“The Journal and Cases of Robert Carter” offers a unique look into time and place.
Carter was a magistrate in the Ferryland area in the 1830’s and 1840s and a very disciplined diary keeper. It was the details into the way of life and the happenings of the time that drew Judge Gerald Barnable to help research and publish the works. It’s on these topics that Barnable will speak in St. John’s Tuesday.
“I thought I’d talk about his life and times,” says Barnable. “It’s a bit earlier than most of the historians write about in Newfoundland.”
Along with being a magistrate, Carter was also a customs officer, surveyor, health officer and merchant — a busy man with a knack for writing down detail without emotion.
Carter started each entry with the weather, Barnable says, which may sound less than thrilling, but even that takes on pivotal importance. Without any snow, there was no way for fuel and building materials to get into the communities in winter and, alternatively, with too much, the area would be totally cut off.
“There was one day when there was 60 men cutting out a boat from Aquaforte harbour. Spent all day and moved the boat the length of itself,” says Barnable.
It’s merely a note in Carter’s entry, but one that builds a vision in the mind’s eye.
Even getting the mail out was interesting in those times.
“The postman used to take two days to walk to St. John’s when he could and otherwise you’d just give letters to somebody going on a boat if they were still sailing,” Barnable says.
Carter also kept note of where local boats went — into the Mediterranean by Italy and Spain and north to Germany.
One day a giant squid washed up. It was a rare sighting and entry in Carter’s notes. The Britannia wrecked near Renews in the 1840s. Two hundred people with nothing left had to be accommodated — just another day in Carter’s diary.
It’s his style of writing as much as anything else that grabs Barnable.
“He’s right nonplussed (unflappable) about everything,” he says. “He’d just give the facts like Joe Friday.”
A particular entry may start with Carter surveying some land in Ferryland for somebody.
“And then right in the middle of it he’d say he stopped into Aquaforte on the way home and did an inquiry into a child belonging to the ferryman who had been burnt to death. That would be one sentence and then he’d go on,” says Barnable.
Not all entries are so tragic. Others come across as funny, the humour growing as the writings have aged.
“He went to the Regatta one time and spent 26 hours getting back and 24 hours getting there,” Barnable says with a chuckle.
Carter didn’t arrive until 5 p.m. as it was and couldn’t have had much to watch.
Carter writes about the first time a steamer was seen in Ferryland. Within a few years, they would drift across the ocean’s horizon regularly as the sails disappeared.
Other sprinkles of writing give flavour to what the people of the time and place were made of.
“The boys used get aboard the boat in the evening in a good wind heading her for St. John’s under sail. I don’t know how they navigated along. The courage of them. Of course they knew no better, hey,” says Barnable.
The boats were obviously small. If the wind dropped off, they’d haul their oars and get moving that way.
Barnable’s talk will delve into such gems of insight into time and place that can be found in Carter’s writings. It takes place Tuesday at 7:30pm Room 2040 of the engineering building at MUN in St. John’s. There is no charge for admission. Free parking is available in Lot 16.