In the 1810s, St. John’s, Newfoundland was possibly the most remote and inaccessible corner of British America. Located on an island that was often icebound in the winter months, St. John’s was far from self-sufficient, depending on the Royal Navy for its food, building materials and governance. In February 1816, during the midst of an already dangerous winter made lean by economic depression, fire broke out on the city’s waterfront. It was only the beginning of a cycle of destruction that would char the streets of St. John’s four more times in just a few years, igniting class, ethnic and religious tensions as well as having political repercussions. This is the story of how St. John’s dealt with—or failed to deal with—numerous challenges to its very existence.
In this episode, historian Sean Munger not only recounts the story of the fires themselves, but also examines the complicated social and political backdrop against which they occurred. You’ll meet the hapless and bronchial Royal Navy governor of Newfoundland, Francis Pickmore; you’ll learn why war meant feast and peace meant famine in St. John’s; and you’ll rub shoulders with the destitute Irish-born fishery workers who were reduced to picking through smoldering ruins for scraps of food. This is a story, not just of a series of disasters, but a community living on the edge whose ultimate survival was nothing less than miraculous.