CHAPTER V.--THE PRESENT STATE OF THE ISLAND.

  196. In the previous chapter an attempt has been made to set out the plain facts of the financial position. These, we have shown, point to two main conclusions: first, that the difficulties with which the country is faced, while accentuated by the effects of the world depression, are in reality the result of persistent extravagance and neglect of proper financial principles on the part of successive Governments prior to 1931; secondly, that conditions are now such that it is beyond the powers of the people to make any effective recovery unaided or without some relief from the present burden of the public debt. Before we pass to a detailed examination of prospects in the immediate future, we propose to record here our impressions of the present state of the Island.

Considerations arising from the Distribution of the Population.

  197. Newfoundland, as we have already mentioned is rather larger than Ireland and rather smaller than England. Yet it has a population of only 280,000. Of these, some 40,000 live in St. John's; the remainder are scattered round a coast-line of 6,000 miles. The interior is practically uninhabited save for a few small towns or villages.

  198. The country has always been, first and foremost, a fishing country; the settlements are, therefore, situated in places from which fishing could most easily be conducted. The original settlers, in making their homes, paid little attention to what they considered relatively unimportant factors, such as the quality of the soil, the distance from other settlements or the lack of amenities. The main criterion was whether the site in view was such as to promise good catches of fish. From this standpoint, indeed, loneliness and isolation might be positive advantages if they carried with them the prospect of the undisturbed use of a fishing ground from which a modest living could be won. The result is that, apart from the capital, St. John's, there are approximately 1,300 settlements containing in all 240,000 people, or an average of about 180 per settlement. A few of these settlements, or "outports" as they are called, have grown with the passage of time into towns of importance; but none of them has a population of more than 5,000 while many of them are only small hamlets inhabited by 50 to 100 people. There is general agreement that a number of the outports, particularly of those on the northern promontory of the Island and on the western portion of the south coast, are situated in places which, judged by modern standards, would not be regarded as suited to human habitation.

  199. The distribution of the people among these small and scattered outports has had far-reaching consequences. Administration is rendered difficult and expensive; and in the more remote places the inhabitants are driven in on themselves. In the north of the Island the winter is severe and the coast is usually ice-bound from December to June. During these months communication by sea is impracticable, while communication by land is hazardous even in those localities where roads are to be found. In general, it may be said that each outport on the north-east and north-west coasts is cut off, for at least half the year, from all physical contact with the outside world. This is a serious disadvantage, even in the case of the larger communities; in certain of the smaller outports, some of which are not easily accessible even under the most favourable conditions, these long periods of enforced isolation have given rise to intermarriage, chronic disease through absence of medical advice, and gradual degeneration. The same results are noticeable in certain districts on the south coast which are open to navigation throughout the year but are otherwise isolated. On the other hand, in the north of the Island and in Labrador, where the climate is more severe, Sir Wilfred Grenfell and his Mission, largely supported in the United States, have succeeded, against heavy odds, in counteracting these ill effects.

  200. Two further points relating to the distribution of the population have already been touched upon. The first is that the people are unevenly divided, about half of them living in the Avalon Peninsula and over three-quarters on the east coast, including the Avalon Peninsula. This preference for the east to the south and west coasts is due not so much to climatic as to historical causes. The east coast, being the coast nearest to Europe, was the coast on which the first settlers landed. From the end of the fifteenth to the early part of the eighteenth century, Newfoundland was regarded as a base for the fishing fleets which were despatched each year from Europe to fish on the Grand Banks (See Map No. 5), and colonisation was discouraged. St. John's, Bay Bulls, Cape Broyle, Ferryland, Trepassey and Placentia, the principal harbours of the Avalon Peninsula, were the favourite resorts of fishing vessels in need of a safe refuge where fish could be dried and cured, and when the ban on colonisation was lifted these places were the first to be settled. Once St. John's had become the recognised capital of the country, the development of the seal fishery to the north-east of the Island, the abundance of codfish along the shore and the magnificent harbourages in Conception and Trinity Bays, proved a powerful attraction to settlers who spread northwards rather than westwards. The most fertile land in Newfoundland is, in fact, to be found on the west coast, but here there were special difficulties in the way of colonisation, since the privileges granted to French nationals by the Treaty of Utrecht, 1713, and subsequently confirmed by the Treaty of Paris, 1763, and the Treaty of Versailles, 1783, militated against the development of the country and proved a constant source of embarrassment.* These difficulties were not removed until 1904, the privileges granted by the Treaty of Utrecht being finally renounced by the French Government under the Anglo-French Convention of that year; it is not surprising, therefore, that the west coast, notwithstanding its close proximity to Canada, should be so thinly populated. The south coast has the advantage of being free from ice throughout the year; fishing is thus possible in the winter as well as the summer. This advantage is, however, outweighed by the disadvantages arising from a formidable and rugged coast line, and a soil which in many places on the immediate littoral is so poor as to be almost beyond hope of cultivation.

Ferryland Ferryland, 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.
Larger Version (49 kb)

  201. The second point is the distribution of the people in religious denominational groups. We have already noted that the population is divided almost equally into three denominations, the Church of England, the Catholic Church and the United Church of Canada. The Salvation Army numbers about 12,000 and for purposes of political grouping may be associated with the United Church. The remaining denominations are small and do not materially affect the numerical preponderance of the larger bodies. The catholic section of the people are mostly the descendants of Irish immigrants; a few are of French extraction. The other sections, for the most part, trace their origin to settlers from the West of England. In the larger centres, denominations overlap but, as we have already pointed out and as the map No. 2 shows, the several outports are in the main Church of England, Catholic or United Church. This denominational exclusiveness has had far-reaching effects.


  * v. Chapter III, paragraphs 70 and 109.


Image description updated May, 2004.



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