Sir Ambrose Shea was a key player in both Liberal and Conservative administrations in the Newfoundland House of Assembly for 34 years, having crossed the floor twice. His enthusiastic support for Confederation following the Québec Conference in 1864 proved a detriment to his career in Newfoundland, as Confederation did not gain widespread popularity in the colony until the mid-20th century. A skilled orator and diplomat, Shea was appointed governor of the Bahamas in 1887.
Early Life and Career
Ambrose Shea’s father, Henry Shea, was a successful merchant who arrived in Newfoundland in the late 1700s. Henry went on to raise a family of three girls and six boys. One son spent his life in England and the other five children would become prominent members of Newfoundland society. Two became physicians and two became publishers of the family-run newspaper, The Newfoundlander. The youngest, Edward, served alongside Ambrose in the House of Assembly for many years.
At the time of Shea’s birth in St. John’s in 1815, Newfoundland was a fledgling colony of 40,568 inhabitants. That number would more than double by the time Shea was first elected to the Assembly in 1848, but the island nonetheless remained overlooked in the British Empire. With little arable land or heavy industry, Newfoundland was dependent upon the export of its fish and the import of manufactured goods. Within this context, Shea was dedicated to expanding and diversifying Newfoundland’s economy through the construction of colonial trade networks. He pushed for the establishment of regular steamship routes to Halifax and Montréal, and the construction of a railway across the island. Shea was regarded as an asset to the government in these endeavours. Known as eloquent and diplomatic, he had made strong connections in St. John’s by selling and chartering ships during his early career and was well positioned to negotiate with private capitalists on behalf of the government.
Shea was first elected to represent the district of Placentia-St. Mary’s as a member of the Liberal Party. The two central planks of the Liberal platform were the establishment of free trade with the United States, and a system of responsible government. Shea played an active role in realizing both aims. In 1853, he travelled to Washington, D.C., to negotiate Newfoundland’s inclusion in the Reciprocity Treaty between Canada and the United States — the first of several diplomatic missions he made on behalf of the colony.
Not everything went so smoothly, however. As a leading member of the Liberal caucus, Shea’s campaign for responsible government brought him into direct conflict with the governors of the colony — first with John Gaspard Le Marchant and then with Ker Baillie-Hamilton — who refused to subordinate their office to the House of Assembly. After nearly seven years of public sparring, responsible government was granted by the Colonial Office and inaugurated with the election of 1855, in which Shea was re-elected and the Liberals retained their commanding majority.
For the next six years, Shea served as Speaker of the House of Assembly, a position focused on the more technical aspects of government and policy that initially removed him from public controversies. But in July 1858, the premiership was taken over by John Kent, a pro-clerical leader whose politics were at odds with Shea’s belief that religious sectarianism had no place in government. Before long, the Liberals were severely weakened by internal bickering between Shea, Kent, and the attorney general, and Shea threatened to resign as Speaker. He in turn was called out by the editors of The Public Ledger, a rival paper to The Newfoundlander, for his “audacity to attempt a control of Government by resigning his position.” The Liberals narrowly lost the election of 1861 to the Conservatives, and Shea found himself seated in the opposition.
In the summer of 1864, Newfoundland was invited to attend the Québec Conference. The administration sent two delegates: Ambrose Shea, to represent Liberal-Catholics, and the Assembly’s new speaker, Frederic Carter, to represent Protestant-Conservatives. Both became enthusiastic supporters of Confederation, but upon returning to St. John’s both men had difficulty convincing their colleagues and constituents of its benefits. The island had won relative autonomy a decade earlier when it gained responsible government; many people felt that its interests would be compromised by a remote and indifferent government outside the colony.
The following year, Carter became premier, and Shea — along with his brother Edward, and John Kent — crossed the floor to join the executive of the new government. By 1869, party lines had been completely redrawn between pro-Confederation candidates, led by Carter and Shea, and the anti-Confederation party, led by Charles James Fox Bennett. Shea’s team lost badly, and for the first time he lost his own seat.
Later Life and Career
Ambrose Shea contested the seat for St. John’s East as a Conservative in 1873, but lost again. Another election came only a year later, however, and this time he contested the seat for the town of Harbour Grace, which he won. For the subsequent decade he spent in the Assembly — working once again under Frederic Carter’s premiership, then under William Whiteway’s — he continued to push for the expansion of trade by way of steamship cargo, as well as what would become the Newfoundland Railway Company (see also Railway History).
By far the most trying incident of these years came in 1883, when religious tensions in Shea’s constituency of Harbour Grace boiled over, resulting in a riot that killed three Orangemen and one Catholic. Nineteen Catholics were brought to trial in the aftermath. They were soon acquitted by the Supreme Court of Newfoundland, but Whiteway’s caucus moved to officially condemn their acquittal in an amendment to the 1885 Speech from the Throne. Shea and others saw the move as brazenly anti-Catholic. The debacle set Shea at odds with the Conservative caucus, and in the election of 1885 he once again crossed the floor, winning St. John’s East for the Liberals.
In September of that year, the Governor of Newfoundland, John Hawley Glover, died, and Shea — at 70 years old — began petitioning for his appointment to the office. He travelled to London to make his case at the Colonial Office, where he was well received. Carter was also in the running, but Shea, with his diplomatic experience and commercial expertise, seemed like the obvious choice. However, Shea’s opponents in Newfoundland, including Whiteway, lobbied to prevent his appointment, and, in 1886, the title was given to Sir George William Des Vœux — a colonial official with no prior connection to Newfoundland. Shea returned to St. John’s, frustrated by what he saw as Orange prejudice.
A year later, however, the Colonial Office granted him governorship of the Bahamas. He and his wife, Louisa, arrived in Nassau in October 1887, and remained there for seven years. Throughout that time, Shea invested the bulk of his energies in the development of the archipelago’s networks of transportation and communication — in particular telegraph and steamship routes. He also oversaw the construction of a new hospital, and attempted to aid poor rural communities by promoting the cultivation of sisal (a species of Agave).
In 1895, he and Louisa retired to London, England, where Shea died on 30 July 1905, at the age of 90. His body was returned to St. John’s, where he was given a state funeral.
Ambrose Shea was one of the most influential Newfoundland politicians of the 19th century, serving in the colony’s House of Assembly for 34 years. Though never elected premier or appointed governor, he was a key player in both Liberal and Conservative administrations. A skilled orator and diplomat, he was universally admired for his persistent attempts to mend political divisions between Catholics and Protestants, as well as his promotion of the island’s economic development.
Shea also confronted serious political obstacles. As a moderate Catholic with close connections to London, he was never well positioned to lead the Liberal Party, which throughout his career possessed a strong clerical and Irish-nationalist streak. As a Catholic, he was never fully at home in the predominantly Protestant Conservative Party. Even more detrimental to his career was his enthusiastic support for Confederation, which did not gain widespread popularity in Newfoundland until the mid-20th century.