The Representation of Newfoundland in Nineteenth-Century French Travel Literature

By Rompkey, Ronald | Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

The Representation of Newfoundland in Nineteenth-Century French Travel Literature


Rompkey, Ronald, Newfoundland and Labrador Studies


THE IDEA OF NEWFOUNDLAND as a place is, for the most part, based upon its representation in British texts associated with the North Atlantic fishery, by means of an imperial discourse expressed by seafarers, army officers, clergymen, physicians, explorers and colonial administrators linked to the British regime. Newfoundland has been formed as a locale by what Edward Said attributes to authority, a phenomenon that establishes canons of taste and value and transmits traditions and perceptions. (1) While Newfoundland is not an imaginary place, our idea of it has been shaped by histories, letters and memoirs, by what Hayden White refers to as "fictions of factual representation," based upon the notion that facts do not speak for themselves but that the historian or chronicler fashions them into a discursive whole. (2)

French writing in the nineteenth century, therefore, widens the frame of reference, for it incorporates a separate discourse and introduces a notion of Newfoundland related not to imperial authority but to the lives of the people. We shall now examine a variety of French visitors associated with the overseas fishery to determine the variety of travel literature and their different perspectives so as to provide an opportunity for further exploration. Thus, our purpose is not to undertake a theoretical analysis of these relatively unknown works but, rather, to bring them to the attention of travel literature scholars and highlight their research potential.

Let us begin in 1713. By signing the Treaty of Utrecht, the French abandoned Acadia, the Hudson Bay territories and the island of Newfoundland but preserved the right to catch and dry fish for six months of the year on the section of the west coast later known as the French Shore. Consequently, in later years, the development and settlement of that part of the island would advance more slowly. Britain accepted the French requirement to build stages and other premises required for fishing but not to fortify the coast or live there beyond the fishing season. Fifty years later, with the Treaty of Paris, the French gave up Canada, the island of Cape Breton, part of the Mississippi Valley and their fishing rights on the coast of Canada to Britain, which subsequently placed the Labrador coast under its Governor in Newfoundland. However, France retained its fishing rights on the French Shore, and St. Pierre and Miquelon were returned to it as a base of operations. The Treaty of Versailles (1783) again reduced the section of Newfoundland coast allotted to the French, removing the section between Cape Bonavista and Cape St. John and substituting part of the west coast down to Cape Ray. Thus, the French Shore would extend from Cape St. John to Cape Ray.

Between the Revolution of 1789 and the First Empire, the French abandoned the French Shore, allowing their customary fishing grounds and harbours to be taken over by local settlers. In 1815, when they again took possession of St. Pierre and Miquelon and their coastal fishery, travel writers resumed the representation of Newfoundland. The first writers arrived in 1816, just after the Congress of Vienna had sorted out the European territories involved in the Napoleonic wars, and the Bourbons, who returned to the throne in 1814, and governed France until 1830. Louis xviii tried to reconcile revolutionary and imperial France and in 1814 founded a constitutional monarchy, getting rid of the tricolore and bringing back the monarchical white flag. But when his brother, the Comte d'Artois, succeeded him as Charles x, the signs of revolt had already begun. During 27, 28 and 29 July 1830, the so-called July Revolution chased Charles x from Paris, after which action he abdicated in favour of the Duc de Bordeaux and took exile in England. In August, Louis-Philippe, head of a junior branch of the Bourbons, took the reins of government and re-established the tricolore.

The July Monarchy lasted eighteen years.

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