by Jeff Webb
Attentive readers of the scholarship on the Atlantic Provinces might wonder why someone whose work has been almost exclusively on the history of the 20th century would publish a research note in an issue of Acadiensis on the eighteenth century Newfoundland fishery. I thought a comment on how that came about might be of interest.
My most recent research has been on the social science and humanities research on Newfoundland during the period from about 1953 to 1982, or, as I call it, the Newfoundland Studies Movement. While writing the introduction to the chapter on geographic research in my forthcoming book Observing the Outports I wanted to make reference to what I remembered as the view of Newfoundland as “a great ship moored near the fishing banks for the convenience of English fishermen.” Of course that required I not rely on my memory for the exact wording, but my looking it up was hampered by my not knowing the original author of this quotation. It had been often repeated by historians throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but who first said it?
The earliest I was able to find the phrase used was in the testimony of William Knox to a Parliamentary Committee in 1793. Someone might have used the phrase earlier – but this is the first use I was able to find, and, more importantly, it was Knox’s phrase which entered the historiography of the island as a statement summarizing British policy.
This exercise in the archaeology of a quotation was an enjoyable diversion, and inevitably led me to think about who William Knox was. I learned that historians of the American Revolution knew him well, but his involvement in the Newfoundland fishery was at most a footnote to his career as an important architect of British policy toward the Americas. Newfoundland historians had often used the quotation without noting Knox’s more general involvement in the Americas, or inquiring into his ideology. To be specific, Newfoundlanders had quoted his 1793 testimony without putting it into the context of his extensive commentary and recommendations on the Americas. Reading some of his published and unpublished work revealed that his anti-settlement stance with regard to Newfoundland was consistent with his mercantilist economic thought and his hard-line stance toward the growth of the American colonies generally. The document led me to make a couple of historiographic observations which I hope my colleagues find interesting. So, an effort to check the accuracy of my memory of a oft-used quotation, which I was using as a bit of a literary flourish in an unrelated piece of prose, led me to rethink late-eighteenth century British policy.
I often tell students of the basic underpinnings of scholarly practice. One is to always go back to the original source when possible (and Knox was misquoted by several historians). Another lesson is to ask ourselves: who was the author? What was the context in which he or she made that statement? For me, this little side project took me away from the meat and potatoes of my research on the history of social science and humanities scholarship. But my brief foray into the late-eighteenth century North Atlantic World was rewarding.
Jeff Webb is an Associate Professor of History at Memorial University. His study of social science and humanities research on Newfoundland culture, Observing the Outports, is forthcoming from the University of Toronto Press. The research note that inspired this post is Jeff A. Webb, “William Knox and the 18th-Century Newfoundland Fishery,” Acadiensis, XLIV, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2015): 112-122.