Thursday, April 22, 2021

Book Notes: Rough Justice

Flanker Press, Newfoundland's leading trade book press, recently sent me a copy of Keith Mercer's recent book Rough Justice: Policing, Crime, and the Origins of the Newfoundland Constabulary, 1929-1871.

Mercer's book is an institutional history commissioned and supported by the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Historical Society (as the first of at least two volumes, no less). It's also a serious, from the ground-up, constable's-eye view of justice, authority, and the policing of early Newfoundland, with some serious comments to offer on Newfoundland historiography.

Take dog control. Mercer notes it has been argued that the frequency with which dog control legislation was brought down by Newfoundland authorities is evidence of the ineffectuality of law -- rule-making as a substitute for enforcement.

Mercer offers a table from a typical year,1865: 827 dogs shot by constables under the Sheep Act. 256 in St John's, 174 in Harbour Main/Brigus, 65 in Carbonear, 60 in Trinity, and so on. That's just part of one year, with not all districts reporting. The scale at which dogs were killed was astounding, Mercer writes. "In St John's Chief Magistrate Carter reported that constables shooting dogs with guns in the city was dangerous but happily no serious incidents had occurred." (Can we expect a dog's-eye view history of Newfoundland sometime?)

Mercer offers context for this unforgettable historical detail. In the 1860s efforts were being made to expand the Newfoundland economy beyond fishing to agriculture, and particularly to grazing.  An Agricultural Society reported in 1865 in the past five years no less than 4000 sheep had been killed by dogs, 1630 around Brigus alone.  Dog control in other words, was a prerequisite to development, and there was no one but the Constabulary's men to carry it out  - which they evidently did.

So Mercer makes the whole thing not a lurid anecdote (well, not only a lurid anecdote) but a window into the complications of law and policing when a handful of constables were practically the only agents of authority anyone saw.  And that kind of sharp eye for how Newfoundland society and government operated is evident all through the book.  It even explains why, in the early 19th century, anyone who was a publican, that is, held a license to sell liquor to the public, was also ex officio a constable responsible for keeping order in the neighbourhood.  The lovely strangeness of the past.

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