Magazine article History Today

Newfoundland's Twin Celebrations

Magazine article History Today

Newfoundland's Twin Celebrations

Article excerpt

NEWFOUNDLAND HAS TWO REASONS to celebrate as it approaches the millennium. Until 1949 Britain's oldest colony, in 1999 it marks fifty years as Canada's tenth province. In 2000, Newfoundland also remembers the arrival of the Vikings a thousand years before. Recent evidence confirms that credit for its discovery can no longer be attributed to John Cabot in 1497.

An Italian citizen, Cabot obtained a petition from Henry VII of England for a voyage of discovery, hoping that he would find spices and jewels. Instead he found fish. Portuguese, French and English mariners followed him to Newfoundland for its cod caught off the Grand Banks. They also hunted whales and seals for oil, soap and food. its a result of their efforts, the merchants and sea-captains made fortunes for themselves.

In 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert formally claimed Newfoundland for England. But the English authorities treated Newfoundland as a fishing station, not as a place to settle.

North America's first court of justice was held in Trinity presided over by mariner and merchant Sir Richard Whitbourne, who called all the fishermen together in 1615 and held court. In 1620, he published a book, Discourse and Discovery of Newfoundland.

With the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 France's expansion in the area was curtailed and Newfoundland finally ceded to Britain. France kept just two islands south of Newfoundland -- St Pierre and Miquelon.

When Church of England missionary Dr William Carson arrived in the island's capital St John's in 1808, he found to his dismay that Newfoundland was governed by nonresident English naval governors who operated trader laws designed to discourage settlement and to promote the fishing industry. Taxes collected in the colony, which should have paid for new streets, lighting, education and poor relief, were taken out of the island.

Carson's anger was also directed at the justice system in Newfoundland. A Supreme Court had been founded in 1791 but was presided over by inexperienced officials and had little influence outside the capital. Surrogate courts were established in major outlying centres. But naval officers continued to exercise most judicial authority. In 1819, two Carbonneau fishermen were tried and convicted of petty offences by a naval officer from HMS Grasshopper. The men were brutally whipped with a cat o'nine tails until they collapsed.

Thanks to Dr Carson's reforming efforts, in 1816 Richard Keats was the last non-resident governor of Newfoundland. From then on the governor remained in Newfoundland all the year round.

`William Carson,' said Newfoundland's first premier Joey Smallwood, `through his efforts, often alone and ostracised, succeeded in advancing Newfoundland's state from the rule of naval governors to the legislative assembly'.

In 1824 Newfoundland officially became a British colony. However, the colony remained under the absolute jurisdiction of the government. In 1832, the British Parliament granted representative self-government.

In St John's, the Colonial Building, next to Government House on Military Road, is one of the few architectural structures to have survived a fire in 1892. It was here that Newfoundland's legislature had its first permanent home.

In 1934, during the Great Depression, Newfoundland's government, faced with economic collapse, opted temporarily to give up self-government in favour of rule by a British-appointed commission. …

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