The Rule of the Admirals: Law, Custom, and Naval Government in Newfoundland, 1699–1832


424 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-8843-0
DDC 347.718




Reviewed by Olaf Uwe Janzen

Olaf Uwe Janzen is a professor of history at Memorial University,
reviews editor of The Northern Mariner, and the editor of Northern Seas.


This book explains how Newfoundland was governed during the period of
its transformation from a predominantly seasonal fishery to a
residential one. It challenges the traditional view that
Newfoundland’s legal system was one of cultural exceptionalism, where
incompetent and anarchic rule by fishing admirals was abruptly displaced
after 1729 by ad hoc arrangements administered by naval officers
stationed in the fishery, thereby creating a system of weak local
government that persisted until reform brought representative government
in 1832. Through careful re-examination and reconstruction of judicial
and administrative records, and with support from a wide-ranging
secondary literature, Bannister concludes that two sources of authority,
“both within the boundaries of legal culture,” blended together in
the 18th century to produce an “incipient customary regime” under
naval governance. Bannister insists that the weight given to custom and
local practice was “for the most part not unusual under English
jurisprudence” and that while “state law in early Newfoundland
relied extensively on unwritten law,” the blend of customary and
statutory law gave the system of naval governance the necessary
flexibility to make it effective in a rapidly changing social
environment. Far from being weak and inappropriate, naval government
suited “the island’s politico-economic conditions.”

Bannister’s interpretation is placed within the factual,
historiographical, and methodological context of North Atlantic and
Newfoundland history. His mastery of primary and secondary sources is
impressive as he explains the fishing admiral system in place at the end
of the 17th century, the need for a more structured judicial authority
as the resident population grew, and the advent, evolution, and demise
of naval government. Three chapters explain the characteristics,
application, and effectiveness of that form of governance, followed by a
chapter on its eventual decline. A conclusion succinctly reaffirms the
central arguments. One might quibble with specifics (I would have liked
more discussion of the origins and evolution of the fishing admiral
system), but this in no way weakens the overall persuasiveness of the
interpretation. In short, this is an important revisionist work, one
that offers a definitive new interpretation of 18th-century


Bannister, Jerry., “The Rule of the Admirals: Law, Custom, and Naval Government in Newfoundland, 1699–1832,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 14, 2024,