04 January 2005

Who was Sir Robert Bond, anyway?

One of my mainland friends pointed out that many people may not be familiar with Sir Robert Bond. Truthfully, a great many people in Newfoundland and Labrador may not know who he was either. Following is a slightly expanded version of the biographical sketch I included at the end of the Bond Papers.

I chose Bond as the figurehead for a series of discussion papers for two reasons. First, Sir Robert Bond is arguably one of the best prime ministers ever produced by Newfoundland and Labrador either as a province of Canada or as a Dominion before 1949. Second, he stands apart from other local politicans, then and now, for his resistance to the provincialist perspective. He saw that there was more to the world than what can be seen from the nearest headland.

As S.J. R. Noel has described him, "though he was from the St. John's merchant class, he was not of it." [Politics in Newfoundland, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972), p. 33]

Sir Robert Bond

Born in St. Johns, in 1857, Sir Robert Bond served as Prime Minister of Newfoundland from 1900 to 1908.

He was educated at Queen's College, Taunton and later read law at the University of Edinburgh. Bond was never called to the bar. He entered politics at age 25 and served for a time as Speaker of the House of Assembly. In 1889, Bond was appointed Colonial Secretary in the administration of Sir William Whiteway. At the age of 43, and as leader of the Liberal Party, Bond became prime minister with the largest majority ever seen in the House of Asembly to that time.

Bond is best known for negotiating two reciprocity (free trade) treaties with the United States and for bringing about an end to the French Shore in Newfoundland (1904). The free trade agreements were blocked by the United Kingdom based on objections from Canada, actions that continue to fuel resentment among nationalists in Newfoundland.

During Bond’s administration, Newfoundland enjoyed a period of relative prosperity including advances in agriculture and the establishment of a paper mill at Grand Falls. In 1902, Bond attended the Imperial Conference and authored a paper on the defence of Newfoundland. The paper displayed Bond’s grasp of international relations and defence issues, describing both the strategic importance of his country and the defensive works needed to secure it as part of a broad international coalition. His suggested defence preparations presaged installations built in the 1940s.

As Colonial Secretary in 1894, it fell to Bond to deal with the consequences of the local Bank Crash in December 1894. Bond negotiated with the Government of Canada about Confederation, but the talks failed when the Government of Canada refused to assume Newfoundland’s public debt. In the event, Bond was able to secure a loan to stave off the country’s financial collapse by putting up his own property as collateral.

Bond retired from politics in 1914, retiring to an estate he called The Grange located at Whitbourne. He experimented with agriculture, including the importation of dairy cattle. A Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, Bond was sworn to the Imperial Privy Council in 1902.

Such was his reputation that in the political chaos that descended on Newfoundland in 1920s, efforts were made to lure him back to active politics. He resisted the efforts and died at Whitbourne in 1927.