BLACK, GEORGE, shipbuilder, politician, and justice of the peace; b. c. 1778; m. 26 July 1817 Jane Gilley at Quebec, and they had nine children; d. there 19 May 1854.
George Black was a leading shipbuilder in the port of Quebec during the early 19th century. A ship’s carpenter in 1817, he seems to have gone into business in 1819, and from then until 1846 he built at least 54 vessels for a total registered tonnage of 23,645. His shipyard was located at Cape Cove (Anse du Cap), below the monument to James Wolfe* on the Plains of Abraham, and specialized in the building of full-rigged vessels and, to a lesser extent, barques. Black’s ships were of a high quality and of the larger class of contemporary shipping. Almost all were awarded the highest rating, A1, by Lloyd’s register of shipping. Therefore, by virtue of the quality and quantity of his shipbuilding, Black is a notable figure in Canadian economic history. He also engaged in ship-repairing, apparently an active sideline for shipbuilders at Quebec because of the hazards peculiar to the St Lawrence. Unlike his contemporaries, such as John Munn, for whom five of Black’s first six vessels were built, he seldom built on his own account. With the exception of two steamers, a schooner, and a brigantine, the vessels he built were destined for owners in the United Kingdom, and the bulk of them were employed, at least initially, in the British trade to the West Indies, Africa, and Australia.
Black is said to have been a partner of John Saxton Campbell, a Quebec merchant and shipowner, but although there were numerous business transactions between them involving at least 15 vessels, no indication of an actual partnership has been located. The most extensive evidence of association between Black and Campbell is for 1829, the year in which Black launched the most vessels. A barque, a brig, and five ships were completed, for a combined registered tonnage of 2,433, two and a half times greater than that of his nearest competitor. Thereafter, Black’s rate of construction slackened, and can be distinguished from the rising pace of the other major builders at Quebec. James and John Jeffery, John James Nesbitt, John* and David Gilmour, John Munn, and especially Thomas Hamilton Oliver, often surpassed and occasionally doubled Black’s production of 1829.
Black has been awarded a measure of fame, singular for a Canadian shipbuilder, because of a vessel he built with Campbell in 1831, the paddle-steamer Royal William. The vessel was constructed for the Quebec and Halifax Steam Navigation Company which included Black, Samuel Cunard*, and numerous prominent Lower Canadian businessmen among its shareholders. As a steamer, the Royal William was untypical of Black’s production, but her steam voyage from Pictou, N.S., to Cowes, England, in late summer 1833 was widely and repeatedly claimed decades later by Canadians to have been the first across the Atlantic. This assertion, made, ironically, in the late 19th century, when the eminence of Canada’s mercantile marine was fast ebbing with the decline of the sailing ship, has not found acceptance outside Canada.
Active in municipal politics, Black was elected councillor for Saint-Laurent Ward in 1835. When the city reverted to a system of administration by justices of the peace between 1836 and 1840, he served as one of the justices. After a new charter provided for the appointment of a mayor and councillors [see René-Édouard Caron*], Black was appointed city councillor for Champlain Ward for 1840–42. The positions on the city council again became elective in 1842 but he declined to stand for office although he continued to act as a justice of the peace until at least the late 1840s. A Presbyterian, he was also a member of the local St Andrew’s Society.
During a strike by shipwrights in 1840, 800 members of the Société amicale et bienveillante des Charpentiers de Vaisseaux de Québec [see Joseph Laurin*] presented Black with an address thanking him “for your generous and disinterested conduct towards them in opening your shipyard and offering them a reasonable wage for their labour . . . notwithstanding the opposition and censure which you must have experienced from the master shipbuilders of Saint-Roch.” In reply, he criticized the unjust conduct of the shipbuilders towards their employees and promised the shipwrights his continued support.
Like many other successful Canadian shipbuilders, Black capped his career with his largest ship, constructing the 1,278-ton Omega in 1846. On 1 May of that year he leased the shipyard, together with its “Two Floating Docks, Houses, wharfs, slips, grid Irons, Booms, Beaches and Deep water Lots,” to his son George Black Jr for £800 per year and probably retired. An inventory taken three days later revealed that the shipyard contained building materials worth approximately £472, household furniture to the value of £35, as well as tools and other articles valued at £310. The business was carried on by Black Jr until his death three years later. Black Sr then leased the shipyard to another Quebec shipbuilder of note, William Henry Baldwin*.
ANQ-Q, 30076, George Black et famille (microfiches); CE1-66, 26 juill. 1817, 21 mai 1854; CN1-49, 22 avril, 6 nov. 1846; 19 avril 1848; CN1-67, 27 mars 1851; P1000-11-203. PRO, BT 107/473–74, 476, 478, 480, 482, 484, 488, 490, 493, 495, 497, 499, 501, 503, 506, 508, 510, 514, 518, 522, 524, 527, 531, 535, 539, 542, 545, 549, 552, 555, 558, 561, 565, 568, 571, 574. Le Canadien, 21, 28 déc. 1840. Globe, 16 May 1876. Lloyd’s List (London), 10, 13 Sept. 1833. Morning Chronicle (Quebec), 20 May 1854, 16 Jan. 1884. Quebec Gazette, 28 April 1831. Lloyd’s register of shipping (London), 1819–50. Quebec directory, 1847–48. Chouinard et Drolet, La ville de Quebec, vol.3. Merrill Denison, The barley and the stream: the Molson story; a footnote to Canadian history (Toronto, 1955). Marcel Plouffe, “Quelques particularités sociales et politiques de la charte, du système administratif et du personnel politique de la cité de Québec, 1833–1867” (thèse de ma, univ. Laval, Québec, 1971). Rosa, La construction des navires à Québec. F. W. Wallace, Wooden ships and iron men: the story of the square-rigged merchant marine of British North America, the ships, their builders and owners, and the men who sailed them (New York, ). Archibald Campbell, “The Royal William, the pioneer of ocean steam navigation,” Literary and Hist. Soc. of Quebec, Trans. (Quebec), new ser., 20 (1891): 29–62.