The Beothuk, The Irish, The Island

A Rev Left supplement

In my conversation with Breht on Revolutionary Left Radio I began by talking about my experience growing up in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada and how it brought me to socialism. I messed up in my remarks though, probably because of the strangeness of finding myself recording for my favourite podcast, and neglected to talk about the key component of that experience.

During the interview, I said that two things shaped my awareness of the world early on when I was a child: 1) that Newfoundland was poor, 2) that Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders were not well-liked in Canada. I failed to mention a third: that there were people who used to be here before us, but who were now gone.

The component missing when I spoke to Breht is the fact that the history of Newfoundland revolves around a double displacement: the genocidal displacement of a people, the indigenous Beothuk, and the introduction of a displaced people, the Irish settlers.

The reason why I am writing this follow-up piece is that it is not okay to talk about the struggles of displaced Irish in Newfoundland without talking about those of the Beothuk and, by extension, not only all First Nations people but also all indigenous peoples in the Americas and around the world who suffer under imperialism.

I know many Rev Left listeners may not know much about Newfoundland and that some may have never even heard of it. It's a big island off the east coast of Canada. Its capital city is St. John's, which is closer as the crow flies to Nuuk, Greenland than it is to Ottawa, the capital of Canada. It takes about seven hours to drive west across the vast interior to the next most populous community, Corner Brook. From there it takes another two hours to drive southwest to Port aux Basques, where you can take a six-hour ferry crossing to mainland Canada. Driving from Port aux Basques on the island's southwest coast to L'Anse aux Meadows at its northernmost tip takes nearly eight hours.

The island's population is around five hundred thousand people, tiny for a landmass of its size. It is such a beautiful place that I can't put it into words, and it is also very harsh. I love the North Atlantic ocean so much. It is so unforgiving that, traditionally, fishermen forewent personal flotation devices because doing so was useless at best. Sometimes it looks like slate and sometimes it looks like ink. It commands respect and awe.

The island of Newfoundland is an incredibly resource-rich part of the world and, shamefully, one of the first staging grounds for European settler-colonialism.

Talamh an eisc: The Land of the Fish

Newfoundland was inhabited by indigenous peoples for thousands of years before European settlers arrived. It has the unenviable distinction of being England's first colony in the Americas, primarily due to its historically abundant codfish population. Other than Ireland, Newfoundland is England's oldest overseas holding. The province's name derives from royal charters which allowed early settler colonialists to take control, in the name of the English Crown, of any “new found land” they might find on their journeys. It is probably not a coincidence that Newfoundlanders are known today for having a thick sense of irony and a very dry sense of humour.

Since 1949, thirty years before I was born, Newfoundland has formed part of a Canadian province along with a mainland region called Labrador, home to the Inuit and Innu First Nations. The province's official name is Newfoundland & Labrador, but I will refer only to the island throughout. The people of Labrador have experiences and perspectives, and aspirations, of which I have no part, so I can't speak on their behalf. During my conversation with Breht I referred to Confederation with Canada as a “criminal annexation”. Anyone who might be puzzled by, or interested in, what that means should read Greg Malone's bestselling book Don't Tell The Newfoundlanders: The True Story of Newfoundland's Confederation with Canada (2014).

As I wrote this I thought about when Breht and I were discussing dialectics and about how valuable Mao's philosophical texts are because they offer an accessible way for people to start thinking about history in a way that is not one-sided. I hope that I've been able to show the historical dialectic at work in the people and events I'm about to discuss. When I was a kid, history was presented to me in school as a bunch of discrete events that had basically nothing to do with each other, or us, receding into the past like objects in the rear-view mirror.

That was sadly ironic in a place for which the past was and is vividly experienced and contemplated over and over as something very much present and very much alive. But it was a function of the fact that settler-colonial states like Canada need to make the past seem dead, except for features of the past that suit it.

Accordingly, one of my aspirations as a teacher has been to acquaint people with history dialectically, as Lenin says: “as living, many-sided knowledge (with the number of sides eternally increasing), with an infinite number of shades of every approach and approximation to reality” so that they can more ably struggle their way out of bourgeois historiographies and course curricula.

To put it another way, following Engels, I want to help people see history as “innumerable forces which cross each other, an infinite group of parallelograms of forces, from which is derived one resultant—the historical event—which in its turn again can be considered as the product of an active power, as a whole unconsciously and involuntarily, because that which each individual wishes is prevented by every other, and that which results from it is a thing which no one has wished.”

Thanks, in advance, for the patience of anybody who reads this, which was meant to be a brief clarification and turned out much longer.

The Beothuk

The Beothuk people were a group of hunter-gatherers who lived on the island of Newfoundland, particularly around what are today called Notre Dame Bay and Bonavista Bay, which are on the island's northern coast. Descendents of an earlier group known by archaeologists as the “Little Passage Complex”, the Beothuk culture formed around 1500 CE. To my knowledge they numbered about 2000 at the onset of colonization.

As I said above, when I was a child I was told that the Beothuk had gone extinct. That narrative persists, although in 2020 it began to be overturned thanks largely to the efforts of Chief Mi'sel Joe, political and spiritual leader of the Miawpukek First Nation, a marvelous community located in Bay D'Espoir on the island's Southern Shore. Steve Carr, a biologist at Memorial University in St. John's, showed in a study that members of Miawpukek, who are Mi'kmaq, have genetic connections to two known Beothuk, Demasduit and Nonosabasut. In Dr. Carr's words, the most accurate way now to describe what happened to the Beothuk is “cultural extinction”.

Europeans first made contact with Newfoundland came around 1000 CE when Norse who had settled southern Greenland made shore at the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula and founded a sod-hut settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows. After many skirmishes with people they called skraelings, who may have been predecessors of the Beothuk, they returned home.

In the meantime Ireland came under English occupation starting in 1169. Henry II consolidated control in 1175 with the Treaty of Windsor, helping create the conditions for the eventual Irish diaspora. It was not until the fifteenth century, however, that Newfoundland was drawn into the sphere of colonial expansion and not until the seventeenth century that an Irishman was first sighted on the island.

European expansion into the Americas

In the dying years of that century, Giovanni Caboto, an Italian navigator working in the Icelandic fish trade, was granted a charter by King Henry VII of England. This charter gave Caboto the authority to “sail to all parts, countries and seas of the East, the West and of the North, under our banner and ensign, and to set up our banner on any new-found-land.”

Caboto embarked from Bristol, England on 2 May, 1497 in a caravel called the Matthew. On 24 June he is said to have landed at Cape Bonavista, a headland area between Bonavista Bay and Trinity Bay. He returned to England with an enormous haul of codfish and reports of cod populations so plenteous that a sailor could just about jump off the ship and walk across the fish to shore. The English were, of course, very interested to learn of this rich resource and, beginning in 1498, fished the waters of Newfoundland non-stop until handing the island off to Canada in 1949. They were soon followed by the Portuguese, the French, the Spanish and the Basque.

European settlement properly began in 1583 when Humphrey Gilbert, an agent of Queen Elizabeth I, arrived in what is now St. John's, and proclaimed to the representatives of the other powers that England was formally taking possession of the island. England's control over Newfoundland was disputed periodically for the next one hundred and thirty years, until it received formal recognition from France at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713.

This beautiful terrible place

That is how my birthplace became the oldest established European city in North America, and how the island became England's first colony. This fact, compounded with the assault on the Beothuk, compounded with the conflict between Irish colonists and English colonial rulers, compounded yet again with Newfoundland's annexation by Canada, makes Newfoundland's history a valuable case study in the broader history of colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism.

My wish is that Newfoundlanders, above all those of Irish descent, become conscious of this, because I think that it is very difficult to partake in reconcilation with our indigenous brothers and sisters, or with nature, unless and until we do. But I hope that our story might be of use to others as well, particularly all white settlers living in Canada.

Settler violence and the Beothuk

Once settlement began in earnest the Beothuk suffered the effects of European expansion, and were forced inland as the settlers spread out. The Beothuk lived mainly on caribou, salmon, and seal, so moving away from coastal areas severely deprived them of food sources. The caribou population accordingly plunged due to overhunting, thus squeezing them even harder. Additionally, the Beothuk began coming into conflict with Mi'kmaq and Inuit groups who were migrating around the region.

This dynamic played out for nearly two hundred and fifty years, with the so-called “last” Beothuk, a woman named Shawnadithit, the niece of Demasduit, dying in 1829 in St. John's. Newfoundland author Harold Horwood chronicled the atrocity of those years in a 1959 Maclean's Magazine article titled “The people who were murdered for fun”, a furious indictment of the settlers. Endemic tuberculosis also killed many, including Shawnadithit. And, of course, the Beothuk fell prey not only to European violence but also to European diseases such as smallpox.

As the Beothuk were in the last decades of this process, the Irish began arriving in large numbers from overseas. Some Irish had been journeying to Newfoundland as seasonal workers since around 1675, coming to call it Talamh an eisc. From what I understand, these workers came primarily from Waterford in the province of Munster. Between 1675 and 1800 they increasingly began to overwinter and settle permanently, thus contributing to the pressure on the Beothuk.

The Irish Diaspora

In 1800, two years after the Irish Rebellion of 1798, a huge influx of Irish began to arrive on the island. The bulk of them came from Wexford, where the United Irishmen instigated the Rebellion. That same year, there was an attempted uprising at St. John's planned by a group of (reportedly) 400 United Irish. At the time, the Irish formed two-thirds of the population of St. John's. The uprising was put down by General John Skerrett, who had been sent to St. John's after helping suppress the Irish in 1798. Eight United Irishmen were hanged, and several more were sentenced to life with hard labour. Irish writer Aidan O'Hara has documented the connections between the St. John's United Irishmen and those in Wexford in “The entire island is United ...” (2000).

Between 1800 and 1835 roughly thirty thousand Irish came to Newfoundland, about the same number that the English killed in 1798. By the time the British Empire allowed Newfoundland to govern itself by elected assembly, without colonial governors, in 1855, Irish people and their offspring born on the island accounted for about half of the population.

There is much, much more of this story to tell, ranging from the catastrophe of the First World War, which clobbered Newfoundland demographically as well as financially, to the catastrophe of Confederation. There is the Great Fire of 1892, the Sealing Disaster of 1914, the Colonial Building riot of 1932 and ensuing political/economic collapse, the Ocean Ranger Disaster of 1982, and the collapse of Newfoundland's cod stocks in 1992 – and that's just scratching the surface.

Returning to the present moment

I'll stop here to return to the point. My historical experience as a Newfoundlander of the Irish diaspora is one of double displacement. My existence rests on the displacement of the Beothuk, but also on the displacement of Irish. Both of them were displaced by world powers that would eventually give rise to capitalism. In doing research for this piece, I discovered that one of the leaders at Wexford in 1798 was named Matthew Furlong. He was shot and killed by English forces at the Battle of New Ross, and there are statues to his memory in both New Ross and Hartford, Connecticut. One of the others was Michael Furlong, and that is my brother's name.

My ancestors belonged to an indigenous population oppressed for seven centuries by the same power that went on to oppress people all around the world, and whose successor states continue to do so. But I am a settler, in a settler-colonialist state, and I benefit from that. I've spent most of my life trying to understand what it means to be a Newfoundlander, because from a very young age I could tell something felt wrong about our existence. There was always a degree of alienation and and disorientation, as well as anxiety, about who we were, and how we got to where we were, buzzing just below the surface. In many ways “moving to Canada” in 1998 increased that feeling of alienation for me. I have never felt entirely comfortable living in spaces that are thoroughly Canadian, although doing so has given me much-needed perspective.

In Newfoundland there is often a sense that we're very much alone historically, as though we were cut adrift in the void. But that is not true. A clear examination of Newfoundland's history shows that, following the nineteenth century's booming Irish influx, itself followed shortly by Chinese, Lebanese and Eastern European Jewish workers in-migrating, the people were subjected to the kind of imperialist treatment Canada and the United States continue to exercise on the world stage today. Newfoundland's deliberate economic destruction at the hands of Canadian and British finance capital after World War One is one example. Destructive overfishing that led to the cod stock collapse is another. The deliberate “underdevelopment” of Newfoundland, ensuring a constant outflow of labourers to the mainland, is a third.

A fourth example is the way that Newfoundlanders prior to and in Confederation were constantly mocked and derided as lazy, unintelligent, profligate, of “low morals”, and incapable of self-governance, up until the turn of the twenty-first century. It is an extension of how the Irish were treated by England and within the British Empire. This is reflected in the “Newfie Joke” books I mentioned on the show, which routinely featured cartoon images associating negative qualities with Newfoundland Irishness.

“Today's Empires ...”

It all tracks closely to how states like Canada and the US, with levels of violence we are privileged to be unable to imagine, treat the people they have gone on to oppress in the wake of the British Empire. When Michael Parenti describes the way that wealth creates poverty in so-called “poor countries” it makes the history of my home crystal clear, and it takes away all doubt about our place in the world. Ireland was the first domino. Newfoundland was the second.

That any settler-Newfoundlander, above all any of Irish descent, should not be unequivocally in support of indigenous struggles against modern imperialism everywhere in the world, is absurd. That we should side with Canada instead of with the indigenous is even more absurd. We got a taste of what so many people have suffered since then, to far greater extremes. We escaped all that: with time, we generally stopped being treated like the odd man out in the game of Canada's white settler-colonialism. We are complicit in white supremacy regardless of the fact that the Irish historically suffered racialized hatred and violence.

Del capo al fine

I opened by talking about the place where I was born because I wanted to show how, concretely, reading not only Marx and Engels but also Lenin, Mao, and many others, with many other people, I've become acquainted with the analyses and methods of analysis that I needed to understand my own history and to shake off the feeling of alienation I just mentioned. De-alienation is one of the objectives of dialectical materialism, as is the cultivation of resolve and the ability to make clear judgments.

There is generally a good deal of anxiety in the responses of white settlers to indigenous movements such as Land Back. But a proper historical understanding of how all of our lives are bound together through colonialism, through imperialism, through capitalism, should dispel that anxiety and leave in its place only a clear understanding of whom to support. It should also impart a clear understanding of the incalculable responsibility settlers bear for the damage done to indigenous peoples and to the land.

My wish would be for all settlers to recognize that there is so much more to fear from remaining in confusion and denial, and so much more to gain from leaving them behind.

The responsibility which is ours is a gift.


Briarpatch Magazine (September/October 2020) – The Land Back Issue

Centre for Indigenous GovernanceMiawpukek: Success Through Citizen Engagement (2011)

Angela Davis – The Meaning of Freedom (2012)

Susan Dodd – The Ocean Ranger: Remaking the Promise of Oil (2012)

Ralph Fox – Marx, Engels, and Lenin on the Irish Revolution (1932)

Fred Hampton – On The Importance of Education Prior to Action (1968)

Nicholas Furlong – Lecture: A Presentation on the 1798 Irish Rebellion (1991)

Gord Hill – 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance (2010; there's also a graphic novel version!)

Aldo Leopold – The Land Ethic (1949)

Land and Sea – The Newfoundland Sealing Disaster (1974)

On Mass podcast – Episode 8: What is Canada? – Canada in the World: Settler Capitalism and Colonial Imagination, w/Tyler Shipley (2020)

Pam Palmater's YouTube channel – Insight and Analysis on Current Issues in Indian Country

Michael Parenti – Lecture: The Darker Myths of Empire (2005)

Propagandhi – Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes (2001)

Tyler Shipley – Canada in the World: Settler Capitalism and Colonial Imagination (2020)

Yanis Varoufakis – Lecture: Capitalism – The Beast that Dominates Our Lives (2018)