As Near to Heaven By Sea: A History of Newfoundland and Labrador

Last summer I visited Newfoundland and had such an enjoyable time exploring the Avalon peninsula and Cape Bonavista. I would love to go back and see more of this vast island. Almost a year after this memorable trip I chose to read As Near to Heaven By Sea: A History of Newfoundland and Labrador by Kevin Major. This 498-page history was published in 2001. From the geological prehistory of the formation of the eastern Canadian land mass to the dawn of the twenty-first century, Major has written almost five hundred pages that kept me engrossed for hours on end. I could not put As Near to Heaven By Sea down, and Major made each time I opened the book feel like a fun, yet still serious history class.  


Major covers the history from both parts of the province, the island of Newfoundland as well as the mainland of Labrador. Often the mainland is forgotten or given short shrift in provincial histories. Major has written about both parts of the province and treats each as an equal. The first few chapters were about Norse exploration and the settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows by Leif Ericson at the turn of the second millennium. Major also discussed several other pre-Columbian exploration theories. The Island and Labrador were both inhabited by native peoples before the arrival of Europeans, and we learn about these peoples’ migrations across the east coast. The chapter entitled “Where Once They Stood” was a sad account of the extinction by decimation of some First Nations, such as the Beothuk.

St. John’s is the oldest city in North America, and typical of Major’s writing was his injection of humour into his history. I would sometimes burst out laughing at his asides or parenthetical opinions:

“At the beginning of the [eighteenth] century King William’s Act had let it be known that ‘all the inhabitants shall strictly keep every Lords Day.’ And that ‘none keeping taverns shall sell wine &c. on that day,’ as if everyone would pay attention to laws governing their intake of alcohol once the navy vessels set sail for England in the fall.”


“By day the fishermen caught cod from small boats, then salted and sometimes dried their catch. They slept aboard ship or in temporary dwellings on shore. At the end of the summer, their holds full, they headed back home, often with a stop in St. John’s Harbour on the way.”The eventual capital city of the Island had its beginnings as a place for a little rest and relaxation, and the occasional brawl–an international port city in the making.”

In regards to modern St. John’s, Major has no affection for the city’s Atlantic Place shopping and parking complex:

“Even in the mid-twentieth century the downtown looked as if it could be out of the nineteenth. Not content to let well enough alone (where such a visage could only be a magnet for sightseers), the business vulgarians brought in the wrecking balls and raised something they called ‘Atlantic Place.’ With the profile of a brick box and a personality to match, it’s a blight at harbourside, only to be redeemed with the return of the wrecking ball. Such architectural idiocy along Water Street is not now without competition, of course (the prerequisite mirrored tower of Scotia Bank its stiffest rival). City councillors (and no city has had a more curious lot of these) seem forever prone to err on the side of commerce. St. John’s claims to be the oldest city in North America. At times it has looked bent on destroying all evidence to support that claim.”


“Visitors entering the harbour (and able to turn a blind eye to Atlantic Place) will look skyward to see the two forces that have most shaped our society–the fishery and the Church.”

Atlantic Place

For centuries, the Island’s fishing grounds were fought over between the English and French. In 1702, English Rear-Admiral John Graydon was given orders to battle the French settlement at Plaisance. When he met with his captains, they “whined about the thick fog shrouding the bay. In the end the attack was called off ‘since it might tend to the dishonour of Her Majesty’s arms.'”

They were all obviously strangers in a strange land to make complaints about the fog of all things:

“Graydon was either displaying a streak of cowardice or acting on lame advice. Word of the strength of the garrison at Plaisance was no more than rumour. And in Placentia Bay no one puts off the business at hand because of fog. If they did they’d be hard pressed to ever get much accomplished.”

Newfoundland and Labrador were the targets of pirates and many shady characters in the first few centuries after colonization. Fishing vessels or other ships full of cargo from the new world were vulnerable on the return voyage:

“Legend has it that from 1740 to 1760 Sandy Point in Bay St. George was home to the notorious husband-and-wife pirating duo of Eric and Marie Cobham. It is said they attacked ships heading out of the St. Lawrence, and were especially keen on any bearing cargoes of furs from New France. They were known for massacring all on board and then scuttling the vessels, with Marie often taking the lead in the heinous goings-on. ‘She poisoned one ship’s crew, had others sewn into sacks and thrown overboard alive, still others tied up and used for pistol practice,’ says one modern account. Newfoundland seems to have brought out the worst in her.”

Since the island of Newfoundland was first settled on the east coast by Europeans, Major puts forth a valid question if settlement had occurred first on the west by the Gulf of St. Lawrence:

“This was a very different picture of Newfoundland. And leads one to speculate on just how prosperous the Island might have become had its settlement evolved from the more fertile west coast, rather than the barren headlands to the east. Had population growth centred on Bay St. George rather than St. John’s, we would most likely have become a part of Canada with its Confederation of 1867. Labrador would certainly have felt more closely tied to the rest of the province. And by now there might well have been a bridge between it and the Island, connecting the Canadian mainland to the west coast, to a million or so people…”

In the late 1800’s to the first few decades of the twentieth century, the Island became the focus of international importance in the field of communications. The chapter entitled “Communications Central” told the stories about the laying of the first trans-Atlantic cables, Marconi’s experiments with wireless technology and Amelia Earhart’s trans-Atlantic flights. The development of the international airport in Gander in northeastern Newfoundland both as a refuelling stop, as well as for military purposes in World War II, made it one of the most interesting chapters.

Newfoundland didn’t join Confederation until 1949, when it became Canada’s tenth province after securing 52% of the vote in a referendum. The campaign to join Canada was led by Joey Smallwood, a bespectacled bow tie-wearing orator schooled in American evangelism. Much of the Island’s outports, as well as virtually the entire of Labrador, were inaccessible by road. What led to a victory for Confederation were the endless road trips led by Smallwood to every remote fishing village or Labrador coastal community. These small places, some of barely a hundred residents, had never been visited by anyone in government before, much less the man who would eventually become the new province’s first premier. He had this audience all to himself, and promised them Canadian wealth and a more prosperous life. How could they say no?

“Smallwood went where politicians rarely pitched before. If there were roads he eagerly suffered the mud and potholes for a few minutes with a loudspeaker. Where there were none (by far, most of the country) he descended in a decrepit seaplane, shook every hand while proclaiming deliverance into the guarantee of Canada’s social programs.”

As Near to Heaven By Sea ends with a political history after Smallwood left office and covers all the premiers who succeeded him. A lengthy bibliography is included which guarantees I will be seeking more titles. Some of the books Major mentions in his bibliography I even purchased during my trip last summer. Newfoundland and Labrador has a fascinating history and I am so glad that my first lengthy read on the topic was As Near to Heaven By Sea.

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