- Looking backwards: The milieu of the old Newfoundland outports
- Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d'études canadiennes
- University of Toronto Press
- Volume 10, Number 1, February 1975
- pp. 3-9
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Looking backwards: the milieu of the old Newfoundland outports PATRICK O'FLAHERTY For reasons other than the obvious chronological one, it is getting harder and harder to see the pre-confederation outport for what it really was. Among these reasons is the simple lack of a descriptive literature. Social history is still in its infancy in Newfoundland , and there are few essays, novels, or plays about the old outport which are not distorted by nostalgia, perverted by one kind of propaganda or another, or written by urban types or other outsiders who do not understand what they are viewing. There are exceptions, notable among them Norman Duncan's essays and fiction, George Allan England's Vikings of the Ice (1924), and Patrick Dalzel Job's The Settlers (1957), but in general there is just a blank page. While dynasties have passed and wars were fought and chronicled, while millions of dollars have been made and spent by the urban elite and the activities of the province's ruling class duly noted, the mass of the Newfoundland people have crawled in labour and obscurity to their graves. Their reluctant decision in 1948 to choose confederation with Canada over independence is now being questioned by some who worry about Newfoundland 's "culture" and "sense of identity ," and perhaps the time is ripe to try a glimpse backwards at the kind of life our people rejected. A comment first about culture. One definition of that troublesome word is "the sum total of a people's achievements in the arts and sciences." Tried by that definition, Newfoundland does not appear to have much to show for its four hundred years of settlem e n t, even though numerous v1s1tors throughout the centuries have attested to the ingenuity, industry, and perseverance of the ordinary people. This contrast between what Lawrence Coughlan called the "very Journal of Canadian Studies bright Genius" of the Newfoundlander and the apparent lack of literary, architectural and other evidence to verify it has provoked some recent commentators to claim that preconfederation Newfoundland should properly be regarded as a "pre-literate" or "folk" civilization and that we are to look for the people's cultural achievements in areas like folk-song, folk-tale, proverb, and a distinctive speech and vocabulary. Presumably when all such matter has been collected into books we shall see at last the true products of the Newfoundlanders' inventiveness. Now I am not in a mood to deny to the Newfoundland imagination any claim which can fairly be made for it. It is true that the energies of the people expressed themselves in lore and song, and true as well that these elusive materials need to be collected and studied. But was the creativity of our ancestors exhausted by, or even very much concerned with, the making of such materials ? I think not. These are occasional and peripheral manifestations of our people's energies, which were on the whole directed elsewhere. To suggest that volumes of folktales and folk-songs will tell our story will satisfy few who know in their bones the nature of life on the island. Whether or not a province or country has a culture is an anxiety which presents itself to somebody with a full belly and the prospect of keeping it full; it is unlikely to occur to the hungry. There is in H. G. Wells a passage in which he defines the main achievement of his era as "the progressive emancipation of man's attention from everyday urgencies." Culture, it might be argued, can be present only when such emancipation exists - it is an adjunct of leisure. In this sense the old outport had no culture at all, because in it deflection of the attention away from "everyday urgencies" was almost impossible . The unforgettable fact of life in the pre-1949 outport was its burdensomeness, the need which the milieu impos,ed upon the inhabitants for endless, repetitive labour combined with thrift if existence was to be 3 kept bearable. With only a primitive technology and few amenities like wharves and breakwaters, fishing itself was unbelievably time-consuming and exhausting. A fisherman using trawls or hand-lines, for example, would probably spend...