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Ice Hunters

Book cover


At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Newfoundland crossed the divide from fishing station to colony.  Most historians, myself included, have tended to take a colonial-centered view of this transitional period, and we explain it by pointing out that the migratory cod fishermen discovered the seal herds and stayed to hunt them.  This explanation is incomplete, and we must begin to appreciate the growing appetite of the urban and industrial world for oils: fish, sea mammal and vegetable.  In my study of the Newfoundland saltfish trade, Fish  of Water, I examined the appropriate records from 1814 to 1914 and concluded that:

Newfoundland's political independence was incompatible with the commercial reality of the international saltfish trade [because] its economy remained primarily dependent upon the resources, connections and  support of Great Britain's international commercial arrangements and activities.........

Although this conclusion is valid while one remains focused on the important cod fishery, it invites further questions relating to the evolution of Newfoundland from a fishing station to a dominion and, finally, to its economic and political collapse in 1934. The principal question that remains is why Newfoundland sought increasing political independence if it was so dependent on Britain for its commercial and economic existence. Only by studying the history of the seal fishery can we fully understand what happened in Newfoundland during this period.


...........In spite of the dismal end of the seal fishery--and by 1914, the end was at hand--one must give credit to this industry for the emergence and growth of the colony of Newfoundland, which included both the island and the coast of Labrador.   Clearly, in order to satisfy its appetite, the industrial and technical revolution devoured Newfoundland's resources in the same way it consumed the oil resources of the far-flung corners of the world; but the discovery of almost inexhaustible petroleum supplies changed the demands of the market place. At the same time, the breakthrough in electricity and further advances in the chemical industry brought other changes to the international oil markets. It was not just the collapse in international trade that led to the collapse of the Newfoundland economy in the 1930s. Rather, it was the rapid expansion of oil-based industrialization in the world's leading nations which left Newfoundland, and much of the underdeveloped world, behind. As a result, in 1934, unable to produce much of what the world really needed, and unable to negotiate the sale of what they did produce, Newfoundlanders surrendered their independence in an attempt to survive--a sad ending, but perhaps inevitable.

The fact remains, the seal fishery created and maintained a society, a culture and a colony and left a legacy that has enriched Canada's tenth province. While the work of the men and women in the Newfoundland cod fishery must never be underestimated, cod alone did not lead to the growth of permanent settlement on a viable scale. It was only after they became ice hunters that the migrant fishermen settled and literally sculped a colony from the Arctic ice floes.