Newfoundland For Beginners

First off, let’s try to get the name right. The most common incorrect pronunciation of Newfoundland places the emphasis on the middle syllable, and we get New-FOUND-Land. That really grates on the local ear. To get it right, place the emphasis on the first and last syllables, skipping through the middle one: this gives the phonetic representation, “New-fun-Land”. Another way to approach it is to repeat the phrase, “Understand – Newfoundland”, paying attention to both the cadence and the pronunciation.

The island of Newfoundland lies about 90 miles off the east coast of the Canadian mainland, east and north of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. The island has a shape as distinctive as the character of its people. The Province of Newfoundland and Labrador is made up of the island of Newfoundland and the very large territory of Labrador on the mainland, north of the island and contiguous with the Province of Quebec. The capital city is St. John’s, located on the Avalon Peninsula on the south-east corner of the island. St. John’s is arguably the oldest “European” city in North America.

The province has a small population (510,805 in 2010) spread over a huge land mass (405,720 sq. km.). Slightly more than half of the people make their homes in outport fishing villages strung along the rugged coastline. The remainder live in cities and towns, St. John’s being the largest. The economy of the province rests heavily on the exploitation of natural resources, a fact that is reflected in family and community life. Historically, the population of Newfoundland and Labrador came mostly from the southwest of England, and the south and southeast of Ireland. Migration to the island was intimately linked to the fishery and occurred mainly between the mid- eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries.

Newfoundland’s history is about as tumultuous and as complicated as any place in North America. What follows is an historical summary in point form. More detailed information may be found on the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Site at:

John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto in the Italian original) is credited with having “discovered” Newfoundland. Cabot was born in Gaeta, near Naples, but his name is often


associated with Genoa.  Cabot, like many ambitious sailors of his time, was interested in exploring the “western ocean”. After failing to obtain support and funding from either Spain or Portugal, he went to England in 1494 or 1495. There he attracted the interest of Bristol merchants, and eventually obtained letters of patent from King Henry VII to set out into the Atlantic. Like Columbus, Cabot was seeking a route to the Orient and its riches. His first voyage, in 1496, was a failure. A year later, in 1497, he had better luck and more or less ran into Newfoundland – although Nova Scotians will argue that he landed in Cape Breton. Wherever he landed, in the years following his “discovery”, Newfoundland became a profitable place for European fishermen and merchants harvesting the rich resource of codfish in Newfoundland’s waters.

Other “Discoverers”: It is now known that Cabot probably was not the first European to set foot on Newfoundland. There is conclusive archaeological evidence that the Norse – the Vikings – arrived in Newfoundland and Labrador around 1000 CE, 500 years before Cabot. The archaeological site at L’Anse aux Meadows on the island’s northern tip proves that the Norse had a small colony there.



There are also the legends. The most famous are the story of St. Brendan’s sixth-century voyage from Ireland, and the fable that a Welsh prince, Madoc, reached America in the 12th century. More realistically, it can be argued that Portuguese voyagers sailed to Newfoundland in the 1470s – indeed, that Joäo Corte Real was the actual “discoverer” of America. In Bristol, there is a firm belief that mariners from that port were crossing the Atlantic to Newfoundland before John Cabot (and even Christopher Columbus) made their famous “discoveries” in North America.

The Beothuks – the “Red Indians” – were the aboriginal people of the island of Newfoundland, hunter-gatherers who probably numbered less than a thousand people at the time of European contact. The arrival of European fishermen in the 16th century forever changed their life on the island, and  eventually brought about their total extinction.


The Coat of Arms of Newfoundland and Labrador

At first, the Beothuk benefited from the migratory European fishery, by adapting the metal tools of the Europeans to enhance their own hunting and fishing capabilities. With permanent European settlement, though, the future of the Beothuk became tenuous. The French established a base at Placentia (Plaisance) on the south coast, and the English settlements on the east coast eventually extended from Conception Bay in the south to Bonavista Bay to the north. The Beothuk withdrew from European contact, their nomadic lifestyle was disrupted, and they were increasingly denied access to the vital resources of the sea. They were also now in competition with the Europeans for fur-bearing animals and that brought about violent confrontations which the Beothuk could not win. By the early 1800’s, they were reduced to a small refugee population living along the Exploits River system, attempting to subsist on the inadequate resources of the island’s interior. Although a succession of Newfoundland governors had attempted to establish friendly contact with the Beothuk, the efforts came too late. Shanawdithit, the last known Beothuk, died in St. John’s in 1829.

Codfish and Conflict: The history of European involvement with Newfoundland is inextricably tied to the fishery resource, most importantly codfish.



One historical writer described the island of Newfoundland as a “great mother-ship” for European fishing vessels. From the early 16th century, ships sailed to Newfoundland from France, Spain and Portugal each spring, returning in the fall with their catch of salted codfish. These were migratory fishermen. Settlement on the island was actively, sometimes brutally, discouraged. In southern Labrador, Basques from Spain hunted whales and established a working station at Red Bay. By the late 16th century, the Newfoundland fishery was dominated by ships from the south-western counties of England and by the French. The fisheries were economically important to both countries, but they were also important in the training of seamen for the navy. Conflict, of course, was inevitable as the two great European powers fought for dominance in both the Old and New Worlds.

The English and the French in Newfoundland: France and England were at war, on and off, from 1689 to 1815. The conflicts began in the late 17th century as England (and other European states) tried to contain the power and ambition of Louis XIV. They ended with Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo. Both France and England had overseas possessions in North America, and in the Caribbean, Africa and India. At stake were extremely valuable trades – West Indian sugar, African slaves, Indian silks and spices, and furs and fish from North America. Sea power played an important part in deciding the eventual outcome of these wars. The Newfoundland fishery figured in many of them, and in the diplomatic negotiations which restored the peace. The Newfoundland fishery was deemed more valuable than Canada and Louisiana combined, about two-thirds of the continent of North America. The course of Newfoundland history both before and after 1815 was profoundly affected by the contest between England and France.

The War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1713): During that war the French used their military base at Plaisance (Placentia) in southern Newfoundland to launch raids on English settlements on the Avalon Peninsula and further north on the island. The war ended in 1713 with the Treaty of Utrecht, which for the first time recognised Newfoundland as a British possession.  The French gave up their stronghold at Placentia, but retained the right to fish on part of the Newfoundland coast, which became known as the “French Shore”.

• The Seven Years War (1756-1763) saw Britain again at war with France. The key to the struggle was the superiority of the Royal Navy, and the British made a series of impressive gains at the expense of France – and later on of Spain. Slaving stations in West Africa, sugar islands in the Caribbean, and large parts of India all came under British control. In North America the British mounted an attack on New France by land and by sea. The French fortress at Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island fell in 1758, and on 13 September 1759, General James Wolfe defeated the French forces under Montcalm at Québec.  Wolfe, himself, was killed in the battle, as the famous painting by Benjamin West illustrates.

By the autumn of 1760, French America had become British. Towards the very end of the war, in 1762, French forces attacked St. John’s. If they had been successful, they would have strengthened France’s hand at the negotiating table. Although the French took St. John’s and raided nearby settlements, they were eventually defeated by British troops under Colonel William Amherst. The war ended with the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763. It contained important clauses relating to Newfoundland, including the cession to France of the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, which France owns to this day.

From Migratory Fishery to Colony: The various European wars, the American and French revolutions, and the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States, hastened the transition of Newfoundland to a colony where resident fishermen outnumbered the migratory sort. That development eventually led to Newfoundland’s emergence as an independent dominion within the British Empire. The major steps in the transition to representative government took place between 1815 and 1832. There were a number of factors. Organizations such as the Society of Merchants and the Benevolent Irish Society were established, and the island’s first newspaper, the Royal Gazette, began publication in 1807. The growing local political movement had two important themes: a demand for religious rights, and a reaction against the perceived tyranny of the English fish merchants. Until the mid-1820s the Newfoundland reformers were mostly Irish Roman Catholics who largely remained outside the traditional circles of power in Newfoundland. Like their counterparts in Ireland and Britain, they wanted the British government to repeal the laws restricting Roman Catholicism, especially important in St. John’s where a large proportion of the population was Irish and Catholic. Then, in 1828, the British government announced the imposition of new duties on imports into the colony. This inspired a campaign against “taxation without representation”, a rallying cry that earlier had fuelled the American Revolution. Merchants and reformers united to argue that it was unconstitutional to impose taxation upon a colony which did not have representative government. Thus, the island’s formerly opposing factions came together to work for a local legislature. The British government granted Newfoundland representative government in 1832. From 1855, Newfoundland had an elected legislature and was self-governing in local matters, and was also fully responsible for its own finances. However, external affairs were still controlled by the imperial government in London.

Newfoundland and The Great War: The Great War of 1914-1918 had a profound effect on Newfoundland, both on the battlefields and off. Newfoundland raised and equipped a full regiment of the British Army. By the time the war ended, a total of 6,241 Newfoundland men had served in the Newfoundland Regiment – by 1917 it was the Royal Newfoundland Regiment – 4,668 of them as volunteers. Another 5,747 enlisted in the Royal Naval Reserve, the Forestry Corps, the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and directly in British Forces. The effort cost Newfoundland much in terms of both men and money. For a small country with a fragile resource-based economy, Newfoundland’s contribution to the British war effort was remarkable. On July 1, 1916, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the Newfoundland Regiment was almost annihilated at Beaumont Hamel, taking more than 90% casualties. In consequence, while the rest of Canada celebrates July 1st as Canada Day, Newfoundlanders still recognise that day as one of national tragedy. Moreover, it can be argued that the costs of the war led to Newfoundland’s financial and political collapse in the early 1930s.



The Newfoundland Memorial Park at Beaumont Hamel, France

There were few families in Newfoundland not affected by the Great War. My own family was no exception. Two of my father’s older brothers enlisted in the Newfoundland Regiment, and both went overseas; one of them, Donald Wilfred (“Fred”) Curran, saw a lot of action. He was at Gallipoli in 1915, and was invalided back to England with what was then called “enteric”, another word for typhoid. It is a fact that the Allied troops in Gallipoli suffered as much from disease, if not more, as from combat wounds.

Ironically, Fred’s illness kept him from the slaughter at the Somme the following July. But he was back at the Front later that year, and in April 1917 he took a notable part in the Battle of Monchy-le-Preux, joining with eight other officers and men to hold off a superior German force until reinforcements could be brought up. For that action, all nine men were decorated; the officers received the Military Cross, and the enlisted men – of whom Fred Curran was one – received the Military Medal.



Fred Curran is seated at lower left

My mother’s family, the Rendells, were also directly affected by the war. Her older brother, Arthur James Rendell, was among the first to enlist in the Regiment, holding the number 204. He was killed at the Somme on July 1, 1916. So awful was the slaughter that day, that it was almost six months before his family received confirmation that he was dead. He was twenty years old. He is buried in Hawthorn Cemetery No. 2, located in Beaumont Hamel, France, on the grounds of the Newfoundland Memorial Park.

The End of Responsible Government: The costs of the Great War along with the Great Depression of the 1930’s brought an end to Newfoundland’s elected government. Essentially, the country was bankrupt, and its situation was made worse by a system infested with corrupt politicians. The next-to-last elected Prime Minister of Newfoundland, Richard Squires, was so generally perceived to be corrupt that he narrowly escaped injury (and perhaps death) in the Great St. John’s Riot of 1932, which saw the country’s legislature, the Colonial Building, ransacked by a mob.

Later, after 79 years of Responsible Government, the legislature voted itself out of existence, and in 1934 Newfoundland came under the rule of a system known as Commission of Government, wherein the major governmental decisions were taken by three Commissioners appointed by Whitehall in London.

World War Two: To an even greater extent than the Great War, the Second World War had a major and lasting impact on Newfoundland. As an important staging area for Atlantic convoys and naval escort vessels, St. John’s found the war literally on its doorstep. German submarines fired torpedoes at the harbour entrance. The city was thronged with service personnel from a number of countries, especially Canada, the United States and Great Britain. The United States Army established a base, Fort Pepperrell, in the east end of St. John’s, and American bases were also established at several other locations on the island. It was in Newfoundland that Roosevelt and Churchill met for the first time as President and Prime Minister. That meeting took place in August of 1941 – before the United States actually entered the war – in Placentia Bay on Newfoundland’s south coast, close to the site of the huge American Naval Station at Argentia. The Atlantic Charter was signed by the Prime Minister and the President on the British battleship, HMS Prince of Wales, shown below in Newfoundland waters.


Five months later, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor; the next day, the United States and Great Britain declared war on Japan. Three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, on December 10, HMS Prince of Wales was sunk in a Japanese air attack off Kuantan in the South China Sea. These actions, however, still did not bring America into the war against Nazi Germany. Officially, war between the United States and Germany came about on December 11 when Hitler unilaterally declared war on the United States. It was Hitler’s second major blunder in a year, the first having been the well-planned but ill-conceived invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941.

Newfoundland’s strategic value for the European war was immense. In addition to its role in the Battle of the Atlantic, the airport at Gander – later to be known as “The Crossroads of The World” – was one of the busiest in the world, with military flights landing or taking off at the rate of one every minute. The war was also quite literally on Newfoundland’s doorstep. Several ore carriers were torpedoed off Bell Island in Conception Bay. A Newfoundland passenger ship, S.S. Caribou, was torpedoed on October 14, 1942 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with the loss of 136 lives. On another level, military spending and, to a lesser extent improved prices for exports, created a sudden prosperity in Newfoundland. For the first time, ordinary Newfoundlanders found themselves living in a cash economy instead of the “barter economy” that had previously dominated much of the country. Instead of being under constant financial pressure, and dependent on cash grants from Britain, the Newfoundland Government now became financially self-sufficient, and it even loaned money to the British Government. And as in the First World War, Newfoundlanders enlisted in large numbers in the three military services, and served in all theatres of the war.

Post-War Changes: We now move into the historical period in which the Inspector Stride Mysteries are set, the post-war, pre-Confederation period of the late 1940’s. Newfoundland had emerged from the Second World War in a state of relative prosperity. The country was still under the system of Commission of Government, but its day was almost done. In stark terms, Britain was almost bankrupt from the war, and no longer had the wish to finance Newfoundland’s government. (The process of decolonisation which would lead to the end of the British Empire was underway.) The question was, what was Newfoundland’s future to be? Four choices – later reduced to three, and then to two – were under discussion. The first choice to go by the board was union with the United States. There was considerable interest in and support for that option in Newfoundland, but it was discarded when the American Government decided to maintain a “hands-off” policy with respect to Newfoundland, while at the same time maintaining its military bases there. In fact, many people believe that a “deal” had been worked out between the Canadian and British governments, with American agreement, to work towards Confederation with Canada, making Newfoundland the tenth Canadian province. Two referendums were held in the summer of 1948. The first ballot presented three choices: a continuation of the Commission of Government, a return to Responsible Government, or Confederation with Canada. The leader of the Confederation campaign to have Newfoundland join Canada as the tenth province was a former journalist and political firebrand named Joseph Roberts Smallwood.

The results of the first referendum were not conclusive, although the Responsible Government option received the most votes. The Commission of Government placed a distant third, and it was dropped from the ballot. In the second referendum, Confederation with Canada won a small majority of the votes. It was an intense and sometimes bitterly violent campaign, and to this day many Newfoundlanders still hold to the belief that a nation was lost. It was perhaps the only time in history that an independent country had voted itself out of existence. On 31 March 1949, Newfoundlanders became Canadian citizens. So, we are a nation no longer. But Newfoundland still has its special character, different from any other province of Canada. Appropriately, our provincial flag, designed by Newfoundland artist Christopher Pratt, is strikingly different from all the others.