Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2004, ISBN 2-86847-966-9
WELL-KNOWN BIOGRAPHER and editor Ronald Rompkey has produced a rich anthology of writings in French that is particularly welcome after a year of celebrations marking 500 years of French presence in Newfoundland — a year that has likely whet more than one appetite for this part of the province's history. The collection brings to light over 40 excerpts, up to several pages long, from texts about Newfoundland and its inhabitants written over the course of an important period in history — the final hundred years of the French Shore fishery. Few of the texts have been reprinted (and even fewer translated) since their original publication in France and virtually all have lain forgotten. Rompkey's intention — to provide high school and university students, along with the general public, with an idea of how Newfoundland was perceived by French visitors as it underwent the transformation from a colony to a country — is admirable, though likely to prove challenging for those whose French is not up to scratch. The selections were made according to two criteria: how they depict Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders and their way of life, and how they show Newfoundland as a country with its own political institutions.
A discussion of even a small sample would require more space than I have here. Instead, I hope that the following fairly complete list of (my own freely translated) titles of the selections will illustrate the astounding diversity and depth of material the book contains. A Hike from Croque Harbour to Hare Bay (1817), Botany in Bay St. George (1819), Population Increase on the West Coast (1821), Some Local Remedies (1822), Lost on an Ice-floe (1826), In Search of the Beothuk (1828), Along the 'English Coast' (1828), Aboriginal Health (1830), A Dance in Bay St. George (1833), How Many Beothuks Were There? (1841), Customs of the Colonists and Natives (1847), In Port in St. John's (1849), The Real Cost of a Meal of Fish (1853), An Official Diplomatic Visit (1858), An Ethnographic Expedition (1858), Origins of the French Population (1858), An Irish Utopia in Bay St. George (1859), Some Political Observations (1859), French Fishing Operations (1867), Population Increase versus French Fishing Rights (1873), All Kinds of Weather (1883), Social Practices in St. John's (1883), The Influence of the Clergy (1883), The Railway (1883), The Monetary System (1884), The Winter Guardian in Croque Harbour (1885), A Walk Around Bonne Bay (1886), Between the Icebergs and the Mosquitoes (1886), Conversing with the Dearly Departed (1886), A Tour of Inspection (1889), Social Geography according to an Anarchist (1890), The Rise of Tuberculosis (1892), New Mineral Deposits (1894), Fish Farming in Dildo (1894), Bankers and Telegraph Operators in St. Pierre (1895), A Brief Pathology of Newfoundlanders (1896), Mining and Anglo-French Negotiations (1900), Selling Whale By-Products (1904), New Signs of Prosperity (1904), What is a Cod-Trap? (1904), Social, Political and Commercial Life in St. John's (1907), Newfoundlanders' Sense of Individuality (1907).
Such a range of subjects will undoubtedly ignite sparks of interest at every page; likewise, the writers represented and their fields of expertise: from botanists to physicians, a naval surgeon, a first mate, a naval captain, a prince, several journalists, diplomats, scientists, geographers, artists, and a trade attaché. While the majority of the authors are unknown to most North American readers today, there are some whose names in connection with Newfoundland — or rather Terre-Neuve — such as John James Audubon, A.-J.-M. Bachelot de la Pylaie or C.-J.-A. Carpon should inspire considerable curiosity.
All the excerpts are reproduced in the original French; the detailed and sometimes technical descriptions will tax readers' linguistic skills, and especially students unaccustomed to nineteenth-century literary French, given the relatively small print and density of material on each page. It might perhaps have been useful to include a glossary of terms, particularly those related to the French fishery, as well as an index of names and places. That said, the variety, liveliness, and occasional humour of the selections, and their relative shortness make it well worth the effort.
This anthology is a wonderful opportunity for present and future generations who are interested in Newfoundland history — provided they have the requisite linguistic ability or just desire to brush up on their rusty French — to immerse themselves into the French past of this area. It provides a valuable selection of samples from abundant, though largely untapped, historical sources. This is a major contribution, a veritable journey of recovery of a Newfoundland that, while still fairly close to us in time, has remained nearly entirely hidden for so long. Rompkey has connected many of the pieces that serve as an enlightening guide book of French Newfoundland in the nineteenth century.