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Peter Gerald Bannister

The John Bullen Prize


Peter Gerald Bannister, The Custom of the Country: Justice and the Colonial State in Eighteenth-Century Newfoundland (University of Toronto).

Dr. Bannister’s work is outstanding, especially his arguments that Newfoundland should be understood not as ‘primitive’ because of its lack of conventional British legal and political institutions, but rather as a vigorous society in which custom, common law and the policing of the British navy collectively contributed to a complex, fully functional society. Dr. Bannister writes lucidly about the manner in which the Royal Navy, drawing on the notion of legal precedent, exercised law before the advent of an elected Colonial Assembly in 1832. He sheds valuable light on the ways in which the Anglo-Irish settlements were governed by explaining in meticulous fashion the process by which law was established, negotiated and contested.
Dr. Bannister’s arguments challenge convincingly a great deal of the traditional historiography of Newfoundland and, more generally, contribute to a deeper understanding of the British Empire’s diversity. As such, his work transcends Newfoundland history as construed narrowly and in isolation from the larger, comparative imperial framework. The arguments of the thesis, especially those regarding legal matters, are constructed with an admirable clarity, alas so often lacking in other works that treat such historical materials. His thesis is also makes a significant contribution to the ongoing debate concerning state formation in historical literature, particularly among Canadian and American historians.

Honourable Mention:
Susan Neylan, The Heavens Are Changing”: Nineteenth Century Protestant Missionization on the North Pacific Coast (University of British Columbia).

Dr. Neylan’s work focuses on the interaction between Protestant missionaries and Northwest Coast natives in British Columbia from the mid-nineteenth century to 1900. She argues in respect of the central issue of ‘power’ that the Natives were far from merely the agents of European proselytizing, and that the Aboriginal people had significant agency in the interactions, often leading to modifications in Christian thought and practice. By contrast, there occurred many distinctive Native (Tsimshian) incorporations of Christian doctrine and practice. In this sense, the encounters are rightly portrayed as ‘dialogic’, rather than as conversions which were the result of simplistically conceived Native victimization.
Dr. Neylan’s superb intelligence is manifested in the manner in which she ‘re-reads’ the sources and integrates into her analysis both past literature on the subject and effective insights from theorists, notably Michel Foucault. Her writing is subtle yet firm and lucid, and demonstrates a profound knowledge of native religious practices and varieties of Christian theology. Her thesis will have a significant impact on international studies in Native/Christian interactions.