Matthew Landing Launches Party
The oldtimers call it a "capelin squall" - a mixture of bone-chilling winds, rain and fog that typically hammers the NEWFOUNDLAND coast in late June just as the capelin are coming inshore to spawn. Last week, as the Matthew - a replica of the ship that explorer John Cabot sailed to the New World 500 years ago - made its widely anticipated landing at Bonavista, the squall was in full force. But the atrocious weather failed to discourage the thousands of spectators who huddled along the harbor's edge to greet the square-rigger as it completed its seven-week voyage from Bristol, England. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Bonavista native Terry Mouland as he reached out to steady his 11-year-old son, Stephen, who had climbed the rock-piled shoreline for a better view of the Matthew. "It just goes to show that you can't stop a celebration in Newfoundland." The residents of Bonavista, a traditional fishing community of 4,600 people about four hour's drive north of St. John's, had already proved their mettle earlier in the day. Along with an estimated 20,000 visitors - most from different parts of the island but many others from across Canada and as far afield as New York City and Italy - they had lined up for hours along Bonavista's narrow streets to try to catch a glimpse of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Visiting Newfoundland for the first leg of their 10-day visit to Canada, the royal couple officially opened the Ryan Premises National Historic Site, a former fish merchant's headquarters that has been turned into a shrine to the East Coast fishery. But chiefly they were there to greet the 19-member crew of the Matthew, who had just retraced the voyage that helped open North America to European settlement and trade. As the Queen put it in a brief address after the Matthew landed: "Newfoundland became the link between the old and the new worlds. It represents the geographical and intellectual beginning of modern North America."
There is, of course, no guarantee that John Cabot (or Giovanni Caboto, as he was known in his native Italy) actually landed in Bonavista - or anywhere else in Newfoundland, for that matter. Records concerning the original voyage are scarce, and the few that survived have also been used to argue that he first landed in Cape Breton or even as far south as Maine. But seized by the need to provide an economic and psychological boost to an island that was devastated by the 1992 moratorium on cod fishing, the Newfoundland and federal governments spent $20 million to promote a yearlong celebration marking the 500th anniversary of Cabot's voyage. And as the site for the quincentennial's key event, Bonavista last week basked in the spotlight - if not the sunlight - as images of the wind-torn festivities were beamed via satellite to television screens around the globe.
In many ways, those sights were at odds with a community that normally moves at a much more leisurely pace. By mid-day on June 24th - the day of the Matthew landing - incoming cars were halted at the edge of town, with drivers and passengers shuttled the rest of the way on yellow school buses. Those already in town quickly learned to abandon their vehicles - or face being trapped in Toronto-style traffic jams. The local college and a school had been transformed into hostels, and trailers and tents dotted dozens of backyards and driveways as Bonavista families played host to visiting friends and relatives.
In fact, many former Newfoundlanders saw last week's celebrations as a chance to come home. Among them were Art and Marty Southcott of North Bay, Ont., who had joined 140 other owners of Newfoundland dogs in a cross-country trailer caravan to Bonavista. Art, who is originally from Grand Falls, and Marty, a Corner Brook native, moved off the island 30 years ago. "We had forgotten how wonderful it is to get fresh lobster right off the boat," said Marty as she petted the couple's 14-month-old black Newfoundland, Codco (named for the now-disbanded St. John's comedy troupe). Something else that had not changed, added Art, was the people. "There's the same spontaneous kindness and sensitivity to everyone's needs," he said.
Similar sentiments could be heard among the yachtsmen who had sailed some 70 boats from Lake Ontario, down the St. Lawrence and along the south coast of Newfoundland before meeting the Matthew in Bonavista. They recalled how, in the tiny outport of François, all 175 residents, including babies, had been issued with name tags before greeting the flotilla. Once ashore, the sailors were inundated with ready offers of showers, meals or simply a cup of tea - a scene that was replayed at nearly a dozen other ports of call. "Not to sound too grand about it, but it really was a kind of spiritual happening," said Bob O'Brien, a Bonavista native and Toronto businessman who spearheaded the flotilla. "I got quite emotional about it."
Not everyone, however, arrived in Bonavista in such an upbeat mood. On the evening before the Matthew landed, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Ovide Mercredi participated in a ceremony at the foot of the John Cabot statue near the craggy cliffs of Cape Bonavista. About 100 natives and non-natives gathered in a circle to remember the Beothuks - the original inhabitants of Newfoundland who, by 1829, had been wiped out by disease and slaughter. The next day, as the Queen's procession wound its way through Bonavista, a few dozen native protesters beat their drums and held aloft placards decrying the fate of the Beothuks. The Queen briefly greeted the natives, including Mercredi, as she made her way to plant a tree at a senior citizen's home. But she did not engage in any detailed discussions of their concerns.
Neither the native protests nor the weather ultimately detracted from the festive mood. Through the drizzling evening of the 24th, hundreds of people, many with baby strollers in tow, streamed down to the wharf to gaze at and touch the Matthew. Others sought warmth at the local United Church, where they listened to choirs and eventually broke out in song:
"As loved our fathers, so we love
where once they stood, we stand.
Their prayer we raise to heaven above
God guard thee, Newfoundland."
With exquisite Newfoundland timing, the following morning found Bonavista bathed in sunlight and bereft of wind. But there was hardly anyone there to document it: the television trucks with their satellite dishes and most of the 200 journalists who had descended on the town had fled under the cover of darkness. The Queen, too, had taken her leave, helicoptering back to St. John's for a gala dinner hosted by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, then on to Labrador and several stops in Ontario before taking part in this week's Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa.
Back in Bonavista, people were still shaking their heads over Mother Nature's fickle ways. But this being Newfoundland, a sort of humorous fatalism soon took over. "When it comes to the weather, we don't make it, we live with it," said Geoff Peters, a 57-year-old St. John's businessman and one of the key organizers of the yacht flotilla. Taking another sip of his morning coffee, Peters reached for a rhetorical rainbow. "We're a little cold, but the memories are good," he said. "If it had been balmy, it would have been just another day. But they'll remember this one for a long time to come."
Maclean's July 7, 1997