Newfoundland in the North Atlantic
“You can take the boy out of the bay, but you can’t take the bay out of the boy,” is a well-known phrase in this province. Perhaps this is the case with Shannon Ryan, honourary research professor of history at Memorial University.
He begins his most recent book, “A History of Newfoundland in the North Atlantic to 1818,” with a fond and nostalgic reference to a certain road in his hometown.
“Fisherman’s Road! Just why a road in Riverhead, Harbour Grace (or as we say, The River), would be christened so is difficult to understand; fishermen lived everywhere.”
Fisherman’s Road runs between St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church and the old school for about a mile.
Given that Ryan’s forebears, as well as “the other thousands living in eastern Newfoundland were fishermen, why a road could be singled out
Ryan admits his approach to the study of history is a
traditional one: “My training and writings and inclinations indicate that I study sources and then identify questions … that deal with economic, social,
military, and political issues.”
to be named after fishermen or a fisherman raises an interesting question — which must remain unanswered.”
Two themes run through Ryan’s work. First, “the experience of a region in the North American world that lacked a suitable agricultural base but had a major supply of codfish that was in great demand.” Second, “the evolution of this successful migratory fishery (Newfoundland) from that of a fishing ship anchored on the Grand Banks in the North Atlantic to that of a Colony by 1818.”
Ryan admits his approach to the study of history is a traditional one: “My training and writings and inclinations indicate that I study sources and then identify questions … that deal with economic, social, military, and political issues.”
He takes the reader on a journey, starting with the origins of fishery and settlement to 1660. He then discusses, in turn, chaos (1660-1713), reprieve (1713-63), and consolidation (1763-93), before concluding with the colony confirmed (1793-1818).
By 1815, he concludes, “Newfoundland’s history as a British migratory fishery had come to a close and it was about to be recognized as another, albeit unique, British Colony. Thus, Newfoundland, which had always been a fishery based around an island, had finally become a colony based on the cod and seal fisheries.”
Along the way, Ryan touches on communities in Conception Bay, including Bay Roberts, Brigus, Bristol’s Hope, Carbonear, Cupids, Harbour Grace and Riverhead.
The story of Pierre le Moyne d’Iberville’s activities continues to captivate reader sensibilities.
“When he entered Conception Bay,” Ryan writes, “d’Iberville … looked forward to taking all the booty. He had apparently decided that Carbonear was the richest port and was determined to reach it as soon as possible … They bypassed Brigus and captured Port de Grave. They sent a resident from there to Brigus with the command that three men from Brigus go to Carbonear to meet them …
“Various attempts were made to take the island (Carbonear Island), but all failed. D’Iberville destroyed all nearby settlements, looted them, used the cattle and other animals for food, and, using Carbonear as a base, raided the rest of the North Shore of Conception Bay and continued into Trinity Bay as far south as Heart’s Content, returning from there to Carbonear. Once again there was a general rendezvous in Carbonear and orders were given to destroy all build- ings, boats, and fishing premises.”
Ryan also writes about Peter Easton, the “notorious English pirate (who) had established his headquarters in Harbour Grace, from where he preyed on fishing ships — taking ships, men , a n d su p p l i e s . Folklore/folk history has it that a Lt. Gilbert Pike had been an officer on Easton’s ship before Easton turned to piracy and that Sheila NaGeira, an Irish princess and a prisoner on a Dutch ship captured by Easton and taken prisoner by Easton, fell in love with Pike and married him and eventually raised a family in Carbonear.”
Stories such as these go a long way toward demolishing the mistaken impression that history has to be boring in order to be accurate. To the contrary, Ryan’s writing sparkles with historical insight.
Fellow historian Patrick O’Flaherty notes Ryan’s “wit, his understanding of our culture, and his deep knowledge of the past.” Glyndwr Williams, professor emeritus of the University of London, says the book “is written with confidence — almost a swagger at times — and exudes an air of authority.”
In short, Ryan is intent on asking “why did my ancestors … move away from the coast, away from the beach; why and how did they develop a life without a house, a stage, a flake on the beach, or landwash …? Why were they able to break the mould established in the 1500s and create a different kind of community without the ‘Ocean at their Door’?”
“A History of Newfoundland in the North Atlantic to 1818” is published by Flanker Press of St. John’s.