Cousins of a Kind: The Newfoundland and Labrador Relationship with the United States
Earle, Karl McNeil, American Review of Canadian Studies
"O my America! my new-found-land ..."(1)
"The island was worthy of long study, and the folks too--queer folks with strong personalities."(2)
On 24 June 1997, while the great world peered expectantly into the new millennium, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador on the rugged Atlantic coast was--not untypically--looking elsewhere: to its roots. The 568,000 people of Canada's newest province paused on that date to join Queen Elizabeth II in celebrating the sighting of the east coast of North America by the justly famous Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot). Cabot was a mariner of Venice sailing, just five years after Columbus, under the auspices of Henry VII of England. His mission was the overture to one of the most fateful events in history: the beginnings of European settlement in the northern part of the Western Hemisphere. Exuberant Newfoundlanders like to brag about the fact that forty vessels lay anchored in St. John's harbor forty years before the Mayflower sailed. They gleefully claim that brimming glasses were being raised in Water Street pubs eighty years before the Declaration of Independence.(3)
Puff journalism aside, the American comparison counts for much in the far east of the Western world. "There's history to it, a context," comments W.G. Reeves of Memorial University's history department. "In American-Canadian relations, these currents of connection and disconnection draw us together.(4) While historians might easily demonstrate the Massachusetts Bay project as ultimately more significant for world history, there has been a curious resonance between Newfoundland and the United States, and New England in particular. Boston was so stocked with expatriate Newfoundlanders when I was growing up (my own aunt included, who would return occasionally with Yankee dollars and a broad accent) that New England was affectionately known as "the Boston states." Every schoolchild knew that, in 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill had met off Newfoundland to sign the Atlantic Charter. In 1948 there was a short-lived but lively movement for economic union with the United States, though most Americans knew little about it. When Joel Garreau penned his insightful The Nine Nations of North America in 1981, he had no problems putting Maritime Canada into the New England mold.(5) Finally, E. Annie Proulx's 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Shipping News was set in northern Newfoundland. "Proper thing," as the islanders might say, for the Yankee connection is long and enduring and quite revealing of that North Atlantic Triangle whose dynamics once loomed so large. Newfoundland was a country before it was a Canadian province and that fact informs this account.
The rashness of asserting such a sociocultural and spiritual connection given the enormous demographic and commercial disparities between the two regions--between Boston, say, and St. John's--is mitigated by geography and topography. One must not forget the enormous sweep and size of Canada's tenth province, especially when Labrador is part of the equation. The total area is 156,649 square miles, a land mass larger than the three Maritime provinces put together. This includes some 12,000 miles of coastline. The Appalachian mountain chain that is such a prominent feature of Maine and Vermont broke off to form one of the world's largest islands, "a pocket continent," as some call it. At 43,000 square miles, Newfoundland is almost half the area of England, Scotland, and Wales and, at times, evokes from its patriots Shakespearean overtones of
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea.
Newfoundland, like New England, has often thought of herself as a "little world," her people as a breed apart. There are reasons--the sense of geographic distinctiveness and set boundaries being one of them. Joel Garreau's ironical style nevertheless conveyed the sense that the differences between the regions are quantitative, not qualitative. Settlers along the Codroy Valley on Newfoundland's west coast or along the Avalon Peninsula can relate to Maine and Vermont's struggle for economic survival, the nurturing of the humble potato, the excursion into "the woods" in the fall or winter for firewood and game. What Garreau calls "all those Yankee acres of rock and clay, with their four-month growing season" speaks to the oft-beleaguered poultry farmers of Conception Bay as much as Aroostook County. The wood-chip plants, the lumber mills along the splashing rivers, these are consonant with each region. Newfoundlanders on the Burin Peninsula can smile at the Vermont dairyman's joke that New Englanders need to breed a cow whose left legs are two feet shorter than her right to better negotiate the slant terrain.(6)
The curious resonances begin with the legend of John Cabot, the alleged discoverer of the island in 1497. The historical disputes over this straightforward assertion uncover the oldest historiographical disputes along the North Atlantic frontier.(7) Cambridge scholar James A. Williamson, writing in The Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery Under Henry VII (1962) engaged the debate by postulating a Maine landfall for Cabot.(8) How early, then, New England enters the Terra Nova story. Williamson quickly added that the evidence is sketchy, a conclusion not surprisingly borne out by Fabian O'Dea, a former Lieutenant-Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador.(9)
Yet support for Newfoundland as Cabot's landfall was bolstered in the early 1970s by an American--of all things--the admiral and historian Samuel Eliot Morison. Morison argued that the memorable St. John's Day, 24 June 1497, event was somewhere between Cape Degrat on the tip of Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula and Cape Race in the south.(10) Later that decade, the confirmation of Viking remains at L'Anse aux Meadows on Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula in almost the same area as Cape Degrat offered at least circumstantial evidence for Newfoundland and Labrador's claim.(11) Morison, penning the first volume of his Oxford History of the American People, signed his 1971 preface from Northeast Harbor in Maine. In this work he attempted "a brief account of the parallel history of Canada, so near and dear to us, yet so unknown in her historical development to most citizens of the United States."(12) This fact, too, remains constant.
To speak in broader terms, Newfoundland and Labrador--and soon after, New England--erupted into world history at a propitious moment. It was the age of discovery, the salad days of the European expansion overseas, and the New Found World was in the thick of it. To Elizabethans such as Drake, Hawkins, Gilbert, Frobisher, and Davis--Great Captains addicted to maritime adventures--the world was their stage, the sea their highway. In the Canadian story, the peripheral is often central. From the beginning, the jagged eastern rampart of the continent was a place where the tides of events flowed and ebbed. Newfoundland and Labrador shared in that epic. "Great things `as `appened `ere," as E. Annie Proulx has one of her characters say in The Shipping News.(13)
The province's wise men and women have known this well: The dwellers along Canada's easternmost shores were placed near one of the epicenters of world history. "By 1620, 300 ships visited the region annually and, according to a petition for naval protection, employed 10,000 sailors.(14) The trade in the all-important salted cod to Spain and Portugal helped pivot one of Canada's first industries. This triangular trade with New England, the West Indies, and Europe gave birth to a distinct sense of worldview. Uncle Herb Laing, my next door neighbor, had tales to tell. He had sailed from Portugal to Patmos and Panama. "Although their homes were remote from the outside world," Farley Mowat would write of the Newfoundland outporters in the 1960s, "they were by no means backward in thought or in experience. There was hardly a family that had not sent sons, brothers, uncles and fathers abroad as seamen, or as skippers, in the great overseas carrying trade which ... made the Newfoundland mercantile fleet one of the largest in the world."(15)
Romantic bombast aside, it is true that Canada's first intentional, continuous English settlement along the North Atlantic coast took place at Cuper's Cove, or "Cupids," in Conception Bay, about fifty miles east of St. John's. The Jamestown colony under Sir Walter Raleigh had been established in Virginia just three years previous; Maine's Popham Plantation near the mouth of the Kennebec River lasted just one season, from 1607 to 1608. In Cupids, John Guy, the West Country planter, built two houses in an enclosure 90 feet by 120 feet near a brook. There was also a fort with mounted cannon, saw pits, a brewhouse, and ship-building shed.(16) A plaque in the town relates that the native Indian Squanto, who later figures so prominently in the Pilgrim adventure in Massachusetts, had been taken from New England, brought to England, and briefly employed there before returning to his own people. Well might those Plymouth settlers see this as the special instrumentation of God. Yet it is the recollection of this sharing in the continuous European settlement along this tumultuous North Atlantic frontier that impresses Cupids on the mind of the modern visitor. Off the beaten path it may be, but here along those rocky, serrated coasts were events of signal …
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Publication information: Article title: Cousins of a Kind: The Newfoundland and Labrador Relationship with the United States. Contributors: Earle, Karl McNeil - Author. Journal title: American Review of Canadian Studies. Volume: 28. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 1998. Page number: 387+. © 2008 Association for Canadian Studies in the United States. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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