Into the fog

Ed Smith
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Ra wouldn’t stand a chance in Newfoundland.

If someone ever tried to start a congregation, more people would be claiming to see Jesus coming in the rapture than the Egyptian sun god rising over Signal Hill.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad as that. Perhaps the populace would only be divided 50-50, with the half who claimed to see Jesus being ignored, and the half who said they saw the sun being immediately rushed to the Waterford for observation.

I leave Labrador out of the equation because the east end of St. John’s sees more fog on a good weekend than Lab City sees in a bad year.

We spent several days in the old city last week. You want to know how thick the fog was? Allow me to tell you in plain and truthful language.

One of my meetings was in The Rooms. The Rooms is a fairly large edifice, which is a bit of an understatement. It towers over St. John’s harbour like the Eiffel Tower rises over Paris. That may be a bit of an overstatement. Suffice to say it is broad and high.

Number One Son is familiar with the city and knows where The Rooms is, or are or whatever. (Would someone from the cultural community please tell me whether “The Rooms” is singular or plural? Thank you.) On his way to pick me up last Thursday he actually lost his bearings in the fog and made a wrong turn.

When he finally got there and told me what had happened I was somewhat skeptical. Until, that is, we went to turn out onto the street from the parking lot and literally could not see if any vehicle was coming down the street from either direction.

Most of you know where all that fog comes from. You’ve got your warm, gentle Gulf Stream flowing slowly up from the Caribbean or thereabouts. Then you have your ultracold Labrador Current racing down from Cape Chidley somewhere.

When that cold air and water collide a few miles east of St. John’s with all that warm air and water the result is the thickest and nastiest fog on Earth.

In the old days when the Portuguese fishing fleet, the so-called White Fleet, used to frequent St. John’s, several near tragedies were recorded.

One well-documented incident was when three sailors from one of the ships went ashore for a walk, got lost in the fog and couldn’t find their way back to the harbour. Several days later they turned up in Bonavista .

One of the strangest stories has to do with a man named Malachi Penneyfog (not quite sure of the spelling here), originally from the West Country in Britain. In the early days of the colonization of St. John’s, Malachi was falsely accused of stealing salt fish off another man’s flake in what is now called the Battery. Justice was rough and swift in those days. Within one day, he was deemed to be guilty by the crowd and immediately hanged.

They had no gallows in those early days. They simply tied a rope around his neck, threw the other end over a high branch of a tall tree and pulled with might and main until the victim was dangling and kicking some 20 feet in the air.

As they were proceeding with this process, one of those dark, black, dense fog banks rolled in over Signal Hill. As Malachi was being hoisted high in the air, the fog settled over the crowd like a great woolly black blanket and he was momentarily hidden from them. Being a man able to keep his wits, even in desperate situations, Malachi saw what was happening and took advantage of it.

A natural athlete, he was able to swing his legs up over his head and onto the branch from which he was hanging. His hands had been loosely tied — they were hanging him, after all, so why bother with being careful — so he was able to free them, and then his feet.

While the crowd’s attention was on the fog phenomenon and talking to each other about it, Malachi slid down the other side of the tree and took off like a bat out of perdition.

By the time the fog had partially cleared, Malachi was in what is now known as C.B.S. and picking up speed.

The rest of the story is largely conjecture. It is known that he made his way to Upper Island Cove and shipped out on a schooner heading north. He jumped ship in a small rocky cove north of St. Anthony, changed his name to Penney and settled down. There is some confusion as to whether the site of the original Penney building was in Little Brehat or Great Brehat. Most historians are silent on the matter.

Much of the early history of Newfoundland and Labrador is shrouded in fog.

We know that little coves and harbours were settled by courageous men and women attempting to escape the tyranny of the West Country merchants who were given authority over the settlers by the king. We know that the fishing admirals who ruled the fishermen by virtue of being the first to enter a harbour in the spring were often a cruel and vicious lot and made the lives of settlers miserable and often unbearable.

But we do not know the details of the stark dramas played out against that backdrop. What happened when strong men rebelled against the abuse of their families and their livelihoods and then were harshly punished for defying the “law”?

An incredible tale of death and tragedy as well as courage and survival is in my upcoming novel “The Fishing Admiral.” The story of how these first settlers survived against an unrelenting sea and a British government that tried not only to discourage but also to destroy them is so powerful that mere words can hardly convey it.

But I do my level best.

Ed Smith is an author who lives in Springdale.  His email address is

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Lab, Paris Gulf Stream Caribbean Cape Chidley Britain Signal Hill Upper Island Cove St. Anthony Great Brehat Springdale

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