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 yet many aspects still require research. For instance, more needs to be learned about 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 indigenous 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 to Newfoundland 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. To be sure, some promising beginnings in this direction have already been undertaken, most notably by historical geographers and anthropologists. Thus, Gordon Handcock, John Mannion, and Tom Nemec have undertaken innovative and quite detailed community studies on Trinity, Placentia, and Trepassey. Before preparing the doctoral dissertation on which his book Eighteenth Century Newfoundland: A Geographer's Perspective was based, C. Grant Head prepared a Master's dissertation on Settlement Migration in Central Bonavista Bay (MA thesis, McMaster University, 1964), from which he subsequently drew and published an article on "Settlement Migration in Central Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland," appearing in R.L. Gentilcore (ed.), Canada's Changing Geography: A Selection of Readings (Scarborough, ON: Prentice-Hall, 1967). This work, together with Alan Macpherson's essay, "A Modal Sequence in the Peopling of Central Bonavista Bay, 1676-1857," in John Mannion (ed.), The Peopling of Newfoundland: Essays in Historical Geography (St. John's: Institute of Social and Economic Research, 1977), pp. 102-135, means that our understanding of the European settlement history of parts of Bonavista Bay is really quite good. And Alan Dwyer's master's and doctoral dissertations, previously mentioned, have greatly improved our understanding of the settlement history of Notre Dame Bay. And yet 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).
We also need to develop a better understanding of identity and, for lack of a better word, "nationalism" in early modern Newfoundland. It is far too easy for students today to project a sense of being a "Newfoundlander" into the period before the nineteenth century. Yet those community studies that have been done suggest that Newfoundland before the nineteenth century — perhaps even before the middle of that century — was actually 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", and it remains to be determined when such an identity actually did begin to 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. Similarly, while the military and naval presence in Newfoundland has not been completely ignored because of its significance to the administrative history of the colony, more work should be done on its 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? How did this happen? And what were the social and legal ramifications as the population of women began to expand?
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. This has begin to change 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
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), which
was written for and published
by the Newfoundland Historical Association. 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. Similarly, as noted elsewhere in this essay, much of the scholarly work about
the trade in Newfoundland saltfish to Southern European markets has been written
in other languages, particularly Spanish, and while a growing number of
specialists in Newfoundland history are able to read French, far fewer can read
Spanish. A complete picture not just of the fisheries at Newfoundland but also
of the trades in Newfoundland fish will require familiarity with the literature
produced by Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch and other European languages.
That this literature 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.
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