Over the past few days I’ve read an antique book online via Google Books: Philip Tocque’s Newfoundland: as it was and as it is in 1877. I started out skimming descriptions of particular settlements, hoping for contemporary details, but I got caught up in Tocque’s opinions about the social structure of 19th-century Newfoundland, which he calls a “fishocracy.” Despite his obvious patriotism, the portrait he paints of Newfoundland is grim: all corruption, abuse, ignorance, partisanship, and violence. The frame of his critique is that Newfoundland was always administered by the Crown only as a profitable fishery, with no concern for the well-being or human rights of the island’s residents and workers. Tocque was himself a merchant’s son from Carbonear, and had a comfortable upbringing, but seems to have been spiritually moved towards progressivism.
Perhaps most striking about Tocque’s work is his nascent environmentalism. He finds the seal fishery disgusting and exploitative of both animals and humans. As a young man, in 1831, he stowed away on a sealer and became convinced by what he saw that the seal hunt was immoral. Years later, he still writes powerfully about the sickening violence:
On the first of March, all is bustle and animation, preparing for the seal fishery. Persons are seen coming in from all parts of the country, some by land, with their bats, sealing-gun, and bundles of clothes over their shoulders; others come in skiffs, loaded with clothes, boxes, bags, guns, and gaffs. From the 1st to about the 10th of March, the streets of Harbour Grace, Carbonear, Bay Roberts, and Brigus, are crowded with groups of hardy seal-hunters. Some are employed bending sails and fixing the rigging of the vessel; some making oars and preparing the sealing-punts or skiffs; others collecting stones for ballast, filling the water casks and cleaving wood; while others are employed putting on board the provisions necessary for the voyage. The shouting, whistling, and clatter of tongues, presents almost a scene of Babel. In severe winters the harbors are frozen, when a channel through the ice has to be cut for the egress of vessels. Many men and vessels are lost in the prosecution of this voyage. Sometimes vessels are crushed between large masses of ice called ‘rollers,’ at other times they get in contact with islands of ice. The seal-fishery is a constant scene of bloodshed and slaughter. Here you behold a heap of seals which have only received a slight dart from the gaff, writhing, and crimsoning the ice with their blood, rolling from side to side in dying agony. There you see another lot, while the last spark of life is not yet extinguished, being stripped of their skins and fat, their startlings and heavings making the unpracticed hand shrink with horror to touch them. In the prosecution of the seal fishery the Sabbath is violated to a great extent. In pursuing this branch of commercial enterprise, some have been suddenly raised from comparative poverty to wealth and affluence. On the other hand, persons of means have embarked in the voyage, and have been as suddenly reduced to poverty. Several steamers are now sent to the seal fisheries from Harbour Grace. Fortune at best is but a fickle goddess, but she will always have devotees worshipping at her altars. (pp. 123-124)
He expands on that idea later and says that the seal fishery is nothing but a lottery in which the merchants risk capital for the chance at vast riches, while the fishermen risk their lives for short pay.
That was in 1877. My Newfoundland grandparents were born in the 1890s and had no trouble with the seal fishery. My grandmother had fond memories of eating seal meat. Since her day, the world economy has changed. It’s impossible to justify the brutal seal hunt in the 21st century. This year’s hunt has just ended, with kills far under quota for the second year. This drop reflects lower demand for the furs (now banned in the EU), and also fewer hunters. Seal hunting requires one to go out on foot on the spring ice, and with global warming the spring ice is more dangerous than ever, adding even more risk to a bloody job. Some activists are calling for a boycott of all Canadian seafood until the seal hunt stops. (Beware graphic images of dead seals at that last link!) The seals even have a celebrity spokesman in Bill Maher. We can hope that two centuries after Tocque’s troubled witnessing, the seal hunt will also be history.