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A History of Newfoundland
D. W. Prowse

Price: CDN$39.95
Softcover, 800+ Pages.
Many pictures and illustrations
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.

Leslie Harris
March 2002

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