"Smugglers, schemers, scoundrels, and sleeveens:" an analysis of merchant-client relations at Bonavista, Newfoundland, 1875-1895

Bradley, David Gordon (1994) "Smugglers, schemers, scoundrels, and sleeveens:" an analysis of merchant-client relations at Bonavista, Newfoundland, 1875-1895. Masters thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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The truck system, the principal medium of exchange between merchants and fishing people in the outport economy of Newfoundland in the pre-confederation era, was undoubtedly exploitative and had a pervasive influence on the society. Some of the literature argues further, however, that in this cashless economy, truck provided merchants with monopolistic, even despotic, control over communities, leaving helpless fishing people inextricably bound, through indebtedness, to the system. This thesis contends that fishing people were not entirely subjugated by truck; in fact, they employed strategies which helped to mitigate the exploitative nature of the system and allowed them to exercise a degree of influence over their own destinies. Thus fishing people, especially dealers who owned their own boats and fishing premises, and negotiated a "deal" with merchants each spring, dem onstrated an "agency" which has often been overlooked. This agency was revealed through analysis of individual accounts for clients of a Bonavista firm, James Ryan, covering the years 1875-1895. Competition amongst merchants for clients and their produce, combined with the disinclination of fishing people to be passive or submissive victims of the system, helped to undermine many of the stifling tendencies of truck. During the period, which saw a particularly severe economic decline, this competition also created a complex and hostile economic environment as well as a very stratified fishing population. In negotiating the deal, the most successful fishers were usually able to secure favourable terms, conducting most of their business with the firm entirely on a cash basis or having access, through their accounts at Ryan’s, to St. John’s merchants who paid cash. Other consistent producers, who nevertheless fell into debt, also obtained significant amounts of cash on their accounts. And the firm’s relentless quest for fish prevented Ryan from imposing credit restrictions on others who produced little, even if they were accumulating large debts. On the other hand, people who did not perform adequately in Ryan’s estimation, suffered a degree of credit restriction or were "cut off." Debts were virtually uncollectible, however, and rather than being forced out of the formal economy, many found other suppliers. In fact, it was a well established practise for many fishers to sell or "smuggle" portions their catch to other suppliers in contravention of their deal with Ryan. Smuggling was widespread because merchants, seeking fish intended for other suppliers, w ere eager participants. Truck may have been skewed to the merchants’ advantage in most respects, but many fishing people demonstrated sufficient agency to withstand the shortcomings of their staple economy, harsh environment, and inequitable medium of exchange.

Item Type: Thesis (Masters)
URI: http://research.library.mun.ca/id/eprint/8523
Item ID: 8523
Additional Information: Includes bibliographical references: (pages 177-182).
Department(s): Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of > History
Date: 1994
Date Type: Submission
Geographic Location: Bonavista (N.L.)
Library of Congress Subject Heading: Fishers--Newfoundland and Labrador--Bonavista; Merchants--Newfoundland and Labrador--Bonavista; Social classes--Newfoundland and Labrador--Bonavista; Truck system--Newfoundland and Labrador--Bonavista; Bonavista (N.L.)--Economic conditions.

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