Robert Barlow McCrea received a classical education, the typical requirement for admission to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich (London), which he entered in February 1838 in his 16th year. He was commissioned second lieutenant in the Royal Artillery on 18 June 1842. His first foreign posting, some five years later, was to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), where he remained until 1849. He subsequently spent four extremely pleasant years on Corfu (Kérkira, Greece).
McCrea’s next posting, in 1854, was to Port Royal, Jamaica, as captain and commander of the 1st company of the 8th battalion. It was the least favourite station in his military career: “that delectable hole . . . with neither food to eat, books to read, nor people to speak to.” He luckily escaped the dreaded yellow fever, which took several of his friends. It was probably while he was stationed in Jamaica that he undertook the special services to Haiti for which he was to receive a citation in his military record and promotion to the rank of brevet major.
In the spring of 1859 McCrea returned to England and Woolwich and for the next two years happily settled into a domestic routine. It was interrupted in December 1861 when, as a result of strained Anglo-American relations over the Trent affair [see Sir Charles Hastings Doyle*], he was uprooted once again and sent to St John’s, Nfld, as part of a general reinforcement of the British North American garrisons. He left his wife behind in England.
The defences in St John’s had been allowed to weaken following the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854. So under strength was the garrison that the governor, Sir Alexander Bannerman*, in the aftermath of the election riot of May 1861, had despaired of having sufficient troops even to maintain the public peace. By the time H battery of the 4th brigade, Royal Artillery, arrived in the city in January 1862, the Trent affair had been amicably settled but the imperial government was prepared for the time being to accept the reinforcement of the garrison as necessary as much for political as for military reasons.
The Newfoundland of the early 1860s was a far cry from the “fish-and-fog-land” McCrea had expected to find on his arrival. Although he thought many aspects of the island’s life quaint, occasionally bordering on the primitive; he nevertheless was pleasantly surprised by the hospitality extended to him and by the range of activities that could satisfy his many interests and occupy his considerable free time. He quickly became aware that this was an extremely difficult period for Newfoundland with her economy in steep decline as a result of a long succession of bad years in the fishery and with her domestic and political affairs bitterly divided by sectarian strife. But for McCrea the tenor of the times simply added to the excitement and pleasure he derived from his stay on the island.
As the rigours of garrison life were few in these remaining years of the British military presence in Newfoundland, McCrea found plenty of time to indulge in his interests, hunting, fishing, hiking, and socializing, all of which he undertook with great gusto. His position as battery, and later garrison, commander meant that he could move comfortably within the established social circles of St John’s. He became an acute observer of island life, gathering the details that would later appear in his narrative Lost amid the fogs: sketches of life in Newfoundland, England’s ancient colony (London, 1869).
It is interesting that of all his postings McCrea should have chosen Newfoundland to write about. His choice can be explained in part by the enjoyment he experienced during his stay there and also by his belief that the narrative would be expository, covering new ground in the travel literature of the time. He was seemingly unaware of the many commentaries on Newfoundland (such as those of John Reeves*, Edward Chappell*, Lewis Amadeus Anspach*, Joseph Beete Jukes*, and Charles Pedley*) which had preceded his own and which, because of their more valued place in the literary history of the island, have diminished somewhat the significance of his work. Nevertheless, it is because of Lost amid the fogs that he is best known. Moreover, even an authority on the literature of Newfoundland has admitted that the narrative has merits and represents “an entertaining and occasionally penetrating account of Newfoundland.”
Lost amid the fogs begins as a travelogue but quickly develops into a commentary on the island and its people during the 1860s. McCrea had a good grasp of his subject and considerable sympathy for the Newfoundland situation. He found the commercial life of St John’s to be agreeably “old-fashioned,” but he acknowledged the terrible grip that the uncertain harvest of the sea had on the island’s economy, forcing the merchant to become “a great commercial gambler” and binding the poor fisherman inextricably to a continuous debit-credit relationship with the merchant. Interestingly, he thought the problems of the fishery were the result of overfishing and the application of new technology. He condemned those who had exploited the island and its people over the generations, such as the absentee merchant and the well-educated, whom he accused of “doing little or nothing for the public good, and separating themselves as from a contaminated community as soon as possible.” He lamented the absence of civic pride among the citizenry, a failing he attributed to the lack of good public amenities. About the island’s religious institutions he had mixed views. He praised the dedication of the outport ministers and admired the asceticism of the Roman Catholic clergy. But he found the Church of England “unsuited to the wants of this generation in a large measure, and especially to the case of the poor,” and having “no longer that hold on the people as to inspire them with the necessity for, or value of her ministrations.” And he was highly critical of the Roman Catholic Church, railing against its “medieval character,” its exploitation of its adherents, and its scandalous interference in local politics. He shared historian Francis Parkman’s opinion on the church that “clearly she is of earth, not of heaven.” Nevertheless, he acknowledged the popularity of the Church of England bishop, Edward Feild*, and expressed admiration for some qualities of John Thomas Mullock*, his counterpart in the Catholic church.
McCrea was appalled by the state of colonial politics, bemoaning the “folly” of granting responsible government to a “community of a hundred thousand souls . . . three quarters of whom are ignorant, superstitious fishermen.” He was pessimistic about the outcome of Canadian confederation, which he described as a “rope of sand” binding hopelessly disparate regions together in an “unsound” and “impolitic” union, and commended Newfoundland for avoiding association with it. McCrea was, in fact, a die-hard imperialist before it was fashionable to be so; he wanted nothing less than a continuation of the old imperial relationship and blamed a gutless Great Britain for bringing on its hasty and unwarranted demise. With unusual foresight he proclaimed, “The true interests of Newfoundland and England are linked together: long may they so remain!”
Overall McCrea’s impressions of life in mid-century Newfoundland are favourable if not somewhat romantic: “Nowhere else can man grasp the hand of his fellow man with greater trust, or with greater confidence in a hearty welcome eat his neighbour’s bread.” It was his happiest posting and he left it with deep regret, never to return.
Having been promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel in February 1863, he departed in May the following year to take up his new appointment as commander of the Royal Artillery in Quebec. He arrived there in December after spending the summer and fall in England. As commander for the district of Quebec, McCrea was responsible for the administration of the artillery garrison in that city including the supervision of all subordinate staff. Although he was in Quebec during the period of tension that marked the end of the American Civil War and the Fenian raids, he seems to have been preoccupied with administrative matters for the most part. His stay passed without major incident.
McCrea’s last overseas appointment was in Malta, from 1867 to 1871. At the end of his tour there, he was promoted to the rank of colonel and three years later he was made a major-general. He then retired to Surrey, where he died in 1897 at the age of 74.
NA, RG 8, I (C ser.), 755–65. PRO, CO 194/155, 194/166–68; WO 17/1569, 17/2292 (mfm. at NA). Battery records of the Royal Artillery, 1716–1859, comp. M. E. S. Laws (Woolwich, Eng., 1952). Times (London), 13 Feb. 1897. List of officers of the Royal Regiment of Artillery from the year 1716 to the year 1899 . . . , comp. John Kane and W. H. Askwith (4th ed., London, 1900). J. [K.] Hiller, “Confederation defeated: the Newfoundland election of 1869,” Newfoundland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: essays in interpretation, ed. J. [K.] Hiller and P. [F.] Neary (Toronto, 1980), 67, 75. Patrick O’Flaherty, The Rock observed: studies in the literature of Newfoundland (Toronto, 1979). Christian Rioux, “The Royal Regiment of Artillery in Quebec City, 1759–1871,” Parks Can., National Hist. Parks and Sites Branch, Hist. and archaeology (Ottawa), no.57 (1982), 3–146.