One of the Greats: Sir Robert Bond Presided Over Golden Age

From the files of The Gazette October 7, 1999.

This is the first of a four part series on the life and times of Sir Robert Bond, one of the most influential politicians in Newfoundland history.

It has been claimed that he presided over Newfoundland's one true golden age, the first decade of the 20th century. He may very well be the greatest of Newfoundland's political leaders, certainly the greatest in the pre-confederation era. Yet today, Sir Robert Bond is remembered more as the name of a passenger ferry, than as one of the most influential politicians in the long and colourful history of Newfoundland.

Two photos of a young Robert Bond
Two photos of a young Robert Bond
Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections (Coll - 237), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

Robert Bond was born in St. John's, NL, on Feb. 26, 1857. He was the youngest of four sons born to Elizabeth Parsons and John Bond. Bond senior was a native of Kingkerswell, Devon, England, who had immigrated to St. John's in the late 1820s to work for Samuel Codner's mercantile establishment.

Robert received his early education in St. John's. In April 1872, at the age of 15, he was enrolled in Queen's College at Taunton, Somerset, England, graduating in 1874. Returning to St. John's he entered into articles of clerkship with William V. Whiteway on Dec. 11, 1874, two months before his 18th birthday. Under Whiteway's tutelage, Bond read for the law but was never called to the bar.

Whiteway was a well-respected attorney and member of the Newfoundland House of Assembly when Bond first joined his firm. In 1878 Whiteway became Prime Minister of Newfoundland. It was probably Whiteway's influence and his support which enticed Bond to stand for election to the House of Assembly in 1882 at the age of 25. He was elected as one of the three members for Trinity district; politics was to be his full-time occupation for the next 32 years.

Queen's College in Taunton, Somerset, England
Queen's College in Taunton, Somerset, England
Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections (Coll - 237), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

Bond entered the House of Assembly during a decade of turbulence and change. On Dec. 26, 1883, a clash between Roman Catholics and Protestant Orangemen in Harbour Grace, resulted in the deaths of five persons. Attempts to prosecute persons charged in the incident ended in failure as witness after witness was discredited. When Alfred Penny, the member for Carbonear and a Protestant, introduced an amendment to the Speech from the Throne condemning the miscarriage of justice arising out of the Harbour Grace Affray, the House of Assembly soon split along denominational lines. Whiteway's Roman Catholic supporters were opposed to the amendment and to a compromise amendment proposed by Whiteway. They all resigned from Whiteway's party and sat in opposition as Independent Liberals.

One of the members to resign was the Speaker of the House, Robert Kent. It is a measure of the esteem in which Whiteway held Robert Bond that he appointed him the new speaker, after only three years in the House and at only 28 years of age. Bond did not hold the position for long, however, as Whiteway resigned as Prime Minister a few months later. The new prime minister, Robert Thorburn, had the House of Assembly dissolved and a new election was held on Oct. 31, 1885.

Whiteway announced that he would not offer himself as a candidate in the election. Most of his supporters had deserted him, the Protestants becoming part of Thorburn's new Reform Party, which promised no coalition with the Roman Catholics, and the Roman Catholics forming their own party, the Liberals. Bond remained loyal to Whiteway, and in the end ran as an independent in Fortune Bay district where he was elected without opposition.

The next four years were quiet ones for Bond, as he settled into being a member of the opposition. He participated in the debates in the House of Assembly and dealt with the concerns of his constituents.

Shortly after the election Thorburn had a change of heart on his promise not to enter into a coalition with the Roman Catholic members of the assembly; in 1886 he invited several of them to join his cabinet and they accepted. By 1889, however, the Reform Party had fallen out of favour with the electorate. In an election held that year they elected only five members to the 36-member assembly; Thorburn and all members of his cabinet, Protestant and Roman Catholic alike, were defeated.

The new Prime Minister was William Whiteway who had come out of retirement to lead a newly constituted Liberal Party with members from all denominations. Bond was re-elected in Trinity and entered Whiteway's cabinet as Colonial Secretary, the most important portfolio after prime minister.

One of Bond's first actions as Colonial Secretary was to attempt to settle the French Shore problem which had plagued Newfoundland fishermen for almost 200 years.

At the end of Queen Anne's War in 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht forced France to recognize Britain's sovereignty over all of Newfoundland, including an end to French settlements along the south coast. In return French fishermen were given a right to catch and cure fish along the stretch of coast ranging from Cape Bonavista north to Point Riche on the western side of the Great Northern Peninsula. In 1783 the eastern terminus of the French Shore was moved northward from Cape Bonavista to Cape St. John, and extended from Point Riche south along the western coast of the island to Cape Ray.

Newfoundlanders had been arguing for the right to fish and to establish settlements along the French Shore for many years, and despite French objections such fishing and settlement had occurred. In the late 1880s a dispute over the construction of lobster factories, by Newfoundlanders, at various locations along the shore, led to negotiations between the French and British governments without Newfoundland's knowledge. In 1890 a compromise was agreed to by Britain and France, but from a Newfoundland viewpoint it gave the upper hand to the French. Bond and Whiteway travelled to London where they were successful in preventing implementation of this modus vivendi, but the problem of the French on the west coast of Newfoundland, or the French Shore Question as it came to be known, would plague the Newfoundland government for the rest of the decade.

Newfoundland had been an economic beneficiary of the reciprocity treaty which had been in effect between the United States and Great Britain from 1855 to 1866. Newfoundland and the United States had had various agreements during the ensuing decades, particularly the provisions of the Treaty of Washington signed in 1871.

While in London in 1890 Bond received authorization from the British Government to go to Washington in an attempt to negotiate a reciprocity agreement between Newfoundland and the United States. Bond and the United States Secretary of State, James G. Blaine, very quickly reached an agreement on the terms for a treaty which became known as the Bond-Blaine Convention. It gave American ships the right to procure bait and supplies and engage crews in Newfoundland, while, in return, Newfoundland fish products and crude minerals would be admitted to American markets duty-free. The proposed treaty was to take effect as soon as it was ratified by the British and American Governments.

The Canadian government, however, protested the Bond-Blaine Convention, claiming that it was detrimental to Canadian interests. Bond attempted to make concessions, but the British government eventually vetoed the agreement, stating that there should be no trade agreements negotiated by Newfoundland which would in any way be detrimental to other British North American interests. A major consequence of this action was the souring of relations between Newfoundland and Canada for some years to come.

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