The Period from 1855-1895. (continued)

  62. It was thus in an atmosphere of returning prosperity that Newfoundland was called upon to take a decision of immense importance to her future. The Confederation of the Colonies comprising British North America was the great political movement of the day. Public opinion in Newfoundland was attracted by the idea from the first; it was, indeed, claimed that, when, in 1858, the Government of Canada appealed to the Colonies in British North America to co-operate in bringing about a union, Newfoundland was the only Colony which responded.* It was not, however, until 1864 that official negotiations were undertaken. Newfoundland was not represented at the Conference held at Charlottetown in Prince Edward Island in that year, but she was invited to send delegates to the ensuing Conference at Quebec in 1864 and immediately availed herself of the invitation. On all sides there was a disposition to regard the question of Confederation as a national issue. The barriers of party politics were broken down, and Newfoundland sent as her delegates Mr. (afterwards Sir) Frederick Carter, Speaker of the House of Assembly, representing the Government, and Mr. (afterwards Sir) Ambrose Shea, representing the Opposition. On the successful conclusion of the Conference, the delegates made a triumphal progress through Quebec and Ontario, visiting in turn Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, and pledging themselves in a series of public speeches to the fulfilment of the great undertaking. That the Newfoundland delegates were both enthusiastic supporters of the new movement is clear from the speeches which they contributed. Neither doubted that Newfoundland, in common with the other Colonies, had much to give to and to gain from the Union and each believed that his opinion would be shared by a large majority of the people. It was thus with high hopes that they brought back to the Island a draft of the terms which they had provisionally accepted.

  63. These hopes were not, however, to be realised. The proposals were not received with enthusiasm and an "anti-Confederate" Party grew up which Prowse records to have been strong in numbers, powerful in organisation and led by an able and indefatigable political campaigner.† Mr. Carter became Prime Minister in 1865, but the issue was not put to the test until four years later. In the meantime, in 1867, the British North America Act constituting the Canadian Confederation was passed by the Imperial Parliament and provisions were included in it with a view to the entry of Newfoundland into the Union. So general, indeed, was the expectation that the Island would take her place with the other Colonies that in Canadian official publications of the time Newfoundland was treated throughout as a partner in the new Confederation.‡ Newfoundland did not participate in the London Conference of 1866-7, but official negotiations were resumed in 1868 and in the spring of 1869 a delegation visited Ottawa, where a tentative agreement was reached.§ It proved, however, that the Government had allowed their opponents too much rope, for when, in the same year, the issue was at length put to the people, the Federal Party suffered a humiliating defeat.

  64. This unexpected result has been ascribed to a variety of causes.º A certain fear of the dominance of Canada; the vagueness of the terms offered in return for the surrender of independence; the inadequate provision for a mail steamship service; the feeling that the interests of the Island as a fish-producer might be neglected; all these played their part. It must be remembered also that the continued refusal of Prince Edward Island to enter the Union and the attitude of Nova Scotia in the first Parliamentary elections of the new Confederation of 1867, when only one Federal candidate was returned, could not have failed to exercise a disturbing effect on public opinion in Newfoundland.± But if, notwithstanding these and other considerations, the issue had continued to be regarded as a national rather than a party question, the verdict of the people might have justified the Government's expectations. The Government had, however, delayed too long in taking the verdict. Eleven years had elapsed since the question of union was first mooted; five years had passed since the Quebec Conference of 1864 and the Confederation itself was already two years old. Ample time had thus been given for the formation and growth of the "anti-Confederate" Party and the spread of their propaganda. Once such a party had taken the field, the easiest of tasks awaited them, viz., that of exploiting the credulity of the electors by wild tales of conditions on the mainland and of the miserable fate that would be theirs if they once allowed themselves to come under Canadian domination. It was the telling effect of these tactics that completed the ruin of the Federal Party.

  65. The decision once taken, the country, as if to justify its verdict, threw itself with enthusiasm into schemes of internal development. Under the new Government, progress was made with road construction; there was a great advance in the mining industry; agriculture was encouraged; and a succession of good fishing seasons, culminating in 1874 in a record catch, brought added prosperity. The population at this time was about 160,000, of whom all but 7,500 had been born in the Island. The census returns of 1874 show that there were 4 bishops; 120 clergymen or ministers; 30 lawyers; 41 doctors; 589 merchants or traders; 1,004 farmers; 2,171 mechanics; 45,845 persons engaged in catching and curing fish; 26,377 able bodied seamen engaged as fishermen; 18,935 children attending school; 20,758 children not attending school; and 24,050 houses inhabited by 26,916 families. The vessels employed in the seal hunt and other fisheries numbered 1,197 and were manned by 8,689 men. The area of land under cultivation was 36,339 acres. Revenue in 1874 reached the record figure of $841,588. Imports were valued at $7,354,689, and exports at $8,569,960, a figure which was not exceeded until 1881.

Drying Fish, Mobile, n.d.
Photo by Holloway. 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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Drying fish

  66. No attempt had yet been made to open up the interior of the Island. Proposals for the construction of a railway had been canvassed from time to time, but these had been looked upon as visionary and wholly beyond the means of the Colony. A change in public opinion now began to manifest itself. Glowing reports of the natural resources of the country had been received from those in charge of the geological survey and, though these at first made little impression, the desirability of providing a new outlet for the increasing population eventually induced the Government to embark on a practical test. In 1875 the Governor, Sir Stephen Hill, in opening the session of the Legislature, said:--

  "The period appears to have arrived when a question which has for some time engaged public discussion, viz., the construction of a railroad across the Island to St. George's Bay, should receive a practical solution. Independently of the benefits to flow from opening up the great resources of the interior of Newfoundland to the industry of its people, there is the well-founded expectation that a line of railway would attract to our shores the mail and passenger traffic of the Atlantic, for which this Island would offer the safest and most expeditious route between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres; and thus would be secured those vast commercial advantages which our geographical position manifestly entitles us to command. As a preliminary to this object a proposition will be submitted to you for a thorough survey, to ascertain the most eligible line, and with a view to the further inquiry whether the colony does not possess within itself the means of inducing capitalists to undertake this great enterprise of progress."¦

  * Speech by Mr. (afterwards Sir) Frederick Carter at Toronto, 3rd November, 1864: Whelan, op. cit.
  † Mr. Charles Fox Bennett; Prowse, op. cit., p. 495.
  ‡ e.g. the first Canada Year Book, 1867.
  § Sessional Papers, Canada, 1869, p. 51; Cambridge History of the British Empire, Cambridge, 1930, vol. vi, p. 476.
  º Prowse, op. cit., 494-5; Birkenhead, "The Story of Newfoundland," (London, 1920), pp. 126-7; Cambridge History of the British Empire, loc. cit.
  ± Cambridge History of the British Empire, vol. vi, pp. 474-5 and 479-80.
  ¦ Speech at the opening of the session of the Legislature 1875: "The Newfoundlander," St. John's, 5th February, 1875.

Image description updated May, 2004.

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