The Period from 1855-1895.

  55. In 1832, the year of the great Reform Bill in the United Kingdom, a representative assembly was created in Newfoundland. In 1839 Lord Durham, surveying the position of the North American Colonies in his well-known Report, refers to "the ordinary colonial collision between the representative body on the one hand and the executive on the other" in Newfoundland.* The experiment of representative Government was at first so little successful that Parliament was compelled to interfere and partially to withdraw the privileges which had been conceded. In 1847 the Constitution originally given was, with some amendments, restored and placed on a permanent footing.† In 1855 the Island was granted responsible government. The change, which was inaugurated by the Governor, Sir Charles Darling, in that year, could hardly have been made at a more auspicious time. Trade was buoyant, the introduction of telegraphic and steam communication promised rich reward and, in the words of the then Colonial Secretary, "the sunshine of prosperity" beamed on the new Government.‡ The tragic events of 1846, when a terrible fire destroyed one-half of St. John's, a hurricane overwhelmed a great number of fishing craft and the potato crop failed through blight, had passed into history;§ the town had been rebuilt and losses made good; the disastrous cholera epidemic of 1854 had been successfully countered; triumph over the past was combined with confidence in the future.

St. John's St. John's City and Harbour (showing Quodi-vide [sic] Lake, n.d.
Photographer unknown. From the album of photographs furnished to the Newfoundland Royal Commission, August 1933. Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives (Coll-207), Memorial University of Newfoundland Library, St. John's, Newfoundland.
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  56. The population at this period was about 130,000. Imports amounted to five or six million dollars and exports to six or seven million dollars a year. No less than 350 vessels, manned by 14,000 men, were employed in the seal fishery, but the cod fishery, supporting about 30,000 men, remained the chief source of wealth. In the export of fish, trade relations had been established with almost every maritime nation in Europe and with Brazil and the United States. The number of vessels entering and clearing annually was about 1,200. Revenue amounted to $500,000-$550,000 a year. The public debt was $900,000; deposits in the Government Savings Bank at St. John's stood at the same figure. It was claimed in 1864 that the financial position of the Island was sounder than that of any other Colony in British North America.º

  57. While, however, the first years of responsible government were years of plenty, it was not long before the country received a series of sharp reminders that its prosperity depended primarily on the bounty of Nature. In 1860 the fishery partially failed. Widespread distress followed and substantial expenditure was incurred in the relief of the able-bodied poor. Worse was in store, for, after an indifferent fishery in 1861, the Island was visited in the spring of 1862 by a blockade of ice of unprecedented severity. For 52 days the wind blew continuously from the north-east, driving the ice on to the land, and no rain fell for two months.± On the northern coast numbers of seals were taken from the shore, but the ship seal fishery, in which steam was used for the first time, was an almost complete failure. This disaster was followed by a partial failure of the cod fishery. The people had no reserves on which to fall back and were reduced to a pitiable condition. The next few years brought no improvement and the increasing pauperism became a source of continual anxiety to the Government. It was not indeed until 1869 that a remunerative catch was obtained. In the interval numbers of the people had emigrated to the United States and Canada.

  58. The mark left by these eight years of misfortune was not easily obliterated. The people, long tired, would seem almost to have lost heart. Contemporary historians record that by the system of relief, necessary though it was, "reckless and indolent habits were engendered; and ere long nearly a third of the entire revenue went in charity. So many were left in a condition of semi-starvation, whenever a failure of the fisheries occurred, that Government found it impossible to distinguish between the applicants for relief. So general was the distribution of relief that a great majority of the industrial population soon learned to disregard the stigma of pauperism. They claimed public assistance as a private right."¦

  59. Fortunately, however, progress was recorded in other directions. Copper ore was discovered in the north of the Island and the Tilt Cove mine (now worked out), which was to play such an important part in the economic life of the community, was opened in 1864. The geological surveys begun by Jukes in 1836 were continued by Alexander Murray and later by J.P. Howley. In 1866 a second attempt to inaugurate telegraphic communication across the Atlantic was successful, the cable being safely landed at Heart's Content in Trinity Bay. In 1869 direct steam communication with England was established.

  60. An advance had also been registered in the political field. Previous general elections had invariably been conducted in an atmosphere of sectarian jealousy and partisanship deliberately engendered by the contending parties. Candidates rivalled each other in the exploitation or denunciation of religious beliefs; the closer the contest, the more unscrupulous the appeal to denominational passions. This practice not only led to scenes of rioting and violence during the elections, but gave rise in time to bitterness of feeling which threatened to destroy the decencies of public life and poison the new growth of political consciousness. The general election of 1861 brought matters to a climax. When the new Assembly was opened, an attempt to break through the doors of the Colonial Building was followed by serious riots in St. John's, so serious indeed that the military were compelled to open fire on the crowd, three persons being killed and twenty wounded. These humiliating scenes brought the Island an unwelcome notoriety, but had the happy result of awakening in the political leaders a sense of their responsibility. Under the pressure of public opinion a settlement was shortly afterwards reached under which it was agreed that "all religious parties should be fairly represented in the arrangement of an administration and in the distribution of offices."¤ This agreement has since been consistently followed.

  61. The end of the period of adversity came in 1869. In the previous year the Government had ordered the discontinuance of all payments of able-bodied relief. The decision was opportune; the fishery of 1869 was outstandingly successful and the immediate improvement in the condition of the people rendered it possible to discontinue relief payments. A turning point had been reached.

  * The Report and Despatches of the Earl of Durham, 1839, (Ridgways, London), p. 143.
  † Earl Grey, "The Colonial Policy of Lord John Russell's Administration" 2nd edition, London, 1853, vol. 1, p. 294.
  ‡ D.W. Prowse, "History of Newfoundland", 2nd edition, London, 1896, p. 468.
  § The loss by fire in 1846 was little short of £890,000. A sum of £30,000 was voted by the Imperial Parliament to relieve distress. A considerable sum was obtained for the same purpose by a collection made in the Churches of the United Kingdom under a Queen's Letter and by a subscription both in the United Kingdom and in other North American Colonies. From these various sources a sum of £102,500 was received. Earl Grey, op. cit., p. 295.
  º Speech by Mr. (afterwards Sir) Ambrose Shea at Montreal, 29th October, 1864; Whelan, "The Union of the British Provinces", Charlottetown, 1865.
 ± Prowse, op. cit., p. 492.
 ¦ J. Hatton & Rev. M. Harvey, "Newfoundland, the oldest British Colony" (London, 1882), pp. 115-116.
 ¤ Prowse, op. cit., p. 491.

Image description updated May, 2004.

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