While Acadia (present-day Nova Scotia) has often been characterized as the “step-child of French colonial policy,”1 Newfoundland could probably be characterized in a similar manner, except that it was Britain’s step-child. In their early days, control of each province was tossed back and forth between France and Britain, much like a juggling act. The appeal of Acadia was that it was ideal to establish a settlement there for the benefits of a harbour for trade and naval strength. Newfoundland’s main appeal lay in its fishery.
As Keith Matthews points out in his article “The Nature and the Framework of Newfoundland History”, Newfoundland was “rather different from the English mainland colonies. “2 Likewise, Naomi Griffiths, in her article “The Golden Age: Acadian Life, 1713 – 1748”, tells us that the Acadians had a “life of considerable distinctiveness. “3 The acknowledgment of the uniqueness of each province when compared to the mainland North American colonies (whether French or British) is one of two main similarities between these two articles.
The point of my essay is to point out what each of the two authors regard as the key ingredient (or ingredients) in the early societies of the two colonies. In my readings of these two articles, I discovered very contrasting approaches to the histories of the colonies. While Matthews mainly explores the importance of the fishery in early Newfoundland, taking a look at how the economy shaped Newfoundland, Griffiths takes a broader, more general look at the social, political and economic history of Acadia, essentially, looking at all facets of the lives of the early Acadians.
Before discussing the contrasting approaches of the articles, I would like to bring to the reader’s attention the other similarity I found. It concerns both authors’ views of the political policies of each colony. In this, we see Griffiths’ first key ingredient of Acadian society. The settlers saw the unreasonableness of their allegiances constantly changing from England to France and back again. As a result of this, without the guidance of a ruling power, the settlers worked together amongst themselves to solve this problem.
Their solution, a political policy of neutrality, “became the cornerstone of Acadian politics during the years 1713 to 1748. “4 The Acadians were able to delay the taking of an Oath of Allegiance to England’s King George I by saying that they feared for their safety from the Indians (who probably wouldn’t appreciate a friendship between the English and the Acadians), and that issues regarding their religious freedom had yet to be worked out. 5
Similarly, Matthews briefly touches on a code of behaviour that was adopted by the migratory fishermen in the very early days of Newfoundland, to curb “anarchy and violence between the fishing fleets. “6 Despite the wars between the European countries of England, France, Portugal and Spain, their respective fishermen realised that if the salt cod industry in Newfoundland was to bring prosperity to any of them, an agreement, even though not formal or acknowledged by their governments, must be made.
Like Nova Scotia, the power of Newfoundland changed hands and boundaries for the different countries’ areas were fluid. But, a mutual respect for fellow fishermen conquered the obsessive, power-hungry desires of the mother countries to solely control the island and its fishery. The most marked contrast between the articles was found in the exploration of the history itself. Although the view is somewhat narrow, arguably, Matthews’ approach is extremely viable — there was little else in the lives of Newfoundland’s settlers besides the fishery.
These first settlers realised that they “must go a-fishing if they wanted to make a living”, because the option of agriculture or any other industry at the time was out of the question. 7 When he goes on, in the second half of the article, to describe the seven periods of Newfoundland’s history, each period is based on a specific period of the fishery. Even his seventh and last period of their history, which he called the “era of Newfoundland’s emergence as an independent community,” is described in terms relating to the fishery: “extinction of every fishing competitor … reated one of the greatest booms that Newfoundland had ever known.
“And, as he sums it all up with amazing precision in the first half of his article, The fishery drew men to Newfoundland; the fishery shaped the policies of the nations concerned in it; the fishery both created and limited the way of life of the colonists; and the fishery, through its fluctuating prosperity, its assumed value to Europe, and the conflicts it caused, determined when, where, in what numbers, and under what conditions the colonists should settle. 9
Griffiths’ comparably all-encompassing view shows us, besides the look at the politics of Acadia that I discussed earlier, how home and social life was for the Acadians. She uses demographic evidence to point out their high life expectancy and their phenomenal birth rates. We see that these people, because of this “presence of an older generation,” had a “rich heritage of memories of past politics. “10 From this statement, we get more proof that their politics were a large part of their lives, something that Griffiths also explains.
We also get to view how their houses were run — “daily life … would be governed by the seasons;”11 the women had the daunting task of organizing the clothing for their exceptionally large families, which was probably a literal “year-round occupation;”12 and that religion was “an important and vital ingredient in life, but not the sole shaping force of the social and cultural life of their communities. 13 From the economic prospective, we are told that they have a well-diversified economy, much different from that of Newfoundland, consisting of farming, fishing, hunting and trade (both legal and illegal). 14 She sums up all of the evidence she has gathered in this phrase: “the life of the Acadians … was … the life of a people in fortunate circumstances. “15 The different approaches taken by these two authors make the differences in these two colonies much easier to see.
While Matthews’ view is mainly of the economic historian, in the glimpses we get of the other parts of their lives, we see that their economy dominates those as well, and any other view of Newfoundland’s history during this time might not give us much more information. Griffiths’ broad view of Acadian life proves that the Maritime colonies were (and are) different from one another, and should not simply be lumped into one category — their differences are just as profound as the differences between the other colonies.