DESCRIPTION: The singer dreams of William Coaker's death, rejection at Heaven, and acceptance and advancement in Hell. Coaker's plan to replace the Devil as boss is foiled; he is condemned to the furnace. The dreamer wakes before Coaker is demolished.
EARLIEST DATE: 1951 (Guigné-ForgottenSongsOfTheNewfoundlandOutports; MUNFLA/Leach)
LONG DESCRIPTION: Coaker dies in the singer's dream. "Somehow underhanded" he got to Heaven, but is turned away by St. Peter. The Devil greets him: "I've been looking for you a long time." He talks the Devil into appointing him -- being the only Newfoundlander in Hell -- boss when the Devil leaves. When the Devil does go "out" Coaker runs an election to exile the Devil and make himself boss of Hell. Coaker loses. The Devil asks the crowd what is to be done, and they condemn Coaker to the furnace. He is headed into the furnace when the dreamer wakes.
KEYWORDS: rejection death dream humorous political Devil
1871-1938 - Life of William Ford Coaker
FOUND IN: Canada(Newf)
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Guigné-ForgottenSongsOfTheNewfoundlandOutports, pp. 84-87, "Coaker's Dream" (1 text, 1 tune)
Frank Knox, "The Coaker Song" (on MUNFLA/Leach)
Ned Rice, "Coaker's Dream" (on MUNFLA/Leach)
NOTES [3024 words]: Guigné-ForgottenSongsOfTheNewfoundlandOutports has a detailed review of William Ford Coaker's controversial life as a Newfoundland union organizer and politician from the turn of the century until the late 1930s. - BS
It was quite a career, and little wonder that no one trusted him at the end. The idea of something coming to him in a vision is perhaps not far-fetched. O'Flaherty, p. 249, says "He believed literally in the existence of an afterlife.... He claimed that living so long 'close to nature' cast him 'in a special mould,' which was not a word of a lie. This strange man had been active in district-level Liberal politics, and perhaps had even flirted with Tories, prior to 1908, but the 'Black Fall' of that year convinced him that a new politics was needed. He told the delegates in 1909 that 'something,' meaning divinity, 'inspired me to go ahead' with the 'mighty work' of forming the [Fishermen's Protective] Union."
Busch, p. 87, calls him "a strange, magnetic, gifted, melancholy, austere man, [who] had a greater vision in his mind than another craft union."
Coaker (1871-1938) was born in St. John's, Newfoundland, the son of carpenter, and left school young, in 1885 (DictNewfLabrador, p. 60; Hiller/Neary, p. 155; Major, p. 258, says he was thirteen; Noel, p. 78, says he was only eleven; Clarke, p. 260, says that he was between eleven and fourteen), although that still meant that he had a better education than most of his contemporaries. As early as 1884 had organized local fish handlers to strike for better wages. He drifted through several jobs, leaving St. John's at the age of sixteen (Noel, p. 78). His small business failed in the Newfoundland bank crash of 1894 (Cadigan, p. 178). He by then was involved in farming, on an isolated island, perhaps because he knew so little about fishing (Noel, p. 78; according to O'Flaherty, p. 248, "His farm appears to have been the only human activity on the island" -- and adds on p. 249 that "He seemed to relish the isolation of the island"). He also worked a great many odd jobs (Clarke, p. 261). Eventually he put together a real union, the Fisherman's Protective Union (FPU), in 1909 (Cadigan, p. 178). This even though he personally seems to have preferred the seclusion of the farm to living among or working with others (Noel, p. 78). But he started visiting small towns and meeting halls, walking or accepting wagon rides or even snowshoeing in the harsh Newfoundland winters (Noel, pp. 82-83).
The time was ripe for some sort of labor organization in Newfoundland. Newfoundland changed in the late nineteenth century in subtle but dramatic ways. "The principle hallmark of these alterations had been St John's rapid rise to ascendency over the island's commercial affairs, a process which further augmented the capital's social and political supremacy. The chief instrument of this process was the new technology of steam.... [A]s the century advanced the sailing schooners were gradually driven out of the seal fishery by steamers whose ownership was concentrated in the capital.... The number of sealers fell to 6,000, sealing skippers and sealing owners were bankrupted.... and the artisan class found itself reduced to the ranks of fishermen. The shock to outport interests was brutal and the social upheaval great" (Hiller/Neary, p. 149).
"Thousands of men formerly tied to the schooners now became independent small fishermen who now outfitted in St. John's.... [T]he island in general was beset by the problem of a population whose rate of growth was greatly outstripping the volume and value of codfish exports" (Hiller/Neary, p. 150). And "the growing financial stature of St. John's was not matched by a similar willingness to discharge the responsibilities that resulted from its improved stature" (Hiller/Neary, p. 151). In other words, even as a few St. John's merchants grew to commercial dominance, almost everyone else on the island was growing poorer. And since 28% of the population was illiterate (Hiller/Neary, p. 154), few fishermen could turn to other jobs. And, because the outports were so small and had such poor communications, there was no local government to appeal to, except in St. John's (Hiller/Neary, p. 154). So Coaker found willing ears.
"In 1908, conditions in the fishery were particularly favourable to the establishment of a fisherman's union. An unusually large catch coupled with disordered markets overseas produced a temporary but harsh depression that saw fish prices in many cases cut by half, leaving thousands of fishermen angry and frustrated.... In 1908 [their] leader emerged in the person of William Ford Coaker, a dynamic 37-year-old farmer who did more than anyone to channel the frustrated energies of the fishermen" (Hiller/Neary, p. 155).
Coaker adopted as a motto "to each his own" ("suum cuique"; O'Flaherty, p. 249) and organized the group to in many ways resemble the Orange Lodge, which was strong in Newfoundland (Cadigan, p. 179; according to Noel, p. 82, his first speech on behalf of his Big Union was in an Orange Hall; Clarke, p. 263, has a photo of that Orange Hall and on p. 261 says he had actually founded an Orange Lodge earlier in his life). He didn't just set out to improve the fishermen's bargaining position; he wanted a complex system of government involvement and a union-based business, the Union Trading Company (Cadigan, p. 179 -- a plan for his union to buy products in bulk and distribute them to members at prices they couldn't get otherwise; Noel, p. 86). He also wanted more power for the outports, and "called for free and compulsory education, outport night schools, non-denominational schools in settlements not large enough to support separate schools [for the different religious sects], small town hospitals, and universal old age pensions" (Hiller/Neary, p. 156) -- all except possibly the last now known to be definitely good things, but very expensive.
"Single-handedly, Coaker revolutionized the lives of Newfoundland's outport fishermen. He gave them their first union, forty of their own cash stores, a newspaper, a shipbuilding company and, most important of al, the Union Exporting Company, which was the colony's largest exporter of salt-cod by 1924" (Harris, p. 74).
The FPU eventually decided it needed a role in politics (Noel, p. 87). And because they were concentrated in the north, in Protestant districts -- in an area which the merchants of St. John's, who dominated Newfoundland politics, did not pay much attention to -- they were in position to gain a lot of seats and hold the balance of power (Noel, p. 95. This was in fact the goal stated in their constitution; the intent was that the FPU "shall not hold more than sufficient seats to secure the balance of power between the Government and Opposition parties, and no Union member of the Assembly shall be permitted to hold his seat if he sits on the side of the Government or Opposition, or receive any position from the Government"; Hiller/Neary, p. 159).
Easier said than done. The FPU, disgusted with the corruption of the so-called "People's Party" (Noel, p. 111; Hiller/Neary, pp. 160-161, says that Coaker had implicitly endorsed the People's Party in 1908 and 1909, but didn't get much in return), ended up abandoning the balance of power strategy (Hiller/Neary, p. 164) and allying with the Liberal party in 1913 (DictNewfLabrador, p. 61) -- only to see the Liberals swamped, in no small part because the Liberals and FPU still didn't trust each other and refused to coordinate their campaigns (Noel, pp. 112-113). The result was a mixed blessing for the FPU; the People's Party controlled the House of Assembly, so the FPU had little power -- but the FPU had nine delegates in the legislature, making them the leading opposition party (Busch, p. 88).
Interestingly, Coaker still had humility enough to realize that he did not know legislative procedure well, and so allowed the new Liberal leader, J. M. Kent, to fill the role of Leader of the Opposition, even though Coaker was entitled to the post (Noel, p. 118).
After the 1914 Newfoundland Disaster (for which see "The Newfoundland Disaster (I)"), Coaker went after Captain Abram Kean (for whom see "Captain Abram Kean"). Despite his terrible mistakes which were largely responsible for the disaster, Kean utterly rejected any notion of blame, and quickly became involved in litigation with Coaker (for Kean's side, see Kean, pp. 31-37 or so). Kean really did bear a lot of blame, and Coaker was mostly right, but because Kean was considered so skilled a sealing captain, Kean was not dismissed and Coaker had to give in and make partial apologies. Coaker did manage to pass some minor reforms in 1914, at least (Busch, p. 88).
But then came World War I, forcing all parties in Newfoundland to work together (Noel, pp. 120-121). It was a disaster for Coaker and the FPU (and everyone else, of course, but in a different way). There should have been an election during the war, but (to vastly simplify) the government suspended the constitution and bought off some of the opposition by inducing the British government to give Prime Minister Morris (whom the FPU hated) a peerage and send him off to Britain, never to return (Noel, pp. 124-125).
Coaker also was forced to support conscription, against the wishes of his members (Long, p. 27; Noel, pp. 126-127; Harris, p. 78, says he didn't have to do so but apparently felt it his duty as part of a unity government). He also supported prohibition, and many people, especially Irish Catholics, never forgave him or the FPU for that, either (Noel, pp. 132-133). Worse, the Catholic Archbishop Howley hated the FPU, and for a time forbid Catholics to join on the grounds that it was a secret society; even after the FPU changed its rules, Howley had nothing good to say of them (Hiller/Neary, p. 163). Those facts also made an alliance with the regular craft unions impossible (Noel, p. 135). And even as he was supporting those unpopular decisions, the war period took some of the newness off the FPU, and gave the merchants time to learn how to deal with it -- especially since the parliamentary majority for practical purposes turned the conduct of the war over to the merchants of St. John's who were the enemies of the FPU (Noel, p. 121). Noel thinks that, if the war had not come, the FPU would have taken over the government in the next election. But "by 1919 the impetus was spent" (Noel, p. 116).
In the election of 1919, Coaker made an understandable but costly mistake. He allied the FPU to Richard Squires (Noel, p. 141; Hiller/Neary, p. 168), allowing Squires to lead the coalition ticket. The Liberal Reform/FPU forces won the election, taking 23 seats to 13 for the People's Party (Noel, p. 295), and Coaker became Minister of Marines and Fisheries (Noel, p. 291), but Squires was completely untrustworthy and associating with him didn't get Coaker what he wanted (Hiller/Neary, p. 169) and surely tarnished him badly. (Among other things, Squires increased Newfoundland's national debt by more than 40% in just four years; Noel, p. 152. He also took at least $63,000 in graft -- the equivalent of millions today -- Hiller/Neary, p. 181. Coaker apparently didn't trust Squires at all -- Squires had taken advantage of him over conscription -- but in the short term saw no other way to gain influence; Hiller/Neary, p. 182. When Squires's corruption came out, some suspected Coaker was also involved; although it was later shown that he clearly wasn't, his exoneration didn't help; Hiller/Neary, p. 190.)
The new power he had gained allowed Coaker to pass a series of reforms of fishing regulation, but bad timing caused them to fail -- and meant that he got the blame (Noel, pp. 145-147). Indeed, it arguably did permanent damage to the economics of the fishery, and it meant that many refused to trust him thereafter (Noel, p. 150). R. M. Elliott also suggests that the legislation was "not forceful enough" (Hiller/Neary, p. 183) -- the effect, presumably, of Coaker not being in position to really control the government. And some of his reforms were repealed in 1921 anyway (Major, p. 360).
In 1923, Coaker decided he was tired of politics and wanted to return to organizing (Hiller/Neary, p. 169), but he couldn't seem to stick with his resolution, retiring and un-retiring several times (DictNewfLabrador, pp. 61-62). According to Hiller/Neary, p. 189, the instability caused by the Squires scandals contributed to this -- after Squires was forced out in 1923, the government needed Coaker, and he joined despite a lack of enthusiasm, but then the new premier Warren's government collapsed. Coaker was actually offered the chance to form a government after that, but refused (Hiller/Neary, p. 195) -- probably realizing that he could not form a stable coalition and would just come out looking bad. He had a point; the Hickman ministry that was eventually cobbled together lasted all of a month (Noel, p. 292; O'Flaherty, p. 324, implies that Coaker was the power behind the primer minister anyway).
Ironically, although the FPU emerged from the investigation of Squires with an entirely clean bill of moral health, it still suffered from association with Squires (who somehow escaped indictment) and all the shenanigans of the era; the opposition made the FPU the main focus of their campaign (Hiller/Neary, p. 195).
To add to his problems, Coaker could be accused of taking advantage of his power; in 1928, he bought a home in Jamaica, where he went in winter, allegedly to deal with a bronchial condition (Long, p. 58). These odd choices surely didn't help his cause; they just made him look bad. Noel's epitaph, on p. 216, is that he suffered a "sad and puzzling personal decline," which I think is true. Yet he was also the man who predicted, in 1926, that "in my opinion the day is not far distant when the country will be forced to decide, probably with its back to the wall, whether it will be governed by a Commission elected by the people, by nominees of the British Government governing as a Crown Colony, or as a poverty-stricken Godforsaken Island administered as a province of Canada" (Hiller/Neary, p. 172). In effect, all three came true in one form or another in the next quarter century. If anyone else in Newfoundland had had such prophetic sense, the island might have been spared much agony.
"Ed Roberts... suggested that Newfoundland's political history... cannot be understood without examining the contribution of William Coaker.... In contrast to most labour figures of his time, Coaker was not a socialist, though some of his comrades in the FPU were. He had more in common with the farmer-progressive movements of Western Canada and their appeals for group government and direct democracy, as the course of his political ideas eventually demonstrated. Coaker's failure to achieve lasting benefits for the 'toiling masses' of the Newfoundland outports is usually cited as the last great effort to save the country before the onslaught of the Depression" (Long, p. 12).
A lot of Coaker's ideas were laudable, e.g. his demand for a standard system for grading the quality of fish (the old system let the buyers both grade the fish and set the prices; Noel, p. 98) and his demand for free public education (Noel, p. 99). A lot of them were utterly impractical, too -- e.g. an automatic forgiveness of debts after two years (Noel, p. 99) and an unfunded pension reform (Noel, pp. 99-100) -- and he gradually became more and more disillusioned. As Newfoundland -- which had been deeply in debt for most of his life, and had never really been properly governed -- slid into the Great Depression, the one-time radical leftist decided that Newfoundland's answer was fascism (Cadigan, pp. 203-204). He was quite open to the idea of Newfoundland giving up its Dominion status and again being ruled by a British commission -- which is what happened in 1934 (Cadigan, p. 208); indeed, it was a variation on a suggestion he had made in the 1920s, though he seems to have favored a larger, more local, time-limited commission (Hiller/Neary, p. 171). It was the only answer he saw to Newfoundland's toxic party (and religious) divisions (Long, p. 19, and indeed that entire chapter of his book).
Coaker frankly strikes me as a rebel-without-a-cause; he wanted change, he knew things had to change, but he had no idea how to change them. And so, as often as not, he made things worse. Still, Clarke, p. 269, cites historian Ian MacDonald to the effect that Coaker had made an indirect difference: He made Newfoundlanders believe in their ability to run their own affairs and to turn away from their governing elite, plus it gave the fishermen pride in their work and their role.
Major, p. 358 has a photo of Coaker, in a suit; Clarke, p. 267, has one which he dates to c. 1919. I must admit that this rather handsome, elaborately dressed man is not at all what I imagined a labor organizer would look like. On p. 361, Major has a photograph of his grave site, which he accurately describes as having a "pseudo-grandeur"; it's a big plot with a low wall and a stair on a low rise leading to the grave itself; it looks like someone wanted to build a palace and forgot the inner buildings.
I can't help notice an item that didn't become folklore, but has a folkloric feel to it. In 1919, as he entered the cabinet, a schooner President Coaker was built by supporters of the FPU. In 1923, it set out on a trip to South America. Somewhere on its return trip, probably early in 1924, it vanished (Parson, pp. 201-205).
Incidentally, not all popular poetry about Coaker was hostile, although I have yet to see anything else about him that went into tradition. But Noel, pp. 88-89, quotes a couple of pieces (the source being apparently the writings of Joseph Smallwood) that make him almost a prophet or deliverer:
We are coming Mr. Coaker...
We are ready and a-waiting, strong and solid, firm and bold,
To be led by you like Moses led the Israelites of old.
Harris, p. 74, has a verse, "We are coming, Mr. Coaker, and we're forty thousand strong." - RBW
Last updated in version 5.3
- Busch: Briton Cooper Busch, The War Against the Seals: A History of the North American Seal Fishery, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1985
- Cadigan: Sean T. Cadigan, Newfoundland and Labrador: A History, University of Toronto Press, 2009
- Clarke: David J. Clarke, A History of the Isles: Twillingate, New World Island, Fogo Island and Change Islands, Newfoundland and Labrador, DJC, 2016
- DictNewfLabrador: (Robert H. Cuff, managing editor), Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador Biography, Harry Cuff Publications, 1990
- Harris: Michael Harris: Rare Ambition: The Crosbies of Newfoundland, Viking, 1992
- Hiller/Neary: James Hiller and Peter Neary, editors, Newfoundland in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Essays in Interpretation, University of Toronto Press, 1980. Most citations in this entry are from the essay "W. F. Coaker and the Balance of Power Stragegy: The Fisherman's Protective Union in Newfoundland Politics" by Ian McDonald on pp. 148-180; also R. M. Elliott, "Newfoundland Politics in the 1920s: The Genesis and Significance of the Hollis Walker Enquiry" on pp. 181-204.
- Kean: Abram Kean, with a foreword by Sir Wilfred Grenfell, Old and Young Ahead, 1935; I use the 2000 Flanker Press edition edited and with a new Introduction (and new photographs) by Shannon Ryan
- Long: Gene Long, Suspended State: Newfoundland before Canada, Breakwater Books, 1999
- Major: Kevin Major, As Near to Heaven by Sea: A History of Newfoundland & Labrador, 2001 (I use the 2002 Penguin Canada edition)
- Noel: S. J. R. Noel, Politics in Newfoundland, University of Toronto Press, 1971
- O'Flaherty: Patrick O'Flaherty, Lost Country: The Rise and Fall of Newfoundland 1843-1933, Long Beach Press, 2005
- Parsons: Robert C. Parsons, Cape Race: Stories from the Coast that Sank the Titanic, Flanker Press, 2011
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