Newfoundland has long prided itself on being the
"first colony of the British Empire," a claim based on John Cabot's voyage of
discovery in 1497, on the subsequent and explosive growth of an international fishing
industry centred on this island, and on Sir Humphrey Gilbert's effort in 1583 to claim
Newfoundland formally for England. By the time Acadia and Québec were being established
early in the seventeenth century, Newfoundland had already been the annual destination for
thousands of European fishermen for nearly a century. In a strictly Eurocentric sense,
Newfoundland has an older history than any other part of Canada, a point which was greatly
reinforced by the recent confirmation that the Norse preceded Cabot to Newfoundland by
five centuries. Clearly, history has been important in defining and shaping Newfoundland,
and it should therefore come as no surprise that efforts began as early as the eighteenth
century to explain that history.
For the longest time, those efforts have been dominated by a desire to explain the origins and character of Newfoundland society in terms of the fishery and trade which had given the island both economic and strategic value to Europeans. Prominent subthemes, such as the appearance and growth of a resident population, Newfoundland's constitutional development, and Newfoundland's place within the context of the competition between the North Atlantic powers, were invariably explained in terms of efforts to nurture and protect that fishery and its trade. The formative role played by scholarly inquiry into the fishery and trade in the development of staple economic theory helped reinforce the tendency to equate Newfoundland history with the history of the cod fishery. Thus, the slow rate of population growth was attributed to the fishing industry's antipathy to settlement, wars were significant as expressions of the competition for control over the fishery, and the administrative structure that emerged in Newfoundland was linked to the system of regulation within and over the fishery and trade.
While there seemed much validity to this approach, scholarly activity today has departed substantially from it. The antipathy between fishery and resident population has given way to a realization that neither could have persisted without the other; a symbiosis, sometimes inadvertent, sometimes deliberate, always uneasy, enabled both the fishery and the permanent population to grow in the eighteenth century, and accounts for Britain's success in Newfoundland over France. Much more work is being done on the intricate structure of the fishing industry and trade: where did the capital come from to invest in the fishery in the first place? How did the fishing industry and trade function? Why did the fishing industry and trade favour some European ports and not others? What determined the kind of cure in which a particular port or region would specialize? Interest is belatedly being shown in the role of consumer demand in Europe – as early as the sixteenth century – in shaping the origins and development of the Newfoundland fisheries and trade; see for example Jean-Pierre Martin, "Quand Marseille céda la première place à Bordeaux," in Éric Barré (dir.), Deuxièmes Journées d’Histoire de la Grande Pêche (Fécamp, 11-12 octobre 2003) (Paris: Société Française d’Histoire Maritime, 2003), 93-102. Though Martin’s focus is the nineteenth century, his essay covers the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries as well.
discover more about the industry, we also discover more about the people who were employed by
it how they were recruited, where they were recruited, why they were recruited.
This in turn has contributed to an improved understanding of the origins of Newfoundland's
resident population, for we now realize that the fishery did not resist settlement but
rather was responsible for generating settlement. A wide variety of disciplines
anthropology, sociology, geography, economics, legal history, religious studies,
archaeology, and others have contributed to a more discerning perception of the
origins and growth of early Newfoundland society. In short, there is now a much livelier
interest in the people of Newfoundland and not just in their economic mainstay, and one of
the striking features of this interest is its interdisciplinary character.
Bibliographies and Reference Works
Normally, the newcomer to any history topic would begin by consulting a published bibliography. However, the only bibliography of quality in Newfoundland studies was published quite a few years ago and was never really completed. This was The Bibliography of Newfoundland (2 vols.; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), by Agnes O'Dea (comp.) and Anne Alexander (ed.). It remains a handy guide to monograph literature, but it did not include journal articles. This severely limited its value, for some of the more innovative recent research has appeared only in the form of articles. A more recent bibliographical guide to Newfoundland history appeared in M. Brook Taylor (ed.), Canadian History. A Reader's Guide. Vol. I: Beginnings to Confederation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994). Chapter 4, "Newfoundland and the International Fishery" by Olaf U. Janzen, pp. 280-324, provided the origin and inspiration for this on-line "Reader's Guide". The original chapter of that published work was constrained by fixed word limits, and therefore did not include many articles that appeared in some of the more difficult-to-obtain journals, nor did it include any dissertations. This on-line version of that chapter is therefore an attempt to develop a more comprehensive and wide-ranging guide to the available literature on Newfoundland history to 1869.
There are also a number of reference works that are truly invaluable for anyone seeking insight into the nature of early Newfoundland history; sadly, it has been my experience that students often ignore or overlook these works, despite their great worth. The Historical Atlas of Canada, vol. I: From the Beginning to 1800 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988; hereafter cited as HAC) by R.C. Harris (ed.) and G. Matthews (cartographer/designer) and vol. II: The Land Transformed, 1800-1891 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993) by R. Louis Gentilcore (ed.), Don Measner and Ronald H. Walder (Assoc. eds.), Geoffrey J. Matthews, Cartographer/Designer and Byron Moldofsky, Production Co-Ordinator, offer superb visual and graphic displays of key themes in Newfoundland history. Some of the contributions to the Atlas of Newfoundland and Labrador (St. John's: Breakwater, 1991), designed by Gary McManus and Clifford Wood, can be useful but cannot compare with the much more substantial, analytical, and intricate details of the numerous plates in the HAC. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966- ; hereafter cited as DCB) is another indispensable reference work for almost any study of Newfoundland history (and it is now on-line: http://www.biographi.ca/index2.html). Fourteen volumes have been published to date (and the on-line edition provides access to essays that have already been accepted for volumes that are not yet in print), so that with very few exceptions, there are essays on almost all individuals who played prominent or significant roles in Newfoundland history from the end of the first millennium until well into the twentieth century. Still another reference work is the five-volume Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador (St. John's: Newfoundland Book Publishers, 1981-94; hereafter cited as ENL). The quality of its entries can be very uneven, and readers should take care in their use of the ENL; however, a number of superb entries make up for the weaker ones. Moreover, the recent release of the entire Encyclopedia as a modestly-priced searchable CD-ROM should enhance both its accessibility and its usefulness.
Finally, there is an
excellent Internet resource which provides a good start on the major themes in
early Newfoundland history. The "Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site" (http://www.heritage.nf.ca/)
Is a "work in progress, and is therefore not yet complete (indeed, like all good
history, it may never be truly finished) but between the main site and the
several partnered projects accessed through links on the site’s home page,
students can explore most of the essential themes in early Newfoundland history.
Ideally, historians will try to base their research on original manuscript and documentary sources. Since these are rarely available except at specialized research libraries and archives, it is mainly through published compilations of documents that most readers will have the opportunity to experience history as it was recorded. There are several continuing series of published documents in which individual volumes, or portions of volumes, will touch upon Newfoundland history. For the better part of a century, the Hakluyt Society has published nearly two hundred volumes on voyages of exploration and discovery (Cambridge University Press), while the Navy Records Society has published nearly a hundred volumes of documents relating to the history of the Royal Navy. In Canada, the Champlain Society has undertaken a similar role of compiling and publishing collections of documents. Many of the volumes produced by these societies include reference to events, people, and developments in Newfoundland. An extremely thorough collection of documents pertaining to the discovery, exploitation and promotion of sixteenth century Newfoundland as a fishery and as a target for settlement, is David Quinn (ed.), New American World; A Documentary History of North America to 1612 (5 volumes; New York: Arno Press, 1979). The first volume, America from Concept to Discovery. Early Exploration of North America, includes most of the available documentation on voyages of the Norse, St. Brendan, Madoc, in the late 1400s (including English voyages in the 1480s), as well as by John and Sebastian Cabot. The third volume, Plans for North America. The Roanoke Voyages. New England Ventures, contains copies of late sixteenth-century literature promoting the colonization of Newfoundland, while Volume IV: Newfoundland From Fishery to Colony; Northwest Passage Searches, includes most of the important documentations concerning Humphrey Gilbert's voyage of 1583 as well as material related to the first colonization venture at Cupid's Cove in 1610. All of the documents are annotated and each section is introduced by an excellent essay by the editor, who is a noted authority on the subject of early discovery and exploration. This is one of the best primary source collections on early Newfoundland available today.
Several centuries' worth of British documents pertaining to policy and law at Newfoundland are available to researchers in different forms. To support Newfoundlands position in the Labrador boundary dispute with Canada back in 1926-27, a massive collection of documents was assembled and published as Great Britain; Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, In the Matter of the Boundary Between the Dominion of Canada and the Colony of Newfoundland in the Labrador Peninsula (12 vols.; London: W. Clowes, 1926-1927). A second important source is W.L. Grant and James Munro (eds.), Acts of the Privy Council of England. Colonial Series (6 vols.; London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1908-1912), though as the title suggests, the documents contained in this collection are primarily legal and constitutional. Until recently, the documents most scholars investigating Newfoundland history from the late seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries has been the Colonial Office 194 series, held by the Public Record Office in Kew, England. This collection comprises letters, despatches, reports, etc. submitted to the Lords of Trade and Plantations and its various administrative successors over the centuries. The collection has been extensively microfilmed, so that researchers need not travel to England to examine them but instead have been able to look at the microfilm copies in such diverse places as the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa, the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, the library system of Memorial University of Newfoundland, and elsewhere. The collection was also inventoried as part of Great Britain, Public Record Office, Calendar of State Papers, Colonial: North America and the West Indies (CSPC), which was published on microfiche. The great drawback in using either the CO 194 papers or the until now has been the lack of an index or finding aid, forcing each researcher to wade labouriously through each volume in search of the particular material appropriate to his or her research theme. Two recent developments have begun to address this problem. One was the publication in 2000 of a CD ROM version of the CSPC (London and New York: Routledge, 2000) under the direction of consulting editors Karen Ordahl Kupperman, John C. Appleby, and Mandy Banton. The CD-ROM is available at some libraries and, supported by an effective search engine, enables the researcher to perform in minutes a search of material that once took hours, even days. Documents may be searched in a dictionary-style index, by keyword or by date. The CD-ROM contains either the actual document or an abstract of the document with a reference to its archival home in Britain. Users should note, however, that the CSPC includes not only material pertaining to Newfoundland but also to all other North American and West Indies colonies; and while some of its material dates back to the late 1500s, it only goes up to 1739. Newfoundland researchers with access to the more Newfoundland-focussed CO 194 papers will therefore be pleased to know that an on-line finding aid is being developed as part of a "works in progress". Thus far, over ninety volumes have been inventoried in this finding aid, found at <http://www2.grenfell.mun.ca/nfld_history/CO194/index.htm>. Using the Internet web browsers "Search" function or the "Find in Page" feature (itself usually found in the web browsers tool-bar under "edit"), researchers can visit each volume for which a finding aid has been developed thus far and search key words. Again, it should be stressed that the researcher will still have to gain access to a microfilm copy of the CO 194 papers, but the finding aid will help identify the particular volumes to examine or even to order on inter-library loan. A similar finding aid is now also being developed for the "Colonial Secretary's Letterbooks," a collection of original court proceedings, ordinances, administrative decisions, etc. dating back to 1749, and which are held in the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (though microfilm copies are also available). These have been described by Jerry Bannister as "arguably the most valuable archival source for the study of early Newfoundland".
One other collection of documents can be very useful to researchers wishing to examine British parliamentary debate concerning Newfoundland and the fisheries. This is Peter Thomas and Richard Simmons (eds.), Proceedings and Debates of the British Parliaments Respecting North America, 1754-1783 (5 vols. to date; Millwood, NY: Kraus International, 1982- ). Finally, difficult to find except in older libraries but extremely useful if available are many of the Reports of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, a massive inventory of historical documents held by private rather than public repositories in England. The inventory commenced in the nineteenth century and continued well into the twentieth.
In addition to published versions of original documents and official correspondence, there is also a small but valuable body of published versions of first-hand descriptions and impression of Newfoundland and Labrador by visitors over the centuries. Three collections of such impressions are Patrick O'Flaherty, ed., The Rock Observed: Literary Responses to Newfoundland and Its People (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979), Peter Neary and Patrick O'Flaherty (eds.), By Great Waters: A Newfoundland and Labrador Anthology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974), and Robert Gordon Moyles, ed., "Complaints is Many and Various, But the Odd Divil Likes It": Nineteenth Century Views of Newfoundland (Toronto: P. Martin Associates, 1975). Many of the documents in these collections have since appeared in more complete forms in other collections, yet because a significant number of the selections have been published in no other source, these collections should not be ignored. A fourth collection, Outrageous Seas: Shipwreck and Survival in the Waters off Newfoundland, 1583-1893 edited by Rainer K. Baehre (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1999), presents contemporary experiences and perceptions that obviously have a narrower focus than the other collections, but which often include impressions of the landscape and people of Newfoundland through the centuries. Joseph Banks in Newfoundland and Labrador, 1766; His Diary, Manuscripts and Collections, edited by A.M. Lysaght (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971) records the vivid impressions of the famed British botanist, then but a young man, of Newfoundland fisher society. The Newfoundland Journal of Aaron Thomas 1794: Able Seaman in H.M.S. Boston, edited by Jean Murray (Don Mills: Longmans, 1968) allows us to compare and contrast some of the changes that had taken place thirty years after Banks' visit. Incidentally, Aaron Thomas himself becomes the focus of analytical scrutiny in an article that reminds us that even eighteenth-century “objective” witnesses of Newfoundland society must be read with a certain appreciation for their own biases and perceptions; see “Seaman, Sightseer, Storyteller, and Sage: Aaron Thomas’s 1794 ‘History of Newfoundland’” by Sarah Glassford in Newfoundland and Labrador Studies XXI: No. 1 (Spring 2006): 149-175. Similar considerations should therefore be exercised when reading Lieutenant Edward Chappell's Voyage of His Majesty's Ship Rosamond to Newfoundland and the Southern Coast of Labrador (London: John Murray, 1818), a much-cited source for the details he provides of Labrador and western Newfound land, where HMS Rosamond was stationed throughout the 1813 fishing season. These are parts of the region for which much less information survives than is the case for the areas where fishing and settlement were concentrated. Nineteenth century images of Newfoundland are more abundant. From 1825 until 1834, Governor Thomas Cochrane kept detailed journals of his impressions of life and politics in the colony of Newfoundland. A useful sampling of the rich details and observations left by Gov. Cochrane is provided by Pam Perkins in “Thomas Cochrane and Newfoundland in the 1820s,” Newfoundland and Labrador Studies XXIX: 1 (Spring 2014): 117-168. Yet, even though there are seven volumes in total (housed in the National Library of Scotland), Cochrane’s journals have been surprisingly under-utilized by scholars. For the 1830s, there is E. Wix, Six months of a Newfoundland Missionary's Journal from February to March 1835 (London: Smith, Elden & Co., 1836) and Joseph Beete Jukes, Excursions In and About Newfoundland, During the Years 1839 and 1840, 2 vols. (London: John Murray, 1842; reprinted Toronto: Canadiana House, 1969). An edited edition of Jukes' journal has recently appeared; see Robert Cuff and Derek Wilton (eds.), Jukes' Excursions, Being a revised edition of Joseph Beete Jukes' "Excursions In and About Newfoundland During the Years 1839 and 1840 (St. John's: Harry Cuff, 1993). Bishop Feild's travels around Newfoundland and to Labrador between 1846 and 1850 provide an interesting comparison with those of Wix; see Edward Feild, Journal of a Voyage of Visitation in the Hawk Church Ship On the Coast of Labrador, and Round the Whole Island of Newfoundland (London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, 1846). Some detailed observations of Newfoundland, particularly of the South Coast, were recorded by Capt. Alexander Milne, commander of HMS Crocodile which served on the Newfoundland station in 1840; see John Beeler (ed.), The Milne Papers: The Papers of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Alexander Milne, Bt., K.C.B. (1806-1896). Volume I: 1820-1859 (Aldershot, Hants. and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing for the Navy Records Society, 2004).
Governor Sir Richard Bonnycastle also
left us a glimpse of Newfoundland society during this period in
Newfoundland in 1842,
2 vols. (London: Colburn, 1842). The 1850s are described by Joseph Arthur de Gobineau
(edited and translated by Michael Wilkshire), A Gentleman in the Outports: Gobineau and
Newfoundland (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1993). Wix, Feild, and Gobineau, like
Chappell, are invaluable for providing a rare glimpse of the more remote parts of
Primary Documents on the Internet
The Internet has opened up a whole new universe of possibilities and opportunities regarding access to primary documents relating to Newfoundland history. Reference has already been made to research resources like the CO 194 finding aid (http://www2.grenfell.mun.ca/nfld_history/CO194/index.htm.) To this can be added a growing number of web sites that offer direct access to primary documents as well as sites that offer a mix of both primary and secondary materials, though students should exercise caution with those that lack some kind of institutional affiliation – anyone can publish on-line, and the amount of poorly edited or factually misleading material can be frightening. What follows is a number of sites that have been carefully developed and can be recommended for offering useful –in some instances essential –materials.
A number of documents relevant to the Age of Discovery can be found by searching out the appropriate links at “The Discoverers Web” – students will find materials relating to early explorers and discoverers, from the Norse to John Cabot to the Portuguese and beyond. One of the most exciting on-line projects is Project Gutenberg, which at this moment offers over 16,000 free on-line books. Though many are not in English, and most are not related to the history of Newfoundland and Labrador, a growing number are appearing (or will soon) that were published in the early modern period and which relate to Newfoundland and Labrador; go to http://www.gutenberg.org/. Hans Rollmann’s web site on “Religion, Society and Culture in Newfoundland and Labrador” (http://www.ucs.mun.ca/~hrollman/) provides a link to several “Newfoundland Texts” of the seventeenth century, including John Mason, Richard Whitbourne, William Vaughan and Robert Hayman. A small body of transcribed documents relating to the colonization effort at Cupid’s Cove that began in 1610 can be found at a site maintained by the Baccalieu Trail Heritage Corporation; see http://www.baccalieudigs.ca/. The “Colony of Avalon” project has a website devoted to the Ferryland colony of the seventeenth century. Linked to the Newfoundland & Labrador Heritage website, it offers a selection of documents assembled by Peter Pope and spanning the years from 1597 to 1726. See http://www.heritage.nf.ca/avalon/history/documents/default.html.
A variety of eighteenth-century on-line resources can be found at
http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/18th/. For instance, one of the links
found here will take you to a digital library of eighteenth- and
nineteenth-century journals (http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/ilej/).
Many of these journal contents are not only fully reproduced but are searchable
as well, providing fascinating opportunities to read about Newfoundland and
Labrador during those centuries. Another link directs one to the proceedings of
England’s Old Bailey from 1674 to 1834, also in a fully searchable form. Go to
http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/. Students will find a small handful of these
court cases involving Newfoundland either directly or indirectly. The twelve volumes of documents
assembled and submitted to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in its
deliberations on the dispute between Canada and Newfoundland over the precise
location of the Labrador boundary are gradually being published on line by the
Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site. These documents span several
centuries, and are published at
http://www.heritage.nf.ca/law/privycouncil_intro.html. A selection of
documents relating to the “Constitutional, Legal, and Political History of
Newfoundland and Labrador” can be found at
http://www.oocities.com/Yosemite/Rapids/3330/constitution/. Most are
modern, but there is a selection relevant to the period before the
These several links are just a few of a growing quantity of on-line resources relating to the history of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The study of Newfoundland history crosses many disciplines and nationalities, with the result that the journals likely to carry essential readings in the field are extremely diverse. No single journal seems to carry a significant number of articles dealing with sixteenth and seventeenth century Newfoundland. The journal literature does begin to grow as topics concentrate more on the late seventeenth and into the eighteenth centuries, presumably because it is then that a resident society begins to emerge in Newfoundland. The Canadian Historical Review has carried a number of articles in recent years that examine aspects of that society. Another is Acadiensis, subtitled The Journal of the History of the Atlantic Region; it has a well-deserved reputation for excellence in editing, and carries a modest but steady number of articles related to Newfoundland history. Past issues of Acadiensis are archived at: http://www.acadiensis.ca/#!past-issues/cz4o. The Newfoundland Quarterly is directed at a more general audience, but routinely carries scholarly papers that were first presented to the Newfoundland Historical Society. Because of its regional focus, it may not be as easy to find outside Newfoundland and Labrador, but the effort can be quite worthwhile. Newfoundland and Labrador Studies first appeared in 1985 as Newfoundland Studies and was then renamed in 2005. It is unquestionably the most important joutrnal for scholarly works on Newfoundland history, folklore, geography, and culture. It is published out of Memorial University of Newfoundland and is fully accessible on the Internet at http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/NFLDS/issue/archive. Three of these journals the Canadian Historical Review, Acadiensis, and Newfoundland & Labrador Studies also carry running bibliographies of recent publications, organized thematically; the alert student will discover that these bibliographies provide invaluable guidance to the latest works on Newfoundland and Labrador history.
The first significant study of Newfoundland history was by John Reeves, who articulated a strong bias against merchants in his History of the Government of the Island of Newfoundland (London, 1793; reprinted New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1967). Reeves blamed all the ills of the island's budding society on what he perceived as an inescapable conflict between the fishing interests and the island's resident. This view became entrenched in the first "modern" analysis (modern in the sense that it was based on archival research), A History of Newfoundland from the English Colonial and Foreign Records by Daniel W. Prowse (London, 1895; reprinted Belleville: Mika Press, 1979). But ready access to archival sources also meant that early explorations into the history of Newfoundland were dominated by political and administrative biases which could distort the complex nature of early modern Newfoundland history. Such studies as Agnes M. Field, The Development of Government in Newfoundland, 1638-1713 (MA dissertation, University of London, 1924), A.H. McLintock (Alexander Hare), The Establishment of Constitutional Government in Newfoundland, 1783-1832: A Study of Retarded Colonization (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1941), Gordon O. Rothney, The History of Newfoundland and Labrador 1754-1783 (MA thesis, University of London, 1934) or Rothney’s subsequent British Policy in the North American Fisheries, With Special Reference to Foreign Competition 1775-1819 (PhD thesis, University of London, 1939), and W.L. Morton, Newfoundland in Colonial Policy 1775-1793 (B.Litt. thesis, St. John's College, Oxford, 1935) all built their interpretations on the archivally-rooted studies of their predecessors, and greatly influenced subsequent survey treatments of Newfoundland history intended for undergraduate instructors and students, such as The Atlantic Provinces: The Emergence of Colonial Society by W.S. MacNutt (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1965), Newfoundland; Island Into Province by Gerald William St. John Chadwick, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), and the Canadian Historical Society's Historical Pamphlet #10, Newfoundland: A History by G.O. Rothney, (Ottawa, CHA, 1964).
However, a vigorous renewal of scholarly interest in Newfoundland history has emerged in recent decades which has substantially forced us to revise our traditional views, and even forced some of the once widely accepted interpretations to be abandoned. One of the first attempts to synthesize much of this revisionist research was A History of Newfoundland and Labrador by Frederick Rowe (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1980). Rowe's book, when used in conjunction with Lectures on the History of Newfoundland 1500-1800 by Keith Matthews (St. John's: Breakwater Press, 1988), was able to provide their readers with useful introductions to Newfoundland history. Rowe showed sensible awareness of the degree to which recent research has overturned the received wisdom of earlier studies, while Matthews, one of the pioneers of the revisionist process, brought a scholarly familiarity with the material to bear on the subject. Unfortunately, Rowe's book left gaping holes in those areas of Newfoundland history where little or no work had yet been done. Moreover, that book is itself now decades old, and is therefore no longer current. As for Matthews' book, it consisted of a series of wide-ranging but relatively brief chapters that were more outlines than lectures of substance. It therefore tended to offer too little support for its sometimes provocative insights. Students would be much better served trying to track down a copy of Matthews doctoral dissertation, A History of the West of England - Newfoundland Fisheries (PhD thesis, Oxford University, 1968), though caution should be used with Matthews footnotes, of which a great many are incomplete or erroneous.
Interest in Newfoundland history remains strong in recent interpretive surveys targetted at university undergraduates. A fairly successful attempt at providing a brief overview of Newfoundland history from the beginnings of the European fisheries in the sixteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century is Chapter 17, "Newfoundland to the 1860s," in R. Douglas Francis, Richard Jones and Donald B. Smith, Origins: Canadian History to Confederation (3rd. ed.; Toronto: Harcourt Brace Canada, 1996), pp. 352-370. Then, in 1999, Patrick O'Flaherty completed the first of what became a three-volume interpretation of Newfoundland history from its beginnings to the present. Early Modern Newfoundland is covered in the first two volumes: 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). Both are extremely thorough (some chapters carry over 200 reference notes). Nevertheless, students should also bear in mind that one reviewer described the first volume as "opinionated, provocative, and idiosyncratic ... with a markedly nationalist slant." The most recent contributions to the literature target slightly different readerships. The Newfoundland Historical Society commissioned an intentionally brief survey, written by a team of specialists but intended for the more general reader, high school, and junior undergraduate markets; look for A Short History of Newfoundland and Labrador (St. John’s: Boulder Publications, 2008); a more detailed survey that will serve the university market for many years is Newfoundland & Labrador: A History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009) by Sean T. Cadigan. Yet readers must still beware; not every new addition to the survey literature can be recommended, a case in point being Shannon Ryan’s disappointing A History of the North Atlantic to 1818 (St. John’s, NL: Flanker Press, 2012). Students should rely on the guidance and recommendations of their instructors, while others should turn to reviews in academic journals before selecting a survey history.
How we interpret
the history of Newfoundland and Labrador is also shaped by the way in which it
is placed within a framework of “imperial history,” “Atlantic history” or other
contexts. These can lead to misperceptions based on the degree to which
Newfoundland history does not conform neatly into patterns of colonial
development elsewhere. By way of example, Newfoundland’s population growth in
the seventeenth century is often described as “retarded development” because it
appeared to take place much more slowly than mainland North American colonies –
the subtitle of A.H. McClintock’s 1941 study, mentioned above, is a striking
example of this.
Yet as Peter Pope perceptively points out in his book Fish Into Wine: The
Newfoundland Plantation in the Seventeenth Century (Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press, 2004), much depends on which colonies are used as
points of comparison; “Newfoundland’s English Shore resembled the neighbouring
northern colonies of Acadia and Maine” (p. 201). In an invaluable essay
appearing in the journal Acadiensis, Jerry Bannister cautions that “we
should be wary of analytical frameworks that deride regional history and
privilege transnational perspectives”; see “Atlantic Canada in an Atlantic
World? Northeastern North America in the Long 18th Century,” Acadiensis
XLIII: 2 (Summer/Autumn 2014), pp. 3-30.
From all this, the newcomer to the field would be correct to conclude that our understanding of Newfoundland history continues to evolve, and that, in a sense, a truly “up-to-date” definitive survey history always waits to be written. While older studies continue to deserve respect, they must be used with caution. Since the circulation and influence of these older studies remain greater than that of the more recent revisionist works, this need for caution is all the greater. Useful guides through the historiographical minefield include "Myths of Newfoundland" by Fred Rowe, Newfoundland Quarterly LXXIV: 4 (Winter 1979), pp. 3-16; Peter Neary's "The Writing of Newfoundland History: An Introductory Survey," in James Hiller and Peter Neary (eds.), Newfoundland in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Essays in Interpretations (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), pp. 3-15; and Keith Matthews' "Historical Fence-building: a critique of the historiography of Newfoundland," Newfoundland Quarterly LXXIV (Spring 1978), pp. 21-30, an important essay which has been reprinted with corrective annotations in Newfoundland Studies XVII: 2 (Fall 2001), pp. 143-165. Jeff Webb places Keith Matthews and his essay into a thoughtful historiographical context; see Jeff Webb, "Revisiting Fence Building: Keith Matthews and Newfoundland Historiography," Canadian Historical Review XCI: 2 (June 2010), pp. 315-338. Also recommended is "Newfoundland's Historical Revival and the Legacy of David Alexander" by Eric Sager in Acadiensis XI: 1 (Autumn 1981), pp. 104-115. A particularly useful essay on Newfoundland historiography that focuses on the way in which the issue of class is treated in the literature is "A Species of Vassalage': The Issue of Class in the Writing of Newfoundland History" by Jerry Bannister, Acadiensis XXIV: 1 (Autumn 1994), pp.134-144. A different focus guides Christopher English’s essay on “The Legal Historiography of Newfoundland,” in Christopher English (ed.), Essays in the History of Canadian Law, Vol. 9. Two Islands: Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), pp. 19-38.
Return to "Reader's Guide" Home Page
Proceed to "Discovery and Exploration"