Superbly written. Informative. Entertaining.
A History of Newfoundland by Judge D.W. Prowse boasts all of these qualities. Originally published in 1895, this work is widely recognized as one of the finest histories written about Newfoundland and Labrador.
It is much more than a history text, however. Within its pages Prowse imparts a passion for Newfoundland and Labrador, an instinct for justice, and a knack for telling a good story.
A History of Newfoundland remains a standard reference book for history buffs, academics and those who are curious about the culture and history of Newfoundland and Labrador.
With the republishing of Prowse's History, many more people can now enjoy this masterpiece.
Leslie Harris, an eminent historian and president of Memorial University of Newfoundland from 1981-1990, offers an insightful illuminating foreword.
You will be hard pressed to find a Newfoundlander to whom the name of Judge Prowse is not familiar. Anecdotes touching his eccentricity as judge, as enforcer of the Bait Act and of Her Majesty's Customs, as famous hunters and fishers of the world, as historian, as politician, as journalist, and as correspondent to the press, are legion and have passed into the domains of folklore and legend. I suppose there is not a card player in the province who does not name a hand containing three tens a "Judge Prowse or Thirty Days." Certainly, there is no scholar nor, indeed, any interested amateur who has delved at all into Newfoundland's past, who has not encountered the monumental A History of Newfoundland from the English, Colonial, and Foreign Records by Daniel Woodley Prowse, Q.C., Judge of the Central District Court of Newfoundland.
While it is true there will not be a respectable collection of Newfoundland books that does not contain this work, it is also true that it has, for many years since, become a rare collector's item. Thus, when available at all, it is priced beyond the means of the ordinary reader. And yet, it is a work I fondly believe should adorn the bookshelves of every literate Newfoundlander. Indeed, it is time, and past time, for a new edition, and I am delighted Gavin Will has undertaken the task of producing one.
Prowse, we should note, left no stone unturned in endeavoring to ensure the widest possible distribution of his book. Mistrusting publishers and booksellers who, he said, were "like English solicitors -- legalized robbers," he personally hawked about his work, thus escaping the penalty of trade discounts and the like. Philip Gosse, son of the distinguished entomologist, Edmund Gosse, who pioneered the study of Newfoundland insects, visited him from Poole in the summer of 1895 and noted:
Whenever we went driving in his light buggy, we carried with us a supply of the History, and it was entertaining, if occasionally a bit embarrassing to sit beside my host while in a voice like thunder he pressed his book on some too-often unwilling customer. No one was too poor or too unlettered to escape - shopkeepers, buggy drivers,
engine drivers, fishermen - he tried his powers as a salesman on them
all. If persuasion did not meet with success, he resorted to violence by
shouting down all opposition so that many an unwilling purchaser who
had never before bought a book in his life and hardly ever read one
paid up his twenty shillings to the Judge. With the bribe of an author's
signed copy, the agents of the coastal steamers agreed to press the book
on their passengers. The railway guards on the trains were also in the
racket, and so were most of the magistrates. The author met with the
success he certainly deserved.
Apart from his successes as a retailer; Prowse also ventured into
the wholesale trade. Writing to Edmund Gosse, his great friend who
had written a foreword for his book, Prowse boasted that "...I got 300
pounds from the Government, 100 from Mr. Reid, and I think I will be
able to get another 200 pounds from the Canadian Government...."
Altogether, after two months of active salesmanship, the 1,200
copies of the first edition had been reduced to 200, and a second edition
of 1,000 copies was in train. Furthermore, virtually all sales had been
at the full price of one pound, or $5, so that Prowse, after paying all
publishing and printing costs had realized a small profit. He confidently
expected to earn a little more from the second edition.
As a commercial venture, the history had proven a success. But
what of its stature as a work of historical scholarship? Perhaps we could
commence our assessment by comparing it with the general histories
that preceded it. Most notable among those was the work of Chief
Justice Reeves, which was based almost entirely upon published acts
of Parliament, parliamentary papers and reports of the Board of Trade.
Richard Bonnycastle, who wrote Newfoundland in 1842, in the opening
100 pages of his first volume does not go beyond the most obvious
printed sources. Charles Pedley made some use of the records retained
from the governor's office in writing The History of Newfoundland from
the Earliest Times to the Year 1860, but did not dig any deepen Prowse,
op the other hand, dug very deeply indeed and opened an enormous
treasure trove of documentary evidence. He mined the British State
Papers, he virtually exhausted the special manuscripts collections of the
British Museum, he acquainted himself with, and used, the transcripts
of significant collections of original documents held at Hatfield House,
at Petworth, in the Bodleian Library and at Lambeth Palace. Beyond
this, he consulted local records, the first Newfoundland historian to do
so, at Southhampton, Weymouth, Poole, and Plymouth. He consulted
colonial records in Bermuda and in Nova Scotia, and he delved into the
records of the American New England states. Nor is this all. He secured
special translations of French and Portuguese documents, gained
access to the commercial records of important Newfoundland firms
like Newmans and Job Brothers, consulted eighteenth-century English
newspapers, examined English parish records, and mined nineteenth-
century biographical dictionaries for salient facts.
Although we have noted that Prowse's History is far more than
a compilation, we must also observe that the last third, or more, is
somewhatjournalistic in characten This, of course, derives in large part
from the fact Prowse flourished in the last quarter of the nineteenth
century. The characters of whom he wrote were friends and familiars
and, occasionally, enemies. Now he no longer worked from documents,
but from his day-to-day experiences, and this immediacy has important
effects. Clearly it touches upon elements of subjectivity and bias, but it
also has an amusing connotation.
Obviously, Prowse did not discover everything. Much was still left
for the tools and techniques of the modern historian to uncover and
to explain. But for his time, Prowse's work was outstanding. Reviews
throughout the English speaking world were universally favourable.
Indeed, the work was widely recognized as among the best of the genre
of colonial histories. For it was more than a mere compilation. It was
fraught with ideas. Perhaps it is not too much to say it established the
basic concept that has underlain all Newfoundland history writing since
that date: the proposition that, to the end of the eighteenth century,
it least, the history of Newfoundland had been the playing out of a
struggle between merchants of West Country England - jealously
defending their established privileges and rights - and a steadily
growing number of unwanted settlers struggling for control of their
own destinies. Secondarily, Prowse sought to portray Newfoundland
bistory as significant in the context of English development. To
ilim it was inexplicable that in the pages of historians like James
Froude or John Green, for example, could be found no reference to,
nor acknowledgment of, the enormous economic importance of the
West Country-Newfoundland fishery during England's political and
commercial expansion under the Thdors and Stuarts.
Anyone who has read the History, or even leafed casually through
it. will have observed that the work is extremely well, even profusely,
it, illustrated. In particular, it will be noted that the latter sections of the
work are replete with pictures of local dignitaries, many of whom can
hardly be designated as historically significant. Philip Gosse brought
this phenomenon to the attention of the Judge and asked how it was
that in a history spanning four centuries, he had found it possible to
include so many still-living Newfoundlanders who were not really very
important. "His explanation," says Gosse, "and he told it to me with
glee, was that most of those persons had never before seen their names
in a book and many of them would buy a copy, if for that reason only."
It is beautifully ironic that when The Evening Telegram in June of 1895
published a lengthy seven-part review of the work, the author of the
learned and elegant review was noted as "One whose Portrait is not in
the book." Nevertheless, it was an excellent review that concluded with
some salient points well worth remembering:
No one but a man possessed of indomitable industry and indefatigable
perseverance would ever have pushed the original design with a
practical accomplishment and, "hobby or no hobby," there is here the
tangible evidence to an experienced bookman of real, honest, hard
work, and plenty of it....
All admirers of the amiable judge will obtain a full-length mental portrait
of him herein, drawn with an impartial hand. If the photographs of his
friends, that his literary labour embalms, were one half as flattering to
them as is his many paged "Pinxit" to HIM, there would be no need to
subscribe his name on the title-page; and if ever an odd copy of the book
is found in some far-away land at any future time, without other clue to
their name or autograph of the author, then Lord Macaulay's historic
New Zealander will adjust his eye glasses, run his optics over the page,
and break silence with the exclamation, "I know who wrote that book
- that eminent historian - Judge Prowse."
Though Prowse's great work has in some particulars been superseded
or improved upon by modern scholarship, it remains a noble work
of its age, of which all Newfoundlanders should take just pride. The
new edition will make it accessible to a new generation and will serve
to preserve the memory of a great and distinguished Newfoundland
patriot whose eccentricities of style and manner should never blind us
to his giant stature as a contributor to our self-awareness.