BLACK, JOHN, shipbuilder and politician; b. c. 1764 in Scotland, son of William Black and Jane McMun; fl. 1786–1819.
John Black emigrated from Scotland to Quebec about 1786 and in 1787, along with William King, hired out as a ship’s carpenter on the Baie des Chaleurs for £40 per annum. In 1789 he and King established a shipbuilding firm at Quebec, but King withdrew two years later. In February 1792 Black, now “in easy circumstances,” bought from the merchant Ralph Gray a lot in Lower Town on Rue Saint-Nicolas where he established a shipyard and built a house. By September, having conducted affairs “to a great extent” with the firm of Fraser and Young, in which the merchant-politician John Young was a partner, Black owed it £800; most of this sum had probably been advanced to him as working capital, Fraser and Young reserving the option to purchase some of Black’s ships. Later that year Black relinquished his business to take up a government appointment as master shipbuilder on Lake Ontario. He quickly found his salary insufficient, however, and returned to Quebec late in 1793 to recommence his own enterprise. The following year he employed about 60 carpenters and sawyers, as well as labourers.
Because Black had extensive contact with the labouring class and had acquired a knowledge of colloquial French, he was employed as an agent provocateur by Attorney General James Monk* in the wake of militia riots at Quebec in May 1794. Operating among Canadian artisans and habitants of Quebec and the surrounding area, Black posed as a French sympathizer and attempted to elicit revolutionary statements from those with whom he spoke. In playing this role, Young later observed, Black “allowed his Zeal to carry him to unguarded lengths.” The highlight of his intelligence activity came on 17 July 1794 when he claimed to have arrested two of the leading rioters of the Charlesbourg area, where for three days in late May hundreds of armed men had defied the government and bloodthirsty Jacobin slogans had been heard. A month later, much to his surprise, Black was himself arrested as a voluble “Democrat” on the deposition, before a Canadian magistrate, of a follower of the two leaders he had taken. Monk failed to intervene, and Black was denied bail. He was successful on a second application and his case was discharged by nolle prosequi on 24 March 1795. After this incident Black’s merchant clients, who had never previously suspected his loyalty, turned from him, and his business failed. As Black later complained to John Neilson*, proprietor of the Quebec Gazette, “I passed for a disturber of publick peace a villen an Enemy to my King and Country the Scoff & reproach of the Times.”
In the general election for the House of Assembly in 1796, Black was a candidate in the county of Quebec, composed largely of Canadians, and he successfully exploited the resentments of the habitant voters, then suffering through hard times, by advertising himself as a reliable fellow who had never “reposed on the downy couch of luxurious opulence.” According to Young and Chief Justice William Osgoode*, the voters saw Black as a determined opponent of the government. Once elected, however, Black sought to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the powerful, and generally supported the colonial administration in the second legislature from 1797 to 1800. In early May 1797 he was given an excellent opportunity to restore the government’s confidence in him when David McLane*, an undercover agent for France, thinking Black was disaffected, sought his help in recruiting a fifth column of Canadians to seize Quebec with the assistance of Vermont adventurers. Black denounced McLane to Young, who was an executive councillor, and arranged for the spy’s arrest. At McLane’s trial for treason in July 1797, Black was a leading witness for the crown.
In 1798 Black joined Young and Henry Caldwell in a venture to refit the ship Lively, sell her in England, and share equally the profit or loss; Young and Caldwell provided the capital, Black the expertise. In June Black sailed in the Lively for London. Nearing the English Channel, the ship was captured on 3 July by a French privateer; she was soon after retaken by the British, but Black had already been carried as a prisoner to Bayonne, France. Within a fortnight he escaped and, posing as a Dane, crossed the Pyrenees and made his way via Madrid and Lisbon to London, where he informed the government of French plans against Ireland and the British colonies. He returned to Quebec in June 1799.
Through the good offices of the lieutenant governor, Robert Prescott, and the civil secretary and clerk of the Executive Council, Herman Witsius Ryland*, as well as Young’s friend and patron Prince Edward Augustus, Black had begun seeking some tangible reward for his loyalty and suffering since 1794. He requested an appointment anywhere in the British empire, but suggested more specifically the posts of king’s shipbuilder and port captain at Quebec; he also asked for a grant of two islands near William Henry (Sorel). None of these requests was approved, but on 30 Dec. 1799 he, as leader, and 43 associates were granted five-sevenths of Dorset Township, comprising 71,030 acres on the west bank of the Rivière Chaudière. Black had previously arranged to acquire from his associates for a nominal sum all but 8,000 acres of the grant. In July 1800 he transferred his entire interest in Dorset to Young as payment of a debt which had reached £3,144.
Black again ran for the assembly in 1800 but soon withdrew his candidacy in favour of Attorney General Jonathan Sewell*. On 14 May 1801 Black, now 37, married Jane, the 18-year-old daughter of a Quebec merchant, Sentlow Rawson; they were to have at least two children. In July Black went £1,000 into debt to buy from the notary Pierre-Louis Deschenaux three lots with buildings at La Canoterie in Lower Town. Black was apparently already indebted to his father-in-law, who in March 1802 had all Black’s property on Rue Saint-Nicolas sold at auction. In October Black acquired three more lots contiguous to his own at La Canoterie, and their development over the next three years added greatly to his debt. In February 1806 most of his holdings were sold at auction at the suit of the merchant Martin Chinic* and acquired by Pierre Brehaut; in April Black ceded the rest to Rawson. Advertising his “twenty-six years professional experience,” he attempted, but apparently without success, to continue in shipbuilding from a house and lot at 19 Rue Champlain rented for £40 from John Mure*.
In an effort to recoup his losses, Black went to England in the summer of 1806 to renew his request for patronage. He took with him an address, signed, he claimed, by more than 1,500 residents of Quebec including many leading merchants and officials, which expressed appreciation for his many services to the community; however, the notary Thomas Lee* certified only 613 signatures. To gain official favour he submitted to Prince Edward Augustus a memorial on the political state of Lower Canada, in which were reflected the assumptions of the English party during the period from 1791 to 1810. For Black the Canadian majority in the assembly was to be trusted neither to advance the commercial development of the province nor to pass legislation needed in the interests of security; as well, the political vulnerability of the British minority was increased by the absence of property qualifications for members of the assembly. Every general election, according to Black, brought forth Canadian candidates of little status, education, loyalty, or talent save demagoguery, and from one end to the other the country rang with the slogans: “‘Dont vote for an English-Man, dont vote for a Seignior, a Merchant, a Judge or a Lawyer.’” Black’s solution was a union of the two Canadas or, failing that, the creation of eight two-member ridings in the Eastern Townships. He also advocated an income qualification for members of the assembly of at least £150 per annum from land or in permanent salary. Union and a property qualification would remain staple demands of British merchants and government officials until both were finally achieved in the Act of Union of 1840.
Black’s hopes for virtually any preferment – he added to his earlier requests the lease of the Saint-Maurice ironworks and appointment as agent for the government-owned seigneury of Sorel – were not realized. He took up residence in England and became partner in a firm trading to Canada, Shepperd and Black; by 1809, however, it was bankrupt. That summer he returned to Quebec on board the Bonne Citoyenne, and was wounded in the leg during a naval engagement in which the British ship captured a French frigate. At Quebec, Black pressed his claims on Governor Craig, who, finding him to be a man of no capital or credit, warned Lord Castlereagh, the Colonial secretary, against leasing him the Saint-Maurice ironworks. Craig also informed his superior that Black had been adequately compensated and should not be provided with a government salary. A disappointed Black returned to England later in 1809. Over the next seven years he crossed the Atlantic several times in his dogged efforts, now concentrated on obtaining a land grant in Upper Canada, to be rewarded for his earlier services. He probably eked out an existence with temporary positions, such as that in 1815 of agent for the Quebec merchant Henry Black. John Black appears to have returned permanently to Britain in 1817 and to have died in Scotland some time after 1819.
Black was a man of ordinary talents who readily enough, it seems, accepted his lot as a sycophantic client of the governing clique, on whose favour his economic well-being evidently depended. Despite the intelligence and political services he rendered his masters, Black experienced recurrent rebuff and, when he no longer appeared useful, abandonment.
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