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The Rule of the Admirals

The Rule of the Admirals: Law, Custom, and Naval Government in Newfoundland, 1699-1832

  • Book Info
    The Rule of the Admirals
    Book Description:

    Jerry Bannister'sThe Rule of the Admiralsexamines governance in Newfoundland from the rule of the fishing admirals in 1699 to the establishment of representative government in 1832. It offers the first in-depth account of the rise and fall of the system of naval government that dominated the island for more than a century.

    In this provocative look at legal culture in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Newfoundland, Bannister explores three topics in detail: naval government in St. John's, surrogate courts in the outports, and patterns in the administration of law. He challenges the conventional view that early Newfoundland was a lawless frontier isolated from the rest of the Atlantic world, and argues that an effective system of naval government emerged to meet the needs of those in power.

    An original and perceptive work, Bannister's argument demands that we reconsider much of our knowledge of early Newfoundland history. As he re-examines governance prior to an elected assembly and places his analysis firmly within the material conditions of Newfoundland society, Bannister provides a groundbreaking reinterpretation of a critical period in the island's colonial development. Ultimately,The Rule of the Admiralssheds light on one of the most misunderstood chapters in Canadian and British colonial history.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8228-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Tables, Illustrations, and Appendices
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    R. Roy McMurtry

    Jerry Bannister is a young historian in the early stages of his career. Already, however, as this book attests, he has emerged as a major scholar actively reinterpreting the history of Newfoundland and its place in the early British Empire.

    Previous historical studies created enduring stereotypes which unduly emphasized the islandʹs lack of social and governmental structures, particularly the alleged weaknesses of ʹnaval government.ʹ With few exceptions, historians still see eighteenth-century Newfoundland through the lens of cultural exceptionalism as an isolated backwater cut off from the mainstream of Atlantic commerce and politics. In this original and perceptive work, Professor Bannister...

  5. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  7. Figures
    (pp. xxi-2)
  8. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 3-25)

    The past two decades have witnessed a remarkable expansion in the study of the trans-Atlantic links of the British Empire. This literature has provided a wealth of new evidence on how social power was organized in eighteenth-century North America. Building on the work of Bernard Bailyn, historians such as Ian Steele and David Cressy have argued that extensive networks of shipping and communication fostered strong cultural links throughout the Atlantic world.¹ While David Hancock and Alison Olson have asserted that merchants drew on a common British culture to exploit commercial opportunities and establish themselves as members of polite society, Eliga...

  9. 2 The Fishing Admirals System
    (pp. 26-63)

    The image of early Newfoundland remains captured in a famous caricature written by D.W. Prowse. In a statement that has become part of the islandʹs folklore, Prowse asserted: ʹI will try and describe the fishing admiral, as he appeared to our ancestors, clothed, not in the dignity of office, not in the flowing judicial robes, not in the simple and sober black of the police magistrate, but in the ordinary blue flushing jacket and trousers, economically besmeared with pitch, tar, and fish slime, his head adorned with an old sealskin cap, robbed from an Indian, or bartered for a glass...

  10. 3 An Unruly Set of People: The Struggle for Judicial Authority
    (pp. 64-103)

    In their study of the scientific revolution, Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer employ a metaphor that is useful in analysing developments within colonial law. They assert that instances of contestation offer invaluable entry points through which to examine the formation of institutionalized systems of ideas. Using the analogy of the ship in the bottle, they suggest that an episode of controversy offers an opportunity to see that a ship was once a pile of sticks and string and that it was once outside the bottle.¹ In a similar vein, the legal disputes that marked Newfoundland during the 1730s provide rare...

  11. 4 The Establishment of Naval Government
    (pp. 104-140)

    From 1749 to 1751 Newfoundland witnessed the single most important series of legal reforms undertaken prior to the grant of representative government. In what amounted to a revolution in government, Captain George Brydges Rodney, appointed governor in 1749, launched an array of initiatives that reshaped both the forms and function of governance. His activities have never been adequately addressed by Newfoundland historians.¹ Governor Rodneyʹs policies centralized government in a manner never before attempted: by the mid-1750s the Royal Navy had firmly staked its claim as the unquestioned arbiter of power and authority. The creation of a local collection of court...

  12. 5 A Fief of the Admiralty: Newfoundland under Naval Rule
    (pp. 141-186)

    In May 1830 George Robinson, the Tory MP for Worcester, rose in the House of Commons to speak on the state of Newfoundland. A partner in a Newfoundland merchant firm, Robinson was the chief parliamentary spokesman for the reform coalition that had recently emerged in St Johnʹs. After a brief introduction, he focused on the question of the islandʹs legal regime:

    It was one of the oldest colonies in our possession, and though of that importance which should entitle it to a well regulated and proper administration of its affairs, they had for a long period been conducted in a...

  13. 6 Using Mercy and Terror: The Patterns of Criminal Justice
    (pp. 187-221)

    In examining the administration of law in the criminal courts, this chapter explores how the power of the naval government was exercised in practice. Bringing offenders to justice at the autumn assizes provided the sole opportunity to punish capital offences until the squadron returned the following summer. For the governor at St Johnʹs, this constituted the climax of his seasonal government: supervising the assize session and the punishment of felons was the last official duty carried out before the flagship set sail. It marked both the literal and figurative affirmation of the stateʹs ultimate power to legally kill its own...

  14. 7 Enforcing the Social Order: Punishment in a Fishing Society
    (pp. 222-255)

    This chapter examines the use of noncapital punishments during the era of naval government. Two basic factors shaped the form and function of secondary punishments: the dearth of administrative infrastructure other than that provided by the Royal Navy; and the absence of an elected assembly, lawyers, and a local press. From 1750 to 1800 Newfoundland had no houses of correction or other places of incarceration beyond small gaols, which could be used only as short-term holding facilities, nor did it have a legislature in which to debate penal policy or to pass acts affecting criminal justice. The discussion that follows...

  15. 8 The Fall of Naval Government
    (pp. 256-279)

    The reform campaign against naval government in the nineteenth century has figured prominently in the writing of Newfoundland history. The traditional school of thought - which was established by D.W. Prowse and reached its apogee with A.H. McLintock - placed the reformers at the head of a colonial struggle to break the yoke of naval governors and absentee merchants responsible for the islandʹs backward development.¹ In the first serious challenge to this orthodoxy, Keith Matthews asserted that the grant of representative government in 1832 marked simply the inevitable success of a colonial eliteʹs ambition. As recent immigrants from Ireland and...

  16. 9 Conclusion
    (pp. 280-288)

    This study began with the premise that naval government needs to be assessed in the context of eighteenth-century Newfoundland. It has rejected the view of nineteenth-century reformers who condemned naval rule for their own political purposes, as well as those modern scholars who have accepted such polemics at face value. Although historians have overturned many persistent myths concerning the island's economic development, the legacy of the Whig perspective continues to skew the historiography: the simplistic image of anarchy and quarterdeck justice remains a powerful nationalist legend. With the recent publication of a new edition of Judge ProwseʹsHistory of Newfoundland,...

  17. Notes on Primary Sources
    (pp. 289-298)

    There is no archival cataloguing for the records of the court of oyer and terminer. Rather, the minutes are scattered throughout two series of government documents: the Colonial Office Papers, and the Colonial Secretaryʹs Letterbook. The governor ordinarily appended the court proceedings to his returns to the Board of Tradeʹs heads of inquiry, dispersed in the Colonial Office Papers [CO 194], housed at the Public Record Office, with copies at the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, and the National Archives of Canada. These minutes were sent, along with the returns to the fishery, directly to the secretary of state,...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 299-388)
  19. Bibliography of Primary Sources
    (pp. 389-398)
  20. Index
    (pp. 399-424)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 425-427)