1933 was a very bad year. The Great Depression, a world-wide economic disaster was at its peak; Adolph Hitler became chancellor of Germany; and the Dominion of Newfoundland, in dire financial straits, turned out the lights on democracy.
The financial difficulties of the Dominion of Newfoundland amounted to one hundred million dollars of government debt—1.8 billion in today’s currency. The figure sounds all too familiar in 2016.
The financial hole of 1933 had not been dug overnight. Despite having borrowed 14 million between 1914 and 1918 to support the war effort, Newfoundland was still in decent financial shape. Over the next fifteen years, however, government made a practice of borrowing heavily to bankroll projects like the Reid Newfoundland Railway which had become an enormous burden on the country.
To add to Newfoundland’s woes, successive political leaders like Sir Richard Squires and Walter Monroe engaged in shady practices to enrich themselves and their cronies.
Squires spent much of his time flitting between his luxury apartments in New York and London, hobnobbing with the rich and famous at government expense. Monroe was more interested in rejigging the tax system to favour his own companies and those of his rich friends on Water Street.
Throughout the 1920s, ordinary people watched powerlessly as the privileged upper class plundered the treasury for their own gain. One editorial writer in The Evening Telegram, lamented that “with the falling off of the standard of government, there has been a growing disregard of the interests of the people.”
It all came to an ignoble end in early December 1933 at the last meeting of the Legislative Assembly when Prime Minister Alderdice stood in the house and proposed a motion which in effect terminated Newfoundland self-government in return for a bail-out by Britain.
The result: For the first time in the history of nations, a country had willingly sacrificed its independence in favour of colonial status. Only two members of the Legislative Assembly voted against the motion, Roland Starks for the district of Green Bay, and Gordon Bradley for Humber Valley.
One would think that such a shameful decision sparked outrage. Instead on December 22, 1933, the cream of Newfoundland’s political and business class met over a lavish dinner at the Newfoundland Hotel in St. John’s for an elaborate celebration of the end of their independent country.
The menu featured entrees like lamb chops with mint sauce, poached Atlantic salmon, and roast turkey, all washed down with fine French wines. Speaker after speaker praised Prime Minister Frederick Alderdice for bringing an end to the country’s “harassing financial difficulties.”
Henceforth, the colony of Newfoundland would be ruled by six commissioners appointed by the British government. The ‘temporary’ arrangement lasted until confederation in 1949.
One of those commissioners, Sir John Hope-Simpson along with wife, Quita, arrived in Newfoundland in February 1934. They left detailed impressions of Newfoundland through letters to family back home in Britain.
“There has been terrible misgovernment – worse, terrible immorality in the government,” said Quita, in one letter to her daughter. “The people have been exploited. The natural resources have been wasted and gambled away. Wealthy men hold huge tracts of land.”
Still, 1933 wasn’t a total washout. Willie Nelson was born on April 30 of that year. “What has changed is that nothing has changed,” Willie once said.
Article by Eric Colbourne