The term plebeian is used in this study in the sense that it was defined by E. P. Thompson in his discussion of eighteenth-century English society. As in England, the plebeian community on the southern Avalon was not working-class because it lacked a class consciousness—"a consistency of self-definition…; clarity of objectives; the structuring of class organization." But there was a distinct and vigorous plebeian culture, with its own rituals, its own patterns of work and leisure, its own world view. Furthermore, the plebeian community did share a common consciousness and exert political pressure on specific occasions in relation to specific issues—either in the form of the "mob" in direct collective actions, or as the menacing presence behind anonymous actions and threats. As Thompson argues, plebeian culture was not revolutionary, but neither was it deferential: "It bred riots but not rebellions: direct actions but not democratic organizations."1 On the southern Avalon, the plebeian community was composed primarily of fishing servants, washerwomen, seamstresses, midwives, artisans, small-scale boatkeepers, planters and, by the nineteenth century, numerous "independent" fishing families (in as much as they could be independent from their merchant suppliers).
The polar opposites to the plebs in Thompson's "societal field-of-force" were the English gentry (the patricians), who exercised cultural hegemony through their control over office and preferment, law, credit, the distribution and sale of goods or raw materials, the deployment of favors and charity, and the symbolism of hegemony. Their smaller-scale equivalent on the southern Avalon were local merchant-planters, merchants, merchants' agents, vessel owners and masters, Anglican clergy, and more substantial boatkeepers and planters, who functioned as a gentry in the study area with their control of employment opportunities, relief, supply and credit, and administrative and magisterial functions. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, this group was adopting the lifestyles and ideologies that signaled an emerging middle class in Newfoundland (see Chapter 9).
I use the term gentry here in its broadest sense, to mean a group with high social ranking. A landed gentry did not develop in Newfoundland. This was a reflection of a prolonged perception of Newfoundland as a fishing station rather than a colony,2 as well as the poor prospects for commercial agriculture along most of the English Shore. It was also a reflection of the tenuous nature of private property in Newfoundland—the result of a fishing regime that had traditionally privileged the migratory ship fishery in its use of prime waterfront property. After a century marked intermittently by disputes between migratory fishermen and resident fishers, the Newfoundland Act of 1699 (10 & 11 Wm. III, Cap. 25) permitted inhabitants of the island to occupy areas that had not traditionally been used by the migratory ship fishery. And throughout the following century, as the nature of fishing operations increasingly shifted from migratory to sedentary, British authorities permitted uninterrupted possession of additional shoreline properties, provided they were used for the purposes of the resident fishery. But even land designated for private use could not be held by freehold title, and the right of occupation could be withdrawn by the governor (although this was not common, unless fishing premises were not maintained).3
Official recognition of private property did not really begin to evolve until the early nineteenth century (1810s to 1830s), as the growing resident population demanded greater certainty in land titles. However, while the legal definition of property remained uncertain until that point, local communities had long recognized title by quiet possession, and residents disposed of property (by sale, mortgage, deed of gift, or testamentary bequest) as if no such ambiguity existed. On the southern Avalon, the merchant-planter gentry of the eighteenth century accumulated extensive properties (in several communities) on or near waterfronts, and either used the properties themselves or rented them to local fishing families, thus becoming substantial landlords in the area. In the nineteenth century, the mercantile elite still had significant holdings, although there was an increasing trend to sell these rental properties to community residents as the stability of settlement, the demand for property, and the certainty in land titles converged.5
The local elite maintained social distance from the plebeian community through religious affiliation (most were English Protestant, as opposed to the largely Irish Catholic plebeian community) and exclusive patterns of socializing and marriage. Still, there was a reciprocity between plebeians and the gentry on the southern Avalon, for they were tied to each other through interdependence in the fishery. The relationship was far from equal, but, as Thompson notes, the concept of paternalism and deference that is frequently invoked to describe preindustrial societies would not do justice to the complexity and underlying tension of the relationship. The elite saw themselves as benevolent patrons, and plebeians accepted the gentry's paternalism, but on their own terms: deference was accorded only on a conditional basis, to the degree that it enabled them to extract what they needed for their own advantage and self-preservation. In the process, plebeians recognized the gentry's political and economic power, but they were also resistant to it, sometimes openly.
Linda Little has written about plebeian collective actions in Conception Bay in the 1830s that demonstrated a vibrant plebeian culture in that area.4 Such episodes on the southern Avalon were not as frequent or of the same magnitude, perhaps because the area participated only marginally in the sealing industry—a site of nascent working-class consciousness in St. John's and Conception Bay in the first half of the nineteenth century—and also because ethnoreligious tensions were muted in the more homogeneous population of my study area. Still, resistance was articulated in forms of protest typically deployed by plebeian communities, such as anonymous notes, assaults, cattle maiming, vandalism, and theft directed against the gentry as well as parades and the use of symbols as mechanisms of group identity and unity.
Some of these episodes involved women and are discussed in Chapter 5. Several other examples will serve to demonstrate. Among the family papers of the Carters, merchants and magistrates on the southern Avalon, there are several anonymous notes and songs written about the local elite, including the following offering about the Morrys, a merchant family in Caplin Bay:
A set of rogues are in this town
The poor they oft oppress and wrong
The song continues in a similar vein for several more stanzas, concluding that "the cozening rob[bers] ought to hang." One verse refers to an animal-maiming incident—a form of popular protest that was a common manifestation of Whiteboyism in eighteenth-century Ireland and that was probably transferred to the southern Avalon, as there were several other incidents reported during the study period that had ethnic and class undertones.6 And court records provide evidence of theft from and malicious damage to mercantile premises during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The menacing presence of plebeians in the anonymity of the night also caused concerns among the local elite. In an 1835 presentment, for example, the grand jury for Ferryland district (assembled from the "principal inhabitants and merchants" of the area) expressed fear of the "great risk and danger to which we are nightly exposed of having our Houses and Stores and other Property destroyed by Fire from the Inhabitants in the different Towns carrying pieces of Wood on Fire in their hand thro' the Streets and Lanes in the said Towns."7 Although this could be construed as merely a commentary on unsafe lighting practices, the issue certainly seemed to have a more sinister aspect in 1839, when the grand jury voiced the same concern about the carrying of firebrands in combination with the following complaint:
That they view with indignation the anonimous papers now handed them (together with the certainty of a Cow and two horses having been shot) and deplore most fervently, that Individuals should be found capable of such atrocious conduct, and trust that means may be adopted to detect the perpetrators thereof and prevent a recurrence of the same.8
Clearly, the threat of plebeian reprisal underscored the gentry's worries about the nocturnal wanderings of local inhabitants.
Deputy sheriffs, bailiffs, and constables were frequently harried and assaulted in the performance of their duties, most notably in attaching property to satisfy court judgments for debt. Such was the case in 1817, for example, when local constable Edward Power, in the company of Ferryland magistrate Andrew Morrison, attempted to attach (or confiscate) the voyage of Patrick Kent and Patrick Crane of Cape Broyle for payment of a debt owing to W. and B. Sweetland and Co. Kent and his boat crew spirited the fish away to Kent's stage in Island Cove, where Power caught up with them and attempted to seize the fish and boat. Bystander John Howlett provoked the crew, saying, "You are very quiet men or you would pew that fellows guts out." Defendant Kent declared that the constable "might as well attach his prick as that fish." Various spectators refused to render assistance, and the two court officials feared for their lives.910
Here, a discrepancy had arisen between the perceptions of the formal legal system and those of local fishermen in relation to the entitlement of a supplying merchant. Typically, such noncompliant behavior garnered the support of the plebeian community—either in direct action or through noncooperation with authorities. A number of these incidents involved women and are discussed in Chapter 5. A similar sense of plebeian justice motivated the overzealous salving of wrecked vessels in the area—again, episodes in which plebeian women participated (see Chapter 4). Pre-emptive removal of salvage and interference with magistrates, deputy sheriffs, and wreck commissioners were regular occurrences at wreck sites and demonstrated an alternative, plebeian interpretation of the equitable distribution of salvaged goods.
A different sense of fairness also underpinned the occasional plundering of merchants' and ships' stores, usually in periods of distress or emergency. The inhabitants of Bay Bulls and Renews, for example, removed supplies from fishing ships in their harbors and distributed them among their communities during the terrible winter of the rals (1817–18)—a period of high distress throughout the English Shore resulting from the recession following the Napoleonic Wars and from disastrous fishing seasons in 1816 and 1817. Similarly, when American privateers were harrying the southern Avalon during the Revolutionary War, the merchants and principal inhabitants of Renews complained that the local Irish population was plundering dry fish and stores,10 an episode that was repeated in 1796, when the French were wreaking havoc in the area.11 While these actions were interpreted by English Protestant merchants and government officials as evidence of the treasonous nature of the Irish population, it is more likely that the largely Irish plebeian community were simply taking advantage of the moment to enforce an alternate distribution of the fish and stores, with a pragmatic view that they were certainly more entitled to them than were the enemy.
Of course, real life is always messy, and this black-and-white division of plebeian and elite cultures masks various shades of grey. There were socioeconomic gradations within both groups: a small-scale planter, for example, was in a more privileged social and economic position than a fishing servant; a merchant with extensive fishing premises and several vessels was more comfortably situated than a clergyman. Furthermore, there was a middling group of modest-sized planters or boatkeepers and lesser court officials (sheriffs, constables, gaolers, etc.) who shared in the rituals and routines of the plebeian community but sometimes found their allegiance turning to the gentry either because of shared ethnoreligious background, dependence on the gentry for their commissions, or simple social ambition.
Furthermore, neither plebeians nor the local elite always acted in unanimity. Numerous court cases involving assault and civil litigation attest to small fissures between individual members of the plebeian community. And there were occasional cracks in gentry solidarity—especially when opportunity for preferment presented itself. Most disagreements were minor squabbles over government office and took place within the confines of the group. More public was the alliance of English Protestant merchant and magistrate Peter Winsor (also Winser) of Aquaforte with Catholic priest Father Duffy of St. Mary's in the 1836 election campaign. The two joined forces against a local candidate from a powerful English Protestant mercantile family, Lieutenant Robert Carter, to support a drop-in candidate from St. John's, Irish Catholic merchant Patrick Morris.12 When the polls opened, Winsor spoke against Carter, using "very tantalizing language towards him to create popularity among the crowd."13 He did his part in delivering at least some of the Protestant vote, for (according to Carter's diarist cousin) "Mr. Winsor, his son and brother with all the protestants in Aquaforte [a predominantly Protestant community] joined Rev. J. Duffy's party and voted for Patrick Morris to their shame."14 By 24 November, Carter had withdrawn his candidacy, and Morris was declared elected on 28 November. (The election for the entire island, however, was declared null and void by the governor because proper seals had not been affixed to the election writs. Ultimately, this was a very satisfactory result for Peter Winsor, for he himself was elected in the newly called election in 1837.)
But while individual quarrels occurred within the plebeian community and among the gentry, the two groups appear distinctly in the historical record, each sharing a group consciousness that was separate from the other's, even as their mutual economic interdependence brought their worlds in proximity. The local elite wielded considerable local economic and administrative power and maintained their separateness through carefully arranged marriages, exclusive socializing, and different forms of consumption, housing, and conduct. The plebeian community acknowledged the gentry's power, but a mask of public deference hid a more subtle culture of resistance and reprisal.^top
Note 1: This discussion borrows from E. P. Thompson, Customs in Common (London: Merlin Press, 1991), chap. 2; quotations are from 57, 64, and 73. back
Note 2: Newfoundland was not granted the status of a crown colony until 1825. back
Note 3: For a discussion of understandings of the nature of property in Newfoundland up to the early nineteenth century, see Trudi D. Johnson, "Matrimonial Property Law in Newfoundland to the End of the Nineteenth Century" (Ph.D. diss., Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1998). back
Note 4: Linda Little, "Plebeian Collective Action in Harbour Grace and Carbonear, 1830–40" (master's thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1984). back
Note 6: See, for example, PANL: GN 5/4/C/1, Ferryland, box 1, 73, James Walsh v. John Rossiter, 7 September 1835; GN 5/4/C/1, St. Mary's, 137, Christopher and Burk v. Kielly, 6 October 1823; and MG 920, Robert Carter Diary, Friday, 30 August 1839, "Robert Pitts Cow found so injured near Val Keefes Garden as to render it necessary to kill her. Person unknown." back
Note 7: PANL, GN 5/2/C/3, 11–14, Grand Jury Presentment, Ferryland, 3 November 1835. back
Note 8: PANL, GN 5/2/C/3, Grand Jury Presentment, Ferryland, 6 November 1839. back
Note 9: The court ordered Kent to pay a £20 fine and sentenced him to fourteen days in jail. The sentence was remitted in supreme court. Mannion Name Files, Cape Broyle, "Patrick Crane," and "Patrick Kent," citing PANL, GN 5/2/A/1, 14, 27, and 28 November and 10 and 17 December 1817. back
Note 10: PANL, GN 2/1/A, vol. 7 (reverse end), 96–98, Petition from the merchants and principal inhabitants of Renews to Governor Montagu, 29 July 1778. back
Note 11: Mannion Name File Collection, Renews. back
Note 12: The alliance was unusual, not only because of Winsor's class and ethnicity, but also because of the very recent acrimony between him and Father Duffy. According to Robert Carter's diary, Duffy had spent the winter of 1834 at Winsor's house, but he had abused the hospitality shown him by baptizing two of Winsor's daughters into the Catholic faith the following summer. Hard feelings carried through the next spring, for, when Winsor's vessel, the Pelter, was leaving for the seal hunt, Duffy cursed the boat and all who would dare to sail on it—a powerful deterrent within a largely Irish Catholic district. Nonetheless, by the fall of 1836, fences had been mended and the two joined forces to elect Morris. See PANL, MG 920, Robert Carter Diary, 10 August 1834 and 24 February 1835. Winsor also identified himself with the plebeian community on at least one other occasion. In June 1836, Robert Carter noted in his diary that a public notice had been attached to Mr. Wright's (likely Thomas Wright's) fence, warning people not to sign a paper in circulation in support of Mr. Wright as stipendiary magistrate because no one in the district had sufficient abilities for the position but merchants or those connected with them, and, as a group, they were "unfitted thereby to hear a case." The notice was dated 4 June and signed "the friend of the people. P. Winsor." PANL, MG 920, Robert Carter Diary, 5 June 1836. back
Note 13: PANL, MG 920, Robert Carter Diary, 14 November 1836. back
Note 14: PANL, MG 920, Robert Carter Diary, 1 January 1837. back