History professor concludes 1914 sealing disaster played role in collapse of democracy

Diane Crocker dcrocker@thewesternstar.com
Published on August 7, 2014

Between 1914 and 1934 the political culture in Newfoundland transformed and democracy collapsed.

Some would argue that the political disillusionment that led to the collapse stemmed from the First World War. But Sean Cadigan argues that disillusionment started before the beginning of the war with the sealing disaster in the spring of 1914. Seventy-seven men from the S.S. Newfoundland lost their lives on the front.

Cadigan, a history professor at Memorial University, talks about the impact the disaster had on politics in Newfoundland in his book “Death on Two Fronts.”

Cadigan discussed the book and the conclusions he’s drawn in it at the Corner Brook Museum and Archives Wednesday night. The event, held in the old courtroom, was attended by 16 people.

The book is part of the History of Canada Series and when approached to write it Cadigan was asked to think about writing about a turning point in Newfoundland’s history.

The release of the book this year was to have it coincide with the 100th anniversary of the start of the war, something recognized everywhere. But here, Cadigan said 1914 holds another significance.

“Here 1914 becomes important first because of the sealing disaster.”

In his talk, Cadigan provided a lesson in history as he took people through the disaster, into the war years and after, all the time linking it the goings on in Newfoundland politics.

Cadigan said the disaster led to greater class division as the merchants were accused of not being interested in the welfare of the people and in putting profit first.

When the war broke, Cadigan said the feeling was the disaster would go away and people would forget it and rally around the flag.

“I don’t think they did,” said Cadigan. “I think they just sort of thought about the experience of the war and hoped that they could build a better world that would address the problems of inequality that led to things like the problems in the seal hunt.”

 Cadigan said the debates that rose from the disaster continued, and people like William Coaker, leader of the Fisherman’s Protective Union, who factored heavily in the discussion, argued against joining the war saying Newfoundland could not afford a regiment. He looked to the future and questioned how Newfoundland would support the veterans when it did nothing to support the sealers, and the fishermen.

Eventually, he said Coaker and others became disillusioned with the government. Coaker even started to support fascist ideals.

Cadigan said it’s that sense of disillusionment that helps explain the collapse of democracy in Newfoundland in the 1930s.

“The irony is that the war doesn’t really found a nation here in the way many people tend to think. It helps to set up the conditions for its collapse.”