SWEETMAN, PIERCE, businessman and shipowner; b. 1761 or 1770 in the parish of Newbawn, County Wexford (Republic of Ireland), son of Roger Sweetman; m. 8 April 1791 Juliet Forstall in Waterford (Republic of Ireland), and they had two sons and three daughters; d. 17 April 1841 near Waterford.
Few Irish in Newfoundland could claim such a respectable lineage in the homeland or such reputable connections with the island prior to their arrival as Pierce Sweetman. He came from a prosperous farming family which had provided recruits to the upper echelons of the Roman Catholic Church, among them a bishop in Wexford. Richard Welsh, a native of nearby New Ross and one of Newfoundland’s leading merchants in the 18th century, was likely his maternal grandfather. Following the death of Welsh and his son, Welsh’s extensive capital, premises, and business at Placentia, Nfld, passed on to his three daughters and their children. The daughters had married William Saunders of Bideford, England, a former clerk and now managing agent in Placentia, Paul Farrell, a Waterford-based merchant already engaged in the Newfoundland trade, and probably Roger Sweetman. Using his English and Waterford connections, Saunders expanded this trade, particularly with southern Europe, and by 1786 was one of the leading shipowners resident in Newfoundland. In a letter that year to the king from Placentia, Prince William Henry noted that the firm had over £50,000 capital invested in the fishery.
Pierce Sweetman is first recorded at Placentia in 1785, when he was assistant agent to Thomas Saunders, a younger brother of William. Placentia was the principal harbour on the south coast of the island, and the fishery there was nearing its peak. Letter-books written at that place between 1788 and 1793 describe activities of the firm. After 1779 the Saunders family was based in Poole, Dorset, which was the pivot of the company’s network, the port where the ships were owned and final decisions on their deployment made. Waterford supplied the salt provisions and the bulk of the migrant labour. In 1788 Pierce Sweetman spent the winter and spring there and in Poole helping assemble supplies and personnel. Arriving at Placentia in the fall, he assisted in the shipping of cod to the Iberian peninsula and supervised the departure for Waterford and Poole of vessels carrying cod oil and passengers. In December he sent out crews to cut wood. The company built its own ships, and during the winter Sweetman oversaw the construction of one deep-sea vessel and the beginning of another. Early in April 1789 he turned his attention to the fishing season. Although by this era the fishery at Placentia was prosecuted predominantly by resident planters and overwintering servants, a third of the labour still came from the British Isles. The firm preferred Irish labour, particularly ashore. Thomas Saunders believed that “for hard labour one Irish youngster is worth a dozen [English].” The fishery would peak in June with the arrival of millions of tiny caplin, which lured the cod inshore, but Sweetman had 19 shallops at sea by early May. Each boat had four or five men, and the crews were supervised by one of the company captains who had brought them out from Waterford. Another aspect of the company’s operations was its backing of planters. Sweetman advanced them supplies in the spring on the promise of their cod and cod oil in the fall. Early in June 1789 he ordered the supplying of 25 planters once the caplin struck ashore.
The export of dried cod to the Iberian peninsula and Italy and to St John’s for the West Indies was the key activity of the fishery. Considerable time and expertise was spent ensuring that the fish was properly culled and sorted to suit regional tastes abroad. “Sweetman has seen the whole of it shipped so it must be good,” Thomas Saunders noted of one cargo in 1789. Almost every month from May to November one or more of the company’s fleet departed from Placentia for southern Europe. Each captain was given written instructions to proceed to a particular port. European agents sold the cod, on company account, either in their home port or elsewhere depending on prices. Although Pierce Sweetman dealt with a dozen or more European agents, most shipments were consigned to a handful of houses with English or Irish connections. The close commercial and cultural ties between his homeland and Catholic Iberia facilitated the firm’s trade. He himself sailed on one of the company vessels to Cadiz in 1789 to visit Waterford agents there and become more familiar with the conditions of Iberian trade.
The death of William Saunders in 1788 had implications for Pierce Sweetman’s position within the company. Thomas Saunders became director and Sweetman was made a formal partner, the firm’s name changing from William Saunders and Company to Saunders and Sweetman in 1789. Sweetman’s marriage in 1791 to Juliet Forstall, the daughter of an influential large farmer near Waterford, confirmed him as a merchant of substance firmly entrenched in the upper levels of the town’s Catholic middle class. Shortly afterwards, he became director of company operations in Waterford, replacing John Blackney, the second husband of one of Welsh’s daughters.
The wars with France imposed new strains on the management of this transatlantic merchant fishery. At the outset, the trade prospered. Indeed, the year 1794 was the busiest in the century for the Waterford operations. But difficulties soon occurred. The price of foodstuffs rose, and fishermen and mariners became the targets of press-gangs. The flow of passengers from Waterford was reduced some years to a trickle, and people returning home in the fall attempted to avoid impressment by forcing captains to land in safer havens west of the port, thus disrupting the company’s shipping. Moreover vessels were under threat from enemy ships, their flexibility was hampered by cumbersome convoys, and the traditional cod markets were insecure during the wars.
Pierce Sweetman moved to his native Newbawn in 1796, entrusting the diminished trade at Waterford to a relative and taking over one of his father’s large farms. A few years later he installed his family in a fashionable villa on the banks of the Slaney, in Wexford, and resumed the role of a mobile merchant, travelling between Poole, Placentia, and Waterford to stimulate trade. He struggled to maintain a commerce with Spain, but disruptions there connected with the war resulted in a renewed concentration of shipping on Waterford, enhanced by a demand for cod to feed the rapidly increasing Irish poor. Pierce quitted Newfoundland permanently in 1803 and settled in Waterford. His brother Michael, who had married the only daughter and heir of Thomas Saunders, was left in charge at Placentia.
Following Thomas Saunders’s death in 1808, the Sweetmans became the sole owners and Waterford the exclusive European base of the enterprise. Pierce Sweetman sent his son Roger F. to Placentia in 1813 to revitalize a languishing trade. Together they rebuilt the firm. Every spring Pierce shipped provisions, and often passengers, to Newfoundland. He was one of the few merchants in Ireland to continue in this migratory, transatlantic mode of trade, which by then had become archaic. Many of the indentured servants he sent out stayed on the island. Some settled in Placentia Bay and their numerous descendants are still there, the most striking consequence of an enduring mercantile enterprise. Few Irish merchants influenced migration and colonization overseas to this extent, and none is as clearly remembered for it in Irish Newfoundland folk tradition.
Pierce Sweetman differed from most other merchants in Ireland and even in the commerce between Ireland and Newfoundland by the degree of vertical integration in his trade. He dealt on company account, using his ships to collect supplies not only from Waterford but from English and Continental ports. He also persevered in a triangular trade that spanned the Atlantic. Although primarily a cod merchant, he did engage in ancillary activities, including the seal fishery, the transport of timber from Quebec to Waterford, and the shipping of goods from Waterford to England. Few firms endured as long as the Sweetmans in the volatile Newfoundland trade. Pierce’s early success is clearly attributable to his middle-class background and impressive mercantile connections, rare among the hundred or more Catholic Irishmen who became cod merchants in the century after 1750. Management of an enterprise notorious for its unpredictability required a high degree of skill, and he succeeded throughout his career in maintaining a position as one of the most respectable merchants.
In Newbawn the Sweetman family had been a mainstay of the Catholic Church, and Pierce continued the tradition across the Atlantic. In 1785 Father Edmund Burke* came to Placentia to establish a Catholic chapel and parish, and he received timely support from Sweetman and from the Anglican William Saunders as well. In an increasingly Irish community such as Placentia, good relations with the established church and civil authorities were important to the success of a Catholic merchant. In 1786 Sweetman was the third largest donor to a fund for an Anglican church there. In that year also, he took the oath of allegiance from the new surrogate, Prince William Henry. Bishop Nicholas Sweetman of Wexford would not have approved. The kinship and partnership between the Catholic Sweetmans and the Anglican Saunderses, uncommon in Newfoundland mercantile tradition, did much to cultivate ethnic and religious rapport at Placentia. Indeed, in January 1829 the Sweetmans were singled out by Patrick Morris at a meeting of the Waterford Liberal Club attended by Daniel O’Connell for their contribution to religious harmony, a model for what could be achieved in Ireland between the two traditions.
On 5 April 1841 Sweetman made his will, dividing a considerable estate between his two daughters and surviving son, Roger F. He died two weeks later at Blenheim Lodge, on the banks of the Suir just outside Waterford, where he had lived with his family since 1810. “No man better sustained, in distant countries or at home, the character of British merchant,” a local paper reported. “He was a deservedly adored husband, parent, friend, and a finished gentleman.” His son continued the trade, first in Waterford, then in Placentia, until his death in 1862.
Ballygunner cemetery (County Waterford, Republic of Ire.), Sweetman family plot. Clongeen, Faree, and Newbawn cemeteries (County Wexford, Republic of Ire.), Sweetman family headstones. Dorset Record Office (Dorchester, Eng.), D365, F10 (Benjamin Lester diary, 1796–1802), 6 July 1798. National Library of Ireland (Dublin), Dept. of mss, Roman Catholic parish reg., Cathedral parish (Waterford), reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 11 April 1775; St Patrick’s (Waterford), reg. of marriages, 8 April 1791 (mfm. at MHA). Nfld. Public Library Services, Provincial Reference and Resource Library (St John’s), Saunders and Sweetman, letter-book (copy at PANL). New Ross, Republic of Ire., Minutes of the corporation of Ross, 2 Oct. 1771. PANL, GN 2/1/A, 10: 197; GN 5/1, Placentia, 10 Sept., 27, 29 Oct. 1785; 20 July, 1, 22, 24 Aug., 4 Sept. 1786. Placentia cemetery (Placentia, Nfld.), Headstones of R. F. Sweetman, Ann [Welsh] Saunders, and Richard Welsh. PRO, CO 194/38, 194/40; PROB 11/965: ff.338–41 (Richard Welsh); 11/1165: ff.135–36 (William Saunders); 11/1510: ff.321–22 (Thomas Saunders). Registry of Deeds (Dublin), Deeds, items 9220, 44246, 49222, 59999, 207262, 350184, 389129, 460330, 497381, 574129, 576181, 583108, 596436, 663542, 665552, 689287, 735231. Dublin Journal, 8 Sept. 1767. Finn’s Leinster Journal (Kilkenny, [Republic of Ire.]), 18 March, 15 April 1775. Waterford Mail, 21 April 1841. Waterford Mirror, 21 Jan. 1829.