Michael Boudreau reviews Keith Mercer, Rough Justice: Policing, Crime, and the Origins of the Newfoundland Constabulary, 1729-1871 (St. John’s: Flanker Press Limited, 2021).

Review of Keith Mercer, Rough Justice: Policing, Crime, and the Origins of the Newfoundland Constabulary, 1729-1871 (St. John’s: Flanker Press Limited, 2021).

By Michael Boudreau

The Newfoundland Constabulary, currently known as the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (the “Royal” designation was bestowed in 1979), is Canada’s oldest continuous police service.  In this exhaustive and meticulously researched book, Keith Mercer charts the origins of the Newfoundland Constabulary through the daily exploits of the men who policed St. John’s and the rural outports.  These constables played a central role in the administration of the criminal justice system and became “pivotal figures” in their communities.  The Newfoundland Constabulary has been overshadowed in the history of policing and law enforcement in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Canada by the North West Mounted Police, along with police forces in colonial British North America (notably Halifax and Quebec).  In this regard, Rough Justice is an important addition to police historiography in Canada.  A second volume is planned that will chronicle the force’s history from 1871 to 1950.  Both volumes are commissioned by the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Historical Society.

Keith Mercer, Rough Justice: Policing, Crime, and the Origins of the Newfoundland Constabulary, 1729-1871 (St. John’s: Flanker Press Limited, 2021).

Mercer posits that the evolution of policing in Newfoundland (the book does not delve much into policing in Labrador) was “gradual, with significant continuity from one generation to the next” (13).  This continuity meant that the constables who acted as agents of the British Crown, while “amateurs,” were not pre-modern or the “Police before the Police” (349, 461).  Rather, they were the police, at least in a colonial context. Since most of the officers examined in Rough Justice (such as Thomas Floyd, William Slaughter, and Jeremiah Dunn, who was probably the first officer to be murdered in the line of duty in Newfoundland in 1861), left no written records of their exploits, Mercer has had to tease out their daily activities from court records and newspaper accounts.  Their duties included inspecting taverns, executing court orders, attending court sittings, and detecting “Sabbath-breakers.”  In this sense, these constables, as Mercer asserts, performed functions that were similar to their counter-parts in Nova Scotia and Quebec.

In performing these duties, constables often encountered “rough justice” which was a “badge of honour…for junior officers” (6-7).  They were at times physically assaulted by the individuals who they attempted to detain.  But at the same time, the police administered rough justice, particularly in the form of public floggings, which persisted into the 1860s and 1870s.  And while it is not necessarily surprising that police work was dangerous, Mercer could have done more with the concept of “rough justice” in terms of comparing how rough justice was meted out, and by whom, in Newfoundland with some of the other British North American colonies.  Moreover, while the archival records are spotty, more details about the lives of the people who encountered the police, as the public face of the criminal justice system, would have provided a clearer picture of rough justice in colonial Newfoundland.

While many aspects of policing in Newfoundland were not, contrary to Mercer’s claim, “unique” when compared to other jurisdictions, the tavern-keeper system certainly was.  During the Napoleonic era in St. John’s, publicans (tavern keepers) and police officers were one-in-the-same.  Instead of paying officers a full-time salary, these men were given free tavern licenses, despite the fact that they were empowered with the authority to enforce liquor laws.  By recounting this fascinating element of policing in the city, Rough Justice has revealed a new perspective on the history of law enforcement.  Another intriguing facet of police work was the Sheep Protection Act, which charged officers with the task of protecting sheep, and other livestock, from marauding dogs.  This meant that constables routinely killed ravenous canines in what arguably was an example of “rough justice,” even though Mercer does not frame it as such. This discussion also reveals how policing on the ground was at times a delicate negotiation between competing interests; in this instance, between dog owners and farmers, and how police work was more about regulating behaviour than preventing crime.

By 1815 the tavern-keeper system of policing in St. John’s had ended.  Security concerns arising from the War of 1812 paved the way for the creation of a full-time, salaried constabulary.  Moreover, Britain’s decision to withdraw its military garrison forced the hand of colonial officials and led to the creation of the Newfoundland Constabulary in 1871.  But this decision, as Mercer contends, was made reluctantly, since many political leaders believed that soldiers, not the police, were the best bulwark against crime and disorder, and they lobbied the British government to reverse its decision, but to no avail.  Ironically then, the Newfoundland Constabulary, rather than being considered a triumph of progressive political reform, was “largely born out of desperation and indifference” (465).  Mercer delves into the political machinations behind the creation of the police in Newfoundland, but occasionally this discussion overshadows the social context of policing.

Rough Justice concludes that the Newfoundland Constabulary developed into a “highly respected institution” (366).  But more needed to be said about who respected these constables and why.  The people who assaulted them clearly did not respect them, nor, it seems, did local politicians for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Similarly, Mercer argues that the “traditions of the modern-day R[oyal] N[ewfoundland] C[onstabulary] were rooted in [a] rich heritage of community service” (465).  Yet the question remains, did these constables actually see their work as “community service” or simply as a way to earn a meager income?  This could not have been the case with the tavern-keepers who doubled as constables, as they were arguably motivated more by self-interest than a commitment to community service.  Nevertheless, Rough Justice is more than an institutional history of the Newfoundland Constabulary; it is a highly readable account of some of the intricacies of daily policing in colonial Newfoundland.

Michael Boudreau is Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice at St. Thomas University and Editor/Éditeur of the Journal of New Brunswick Studies/Revue d’études sur le Nouveau-Brunswick.

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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