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The invasion of Flat Islands


Ed Roberts

The Bonavista Bay community of Flat Islands, first settled about 1800, was home to 650 men, women and children in 1919, at the end of the First World War. They made their living from the fishery. Most of the men, and a scattering of its women, went to the Labrador each spring, fished there throughout the summer, and came home in the fall.

It was a peaceful outport, one of scores if not hundreds of like settlements throughout the island. That peace was rudely shattered early in July 1919, when the Newfoundland government ordered the Royal Navy to invade Flat Islands.

The trouble began in the late spring. Rumours reached the authorities in St. John's that the good folk of the islands were making moonshine, thus breaking the government's monopoly on liquor sales. Two Newfoundland Constabulary constables from Greenspond were ordered to make a patrol to the community. They attempted to do so on June 24, but were met by an angry crowd who intercepted their boat and told them to return from whence they came.

Threats of violence

Nothing daunted, the authorities responded three days later by sending Isaac Mifflen, the local magistrate, and a squad of policemen to carry out the mission. The sole reporter who heard first-hand accounts of the incident reported later that this group were met by angry men who ordered them "to leave the island immediately or they would sink the boat and blow the policemen to hell."

Discretion being the better part of valour, His Worship and his accompanying police officers returned to Greenspond.

The government, in St. John's, were having none of this. Using their seldom-invoked right to call upon the Royal Navy to "support the civil authority," they asked for a warship to be sent from St. John's to enable them to overcome the resistance of the bootleggers of Flat Islands. HMSCornwall, a 9,800 ton, 440-foot long armoured cruiser whose 22,000 horsepower engines drove her at 22 knots, was assigned the task.

The invasion was directed by no less a figure than Alfred B. Morine, the attorney general in the Conservative administration of Sir Michael Cashin. He was taking no chances. TheCornwallcarried a crew of 678 men, and was armed with 14 six-inch quick-firing cannons and nine 12-pound quick-firing guns. And if that wasn't enough firepower, she also carried two 18-inch torpedoes.

The bootleggers would be brought to justice.

Joey Smallwood reported on incident

TheCornwallleft St. John's early on the morning of Monday, June 30. Delayed by fog, she went first to Greenspond to pick up the police officers and then to the Flat Islands. She arrived there on Friday, July 4. An intrepid young reporter from St. John's named Joseph Smallwood was aboard. He described what happened in his story, published in theEvening Telegramon Monday the 7th:

"At eight o'clock, the landing party, consisting of forty-eight marines ... the policemen, under Inspector-General of Police Hutchings, sailors, Magistrate Mifflen and the Telegram reporter, numbering ninety all told, having been served out with revolvers, ammunition and other supplies, took their places" in the ship's boats.

"A maxim quick-firing gun, capable of firing six hundred shots a minute, was mounted in the bow of the cutter, with the gun team ready."

The landing party met no opposition. Indeed, only women and children stood at the wharf.

But, Smallwood reported: "this did not deceive the landing party, however, as it was felt that such an innocent-looking scene might have been a trap, and that behind the boulders and rocks lay dozens of desperate men armed with sealing guns and fowling pieces ready to die if needs be, before allowing the police to arrest them."

The truth was that most of the men had left several days earlier for the summer fishery in Labrador, but seven who had stayed behind were captured and carried back to St. John's on board theCornwall.They appeared before court there, and were charged with obstructing the police, resisting arrest and loose and disorderly conduct.

All pleaded not guilty, and told the magistrate that they had hired Richard A. Squires as their lawyer. Squires, a barrister of some standing, was Leader of the Liberal Party.

But Morine was still not satisfied. Warrants were issued for the arrest of eight other men allegedly involved in the fray. Constabulary officers were sent to Labrador to arrest them. They succeeded in finding six amongst the crews of schooners fishing along the Labrador coast, and brought them back to St. John's where they were charged with the same offences.

The Opposition in the House of Assembly, led by Squires and William Coaker, were quick to condemn Morine for his use of overwhelming force. Undaunted, Morine stood for election in the three-member constituency of Bonavista Bay in the November 1919 election. He finished at the bottom of the poll, with 1,455 votes. Coaker won 3,732 votes and was elected at the head of the list, with the other two seats being filled by his Liberal-Unionist colleagues.

There was no doubt what the people of Bonavista Bay thought of the incident.

None of the 13 prisoners ever stood trial. The charges against them were to be heard in St. John's later that fall, on Nov. 10. By then, Squires had become prime minister after the Liberal-FPU coalition victory in the general election. The charges were dropped, and no more was ever heard of them. There is no record of what happened to the home brew, assuming there ever was any on Flat Islands.

Edward Roberts has had a lifelong interest in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the province's lieutenant-governor from 2002 to 2008.

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