Saying prayers: not reason enough for desertion.

Archival Moment

July 24, 1882

Photo Credit:  The Rooms Provincial Archives. A 44-41; Grand Bank, headquarters for the prosecution of the Bank fishery.

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives. A 44-41; Grand Bank, headquarters for the prosecution of the Bank fishery.

There was a time in Newfoundland history when most fishermen worked under a contract with the merchant families, a contract that was embedded in legislation known as the “Of Masters and Servants Act.”

Many firms operating from Newfoundland ports such as Allan Goodridge and Sons from Renews on the Southern Shore required bank fishers to sign written contracts guaranteeing to remain with the employer for the duration of the voyage, “from the first of April till the last of October next.” 

Leaving employment prior to the end of the trip constituted desertion – a criminal offence punishable by a jail sentence of thirty to sixty days. John Carew and Andrew Armstrong of Witless Bay opted to desert in July 1882.

The two Witless Bay men were quickly apprehended and brought before Judge James Gervé Conroy, a stipendiary magistrate and judge of the Central District Court., St. John’s.

The defendants, Carew and  Armstrong, were shipped as share men on the ‘J.A. Smith’ a ship owned by Allan Goodridge and Sons to prosecute the bank fishery. Alan Goodridge & Son was one of the most successful firms in Newfoundland. The firm had branches throughout the colony including the home port of Renews. The Registry of Newfoundland Vessels reveals that the Goodridge’s were one of the largest vessel owners in that era, registering 197 vessels between 1834 and 1917.

Carew and Armstrong stood before the good judge on July 24, 1882  and argued that “the Captain was not gentlemanly in his conduct.”  They explained to the judge that the vessel, ‘J.A. Smith’ went into the Harbour of Renews to replenish her stock of bait where they had no choice but to dessert.

As a cause for their leaving, they told the judge that the Captain came aboard one Sunday evening and asked them why they did not go to prayers while they were in Renews.  The furious Captain explained “That they could not expect the voyage to prosper with them unless they went to their duty (prayers and holy mass) when the chance offered.

They argued that they did not go into the town of Renews for prayers because they “were ashamed to be seen on shore on account of the slanderous manner in which the Captain had talked about them to the people there.”

The defendants argued that the Captain had committed a breach of marine etiquette by lecturing to them upon a matter that was not contained in the articles of their agreement, (attending prayers).

The two had enough. They took a dory and rowed towards the shore, bidding farewell to the Captain and the remaining portion of his gallant crew.

They then started for St. John’s and whilst on their way, were overtaken by Constable Daw who proceeded in bringing them before the sanctuary of justice.

Judge Conroy having heard the story was not in the least sympathetic.  He argued that they should have made complaint, if they had any, before the magistrate in Ferryland,  (the community with a court nearest to Renews) instead of endeavoring to come to St. John’s  to escape desertion, and in taking a dory to affect their desertion they had rendered themselves liable six months imprisonment.

Judge Conroy was apparently feeling somewhat lenient; at least he thought so, punishing the two Witless Bay fishermen to thirty days for leaving their service “without good and sufficient cause.”

Recommended Archival Collection:  The Maritime History Archive, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. Johns, holds 70% of the Crew Agreements from 1863-1938, and 80% of the Agreements from 1951-1976. The crew agreements include particulars of each member of the crew, including name (signature), age, place of birth, previous ship, place and date of signing, capacity  and particulars of discharge (end of voyage, desertion, sickness, death, never joined etc).

Recommended Reading: The Rule of the Admirals: Law, Custom, and Naval Government in Newfoundland, 1699-1832. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Recommended Reading:  The Newfoundland Bank Fishery: Government Policies and the Struggle to Improve Bank Fishing Crews’ Working, Health and Safety Conditions. Fred Winsor, B.A., MIA.  Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1996.