NEWFOUNDLAND  -  RHODESIA’S CLOSE BUT FORGOTTEN COUSIN

 

by Alan D. Harvey

 

During a visit I made to Newfoundland last year I was reminded strongly of my times in Rhodesia during the 1970s. It wasn’t just the outdoors lifestyle and the closeness to untamed nature, but also the character of the people and their overwhelming friendliness. As I came to study the history of Newfoundland (or Newfoundland and Labrador to give it its correct current title) more closely, however, I realised that the two lands had something far more specific in common, namely their relationship to a larger and more powerful neighbour.

 

Constitutionally the developments of the two lands were very similar, albeit that these developments were a century or so apart. Newfoundland had been discovered in 1497 by John Cabot on a commission from the English Crown, though it was only officially declared an English colony by Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1583. Rhodesia on the other hand had been founded with a Royal Charter by Cecil John Rhodes and his pioneer column in 1890, though only officially declared a colony (as Southern Rhodesia) in 1923. Newfoundland gained its first elected assembly in 1832 whereas the Southern Rhodesian Legislative Council was established in 1899. Newfoundland achieved full self-government (or Responsible Government as it was termed) in 1855, whereas Southern Rhodesia was granted self-government at the time it was declared a British colony, it coming into force in 1924. Newfoundland gained full independence with Dominion status within the British Commonwealth in 1907, whereas Rhodesia achieved full independence in 1965 – albeit by unilateral declaration.

 

But it is the relationship of the two lands to their larger neighbours – Canada and South Africa respectively – which is the most interesting parallel. Although their peoples were almost identical in ethnic origin to those of their more powerful neighbours, both countries had developed a distinct identity within a relatively very short time period, and the majority of people in both places didn’t wish to lose this identity by being swallowed up into a larger nation. Newfoundland voted in 1869 not to join Canada, with the Anti-Confederation Party winning the General Election of the same year, and Southern Rhodesia of course voted against joining the Union of South Africa in the Referendum of 1922.

 

The coming of WWI produced another striking similarity however. It is well known that Southern Rhodesia produced more volunteers per hear of White population than any other part of the British Empire and Commonwealth – but Newfoundland can’t have been far behind. Newfoundland’s figures are masked however. The two main working-class occupations in the country were fishing and lumberjacking. At the outbreak of WWI fishermen were all encouraged to join the Royal Navy Reserve, which entailed donning uniform, placing a gun on the bow of their boats, and carrying on much as usual. A Newfoundland Forestry Corps was founded because of the massive need for timber in the war effort, and again this meant that workers simply donned uniforms and carried on much as normal. A new Newfoundland Regiment was however formed by the then Governor, Sir Walter Davidson, on the outbreak of war, and he promised Britain that he would raise 6,000 men. In the end he raised over 8,000, but as all the fishermen and lumberjacks had their own reserved services this meant that the new regiment was comprised almost entirely of the middle and upper classes – the civil servants, schoolmasters, lawyers, accountants and shop-keepers etc..

 

The Newfoundland Regiment first went into action in the Dardanelles Campaign alongside their ANZAC Commonwealth brothers, but after the failure of this campaign they were moved to the Western Front. Their first main engagement here was at the Battle of the Somme. When the roll-call came on the morning after their first day of this battle only just over 600 of the 8000 who had gone into action answered their names. The rest were either killed, injured, captured or missing. As a result of this bravery King George V awarded the extremely young regiment the prefix of “Royal”, but the cream of Newfoundland’s manhood had been annihilated. This however was not only tragic for the country, it was disastrous. As the older generation of politicians and government officials retired and died off during the 1920s there was a very limited number of talented and able men from the WWI-generation to take their place. Government thus became incompetent (some say corrupt), and this was made only worse by the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the subsequent global slump. Riots broke out in St.John’s in 1932 and the following year the Newfoundland Government declared themselves bankrupt and begged the British Government to intervene, which they did in 1934 by declaring Newfoundland a British colony once again, albeit with self-governing status.

 

After WWII the situation became radically different, and once again there arose a close similarity between the fates of the two countries. Canada had for long wanted to absorb Newfoundland because of its mineral wealth, and as the Attlee socialist government in London wished to wash its hands of all its colonial responsibilities they put pressure on Newfoundland to merge into its more powerful neighbour. A dual-referendum was called in 1948 on whether Newfoundland should join Canada or remain as an independent self-governing country, and after a very biased campaign and allegations of vote-rigging (which still continue to this day) Newfoundlanders narrowly voted to join Canada, a merger which came into effect in 1949. It was of course a subsequent socialist government in London, that of Harold Wilson during the 1960s, which also wanted to wash its hands of its former colonial ties that put pressure on Rhodesia to cave into even more catastrophic demands by accepting immediate Black majority rule – the disastrous consequences of which are now crystal clear for all to see.

 

During my visit to Newfoundland I was struck by how distinct the province still is to the rest of Canada. I asked many of the Newfoundlanders (or “Newfies” as they are colloquially called) whether they regarded themselves first and foremost as Canadians or as Newfoundlanders, and the vast majority answered the latter – with one woman even replying “I don’t regard myself as Canadian at all!”. Ex-Rhodesians around the world who might not be happy in their new locations could therefore do far worse – if they think they can endure the harsh winters – than to consider moving to Newfoundland, where the common ethnic origins and character of the people, and the outdoors life close to nature, could very possibly provide them with unexpected memories of their halcyon earlier life in Rhodesia,

 


 

Return to: Policy Speeches and articles Page