Despite the initial hardships caused by the American Revolution - or perhaps
because of them - the people of Newfoundland showed little interest or sympathy
for the American cause. The Americans themselves attributed this to the strong
military and naval presence on the island. Yet both the garrison and the station
ships in Newfoundland were perennially under strength. They were certainly not
strong enough to intimidate people into rejecting support for the revolution,
if they were so inclined. Another theory emphasizes the British character of the
population, but this too is unconvincing. The mainland American colonies were
largely British in origin, yet they rebelled. Moreover, much of the Newfoundland
population was Irish in origin or descent and had no reason to be loyal to
England. A third theory maintains that American tactics and strategy alienated
a potentially sympathetic population. American refusal to trade with
Newfoundland, followed by the activities of their privateers were allegedly
to blame for transforming sympathy into support for Great Britain. Yet England
was just as much to blame as the Americans for the disruption in Newfoundland's
food supply. As for the privateers, they only became a problem after 1778.
|Fort Townshend, St. John's, ca. 1796.
The Americans believed that it was because of a strong military
presence in Newfoundland that people there showed little
sympathy for the American cause.
Artist unknown. Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland
Studies Archives, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's,
and the Public Archives of Canada.
To understand the failure of Newfoundland to join in the American Revolution,
we have to examine the nature of mid-18th century Newfoundland society. Unlike
the mainland colonies, Newfoundland lacked a permanent local government which
might have served as a focus for dissent or provided a forum for debate. It
did not have a unified society within which a sophisticated political culture
could develop, since the various settlements and communities lacked a network
of inter-community commerce or communications through which a common viewpoint
or common concerns might have been identified and defined. Moreover,
Newfoundland's commercial leaders were based in England, and did not provide
local leadership. These factors combined meant that there was hardly any
support for the Revolution, and it is unlikely that the thinking which drove
the Americans to revolt was even understood in Newfoundland. If anything,
those who styled themselves as community leaders expected distinct advantages
from the war.
©2001, Olaf Janzen