The in­va­sion of Flat Is­lands


The Bon­av­ista Bay com­mu­nity of F lat Is­lands, first set­tled about 1800, was home to 650 men, women and chil­dren in 1919, at the end of the First World War. They made their liv­ing from the fish­ery. Most of the men, and a scat­ter­ing of its women, went to the Labrador each spring, fished there through­out the sum­mer, and came home in the fall.

It was a peace­ful out­port, one of scores if not hundreds of like set­tle­ments through­out the is­land. That peace was rudely shat­tered early in July 1919, when the New­found­land govern­ment or­dered the Royal Navy to in­vade Flat Is­lands.

The trou­ble be­gan in the late spring. Ru­mours reached the au­thor­i­ties in St. John’s that the good folk of the is­lands were mak­ing moon­shine, thus break­ing the govern­ment’s mo­nop­oly on liquor sales. Two New­found­land Con­stab­u­lary con­sta­bles from Green­spond were or­dered to make a pa­trol to the com­mu­nity. They at­tempted to do so on June 24, but were met by an an­gry crowd who in­ter­cepted their boat and told them to re­turn from whence they came.

Threats of vi­o­lence

Noth­ing daunted, the au­thor­i­ties re­sponded three days later by send­ing Isaac Mif­flen, the lo­cal mag­is­trate, and a squad of po­lice­men to carry out the mis­sion. The sole reporter who heard first-hand ac­counts of the in­ci­dent re­ported later that this group were met by an­gry men who or­dered them “to leave the is­land im­me­di­ately or they would sink the boat and blow the po­lice­men to hell.”

Dis­cre­tion be­ing the bet­ter part of val­our, His Wor­ship and his ac­com­pa­ny­ing po­lice of­fi­cers re­turned to Green­spond.

The govern­ment, in St. John’s, were hav­ing none of this. Us­ing their sel­dom-in­voked right to call upon the Royal Navy to “sup­port the civil au­thor­ity,” they asked for a war­ship to be sent from St. John’s to en­able them to over­come the re­sis­tance of the boot­leg­gers of Flat Is­lands. Hm­scorn­wall, a 9,800 ton, 440-foot long ar­moured cruiser whose 22,000 horse­power en­gines drove her at 22 knots, was as­signed the task.

The in­va­sion was di­rected by no less a figu re than Al­fred B. Morine, the at­tor­ney gen­eral in the Con­ser­va­tive ad­min­is­tra­tion of Sir Michael Cashin. He was tak­ing no chances. Thecorn­wall­car­ried a crew of 678 men, and was armed with 14 six-inch quick-fir­ing can­nons and nine 12-pound quick-fir­ing guns. And if that wasn’t enough fire­power, she also car­ried two 18-inch tor­pe­does.

The boot­leg­gers would be brought to jus­tice.

Joey Small­wood re­ported on in­ci­dent

Thecorn­wal­lleft St. John’s early on the morn­ing of Mon­day, June 30. De­layed by fog, she went first to Green­spond to pick up the po­lice of­fi­cers and then to the Flat Is­lands. She ar­rived there on Fri­day, July 4. An in­trepid young reporter from St. John’s named Joseph Small­wood was aboard. He de­scribed what hap­pened in his story, pub­lished in theevening Tele­gra­mon Mon­day the 7th:

“At eight o’clock, the land­ing party, con­sist­ing of forty-eight marines ... the po­lice­men, un­der In­spec­tor- Gen­eral of Po­lice Hutch­ings, sailors, Mag­is­trate Mif­flen and the Tele­gram reporter, num­ber­ing ninety all told, hav­ing been served out with re­volvers, am­mu­ni­tion and other sup­plies, took their places” in the ship’s boats.

“A maxim quick-fir­ing gun, ca­pa­ble of fir­ing six hun­dred shots a minute, was mounted in the bow of the cut­ter, with the gun team ready.”

The land­ing party met no op­po­si­tion. In­deed, only women and chil­dren stood at the wharf.

But, Small­wood re­ported: “this did not de­ceive the land­ing party, how­ever, as it was felt that such an in­no­cent- look­ing scene might have been a trap, and that be­hind the boul­ders and rocks lay dozens of des­per­ate men armed with seal­ing guns and fowl­ing pieces ready to die if needs be, be­fore al­low- ing the po­lice to ar­rest them.”

The truth was that most of the men had left sev­eral days ear­lier for the sum­mer fish­ery in Labrador, but seven who had stayed be­hind were cap­tured and car­ried back to St. John’s on board thecorn­wall. They ap­peared be­fore court there, and were charged with ob­struct­ing the po­lice, re­sist­ing ar­rest and loose and dis­or­derly con­duct.

All pleaded not guilty, and told the mag­is­trate that they had hired Richard A. Squires as their lawyer. Squires, a bar­ris­ter of some stand­ing, was Leader of the Lib­eral Party.

But Morine was still not sat­is­fied. War­rants were is­sued for the ar­rest of eight other men al­legedly in­volved in the fray. Con­stab­u­lary of­fi­cers were sent to Labrador to ar­rest them. They suc­ceeded in find­ing six amongst the crews of schooners fish­ing along the Labrador coast, and brought them back to St. John’s where they were charged with the same of­fences.

The Op­po­si­tion in the House of Assem­bly, led by Squires and Wil­liam Coaker, were quick to con­demn Morine for his use of over­whelm­ing force. Un­daunted, Morine stood for elec­tion in the three-mem­ber con­stituency of Bon­av­ista Bay in the Novem­ber 1919 elec­tion. He fin­ished at the bot­tom of the poll, with 1,455 votes. Coaker won 3,732 votes and was elected at the head of the list, with the other two seats be­ing filled by his Lib­eral-union­ist col­leagues.

There was no doubt what the peo­ple of Bon­av­ista Bay thought of the in­ci­dent.

None of the 13 pris­on­ers ever stood trial. The charges against them were to be heard in St. John’s later that fall, on Nov. 10. By then, Squires had be­come prime min­is­ter af­ter the Lib­eral-fpu coali­tion vic­tory in the gen­eral elec­tion. The charges were dropped, and no more was ever heard of them. There is no record of what hap­pened to the home brew, as­sum­ing there ever was any on Flat Is­lands.

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