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CHAPTER VII

 

 

Arrival at St. John's and meeting with Dr. Stuwitz - Christmas Amusements- Description of a Newfoundland Settlement - The Fishery Habits of the Planters - Character of the Natives-Politics - Fogs of Newfoundland

On my arrival at St. John's, I found residing there Dr. Stuwitz, a Norwegian, Professor of Natural History in the University of Christiania. He was travelling at the expense of his government to investigate and collect specimens of the natural history of the northern part of America, amd had commenced with Newfoundland. He intended during the winter to visit St. Pierre, Fortune Bay, and the southern coast of Newfoundland, and to return to St. John's in the spring, time enough to accompany the annual sealing expedition, which leaves that place about the beginning of March. As I also wished to see the ice-fields which are visited by the sealers, in order to examine whether they ever contained boulders of rock or other matters I agreed to accompany him. In the meanwhile I spent the winter in St. John's, intending to be ready in May to set out again on my coasting survey and examine the rest of the shores of Newfoundland in search of mineral wealth and productions. During the latter part of November and the first two-thirds of December there was dull disagreeable weather, with occasional snowstorms and frost, interrupted by thaws. Stuwitz sailed, on the 8th of December, for Fortune Bay, in an open boat, with a little cuddy at each end in which it was just possible to stow a bed, leaving barely room enough to sit or lie down.

During the latter part of December, and the whole of January, the weather was beautiful the air clear with sharp frost and snow on the ground, but no very intense cold. The harbour was never once frozen over, although the brooks and ponds gradually became fast. This was the season of general holiday. The lower orders ceased work; and, during Christmas, they amuzed themselves by what seemed the relics of an old English custom, which, I believe was imported from the West of England where it still lingers. Men, dressed in all kinds of fantastic disguises, and some in women's clothes, with gaudy colours and painted faces, and generally armed with a bladder full of pebbles tied to a kind of whip, paraded the streets, playing practical jokes on each other and on the passers by, performing rude dances, and soliciting money or grog. They called themselves Fools and Mummers. The merchants and higher classes shut up their books and neglected their various employments, and amused themselves with sleighing parties to various points where the roads were open; while a general series of dinner parties commenced, varied now and then by an evening party and a dance. There was an amateur theatre, the profits of which were devoted to charitable purposes, and a performance took place once a fort-night, in which their several parts were well sustained both by the actors and the audience. There were, moreover, two public balls, for charitable institutions, that were well got up and numerously attended.

In the sleighing parties every gentleman took a lady in his sleigh, and away we went, twelve sleighs one after the other, into the country. Grog, wine, &c. were stored under the seats; and picking a nice smooth place, as on a pond, for instance, where it is sheltered from the wind, we cut down some trees, made a great fire, warmed up the soup &c. and picnicked on the snow. Returning to town by dark, we adjourned to the house of some one of the party, and finished off with a quadrille. Dinner-parties were likewise abundant, in very good style and taste, and of these I generally had to refuse one or two a week from preengagements. In order to contribute to the stock of amusements, Dr. Stabb and I gave some lectures on chemistry and geology. We were obliged to take a room which had previously only been used for the public meetings of the Catholic party (as they are called), and some persons would not enter it. After all, however, we were 'most numerously and respectably attended.'

In short, there was no lack of amusement, till the preparations for the sealing voyage began, towards the middle of February, to draw off the attention both of masters and men to the more serious business of life.

This winter was remarkably mild; the thermometer in the town never, I believe, sank below zero; and once or twice in the month of February the weather became so warm, that the snow melted on the hills, and a regular thaw took place. The temperature of the air on these occasions could hardly have been less than 50° Fahrenheit, though, as I had lent my last thermometer to Professor Stuwitz, I do not recollect the precise point at which I heard that it stood.

I cannot, perhaps, find a better opportunity than this of throwing together a few observations on some of the more remarkable facts connected with the trade and productions of the country. The first thing that strikes a stranger on entering a harbour in Newfoundland is the abundance of what are called the fish flakes and stages, together with the wooden wharfs and the great dark red storehouses. The fish flakes consist of a rude platform, raised on slender crossing poles, ten or twelve feet high, with a matting of sticks and boughs for a floor. On these the fish are laid out to dry, and planks are laid down along them in various directions, to enable the persons who have the care of the fish to traverse them. The surface of the ground being everywhere so rugged and uneven, this device has been resorted to in order to get a sufficiency of flat space; and in a populous cove or harbour the whole neighbourhood of the houses is surrounded by these flakes, beneath whose umbrageous and odoriferous shade is frequently to be found the only track from one house to the other. The stages are of stronger construction than the flakes, and are generally in the shape of a small pier jutting out into the water, consisting of a platform of poles laid close together, side by side, and nailed down to a strong framework that is supported by stout posts and shores. At the head of the stage are generally two or three poles, nailed horizontally against the upright posts, forming a rude ladder, up which it is necessary to climb from a boat in order to get on the stage. These are frequently the only landing places in a harbour. The central part of the stage is roofed over, either with boards or boughs, and here it is that the important operation of splitting and salting the fish usually takes place. Besides the flakes and stages, there is generally a set of rough wooden wharfs, supported on piles, and floored with boards, at the back of which are great wooden buildings, some for the reception of cured fish, and others for all kinds of merchandise. The outside of these buildings is painted according to the taste and fancy of the owner, but usually of a dark dull red. Now if the reader will picture to himself, in addition to all this, a few brigs and schooners at anchor in the harbour, and a multitude of small fishing-boats, varying in size from a two-oared punt to a half decked schooner-rigged craft of ten or fifteen tons;-a broken rocky shore, with a stunted wood and little patches of cleared and cultivated garden-ground;-one or two large-sized wooden houses, painted white, belonging to the merchants, and a number of unpainted wooden cottages scattered here and there at all possible angles with each other, perched upon rocks and hidden in nooks, belonging to the fishermen:-if, I say, he can associate all these things in his fancy, he will have before him a tolerably correct notion of a Newfoundland settlement. Of course, in the larger places, more especially in St. John's, these elements are overpowered and thrown into the background by others of more imposing character. Large stone houses, good-sized churches, chapels, and courthouses: shops built of wood and painted white, a tolerably regular street, and a road or two, mark the seat of greater wealth, and a more numerous population. Even in St. John's, however, fish flakes are by no means entirely absent, though they are confined to the south side of the harbour, and to a small nook, bearing the euphonious appellation of Maggoty Cove.

In some parts of the coast, where the water is sufficiently shallow for the purpose, the codfish are now caught in seines or other nets. This operation requires more capital to commence with than the mere boat and hooks and lines of the common fishermen. It is therefore chiefly pursued by the merchant, or by the richer and more considerable of the "planters," and a great jealousy exists on the subject in some places. Some people even go so far as to say that all nets should be prohibited, as destroying the chance of the poorer class. Setting aside the difficulty, however, of such a prohibition, there are some places, as about Greenspond and Cape Freels, where the net is used almost exclusively; and little cod would be caught without it. It is obvious, moreover, that the use of the net is advantageous to the trade at large, as shoals, or, as they are called, "schools" of fish, may sometimes be seen sweeping alongshore that refuse to bite at all; and, but for the net, would escape altogether. Besides there seems such an incalculable abundance of the fish, that there will always be enough to hook, enough to jig, enough to net, and more than enough to go away. One calm July evening I was in a boat just outside St. John's harbour, when the sea was pretty still, and the fish were "breaching," as it is termed. For several miles around us the calm sea was alive with fish. They were sporting on the surface of the water, flirting their tails occasionally into the air, and as far as could be seen the water was rippled and broken by their movements. Looking down into its clear depths, codfish under codfish, of all sizes, appeared swimming about as if in sport. Some boats were fishing, but not a bite could they get, the fish being already gorged with food. I speared one great fellow with the spike of the boathook; but there being no tail to it, he got away; and, as far as I could see, that was the only fish touched. Had the ground been shallow enough to use nets, the harbour might have been filled with fish.

To resume, however, with the usual course of labour of a planter and his family. In some places, they remove at the close of the fishing season, with their families and furniture, from their summer residences, into more sheltered and woody districts, where firewood is more abundant, and the materials for making oars, punts, staves, hoops, &c. may be had forthe labour of cutting them. Others employ themselves in hunting, in shooting wildfowl, ptarmigan, which they call partridges, or deer, or in trapping martens, foxes, otters, and other animals, for their fur. The latter employment, however, except in very remote settlements, is seldom resorted to; and its place is supplied in Avalon and the north coast by the sealing expeditions. In some favoured spots, namely, at the mouths of the principal brooks, salmon-fishing is followed during the summer, by one, two, or more families; and in all places, besides the codfish, the dogfish is caught for the oil extracted from its liver; and the herring and capelin are sometimes cured, as well as used for bait. There is a whaling establishment in Fortune Bay; and I have often wondered, from the abundance of whales and grampus on the northern shore, and more especially in Trinity and Bonavista Bays, that no whaling speculation has been there set on foot.

It is an ungrateful task to turn critic on the characters of a people among whom one has lived, and of whose hospitality one has partaken. I can, however, assert that the Newfoundlanders are simple, honest, industrious, goodnatured and hospitable people, and have the virtues of all hardy races exposed to the toils and dangers of an adventurous life. Some of them are, no doubt, fond of rum; but though, during Christmas, or in holiday times, they may occasionally be "fou for weeks the gither," the mass of the people are not habitual drunkards. Many are teetotallers of old standing. The Roman Catholic part of the population, more especially, have an old custom called "cagging," taking a vow, that is, before the priest, not to touch rum or spirits for a year or two, or for their whole lives, or while they are on shore, &c., and these vows are scrupulously adhered to. Of late years, excited by elections, and the instigations of a few turbulent spirits and by the old party feelings and enmities imported from Ireland, there have been one or two outbreaks at St. John's and Carbonear; and some acts of private or public vengeance have been perpetrated, to the extent of maiming the person. Scenes quite as bad have taken place at elections at home, more especially, I believe, in Ireland; but they naturally produce more excitement in a scattered and usually tranquil population.

One point in the character of most of the inhabitants of Newfoundland seems to be common to the whole of North America, namely, the eager inquiry after news, and the propensity to exaggeration and invention, to use the most polite terms. It is really astonishing how news of the most trifling matters, especially if dashed with a little scandal, flies about, not only in St. John's, but along the coast to the most distant settlements. Reports of the most ludicrous nature-ludicrous for exaggeration, even if they have any foundation in fact-gain instant credence. It seems to be a stain on a man's character if on coming into a harbour he has not a budget of news; so that if he knows none, he immediately draws on his imagination. The seal hunters, and the furriers in the country, make a point of giving false information as to the results of their expeditions; and they were, once or twice, quite angry with me for telling the truth on these points. "Sure, sir, what's the use of letting them know what we've got?" "But what's the use of telling a lie about it?" "Faix! and it's no lie; what call have they to be asking about it?" The consequence of this indifference to truth is a bad one. Malicious sayings, and tale-bearings, reports of private conversations, and remarks with ill-natured emphasis or additions, and all the petty malice of scandal, are rife in all the settlements I visited; often introducing the most bitter private dissensions into communities that might otherwise be happy and united. The first society in St. John's is imitated in this matter by the humble fishermen in the most retired outharbour, in a manner that to the unprejudiced observer seems the most severe satire upon them.

The point most deficient, however, in the character of most of the lower classes of the inhabitants is a want of manly independence and self-reliance. They are easily led, and always look for guidance; being ready to follow any one who will take the trouble of thinking and deciding for them. This feeling has resulted, in the English part of the population, from their habit of depending upon and looking up to their merchant for everything; and the same effect has been produced amongst the Irish from the implicit reliance they place upon their priest. It is evident that, where this feeling of dependence exists, there can only be a negative character, for without some degree of self-reliance and self-decision, a man may do little wrong, but neither is he likely to do any positive good. I believe, however, that these pernicious influences are on the decline; and that mercantile competition and early education will gradually elevate the character of the people of Newfoundland.

I have already alluded to their propensity to take advantage of the calamities of their neighbours, during fires and shipwrecks. They universally reason in this way: "If I don't save these goods, they will be lost: now I may as well have them as the sea or the fire!" My own men I found constantly talking in this way when speaking of a wreck; and certainly, when a vessel, entirely abandoned, is driven ashore, and neither her name nor her owners are known, the reasoning seems fair enough. It is probably in this way that a lax feeling has originated; and, when once prevalent, it is not unlikely to lead to various infractions of the rights of property. But this feeling is already on the decline in the more populous parts of the island; and the noble examples which the merchants and inhabitants of St. John's have afforded to the people at large cannot but have their effect. While I was in the country, there were several instances of shipwrecked crews, and large bodies of emigrant passengers, not merely clothed, fed, and taken care of, but refitted, their losses partly compensated, and themselves forwarded free of expense to ports near their places of destination. In proportion to its size and wealth there are few places in any part of the world where larger and more frequent subscriptions for charitable purposes are from time to time raised than in St. John's.

Of the political state of the country I shall forbear to speak at any length. There is now, unhappily, very considerable bitterness of party spirit; but what the cause may be no one seems able to tell. There are no political principles involved in the disputes: indeed, I cannot call to mind having ever once heard a political principle stated, either publicly or privately, while I was in the country. The old nicknames of Tory and Whig are bandied about, and there are dissensions between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants; but the sole feelings involved are, it would appear, certain conventional prejudices, and the struggle for personal or party power, influence, and emolument. The whole population is British, both actually and in thought and feeling: they are all loyal subjects of the English Crown; and the idea of separation from the mother country has never entered into the head of any, even the most violent among them. On the whole, I believe that if the points of difference could once be fairly understood and expressed, and if the two parties could agree among themselves as to the distribution of the public offices, their quarrels would die away simply for want of anything further to dispute about. Their political arrangements, therefore, can hardly be of sufficient general interest to call for further notice in this place.

 

Page contributed by: Bill Crant, February 22nd, 2000
Page revised: Sept 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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