Society, Economy and Culture

The Europeans who came to Newfoundland after Cabot's 1497 voyage were attracted, not by furs, nor gold, nor land as in other parts of the Americas, but by fish.

Drying Fish, ca. 1890.
Possibly the Crosbie Premises, St. John's. For much of its history, St. John's has been an important centre for the collection and export of fish from around Newfoundland and Labrador.
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL B4-39), St. John's, Newfoundland.
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Crosbie Premises

They built the new founde lande and its surrounding waters into their existing economic structures. Their efforts were not intended to create or sustain a Newfoundland society; the fishery was a seasonal, transatlantic operation. In the 17th century, some officially-sponsored efforts at colonization were undertaken with the hope of building mixed economies, but the seasonal fishery remained the main economic activity. although on the whole settlement was not encouraged, there was a slow growth of permanent population during the 17th and 18th centuries.

At the end of the 18th century the migratory fishery declined rapidly and the Newfoundland-based fishery grew in importance. The first three or four decades of the 19th century saw a dramatic increase in the resident population. The vast majority of the immigrants came from the same sources as the crews in the British migratory fishery - the west country of England, and southeastern Ireland. After 1840, immigration slowed to a mere trickle: the great waves of European emigrants who crossed the Atlantic later in the century by-passed Newfoundland almost completely on their way to the United States and Canada. Indeed, toward the end of the 19th century, Newfoundland contributed a trickle of its own to the waves as the traditional fishery reached a peak and could no longer absorb new generations of workers.

The immigrants brought with them their knowledge, ideas, beliefs, social relationships, loyalties, prejudices and animosities, but the society they built in the New World was unlike the ones they had left, and different from the ones other immigrants would build on the American mainland. As a fish-exporting society, Newfoundland was in contact with a great many other places around the Atlantic rim. On the other hand, its geographic location and political distinctiveness isolated it somewhat from its closest neighbours in Canada and the United States. Internally, most of its population was spread widely around a rugged coastline in small outport settlements, many of them a long distance from larger centres of population and isolated for long periods by winter ice or bad weather. These conditions had an effect on the culture the immigrants had brought with them and generated new ways of thinking and acting, giving Newfoundland and Labrador a wide variety of distinctive customs, beliefs, stories, songs, and dialects of spoken English At the same time, homogeneity of background and the economic structures of the cod fishery made for similarities of social structure and practice.

The growing colony achieved representative government in 1832 and became internally self-governing in 1855. Aware that the fishery could not continue to expand forever, governments began in the late 19th century to try to bring about economic diversification, a theme that has continued in various forms until the present. In spite of such efforts, however, the cod fishery remained the mainstay of hundreds of outport communities.

Sons of England Benefit Society Sons of England Benefit Society (S.O.E.) Outing, July 1898.
although harsh economic realities were present in the daily lives of many rural fishing families, the fishing industry made others very prosperous. Society outings were important elements of 19th century society for the more affluent individuals.
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL VA19-112), St. John's, Newfoundland.
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The First World War had a powerful and lasting effect on the society. From a population of about a quarter of a million, 5,482 men went overseas. Nearly 1,500 were killed and 2,300 wounded. On July 1, 1916, at Beaumont-Hamel, 753 men of the Newfoundland regiment went into action; the next morning , only 68 answered the roll-call. Even now, when the rest of Canada celebrates the founding of the country on July 1, many Newfoundlanders take part in solemn ceremonies of remembrance. In other respects, however, the first two decades of the 20th century were a high point. The fishery prospered, standards of living rose, and the Government of Newfoundland was treated by London on an equal footing with the larger Dominions of the British Empire, such as Canada.

The prosperity did not last. The economy was already in considerable difficulty by the time the world-wide Depression struck in 1929, and the years that followed were full of hardship and deprivation. In 1934, responsible government was suspended, and the Dominion's elected assembly was replaced by a Commission of Government appointed by London.

In 1940, as the United States prepared to enter the Second World War, the British government signed an agreement that gave the Americans control over three areas in the island for use as military bases. Starting in 1941, the presence of thousands of American servicemen had profound effects on the economy, society and culture. In many areas, a measure of prosperity returned. Many Newfoundland women married Americans.

With the war over, in 1949 the population voted by a narrow margin to join Canada, a country whose history, economy, culture and political institutions were significantly different. Newfoundland embarked on a new set of changes and adjustments, some of which are still going on.

In the early 1970s, a generation of young people who had grown up as Canadians began a revitalization in expressive culture, especially in the dramatic arts, in which they re-examined Newfoundland's past and questioned its role in Confederation. The re-examination is still going on, and it is badly needed. The Newfoundland of the present is the product of a complex and distinctive sequence of events, and for most of that history, the fishery has been central. although for most of the 20th century it has not been the most significant money-earner in the economy, it has retained a central place in the culture, and has continued to be the main, and in some cases the only, support of hundreds of rural communities. With the collapse of the cod-fishery in 1992, many of those rural communities are in crisis. Newfoundland's survival is in the balance.

Abandoned house in British Harbour, Trinity Bay.
Reproduced by permission of Brian C. Bursey. From Brian C. Bursey, Discovering Newfoundland (St. John's, Newfoundland: Harry Cuff Publications, ©1993) 65.
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British Harbour

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