relating to Harbour Grace and adjacent communities in Conception Bay. See, for instance, Terry McDonald, “The One in Newfoundland, the Other in England: Ledgard, Gosse and Chancey, or Gosse, Chancey and Ledgard?,” Newfoundland and Labrador Studies XX: 2 (Fall 2005): 209-231, which examines a merchant partnership that traded between Poole and Carbonear early in the 1800s, or Sean Cadigan’s Hope and Deception in Conception Bay: Merchant-Settler Relations in Newfoundland, 1785-1855 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995). Detailed community studies which have been undertaken on Trinity, Placentia, Trepassey, and St. John's suggest that Newfoundland was fragmented into a large number of particularistic communities by the nature of external economic linkages, by the precise source region for the local population, by the nature and availability or scarcity of local resources and opportunities. These mitigated against the emergence of a "Newfoundland identity" before the nineteenth century, and it remains to be determined when such an identity did emerge. The degree to which such fragmentation contributed to the ability of St. John's to develop its role as the political, economic, and cultural capital of Newfoundland also needs to be explored. So does the history of women in Newfoundland during this early period, notwithstanding the importance of their role in transforming eighteenth-century Newfoundland from a seasonal fishery of transient labourers to a society of permanent inhabitants (an importance revealed in the title to Gordon Handcock's monograph on migration). And though the presence of the military and naval establishments in Newfoundland has not been completely ignored because of their significance to the administrative history of the colony, little work exists on their social and economic impact. And while significant steps have been taken to improve our understanding of the history of women in early modern Newfoundland, we know far less than we should. How, for instance, was the profound gender imbalance noticed by Gordon Handcock in early eighteenth-century Newfoundland modified to a much more equitable ratio by the end of that century? What were the social and legal ramifications as the population of women began to expand?

Finally, the field of early Newfoundland history still stands in need of continued efforts at synthesis of existing and recent research. Until very recently, a reliable and comprehensive survey study which incorporated the substantial flood of recent scholarly publications had not been written. With the appearance of such works as Newfoundland & Labrador: A History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009) by Sean Cadigan, the two volumes by Patrick O’Flaherty – Old Newfoundland: A History to 1843 (St. John’s: Long Beach Press, 1999) and Lost Country: Rise and Fall of Newfoundland 1843-1933 (St. John’s: Long Beach Press, 2005), and even A Short History of Newfoundland and Labrador (St. John’s: Newfoundland Historical Society, 2008), written for and published by the Newfoundland Historical Association, this has begun to change. Yet there are clear indications that there is still some distance to go. A case in point is the substantial literature on the French fishery, published almost entirely in French. The Anglocentrism of Newfoundland history is understandable, even expected. Yet the imperial, social, economic, and cultural themes of Newfoundland history cannot always be fully understood without reference to British perceptions of, and responses to, the French presence within the fishery. Moreover, there are striking differences and equally striking similarities between the French and English experiences which invite comparison. More importantly, there have been important methodological developments within the French scholarly community that merit attention by its English counterpart. That this material has not yet been integrated into a comprehensive history of early modern Newfoundland is not necessarily a bad thing – at the very least, it shows that there is still much work to be done. Future historians will not run out of material.
 

Return to "Reader's Guide" Home Page