My America, My newfoundland — John Donne

Brick front of old shops on one side of Water Street, cafes, winter wear stores, a mandolin shop, and on the other, a couple of boxy modern offices, one with a multi-storey car park at its base. St John’s Newfoundland’s capital isn’t one of those cities that is going to open itself to the harbour anytime soon. But that’s understandable, for the harbour faces out onto the raw North Atlantic, and the rain, sleet and snow comes right into the bay, changing hourly with the moods of the ocean.

Water Street is one of those places that serve a working port, where the trawlers, tankers and cruisers come in, sealed off from it. Its neat row dates from the 19th century, after one of the four fires that have beset the city over the centuries, but the line of the street is from the 1600s. It is the oldest street in the oldest designated city north of old Spanish America, a place that had a floating population of thousands, fisherfolk, settlers, and the like by the time the Mayfair arrived.

The harbour makes an amphitheatre, the main streets wrap around it, and the old city, lines of wooden row houses, slowly climb the hill behind. They’ve been painted all the colours of the rainbow, red, green, white, blue, their eaves and frames detailed to stand out, yellow on blue, white on red. It’s a colour riot — the city’s pride, ah, ancient tradition, I thought.

“I remember when all these were grey,” one of my guides, a man in his 80s, told me. ‘They were all painted in limescale.”

When did the colour start? “After the war, when we could afford paint.”

I cast my eye over the city afresh, tried to imagine it as was, without the boxy harbour buildings, low grey terraces towered over by a greystone Italianate cathedral. It would have been a harsh place, from Scots and Irish descended, dependent on the cod harvests from the Great Banks to the north. In the 1500s there were more fish than water, and the Euskara fleets coming via Iceland would get them by dipping baskets in the water.

“There is fish here for 500 years,” John Cabot told Henry VII, but it was a hard living — seasonal and exposed to the vagaries of international markets. By the time prosperity came to St John’s, Cabot had been proven right, and the fish were gone, vacuumed up by trawler fleets from the international waters.

By then the city was expanding into other areas, its university, Memorial, becoming a destination, and then there was the oil, which started to flow, and then really flow into the 2000s. The place is hybrid. The shops on Water Street have the old austere bearing of a place where people only bought what they needed. The coffeeshops between are funky, retro, with boutique bakeries and performance spaces. Out the window, over the low buildings, bridges and fo’c’sles, metal, scuffed. No ships in port one day, 20 the next.

How dead closed ports seem by comparison, with their piers of restaurants and tourist malls, compared to this loading and unloading, commerce with the ocean. The city, Avalon, its peninsula, with a village in each cove and inlet, the island itself, seem entire and of themselves. In George Street behind Water Street, the pubs are full of music each night, a lot of singer-songwriter stuff, shading into folk. Sooner or later they roar out of one of the dozens of songs the landscape, seascape has got out of them, has made them give voice to the sheer sense of being here:

I was born on this rock

and it’s here that I’ll stay …

The place seemed entire of itself. And once it had been. For nearly a hundred years, as self-governing colony and then dominion, Newfoundland was a place apart — especially from Canada, with whom it refused confederation three times. Then in 1948, after bankruptcy, recolonisation and two referenda, it joined the federation by a vote of 50.5% to 49.5%. Its history, when it has registered at all, has been as afterthought, the only colony that went in reverse, the federation that didn’t go smooth.

For me, once I had heard of it — from one of those history teachers who knew everything except, apparently, how to marry, drive or not teach history to year eight — it had registered as a minor obsession, a back thought. For the commonly available explanations didn’t really deal with the central enigma. What is it for a country to dissolve itself, if not as nation, then as free state? What was it like? What memory does it leave? What does it even mean?

That wasn’t why I went, now. I went because it was there, at the end of something, stuck out into the Atlantic, a place with its own time zone (ninety minutes ahead of the US east coast), and knowing that a point on a map means nothing — every place is its own centre — does not cure the obsession with compass points, extremes. This has suckered me in the past (Invercargill isn’t worth it). I had more hope of St John’s — Newfoundland’s first history had been written and published two years after the first fleet hit Botany Bay, and it covered two centuries — and I wasn’t disappointed, not least because the trip, across land and sea, took four days.

Four days from Quebec. Twenty-two hours by train and bus, and then a six-hour ferry ride, that turned into 20, after high seas made docking impossible, followed by a 14-hour bus ride from the west coast to the east. Low dark forest and sodden marshy terrain all the way, the road passing through no more than a half dozen towns. So close on the map, so far from everything. Planes fly in and out, but people who want to take their car are willing to do the time.

“You know,” said the cab driver who dropped me at the wharf, “last trip we were on for five days, iced in. Have a good trip.”

I went for the snow, for the rain coming across the sea, to blow the shadows out of a bad year. Landscapes which shade to monochrome, where white sky meets grey sea do the trick, for a week as featureless as the view. On the boat I glanced casually at a Canadian news magazine feature. “Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders,” a headline read. “A new book asks the question, was ‘The Rock’ fooled into confederation?” And now there was no escaping it.

“I was at Gambo, a town inland, in the ’50s, and I asked the shopkeeper why people had voted for confederation.” In the ’70s-vintage bistro of the Sheraton Newfoundland Hotel, John Carter is getting expansive. Eighty-four, six-foot-four, a farmer of savoury, a herb the Newfies add to everything, he was an attentive 14-year-old, when the referendum process began.

“He said ‘I’ll show you’ and he paid out an old-age pension to a woman who had come in. He gave her two $20 notes for a month, and she said, ‘before confederation, I had seen a $20 note, but I never thought I’d have one’. When I told her I’d been anti-confederation, she waved a sharpened cheese-parer at me!”

By 1946, Newfoundland had a parliament, a flag, an army of sorts, a variant of English that took 30 years to collect into a national dictionary. Its politics had been volatile, both clannish and spirited. When the Depression hit, the fish market collapsed and debts the place had accumulated for a national railroad became unserviceable. Post-war, an IMF loan would have plugged the gap, but for reasons obscure at the time, and incomprehensible after, the British government demanded, as the price of a loan, that the parliament vote its own suspension and agree to a “Commission of Government” made up of British, Newfoundland and Canadian appointees.

Don’t Tell The Newfoundlanders, the new book featured in the magazine, made clear the mindset behind the decision, quoting agents of the British government who recommended the move as noting that “the Newfoundlanders have no leisure class and consequently the politics are poor”. By the late ’30s, even the commissioners themselves were unclear what they were doing, as the country remained, inevitably, depressed during the Depression. World War Two saved it, as a key base for the massive American and British Atlantic convoys, and by 1942 the country was a creditor not a debtor to the UK. Government should have been returned, before a decision was made about the country’s future.Instead, the Commission remained in place, something the “pro-independence” or “responsible government” party saw as the centre of a conspiracy, to bind the nation to Canada, and frustrate US interests in the place. The pro-confederation push was led by a local radio star-turned-politician, anti-Canadian, turned confederationist, Joey Smallwood, who played the Convention like a fiddle using it as a platform to promise the national audience the fruits of a larger nation — pensions and a baby bonus, savoury for a poor hardscrabble country, with a phenomenal birthrate.

“Joey Smallwood, he was a c-nt,” Carter says. “Don’t print that. Oh you can. He was an alcoholic, his house — it was just over there – it was a midden, he sold us out. He was a genius as a campaigner.” Does he think the result was fixed from the start? “No, I think it was just bribery. A lot of people wanted to keep self-government, just not as we’d had it, and the place was so damn poor.”

The sheer length of the process, the confusing first result — no one cause got a plurality of the vote, and nearly a fifth voted to remain under the Commission — frayed tempers, set families against each other, and divided the place along religious lines: Catholics pro-responsible government, Orangemen for confederation. The official history suggests a calm process, but every Newfie seems to have family lore of something else.

“My mother’s schoolfriend was from a confederation family who were Catholic. They were ostracised. She left the school.” “People wore black armbands in the days after the vote, pulled the mourning drapes in their houses.” “There were fistfights in the barber shop.”

In the bistro Carter introduces me to a woman, 90, who went to boarding school in Nova Scotia, across the channel, and had to show a passport each time she got on the ferry: “Later I used to go up to Canada all the time.”

Go up to Canada, said three quarters of a century after the place became it. Did Carter dwell on the lost vote after? He went quiet and reflective for the first time in our meeting. “I thought about it for decades. I’ve only just got over it.”

“People talk about a conspiracy, about a sham process, but when you think about it, this was a a process that took a year, every word broadcast to everyone, with universal suffrage at the end. It’s actually one of the few places to really decide its own fate.”

In his crowded office at Memorial University behind the city, historian Jeff Webb contests the more beloved versions of the anti-confederationists. The huge Dictionary of Newfoundland English is on his desk, and Joey Smallwood’s five-volume Encyclopedia of Newfoundland, done in his 80s, (“plagiarised” John Carter had called it), on the shelves above us. Coming in, I’d assumed that the process had followed traditional nationalist lines –progressives and jingoists joining together for independence against capital and business.

But Newfoundland’s process followed no simple path. Liberals and leftists went for confederation, hoping that Canada would promote modernisation and tame the influence of bishops in a heavily Catholic place. Business was pro-self-government, as were a pro-American faction wanting eventual economic union, and a smaller radical nationalist grouping, of the type that elsewhere flit from extreme Left to Right, summoning up mythic national calling along the way. The self-government crowd were outspent, outgunned, outstrategised — and yet came within a St John’s dog’s hair of victory. The east, around St John’s, went for self-government, the west for confederation. No renegade faction carried on the fight, and the half-millennium-old fisherman’s domain became Canada’s newest province.

Decades later, figures on both sides would rethink their position. “Once people saw the hospitals and schools going up, the money coming in, a lot of them hadn’t realised how poor we were…,” Carter conceded. Like many, he went into the Progressive Conservative movement, and became a provincial assembly member for two decades. But confederationists were also surprised by how rapidly the Newfoundland nation was absorbed into Canada, without a state to hold it off.

“I think we may have made a mistake,” Webb remembered one prominent confed saying. Perhaps Smallwood, despite, or because of his media savvy, had not seen how a place, no matter how distant, could be drawn into a wider idea, that nations may pre-exist states, but will not easily survive the latter’s demise. Today, after a ’60s-’70s cultural revival, and a more recent relaunch of the 200-year-old Newfoundland republican flag — made of green, white and pink bars — the sense of identity is a preoccupation of some young, though ones more likely to be found in the coffeeshops than on the rigs. The oil boom is putting pressure on the substantial heritage of social solidarity inherited from more modest days.

But in the bookshops, the “local interest” racks groan with dozens, hundreds, of publications of local lore and memoir, anecdote and history, far beyond that of larger places. And without confederation it’s quite possible the place would have remained a bishop/burgher-dominated backwater subject to the same crony torpor then mania as besets small nations. But what if it hadn’t? What if it had become not Ireland, but Iceland, modularity generating innovation, disaster generating wildly imaginative progress afresh?

Walking down the old street of St John’s, the wind howling in the space between the ships and the shore, I don’t doubt that I would have been pro-self-government no matter how gnarly the forces ranged on the same side were. The nation state is not the final form of human society, but for now, a flag is a flag, an anthem needs an army, a dictionary prospers only by a monopoly on authorised violence.

What is it to wake up in a place the day after it has ceased to be its own dominion? The answer stays in the sepia memory, in the limescale tones. But it was worth the journey to come and ask. For it seems important not only that we each remember our own history, but others as well, the stories that will pass with a last generation who were there to hear them from the gallery over the radio.

Victory forgets nothing while loss goes under the grey sea, returning only in song and a need dictated by the thing itself, the autonomy, that will not let you not find out. I was born on this rock, my America, my newfoundland.