Lessons from Labrador

© by Dan Graves

When missionary Wilfred Grenfell began work among the fishermen of Labrador in 1892, he found them trapped in a vicious credit system. This “truck system” was not unlike the sharecropping in the southern United States which kept blacks in virtual slavery long after the Emancipation Proclamation. There are lessons to be learned from the situation and Grenfell’s solution.

Wilfred Grenfell taught prosperity without credit.

Wilfred Grenfell taught prosperity without credit.

Dependent on sales of fish harvested in summer, Livyeres (Labradoreans) had to borrow against next-year’s anticipated catch for winter. The Biblical adage proved true: “the borrower is servant to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). Most were so deeply in debt they had no hope of extricating themselves; and often could not even calculate how much they owed. Merchants priced goods at whim and advanced only what credit they chose. Worse yet, they found ways to pass the expense of the lazy upon the industrious, with the usual result of socialism, that hard workers resented slackers and reduced their own efforts.

The results were sometimes desperate. Grenfell recounted the extreme example of a Mr. Olliver, who, having exhausted every resource, and failing in efforts to borrow even a handful of flour from his distant neighbors, was unable to bear the hungry cries of his youngsters, so sent his wife and two older children out to forage, and killed the three remaining babes and himself.

With gusto, and vision, Grenfell undertook to remedy the deplorable situation. He solicited clothing from England for the worst-clad, whose condition in winter was pitiable. This raised howls from the merchants, who said they would be ruined if their serfs obtained for nothing what they hoped to sell them on credit. Not that Grenfell tolerated spongers: “The Labrador has taught me one truth, which as a physician I never forget, that is, coddling is the terrible menace of civilization, and ‘to endure hardness’ is the best preparation for a good soldier.”

The Livyeres needed more than handouts, however. They needed better means than hunting, scavenging, and borrowing to provide their winter necessities. They needed some long-term way to assist themselves. Grenfell’s plan was to offer a minimum of material assistance, to establish cooperative stores which the fishermen operated to their own advantage, to create industry for the Livyeres, and to educate the children out of their parents’ ruts.

He imported reindeer to enrich their winter diet with milk and meat, established a lumber mill, a barrel factory (fish were packed in barrels), and a shipyard—all of which offered employment when fishing was impossible. Millennia earlier, Solomon had counseled diversification, saying, “Sow your seed in the morning and at evening let not your hands be idle…” (Ecclesiastes 11:6). Grenfell’s principle was the same, only substituting for morning the summer and for evening the winter.

The Labrador story is not merely of historical interest. It serves as a warning for lenders. Unjust systems hurt them, too, and not just spiritually. In one year, every bank in Newfoundland failed, pointing up the rottenness of the system.

Borrowers, learn from Labrador! Endure hardship today rather than fall into debt; but if you cannot avoid the pitfall, extricate yourselves as quickly as possible. Find additional work (the sawmill); cut costs (the co-operatives); look about for substitutes to traditional methods (the reindeer). If Grenfell can teach those lessons, he speaks still from beyond the grave.


Sources:

  1. Christian History Institute. Glimpses # 118. “Wilfred Grenfell: The Doctor Who Went Out into the Cold.”
  2. Dictionary of National Biography. London: Oxford University, 1968.
  3. Garlick, Phyllis. Six Great Missionaries. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1955.
  4. Grenfell, Wilfred Thomason. Adrift on an Ice-Pan. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1909. [source of the image]
  5. —————————. A Labrador Doctor. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1919.
  6. —————————. Vikings of To-Day; or Life and Medical Work among the Fishermen of Labrador. London: Marshall Brothers, 1895.
  7. Kerr, J. Lennox. Wilfred Grenfell; His Life and Work. Dodd, Mead & Co., 1959.
  8. Parkman, Mary R. Heroes of To-Day. New York: The Century House, 1919.
  9. “Wilfred Grenfell.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilfred_Grenfell. (retrieved 2009-08-26).

I originally wrote this article for BeatingDebt.org

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