Decline of Naval Government

Newfoundland and Labrador experienced tremendous social and economic changes during the late-18th and early-19th centuries. These changes helped to bring about political reform and end the period of naval government. Between the 1790s and 1815, the colony's population almost quadrupled and the centuries-old migratory cod fishery gave way to a resident industry. Schools operated, a public hospital opened, newspapers circulated, political societies formed, and other services emerged to accommodate the rapidly growing resident population. Yet the colony did not possess an elected legislature and was instead administered by governors appointed by Britain to represent the crown.

Naval Vessels at St. John's, 1786
Naval Vessels at St. John's, 1786
From the logbook of H.M.S. Pegasus, 1786. Watercolour by James S. Meres. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (C-002539) Ottawa, Ontario.

Some residents believed the system of naval rule had lost its relevance and advocated for representative government, which would allow eligible citizens to vote for political candidates. The movement gained momentum during the early 1800s, after controversial court rulings against two resident fishers sparked widespread discontent with the judicial system established by naval governors. Soon, the local press supported political reform as did influential members of the public. Growing pressure ultimately prompted Britain to overhaul the colony's court system in 1824 and appoint a civil governor in 1825, ending the 95-year-old naval governorship. It also granted Newfoundland and Labrador representative government in 1832 and created a local legislature.

Changing Society

The early years of the 19th century brought numerous changes to Newfoundland and Labrador society and economy. Warfare in Europe helped end the migratory fishery and stimulate a rapidly expanding resident fishery. The colony gained a virtual monopoly over the international fish trade during hostilities, while wartime demand caused cod prices to increase dramatically. The resulting economic boom attracted thousands of migrants and the island's population jumped from 11,382 in 1797 to 40,568 in 1815.

Prosperous and populous, Newfoundland and Labrador acquired new institutions and services to address the needs and desires of its rapidly changing society. Medical and educational facilities became more widespread, churches gained influence, a postal service operated, and local theatre groups performed at some of the island's larger centres during the 1820s.

Importantly, various political societies formed on the island in the early 1800s and the first newspapers began circulating; these helped to spark a movement for political reform by providing the public with an effective means to collectively scrutinize, discuss, and criticize government structure and policy. Most influential among these were the Society of Merchants, the Benevolent Irish Society, and three newspapers: the Royal Gazette, Public Ledger, and Mercantile Journal.

The Public Ledger
The Public Ledger
Courtesy of the Provincial Reference Library, Arts and Culture Centre, St. John's, NL.

As the permanent population grew in size and complexity, and the resident fishery made economic gains, some citizens felt the system of naval government had lost its relevance; they argued the public should be able to elect its own political representatives instead of allowing Britain to appoint a governor. The movement gained momentum in 1811, when the British government passed an act ending the free public use of ship's rooms in St. John's and imposing a rental fee on their use. Many city residents were upset because they were not consulted on the matter and did not have any say over how Britain would spend the rental fees it collected from them.

Some people advocated for a local elected assembly to allow residents greater control over how the colony was governed. Foremost among these was Scottish physician William Carson, who immigrated to Newfoundland in the early 1800s. Carson printed the colony's first protest pamphlet in January 1812 in which he argued the system of naval government was unjust and oppressive. He wrote: “A Naval commander, accustomed to receive implicit obedience, whether his orders are dictated by justice or injustice, by reason or false prejudices, cannot be expected to brook with temper any opposition to his will.” Carson circulated a second pamphlet in 1813 to promote the establishment of “a resident Governor, a Senate House, and House of Assembly.”

Silhouette of William Carson, n.d.
Silhouette of William Carson, n.d.
Reformer and physician William Carson printed Newfoundland and Labrador's first protest pamphlet in January 1812. In it, he argued the system of naval government was unjust and oppressive.
From D.W. Prowse, A History of Newfoundland from the English, Colonial, and Foreign Records, 1st edition (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1896) 395. Print.

An economic downturn following the Napoleonic Wars sparked further calls for political reform. As France and other warring nations reentered the fish trade after 1815, the colony's profits steadily decreased due to rising competition and falling prices. Poverty became more widespread and local merchant firms struggled. A series of harsh winters between 1815 and 1817 made living conditions even worse for residents, while fires at St. John's left thousands homeless in the winter of 1817. That spring, dangerous ice conditions grounded the island's sealing fleet and eliminated a much-needed source of income for already destitute families.

Widespread poverty, hunger, and suffering resulted in public discontent and the looting of some stores. Economic hardship prompted some merchants and other prominent members of society to call for political reform. Many advocated for a permanently established government with an ability to pass local laws. Britain responded by making the naval governor a year-round resident of the island instead of a seasonal posting; all other aspects of the governorship remained unchanged.

Lundrigan-Butler Affair

The campaign for political reform gained considerable support in the coming years, when two controversial court rulings sparked widespread calls to overhaul the legal system. In 1820, surrogate judges charged resident fishers James Lundrigan and Philip Butler with contempt of court and sentenced them to public whippings. Both men had been charged with owing money to merchants, but failed to appear in court when summoned, which resulted in contempt charges. The judges also evicted Lundrigan and Butler, alongside their wives and children, from their homes.

Many residents believed the punishments were overly severe and feared the surrogate court system – which had been operating since the 1730s – had fallen out of touch with Newfoundland and Labrador contemporary society. Under the system, Britain appointed a naval governor to administer the colony, who in turn appointed surrogate judges to hear civilian and criminal cases in outport communities. These men were often officers in the Royal Navy or merchants and other educated citizens who possessed little or no formal legal training.

Following the Lundrigan-Butler affair, a movement for judicial reform gained prominence in Newfoundland and Labrador and became closely associated with calls for political reform. Supporters advocated for a civil court system, qualified judges, and a local legislature. They argued political and legal reform would eliminate archaic laws, result in more reasonable punishment for minor offences, and allow the public greater control over its own governance.

1824 Judicature Act

Reformers held a series of public meetings and attracted growing support from various socioeconomic classes and religious denominations. They sent a petition to the British government in 1821, which came before the House of Commons in May of that year. Britain did not immediately support granting the colony its own elected legislature, but did pass a Judicature Act in 1824 to dismantle the surrogate court system. It also granted the colony a charter of incorporation empowering it to make town by-laws. Reformers welcomed the act as a major victory.

Sir Thomas Cochrane (1789-1872)
Sir Thomas Cochrane, ca. 1860
Sir Thomas Cochrane (1789-1872) became Newfoundland and Labrador's first civil governor in 1825. He remained in office until 1834.
Artist unknown. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Further changes took place the following year, when the British government granted Newfoundland and Labrador official colonial status and appointed Sir Thomas Cochrane to serve as its first civil governor. Although Cochrane's appointment ended the 95-year-old system of naval governorship, the colony still did not have an elected legislature. Reformers continued to press for their cause until 1832, when Britain finally granted Newfoundland and Labrador representative government. For the first time in the colony's history, its residents were able to elect their own political representatives to a local assembly.

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