- Conflicted Colony: Critical Episodes in Nineteenth-Century Newfoundland and Labrador by Kurt Korneski
How are disputes settled where the state is absent or weak or where more than one state claims jurisdiction? How do common or private property regimes emerge, allocate resources, and contribute or respond to environmental change, especially the degradation of a common good? How do new technologies, international trade agreements, and shifting commercial networks effect local communities? These are big questions of political economy and other disciplines influenced by the modelling of game theorists. Nor do they lack for political resonance today. Historians of state formation and collective action have something to say as well by studying how people in real time and space built communities, resolved disputes, and coordinated access to shared resources and collective responses to external forces.
In this fine-grained study of “critical episodes” in five local communities, Kurt Korneski convinces us that Newfoundland in the latter half of the [End Page 185] nineteenth century is an especially interesting place from which to think through such questions. The colonial government, based in St John’s on the Avalon peninsula, was oriented towards the Atlantic but attempted episodically to collect duties, manage resources, and govern the entire island and Labrador. Explaining when and why the colonial state and its allies sought to integrate particular places into a common geopolitical space is a major contribution of the book. But whereas officials and merchants at the capital might see only lawlessness when looking beyond the colonial state’s effective purview, by looking predominately outward from each community, Korneski sees the already existing systems of self-regulation and the often-collaborative relations with a variety of external actors. The British navy remained an effective instrument of order along parts of the coast. In Labrador, the Hudson’s Bay Company resembled the corporate state historians are exploring in other parts of the British Empire. International treaties gave France fishing rights and jurisdictional claims along the western coast in addition to the islands of St Pierre and Miquelon just offshore and American participation in the fishery was shaped by the international agreements of 1854 and 1871. Each place may have been distant from the colonial capital, but they were not isolated. Trans-local diplomatic, commercial, technological, and ecological changes realigned interests as they created new challenges and opportunities. The result is a book focused on the local and specific, but adept at situating them in the shifting contexts that structured them and to which they responded strategically, if not always predictably or successfully.
Each chapter begins with a local incident or dispute: conflicts over the use of seines along the southern coast; over the exclusive property regime customary to a salmon fishing area on the northern coast in contrast to the open access system that prevailed elsewhere; over surveying for a railway to promote an interior development strategy through land users considered rightfully theirs; over demands in a community dependent on herring fishing that if taxes were paid the colonial state owed them protection against the French; and over shifting strategies to manage lobster stock further north along the “Treaty shore.” Most are known to specialists of Newfoundland history, but Korneski places each in a much longer history of local negotiation and adaptation. At times the backdrop threatens to swallow the incident itself, but Korneski’s approach is not that of a micro-historian seeking to capture the world in a grain of sand. Instead, it’s that of a social historian seeking to understand that grain by exploring both the beach it formed a part of and the tides reconfiguring it. Korneski succeeds in uncovering the diversity of local voices and fault lines easily glossed over in accounts that presume a singular “Newfoundland” perspective or predictable patterns of social solidarity and conflict. Each chapter underlines how situational answers to the questions of collective action might be.
The intervention of the colonial state might be ignored or defied in largely self-governing communities, but such intervention might...