Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

Thomas Cochrane and Newfoundland in the 1820s

Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

Thomas Cochrane and Newfoundland in the 1820s

Article excerpt

The journals of Thomas Cochrane, Governor of Newfoundland from 1825 to 1834, have never attracted much attention, even though Cochrane oversaw a significant period of transformation in Newfoundland social and political life. Cochrane's governorship marked a historic turning point since Newfoundland had been under British naval administration through 1824, with the commander-in-chief of the Newfoundland station serving as governor. That changed under the terms of the 1825 Royal Charter, which granted the island formal colonial status and transferred authority to a civil administration. Cochrane, the first Governor under the new system, arrived in Newfoundland with what appears to have been an ambitious agenda for transforming the colony: he wanted new roads and increased access to schools and churches for those outside St. John's.1 He also attempted (unsuccessfully) to incorporate a municipal government in St. John's, and he oversaw both the opening of the Supreme Court and the establishment of a government council made up of local military and civilian dignitaries. Yet his appetite for innovation and reform had limits, and when the British government, against his wishes, established a representative assembly in 1832 the immediate result was little more than a steady stream of disputes between the elected members of the assembly and Cochrane's appointed council.

The ensuing political stalemate, added to increasing discontent about the enormous sums of money Cochrane was pouring into the construction of Government House, led to the collapse of his administration and his recall to England. Throughout much of this eventful governorship, Cochrane was keeping a semi-regular private journal, and even though his entries tend to focus on his personal life and views rather than his political work, the journals can still offer readers today intriguing glimpses of Newfoundland society during this key period in the islands history. (2)

Now owned by the National Library of Scotland, Cochrane's journals fill seven volumes, covering 1824 through 1836. There are major gaps between mid-July 1829 and early April 1830 and from early August 1833 until mid-October 1835; in addition, some shorter periods include few or no entries. The entries that Cochrane made while stationed in Newfoundland range from comments on local society, to notes on (or complaints about) the weather, to descriptions of landscape and accounts of his social engagements. It is primarily the physical and social world that he documents, and even though elements of his political and professional life seep in, Cochrane appears uninterested in using his journal to duplicate or round out the sort of information he was providing in his public correspondence--an observation that might be reinforced by the fact that the most significant lapse in his journal-keeping occurs during the troubled period around and after his departure from Newfoundland. The strictly informal, private nature of the journal is also implied by Cochrane's decision to leave his work unrevised and in manuscript. While two of his first cousins--his namesake the tenth Earl of Dundonald and the naval officer John Dundas--published books drawn from similar notes and records of their travels in the service of their country, (3) Cochrane apparently had no interest in making a literary name for himself. Yet precisely because the journal entries were written at or near the time of the events he was recording and were never revised for publication, they have an immediacy often missing from more polished, formal accounts of the island, and they offer what is now an unfamiliar perspective on life in 1820s St. John's. Even if--like any strictly private document--they are at times obscure or repetitive, they deserve attention as a picture of a place and a society that, in Cochrane's eyes, merge comfortable British provincialism with the exoticism of the wild and the remote.

That said, the neglect of the journals is not entirely surprising. …

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