Finding a book for Joey
Perhaps I can help Joey Smallwood, even in death. Please come with me back in time to April 1956, when a publication by the name of “Here in Newfoundland” made its debut. E.J. Bonnell and Gerald C. Peet, the editor and publisher, respectively, wanted to “give the Newfoundland public a high level of reading material — a level they justly deserve … We refer to a higher level or standard of material content, get-downand-dig-it-out type articles on topics of interest and importance reported impartially to our readers in an easy-reading format.”
The premiere edition includes an article by Jack A. White, “The Joe Smallwood You DON’T Know.”
White notes that Smallwood was a voracious reader, his “reading tastes” being “far, far heavier than the average man’s … His reading (most of it done at night when the average person is asleep) centres on histories of governments, biographies and autobiographies.
“Once, the premier read an average of one book-a-day, seven books-a-week for years. Time does not allow him to do that now, but he still reads four or five books at the same time, several chapters of one on a certain night, dropping it the next and returning to it later.”
Smallwood had once derived great pleasure from the book, “The Crew of the Water Wagtail” but, White adds, “try as he does, he cannot discover a copy today.”
I was successful in tracking down this book, which was written by R.M. Ballantyne (1825-94) and published in 1889.
In the first chapter (“A Rough Beginning”), the “Water Wagtail” sets sail from Bristol, England, on a fine spring morning early in the 16th century. She carries a 40-man crew, including a cook and a cabin boy. Paul Burns, a naturalist, is an “enthusiast of the deepest dye, with an inquiring mind, a sanguine disposition, and a fervent belief in all things great and good and grand.” Oliver Trench, the skipper’s son, is “little more than a boy of medium size, but bold as a bulldog and active as a weasel.” Big Swinton, Little Stubbs, George Blazer and Squill are aboard, as well. “The crew of the ‘Water Wagtail’ was unusually bad,” a friend of the master calling them thieves. The vessel’s destination is the Norwegian coast.
On their first day out, a squall bears down on the ship, blowing her far out upon the Atlantic Ocean, stoving in her bulwarks, carrying away her bowsprit and foretopmast, damaging her skylights, straining her rudder, and clearing her decks of anything not tied down.
The weather moderates, allowing for repairs and course resetting. However, when the easterly gales return with a vengeance, the wreck is compelled to run westward under bare poles. Meanwhile, the skipper turns to alcohol to drown his sorrows.
When the weather improves for the second time, the skipper resolves to steer by the stars. By then, though, a mutiny is underway.
Big Swinton suspects their vessel is heading to “that noo land,” discovered by John Cabot and his son, Sebastian. “They called it Newfoundland,” he says. “We must be a long way nearer to that land than to Norway, an’ it will be far easier to reach it. Moreover, the Cabots said that the natives there are friendly and peaceable, so it’s my opinion that we should carry on as we go till we reach Newfoundland, an’ see whether we can’t lead a jollier life there than we did in Old England.”
Big Swinton is delegated to seek Master Trench’s opinion about running to Newfoundland instead of resetting their course for Norway. Met with a sharp rebuke, he is ordered to attend to his duty.
That night, the mutineers act decisively, seizing the skipper, his son, Paul Burns and two officers.
Big Swinton informs Master Trench, “If you agree to navigate this ship to Newfoundland — good; if not we will heave you overboard.”
The skipper, then the two mates, defiantly refuse to accede to the mutineers’ request.
Moments later, the first chapter ends with a lookout exclaiming, “Land ho!”
Is it Newfoundland? Or someplace else? Will the “Water Wagtail” head to land or back out to sea? Will the mutineers succeed in their efforts to commandeer the vessel? What will become of the captured crew? These and many other questions are answered in the rest of the book.
If Joey Smallwood were alive today, I would gladly give him my copy of this book, which would undoubtedly warm the cockles of his heart.
— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org