WEBBER, GEORGE, poet and newspaperman; fl. 1851–57 in Newfoundland.
George Webber was probably born at Harbour Grace, Nfld, apparently in the second decade of the 19th century since he writes of himself in 1851 as being at “life’s meridian,” presumably half-way through the proverbial three score years and ten. He made a career in journalism, yet there is no obituary or death notice for him and little information about his personal life. From his own writings it seems that he was educated and travelled widely in Newfoundland, and he evidently spent some years elsewhere, probably in Canada. In 1851 he calls himself “a stranger in my native land” and laments that “all seems sadly alter’d here.” In notes appended to his poem The last of the aborigines: a poem founded in facts, published in book form that year, he indicates that one section had been published over his initials “some years since in Harbour Grace” and refers to his having been in Quebec City.
By 1851 Webber’s travels were over and he returned to Newfoundland where he was associated with the St John’s Morning Post, and Shipping Gazette. The anonymity affected by most journalists of the time prevents use of its columns to obtain details of Webber’s activities. On 1 March 1851 the Morning Post marked the beginning of the year’s seal-fishery by publishing “Sealers’ song,” a poem “by G. W. for the Morning Post”; a later publication claims it was written in 1842 but may be in error. It is an exercise in the “come-all-ye” tradition, with the usual heartiness, forced rhymes, and verbal inversions.
Come, sing the hardy sealer’s song,
A wild and cheerful strain;
Who coast each creek and shore along –
Or cross the billowy main:
Not winter’s storms, nor sea’s alarms,
Can daunt the daring mind;
Unknown to fear, away they steer,
Old Neptune’s Fleece to find!
The “Fleece” is seal pelt; there is much more to the poem, of roughly equal quality.
In the same year, 1851, The last of the aborigines was published by the Morning Post. The work, headed with an apt quotation from William Cowper’s “Charity,” is in heroic style and consists of four cantos of rhyming couplets interspersed with occasional songs. Webber presents an imaginary account of the last days of the Beothuks, the Newfoundland indigenous people who were annihilated, apparently by tuberculosis and white hunting parties [see Shawnadithit*]. Imitative of late-18th-century English verse at its most sentimental, it is nevertheless based on facts, primarily the well-known account of the killing of the husband of Mary March [Demasduwit*] and several interviews Webber had with old settlers. The incidents are carefully chosen to give the Beothuks the most admired of Victorian virtues: devotion, love and respect between the sexes, stoic courage, especially in defence of women and children, and greatness of spirit. The white hunters, on the other hand, appear as cowardly bullies, shooting Beothuks on sight simply because they are terrified of them, and Webber, with deliberate and effective irony, always uses the word “Christians” to refer to them. The tragedy of cowards with guns against almost defenceless people, whom Webber sees firmly within the “noble savage” tradition, is well developed. His interpretation of the Mary March incident is central: the authorities offered a reward for the capture of a Beothuk through whom they could then communicate, and in 1819 a white hunting party led by John Peyton* seized Mary March from a group which included her baby. Her husband, strikingly tall, accosted them with a long speech obviously demanding her release, but the hunters stabbed him in the back. Webber transmutes this incident into the killing of his hero Bravora, supposedly the son of the victim, who at his own death sings of his father pleading “with pathos wild and high” that his own life might be taken to let the “mother join her child.” The other episodes, gleaned from settlers whom Webber had questioned, are similarly used to stress familial devotion and courage among Beothuks and cowardice and brutality among the whites.
Whether Webber was settled in St John’s in 1851 cannot be ascertained from the texts, but in 1856 he began a new weekly newspaper in Harbour Grace, the Conception-Bay Man. The first issue came out on 3 September with a motto from Thomas Campbell celebrating “Truth ever lovely since the world began, / The Foe of Tyrants and the friend of Man,” and a prospectus calling for responsible government, equality of political rights regardless of religious affiliation, and a non-partisan demand “for the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” In the issue of 10 June 1857 Webber described himself as a “native of the Country, an advocate of liberal principles, and an experienced observer of the course of public events for the last twenty years.”
The Conception-Bay Man continued until February 1859, but 1857 is the last year in which anything is known of Webber.
George Webber’s poem “Sealers’ song” appeared on the front page of the Morning Post, and Shipping Gazette (St John’s), 1 March 1851. The last of the aborigines: a poem founded in facts, originally published in St John’s the same year, has been edited by E. J. Devereux and printed in Canadian Poetry (London, Ont.), no.2 (spring–summer 1978): 74–98, under the title “George Webber’s ‘The last of the aborigines.’”
Conception-Bay Man (Harbour Grace, Nfld.), 3 Sept. 1856–16 Feb. 1859. Morning Post, and Shipping Gazette, 1851. F. G. Speck, Beothuk and Micmac (New York, 1922). E. J. Devereux, “The Beothuk Indians of Newfoundland in fact and fiction,” Dalhousie Rev. (Halifax), 50 (1970–71): 350–62. W. A. Munn, “Harbour Grace history, chapter twenty-three: concluded,” Newfoundland Quarterly (St John’s), 39 (1939–40), no.2: 10.