Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

The Castaway Medyett Goodridge's Unvarnished Tale of Shipwreck and Desolation: Print Culture and Settler Colonialism in Newfoundland

Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

The Castaway Medyett Goodridge's Unvarnished Tale of Shipwreck and Desolation: Print Culture and Settler Colonialism in Newfoundland

Article excerpt


Narrative of a Voyage to the South Seas, and the Shipwreck of the Princess of Wales Cutter: with an Account of Two Years' Residence on an Uninhabited Island (1) is an obscure castaway narrative from 1838 with a special relation to Newfoundland. It is one of countless tales of shipwreck and castaways that circulated in the popular "transatlantic literature" of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (2) Through seven editions and reprints, it provided its author, Medyett Goodridge, a source of income in his late years. It has provided readers then and now with an authentic and truthful account of the physical and existential demands of life in the new extreme environments into which imperialism and adventure carried mariners in the early nineteenth century.

Narrative of a Voyage tells the story of how, in the year 1820, Medyett Goodridge, a young seafarer from Devon, was shipwrecked with a dozen other men on a remote island halfway between South Africa and Antarctica. They were left to subsist for both food and shelter on little else but the sea elephants and birds they managed to club to death on a godless rock at the bottom of the world that, for almost two years, they called home.

Medyett and his companions were eventually found by an American sealing crew with whom they then continued hunting and birding on the various smaller islands in the Southern Ocean, before crossing back into civilization in Van Diemen's Land, still dressed in the sealskin tunics they had made in the time of their desolation. In Hobart, Goodridge took various jobs, including bark cutter and ferryman, until he was finally able to make his way back to his father's hearth in Devon.

Back in England in 1831, 11 years after his departure, Medyett learned of his brother Henry's success in a seasonal fishing enterprise in Renews, Newfoundland. On Henry's passing, Medyett had expected, as an older brother, to inherit a portion of the Renews estate and to use the proceeds from it to return to the southern hemisphere and live out his last days in Van Diemen's Land. (3) Henry instead willed his estate to his son Alan, who, in another extraordinary Goodridge tale, built his own barque and sailed it single-handedly from Devon to Newfoundland. With this dramatic gesture, Medyett's nephew Alan effectively settled the Goodridges in Renews. Within a generation, they had their own shipyard and schooners and were one of the three largest businesses on the island, connecting the fish produced in the island's remote outports to markets in the Caribbean and Southern Europe. Since then, they have continued to make significant contributions to the economy, culture, and political life of the island. They have been lawyers, artists, professors, and senior government administrators. Augustus Goodridge, great nephew to Medyett, was Prime Minister of the island for a brief period in 1894 during the political and financial turmoil of the early 1890s.

Their commercial enterprises declined with the reorganization of the political and economic life of the island after Confederation with Canada, as the founding merchant families gave way to the forces of North American consumerism and factory jobs. The Goodridges' rise and eventual decline as "principal inhabitants" or "planter gentry" of the young colony followed the emergence of Newfoundland from fishing station to settled colony and nation, to its decline as a sovereign nation and its eventual absorption into Canada. (4)

Narrative of a Voyage is a book about Newfoundland in only the most indirect of ways, since it was the loss of expected income from his brother's Newfoundland estate that led Medyett to write his memoir and tale of seafaring and shipwreck, as a way of supporting himself and his ailing wife in his late years back in Devon. It records a turning point in the family narrative when the proceeds made in Newfoundland might have been redirected to a settled life in Hobart, and a very different antipodean history of the Goodridges might have come to pass. …

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