Masterless Men of Newfoundland

The story of the Society of Masterless Men, which included women and children, began in the 18th-century settlement of Ferryland, Newfoundland. In order to colonise Newfoundland, The British Empire created plantations. These were settlements of primarily Irish indentured servants, many of them very young  – hence their name – the Irish Youngsters, abducted from Ireland either by force or guile and brought to the South Shore of Newfoundland where they were literally sold to fishing masters.

In 1700’s Newfoundland the British Navy wielded its authority over its seamen with zero compassion and nothing but discipline enforced by abuse and violence. Because there wasn’t a local police force, they also helped reinforce the authority of the local fishing masters. These masters were essentially the Lords and Ladies of the villages, living in luxury and security while surrounded by dozens, even hundreds, of indentured servants who fished and laboured in the camps processing the catch. These village plantations were primarily set up by consortiums and cabals of wealthy merchants in England. British frigates were stationed in the harbours and marines patrolled the town. The workers in these fishing villages were barely a step up from slaves. Corporal punishment was routinely used and everyday life was harsh and brutal.

The settlement of Ferryland was founded by Sir George Calvert around 1620, and was also partly intended as a ‘refuge for Catholics’. This was a time of penal law in Britain and at least some Irish Catholics voluntarily came to the New World to escape persecution. Unfortunately, the laws in Newfoundland were the same.

This order wasn’t always strictly followed but around the mid 1700’s there was a crackdown on Catholicism. In 1743 the governor of the time, Smith, wrote to the magistrate in Ferryland, John Benger, instructing him to be mindful of the ‘Irish papists’ in the area. William Keen the chief magistrate of St. John’s was killed by a group of Irishmen in 1752. Following this, penal laws were strictly enforced for the next thirty or forty years. Court documents from the Renews area (the nearest settlement) show there was growing fear among the authorities of an insurrection. In fact, about fifty years earlier the French war ship Profound attacked Renews where there were seven ‘residents’ and 120 servant fishermen, many of whom were Irish. These servants were recorded as uncaring as to who ran the place, and did nothing to protect their masters from the attack.

Life wasn’t much better for those in the Navy. Food rations were slim and flogging was common. For instance keelhauling – dragging a seaman on ropes under the keel of a ship, thereby shredding his flesh on the sharp-edged barnacles – was still a legal punishment even though it frequently resulted in death.

The Society of Masterless Men is thought by many as lore or a traditionally told story, one for which there is little documentary evidence. But there does seem to be a fair amount of facts that are known about the Masterless Men. As a matter of context, we know a lot about the injustice of the British Empire and of the cruelty of many of its enforcers. We know that indentured servants were brought to Newfoundland and treated with brutality as were the seamen in the Royal Navy.

Led by Peter Kerrivan, an Irish-born deserter circa 1750, the Masterless Men are said to have inhabited the wild Butter Pot barrens of the Avalon Peninsula. Regarded as criminals by the authorities, they lived by hunting, fishing, stealing and illegally trading in isolated villages. Apparently, they came into contact with Newfoundland’s aboriginal people, the Mi’qmaq and the Beothuk, who taught the rebels survival skills. They learned how to hunt for food based on the caribou herd on the Peninsula.

At the time one could be hanged for running away, but nevertheless many young men escaped from the plantations and took up lives as outlaws. In 1774 for instance, a petition written by Bonavista merchants, justices of the peace and others, and sent to Governor Shuldham complained of a number of ‘masterless’ Irishmen who had gone to live in a secluded cove and ‘were there building fishing rooms.’ But Kerrivan’s band of young companions were among the luckiest and best organised.

Naturally, word of the well-organised free men spread and fresh runaways from coastal settlements came to join them. Eventually their numbers swelled to between 20 and 50 men. There were also women, but their numbers are unknown. The literature I found mention the women simply as ‘wives’, although I imagine them as strong, rebellious women sickened by the misery and cruelty that surrounded them who also yearned for a freer and better way of life and who joined their outlaw husbands voluntarily.

Two, possibly four, of the rebels were captured and hanged, but the state never did succeed in destroying the Society. In fact the captured young runaways had joined the band only a few weeks earlier and had been taken by surprise away from the main body of the rebels. They were hanged with great dispatch from the yard-arm of the English frigate in Ferryland. No other Masterless Men were ever captured after this incident, presumably because this only made the outlaws more cautious. Some of the tracks that had been carved partly to support their wilderness ways and partly as subterfuge became Newfoundland’s first inland roads. In fact their road system had eventually connected most of the small settlements of the Avalon Peninsula.

For more than a generation the Masterless Men roamed free over the barrens! Over time, perhaps as military rule began to relax or for reasons unknown to this author, their ranks began to dwindle. In 1789, 39 years after escaping, four men gave themselves up on condition that their only punishment would be deportation to Ireland, which was agreed upon. Many of the other rebels settled in remote parts of Newfoundland’s coast and survived as independent fishermen. Kerrivan, who was never captured, is said to have had a partner, four sons and several daughters and is believed to have remained on the barrens well into old age, never returning to civilisation.

The children of the Masterless Men gradually drifted out to the coast and settled down in small coves never visited by the navy. They married the children of other outlaws who had settled there generations earlier and together they raised families.

The story of The Society of the Masterless Men is exceptionally inspiring because they succeeded. A group of people voluntarily joined together in a common cause and broke free from their masters, most never to be captured or to return to their work prisons.

Photo: Looking inland from the coast of the Southern Shore of the Avalon Peninsula, New Foundland, Credit: Bill Evans, Source: Anarchy Secession Subsistence

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Stair na hÉireann is steeped in Ireland's turbulent history, culture, ancient secrets and thousands of places that link us to our past and the present. With insight to folklore, literature, art, and music, you’ll experience an irresistible tour through the remarkable Emerald Isle.

2 thoughts on “Masterless Men of Newfoundland

  1. This is one of the ‘lost stories’ of Irish History and I am pleased and happy you brought it forward. In reality, it shows the resilience of the Irish People, who settled and made their own way, in spite of all hardships! It is a story that should be remembered by all of Irish Diaspora. Thank you, and always look forward to your posts.

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