- The Rule of the Admirals: Law, Custom, and Naval Government in Newfoundland, 1699-1832
Two recent books have challenged two of the most enduring common-places about the early modern history of Newfoundland and its role within the British Empire. (In the eighteenth century, 'Newfoundland' mainly consisted of the English and partially Irish settlement from Bonavista Bay in the north to Placentia Bay in the south; its role as a migratory fishery was mainly regulated by London.) One book is Peter E. Pope's magisterial Fish into Wine: The Newfoundland Plantation in the Seventeenth Century (2004), which shows the complementarity between settlement and the fishery (and their relative success) and shatters the notion that settlement was discouraged and indeed prohibited on the island until late in the eighteenth century. The other is Jerry Bannister's Rule of the Admirals, published one year earlier than Pope's and mainly devoted to the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Here the author challenges the still prevailing image of Newfoundland as a desolate outpost 'suffering under rough fishing admirals and a backward legal system,' the showcase of a retarded institutional evolution caused by 'callous neglect' on the part of the British Crown, the primitiveness of local society, and the exploitation of the fisherfolk. According to this image, the fishing admirals were 'the villains in the story of early Newfoundland' and the Royal Navy's governors who replaced them ruled according to 'quarter-deck despotism.' Luckily, this state of social and institutional anarchy was overcome in the 1820s when, thanks to the efforts of local and metropolitan reformers, Newfoundland was officially recognized as a colony, the governorship was transformed into a civil appointment, and a modern legal system was created. In short, according to traditional historiography, it was only then that Newfoundland finally joined the enlightened legal framework provided by the British Empire to most of its colonies. [End Page 265]
Bannister's Rule of the Admirals is a detailed study of 'the basic frame of Newfoundland's early legal system,' something that had not been attempted before, largely on the assumption that there was little or no real legality on the island prior to the administration of naval governor George B. Rodney (1749-50), or to the Palliser's Act (1775), or even to the final repeal of the King William's Act (1699) in 1824. Through a thorough archival examination of the extant legal sources, mainly located at the Public Record Office in London and at the Public Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, Bannister is able to provide the reader with 'a model of how the legal system operated in practice,' and with an explanation why 'the island's naval government eventually collapsed' after 130 years of unchallenged and rather uniform existence. If you, like this reviewer, have always been puzzled by the odd terminology of early Newfoundland history (servants and planters, let alone fishing admirals and surrogate judges and the like), and always wondered how the system actually worked, here is an exhaustive description that is likely to satisfy both the Atlantic historian and the legal specialist. (One should note here that the book is published for The Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History.)
On a more methodological ground, Bannister's findings seem to confirm what is most innovative and original in early modern and Atlantic historiography, that is, first, that historical development does not follow any teleological trail; and, second, that there was no single model of colonial development against which to measure one's uniformity - New England being the perfect example, and Newfoundland the worst. In fact, Newfoundland's legal history did not follow a path from lawlessness to legitimacy, from local custom to written law, from inefficiency to effectiveness. Nor can its history be fully understood on the basis of statute law only, that being only one of the 'means through which state power was organized in eighteenth-century Newfoundland.' The system, on the contrary, was a confusing 'amalgam...