BLAND, JOHN, jp, office holder, and judge; likely b. in Devon, England; m. Sarah (probably Bayley), and they had five sons and three daughters; d. in or after 1825.
John Bland became a magistrate at Bonavista, Nfld, in 1790, but it is almost certain that he had some commercial connection with Newfoundland, possibly as a clerk or an agent for a merchant firm, as early as 1780. One probability is that he was an employee there of Samuel White and Samuel Rolles, merchants of Poole, Dorset, England, who traded into Bonavista until 1797 when White died and Rolles sold his property, part of it to Bland. In any event, he did not live off his civil appointments since the offices of justice of the peace and collector of Greenwich Hospital fees yielded little if any regular stipend. At the time he acceded to the position of surrogate court judge in 1801 with an annual salary of £60, Bland was comfortably situated at Bonavista.
Bland is remembered mainly for the penetrating interest he took in the fate and welfare of the dwindling tribe of native Indians, the Beothuks. In fact, many of the details, opinions, and certainly myths that have been become entrenched in the literature on them originate from the letters he wrote on their behalf to the governors at St John’s between 1797 and 1807. His description of their habits and their treatment by English fishermen and settlers establishes him as a reasonably well-informed authority. At the same time he was also largely a purveyor of second-hand information, myths, and rumour obtained from individuals with whom he came into contact. Bland was especially harsh in his condemnation of salmon fishermen and furriers in Notre Dame Bay for their role in alienating the Beothuks and, in particular, he accused fisherman John Peyton of numerous atrocities. Bland also recounted the capture and fate of three individual Beothuks. One was a little girl (whom other sources call Oubee) who was abducted after her parents were killed, “carried to Trinity, and treated with great care and humanity by Mr. & Mrs. [Thomas] Stone, who took her with them to England, where she died.” The two others were Tom June and John August. June, according to Bland, was taken as a boy; he lived among fishermen and frequently made visits to his people in the interior of the island. August was captured as an infant when he fell from the back of his mother, who was shot trying to escape her white assailants. The details of the August story are confirmed by other sources which also provide evidence that he lived and worked in servitude to a merchant firm at Catalina and was buried in the churchyard at Trinity in 1788.
Some of Bland’s proposals to befriend the Beothuks and save the tribe from extinction were later to be put into action by the naval governor. He advocated in 1797 that the first step should be “to obtain possession of some of the Indians,” preferably by using soldiers from the St John’s garrison, as a means of establishing further communications. The soldiers, if stationed in the area, would also act “as a check upon the furriers and salmon catchers, who are the chief delinquents,” he reasoned. In 1800 he again pressed for a military party to be dispatched to Exploits. Meanwhile, the number of Indians was dwindling rapidly and the only scheme supported by the governors was to reward furriers and woodsmen for capturing Indians, on the assumption that these captives when befriended could later serve as ambassadors to their people. The results, Bland observed, were only more violence and more alienation of the surviving members of the tribe. Finally, in 1810–11 Governor Sir John Thomas Duckworth* sent an expedition led by Lieutenant David Buchan* to search out the abode of the Beothuks and attempt a conciliation, along the lines of Bland’s plan. The experiment failed, however, as did another similar venture by Buchan in 1820.
The several governors that Bland served during his term at Bonavista relied much on him to provide information on affairs in the area. During the summers of 1805 and 1806 Bland compiled a complete survey of properties in settlements around Bonavista Bay, which included names of occupants and owners and the nature of their respective claims or leases. This document, known as the “Register of Fishing Rooms,” is an invaluable record of the early population and settlement in Bonavista Bay.
Another important document that came from Bland’s pen was a letter to Governor James Gambier in 1802 about the seal fishery. To satisfy Gambier’s curiosity on the nature of the sealing effort, Bland provided a detailed description of the several strategies employed and the technology used, as well as of the environmental conditions related to success and failure and of the various seal species. He observed that “this adventurous and perilous pursuit is prosecuted in two different ways.” The first was a method using nets which was practised during the winter months and extended from Conception Bay to the Labrador coasts, with the northern ports generally more successful. The second method, which he claimed “has not been general longer than nine years,” was a venture which employed large boats – “ice-skiffs, decked boats, or schooners.” These boats sailed into the ice floes off the northeast coast about the middle of March and sometimes continued to hunt seals until June. The merchants at St John’s, he noted, had followed the new method “with uncommon spirit.”
Bland’s letters reveal a forthright, decisive, and confident individual. He earned the confidence of the governors and established himself as a man of integrity and honesty in official circles. His contentious opinions also gained him strong enemies, especially among merchants and traders. Thus, when in 1802 he sought to become chief justice for Newfoundland, many of the stronger Poole merchants, some of whom had vested interests on the northeast coast and connections there with men such as Peyton, opposed his appointment, and the position went to Thomas Tremlett. Bland had to wait some years before he got promoted to office in St John’s and even then had to settle for high sheriff.
Although Bland’s name has been mainly associated with a philanthropic movement related to the Beothuks, he also pressed for measures to promote the well-being of white settlers in Bonavista Bay and in Newfoundland generally. Upon receiving instructions to take the survey of properties in Bonavista Bay, he believed erroneously, as did most of the settlers, that government intended to raise a revenue from property taxes and leases. He suggested that “such is the general condition of the poorer class . . . of this quarter . . . that humanity must plead exemption on their part.” Bland also argued in 1805 that the act of 1699 which governed the rights to fishing rooms had long since become obsolete and impractical to enforce. Even though he was aware that the colonization of Newfoundland was still a contentious question, as early as 1805 he advocated that the island should be invested with a house of assembly, some 27 years before it became a reality. As a source of revenue, he suggested: “Rum is perhaps the first article that might contribute towards so reasonable an end.”
Over time his progressive and, for the period, radical political views were taken up by others such as William Carson* and Patrick Morris*. With his move to St John’s in 1811 to take up his appointment as high sheriff, Bland received a stipend of more than £220, a comfortable house, and fees for various special duties. He became financially secure and entrenched in the establishment. Moreover, within the larger political and social circles of St John’s, his stature was relatively less. It is uncertain whether he died in office, or took his retirement in St John’s or elsewhere. His name, prominent in official documents and local newspapers until 1825, abruptly disappears thereafter. Most likely he left Newfoundland, since his death would have almost certainly been noted in the papers and referred to in official despatches had it occurred there. He was succeeded as high sheriff by David Buchan. A son, John Bayley Bland, was active in Newfoundland life until 1840.
PANL, GN 1/13/4, reg. of fishing rooms, Bonavista Bay, 1806; GN2/1, 1790, 1801, 8 Aug. 1804, 18 July 1805, 1811–26; GN 2/2, 1 Sept. 1790; 20 Oct. 1797; 25 Aug. 1800; 18 Aug. 1804; 1 Aug. 1805; 8 June, 4 July, 9 Sept. 1806; 22 Sept. 1807; 16 Jan. 1826. PRO, CO 194/42–43. Howley, Beothucks or Red Indians. Prowse, Hist. of Nfld. (1895), 419–20. F. W. Rowe, Extinction: the Beothuks of Newfoundland (Toronto, 1977).