Review of Campbell, Macdonald, and Payne, The Greater Gulf

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Claire E. Campbell, Edward MacDonald, and Brian Payne, eds., The Greater Gulf: Essays on the Environmental History of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020. 384 pgs, ISBN 9780773558670.

Reviewed by Rosemary E. Ommer.

This is a multidisciplinary collection of essays on the politico-resource history and historical geography of parts of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and its connections with the New England fishery. Focused on time, place, imperial politics and culture it argues for a conceptual unity of what contributors refer to as the ‘Greater Gulf.’ The individual essays are grouped into three sections that follow a two-essay introduction, of which more later. The sections cover geopolitical matters, resource base issues with a focus on fisheries, and cultural expressions of the Gulf in image and identity.

Jack Bouchard’s essay starts the first section with an analysis of Amerindians and the 16th century fishery in the Gulf. Early European contacts were at the beachhead and their impact on the Indigenous settlers was minimal, a situation that would change radically in the following century as international imperial aspirations claimed resources (and thus territories) in the region. Baehre picks up the story of this intrusion on the west coast of the island of Newfoundland, a region ecologically similar to the Gulf when compared to its other coasts in much the same way as the west and east coasts of Cape Breton are ecologically different. The west coast fronted fishing grounds that were exploited by various nations and groups of fishers. Permanent European settlers did not penetrate beyond the coast until the 19th century.

The short essay by Daniel Soucier is a fascinating account of how British warships effectively blocked the Quebec garrison’s food resources, laying the groundwork for the French loss of Quebec. John G. Reid’s fine essay follows, taking us from the 1793-1815 British-French conflict through large-scale settlement, including its impact on the Indigenous inhabitants. According to Robert K Bratt, this was a hugely complex and ultimately significant time, after a transition period in which Indigenous peoples were able to extract some redress from the British for the depredations they suffered. They were also able, to some degree, to protect themselves from the death and disease that so often afflicted the First Peoples of the rest of the continent. However, while Acadian colonists had left most Indigenous territories intact, in the early 1780s Loyalists, Scots, and other migrations led to major physical and economic impacts as land was cleared for agriculture, fishing, and other colonial enterprises. Many officials sympathised with Indigenous protests, whose military implications were understood, resulting in negotiated neutrality. However, territorial encroachment resulted in diminishing resource areas for them and eventually neutrality collapsed.

Brochure produced for the Quebec Steamship Company Ltd., “Gulf and Lower St. Lawrence Summer Excursions” (New York: Thomas Cook and Son, 1910).

Part Two is devoted to the Gulf and its resources, which is primarily how the authors interpret ‘environment.’ Payne’s essay paints a picture of PEI fisheries that is rich in detail but less convincing in its wider context of all Gulf fisheries, where PEI most certainly was not the only or even the dominant British/settler enterprise. That honour actually belongs to the Jersey enterprises whose major imperium was second only to the Hudson’s Bay Company, but nothing is said about them. Of course, the Jersey firms were based in Newfoundland rather than PEI and this omission points highlights a problem with the section. The PEI-centric essays in the section are good work in their own right, being detailed and locally informed, but are narrowly conceived. As PEI resource history this is a good section; as a conceptual framework called the Greater Gulf (explained in the introductory chapters as stretching from the Labrador Sea to the Gulf of Maine and out to the Grand Banks) it does not work. Nor can the argument – that such a vast marine area is actually one dominant ecosystem in the Northwest Atlantic – be sustained. The collection is weakened by this conceptual device which is designed to give it coherence.

Man and woman eating a lobster dinner, PEI [July 1952]. G. Blouin. National Film Board of Canada. Still Photography Division. Library and Archives Canada, e010949036. MIKAN 4292891.

The remaining two essays of this resource section tell the touching history of the Malpeque oyster vision held by the PEI government at the beginning of the 20th century, as recounted by MacDonald, and the tale of the PEI lobster trade covered in a fine analysis by Suzanne Morton. The section as a whole is full of interesting detail and the essays are well worth reading. It is not them but the overarching concept of the Greater Gulf that is problematic.

Part Three turns to the humanities with a strong essay about American travel writers in the 19th century by Jack Little, an evocative essay by Campbell on L.M. Montgomery’s portrayal of the environment, and a delightful account by Caitlin Charman of W. Albert Hickman’s analysis of industry and regional identity in his fiction.

A man, two women and a boy take a close look at lobster traps, Wood Island, PEI [1952].
Chris Lund, National Film Board of Canada, Still Photography Division. Library and Archives Canada, e010949056. MIKAN 4292911.

The collection concludes with “Glimpses of a Greater Gulf” by Campbell, MacDonald, and Payne, which points toward work that remains to be done. I find myself in considerable sympathy with the authors. Scholars (as the introductory essays document) have struggled for generations with the intuition that there is something that holds the four Atlantic provinces and the shores of New England together, something they share, some similarity of identity and self-concept. This collection is yet another attempt to come to grips with this notion. The authors have not found the answer in the concept of the Greater Gulf or in calling the collection ‘essays in environmental history’ since not much of this collection even touches on the biological aspects of the marine and littoral environment and it does not cover the whole of the Gulf, even if less generously defined. The collection is really a multidisciplinary regional account of the eastern parts of the Gulf. Framed as such, it is excellent.

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Rosemary Ommer

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