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Susan McCorquodale

A History of Newfoundland and Labrador, by Frederick W. Rowe, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Toronto, 1980, 563p.

This book sets out to provide a "comprehensive general history for adults" and it admirably succeeds in doing so. Senator Rowe is not an academic historian, obviously, but he is able and experienced in historical writing, witness his earlier books on the history of education in Newfoundland and on the Beothuks. This book was undertaken, the author tells us, because since Prowse wrote his famous study in 1895 there has been an accumulation of both primary and secondary documentation which is not readily available to the general public and because there has been in the last forty years an increased interest in Newfoundland's affairs both historical and contemporary. Dr. Rowe's chief asset in this enterprise is that he is thorough in his research and he writes well; the book is readable, informative and clear.

We begin with a tour around the island and Labrador, an introduction to the physical geography, the climate and the flora and fauna of the province. We proceed from there to eight or nine chapters on the early history of settlement, relations with the West Country of England, of piracy and wars and a balanced chapter on how white man's ignorance and disease more than destructiveness wiped out a whole people. the Beothuks. The next eight or nine chapters deal with the nineteenth century and pick up on the coming of representative and responsible government., the question of the French Shore and the politics and economics of the Newfoundland railway. The "French Shore" meant direct French involvement with Newfoundland from the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 until 1904 when finally Britain and France reached agreement and Newfoundland was at last entitled to full rights over her total land areas. As for the railway, Canada and Newfoundland as separate dominions shared a common experience as the politics of the railway shaped the Politics of each country. Economically, the railway strained both nations, but it broke the back of the smaller one. The last eight or nine chapters bring us into the twentieth century, two world wars, a very even-handed assessment of the Commission of Government episode, and a good meaty chapter on Confederation. We finish with two disappointing chapters on the post1949 years.

Gradually one sees the pattern of the chapters emerging. Dr. Rowe concentrates on getting the facts before us, but he also attempts to hold the balance between conflicting points of view, and the conclusions of various writers both "ancient" and modern. To an academic it is annoying not to have all these references footnoted back to the original sources, but perhaps author and publisher are correct that this habit distracts the general reader at whom, as noted, the book is aimed. What I do think we can more legitimately complain of is the lack of headings within chapters. Rowe tries to remember that history is not just politics and each chapter has a concluding section on social and economic developments, but more than once it happens that in one paragraph we can be deep in denominational conflict over education (p. 289) and in the next paragraph, without any signal from the publisher, we are into economic development questions. It would have been so simple for a good editor to pick up the need for a heading to warn the reader that we had slipped for instance at p. 345 from a discussion of the forest industry to questions of international fishing treaties. My point is that for the general reader a few small things might have improved the book. There are for instance no pictures to break what is a comparatively long narrative. Apart from two excellent maps and what I count as five headings we march relentlessly on. Across my desk this week has come a recent more academic history, Canada Since 1945 (by Bothwell, Drummond and English) and it is full of pictures, charts and even cartoons. Something like this would have added to this book and surely not have raised the price that much.

The quality of what we are being told depends to some degree on the quantity and quality of the sources. On such issues as the railway or the Commission of Government where there is a sizeable body of academic writing, Rowe weaves a balanced and fair-minded account. Where the groundwork has still to be done, for instance, concerning the social effects of the second world war, the narrative is thin. This is not to say that Rowe does not write history. I particularly liked his treatment of the myths surrounding the credit system and the out port merchant (p. 354). He also charts a skillful course through the shoals of the various religious and class conflicts embedded in the confederation fight, but by and large he is dependent on his sources. In the last two chapters where one might have hoped for an original treatment coming from Dr. Rowe's personal involvement in events, we are left high and dry. What is a good book is marred by a superficial treatment invented by J.R. Smallwood, i.e., "in 1949 there were fewer than 10,000 automobiles in Newfoundland, in 1980 there are over 140,000" (p. 505). I had hoped for better, but maybe that will be . in Dr. Rowe's next book. In the meantime, for the general reader interested in Newfoundland, this history is an excellent choice.

Susan McCorquodale, Department of Political Science, Memorial University


Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 4 no 2
1981






Last Updated: 2019-07-15