Revolution Rejected?

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
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 Archives and Special Collections, 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.