According to Wikipedia,

Newfoundland had accumulated a significant amount of debt by building a railway across the island, which was completed in the 1890s, and by raising its own regiment during World War I.[1] In November 1932, the government warned that Newfoundland would default on payments on the public debt.[1] The British government quickly established the Newfoundland Royal Commission to inquire into and report on the position.[1] The commission's report, published in October 1933, recommended that Newfoundland give up self-government temporarily and allow the United Kingdom to administer it by an appointed commission.[1]

Why would it be expected that government of Newfoundland by Britain would enable Newfoundland to deal any better with its debt crisis than continued self-government of Newfoundland?

I have a guess, but only a guess: Maybe the debt was to the Bank of England or some such entity and this amounted to giving the creditor control of the debtor's finances. But still there's the question of what the temporary British rulers did with their temporary powers, and whether it helped in any way with the debt crises. Ultimately this was solved by having Newfoundland get absorbed into Canada in 1949, so that (if I understand correctly?) the Canadian government assumed the debt.

  • This helps: Newfoundland Royal Commission. One of the main recommendations of the commission was 'The government of the United Kingdom would be responsible for the finances of the island until the time in which the island is once again self-sufficient.' Commented Jan 11, 2022 at 9:12

2 Answers 2


Essentially, Newfoundland was put into a kind of receivership with its debt extensively restructured and then guaranteed by Britain, who additionally also supplied annual grants-in-aid. Suspending self-rule was a necessary component of securing the British bailout. It was not otherwise inherently helpful.

The onset of the Great Depression in 1929, and the subsequent collapse of international trade, spelt financial doom for Newfoundland's export-oriented economy. By 1932, the Dominion was on the brink of defaulting - debt servicing consumed 63.2% of the government expenditure. Yet, even when times were good, the government at St John's relied heavily on borrowing to finance itself:

By the 1920s, however, government increasingly resorted to loan flotation to cover persistent revenue shortfalls. Each year between 1921 and 1932, a loan was raised, ballooning the debt from $43 million to $97.5 million in just twelve years. The debt was exacerbated by a succession of capital projects that were likely necessary and undoubtedly expensive to complete. As a later report put it, "among the projects ... financed [with loans] may be instanced the construction of a dry dock, the building of high roads, the taking over and improvement of the railway, the expansion of the telegraph and telephone service, the provision of steamers for coastal services, and the construction of numerous public work buildings. Unfortunately, none of these projects has proved remunerative."

Mussio, Laurence B. Whom Fortune Favours: The Bank of Montreal and the Rise of North American Finance. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2020.

This last sentence illustrates the prevailing opinion at the time, that Newfoundland had been run into the ground by reckless spending and fiscally irresponsible politicians. Consequently, there was no bailout forthcoming from the rest of the British Empire, without attached conditions of some form of external supervision. For example, when the Amulree Commission was first set up, the Dominion Office envisaged a scheme where London would control Newfoundland's taxation and spending level, with British officials supervising Dominion government departments. They naively thought a term of three years would be enough.

Frederick Alderdice, Newfoundland's Prime Minister at the time, preferred to just default. He drafted a plan to exchange existing Newfoundland bonds to a new series with a long maturity date and 2% interest rate. St John's approached both London and Ottawa to guarantee the new bond issue in exchange for Labrador, and for a $2 million advance to cover interest payments in the meantime.

Britain promptly declined. No part of the British empire had ever defaulted on its debt before, and with the global economy in shambles from the Great Depression, policymakers in Whitehall were not willing to countenance the idea now.

Chamberlain . . . felt a unilateral default "would be so damaging to Imperial credit that we ought to take all possible measures to avert its consequences." . . . He then laid out the political side of the plan, one that would allow the "Mother country" to save face with the bondholders on a "technical default" because "the system of government under which the default had arisen would for the time being have ceased to function.

Long, Gene. Suspended State: Newfoundland Before Canada. Breakwater Books, 1999.

Still, Britain would rather not intervene, let alone pay for the cost of running Newfoundland. In the first half of 1933, Whitehall's preferred solution was to dump the whole Dominion on Canada. Meanwhile Canada, though interested in eventual confederation with Newfoundland, was itself under financial stress. As the depression raged on and stress turned into duress, Canadian Prime Minister Bennet decided to turn his back on his neighbour.

Ottawa's withdrawal forced London to assume the full cost of bailing out Newfoundland alone. The British reacted by seeking more direct control over the government of Newfoundland, in order to ensure - and to persuade Parliament - that British taxpayer money wouldn't be wasted. A plan was also hatched for a constitutional restructuring to "disguise" the technical default that would be needed to keep costs down.

Left to carry Newfoundland on their own, the British understandably decided they would need greater political control than previously contemplated in order to safeguard their investment. Alongside their plans for this, they devised a scheme for pressuring most of Newfoundland's bondholders into converting their paper to a new issue at lower interest rates. This, as was understood in Whitehall, was default by another name.

The effect of the conversion would be to lower the cost of carrying Newfoundland's debt, which is what Alderdice had wanted, but by an acceptable means. A unilateral reduction of interest payments would not be justified while Newfoundland was still in business, but a conversion would be legitimate were she, in effect, to go out of business.

Neary, Peter F. Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World, 1929-1949. McGill-Queen's University Press, 1988.

It is worth noting that the Amulree Commission had found that Newfoundlanders were apparently disillusioned with Responsible Government, and would be favourable to direct rule from London. The commission's report was published to general approval when it came out later that year, and the British government's plan sailed through the legislatures of both countries.

[Canada's representative on the commission, Charles] Magrath agreed that Newfoundland should have commission of government, a change which had been advocated by nearly all the witnesses who had appeared before the Royal Commission.

Neary, Peter F. Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World, 1929-1949. McGill-Queen's University Press, 1988.

  • 1
    Was suspending self-rule necessary because Newfoundland's government was so incompetent and/or corrupt that they could not even be trusted to follow detailed recommendations from London? Or was it more that giving up self-rule allowed Britain to extract wealth in some other way as compensation for any losses taken on the debt? Commented Jan 11, 2022 at 19:56
  • 9
    @TechInquisitor Neither. As I explained in the answer, suspending self-rule was necessary because the British government didn't want a Dominion to default, and didn't trust Newfoundland's political class to get its act together. That doesn't necessarily mean St John's really was incompetent or corrupt, it was just the perception of the time.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jan 11, 2022 at 22:41
  • Who were the creditors? Commented Jan 15, 2022 at 21:35
  • @MichaelHardy Mostly private investors and, after the Depression, Canadian banks.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Jan 16, 2022 at 22:19

No Canada didn’t pay off the debt. Newfoundland was the only country to pay back most of its war debt to the British in the 1940s. Newfoundland was in a surplus before the British sold Newfoundland to Canada.

  • 5
    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Apr 2, 2023 at 4:23
  • 2
    If what you say is true, then what was going on? Why did Newfoundland surrender its self-governing status? Commented Apr 2, 2023 at 5:34
  • 4
    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence - and there is none at all presented. Commented Apr 2, 2023 at 8:46

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