BLACK, JOHN, businessman, politician, and JP; b. c. 1764 in Aberdeen, Scotland; d. there 4 Sept. 1823.
Little is known of John Black’s early life, but the Blacks of Aberdeen were a well-established mercantile family which as early as 1745 had interests in the manufacture of linen and woollens and in other local industries such as herring-salting and lime-burning. Black arrived at Saint John, N.B., in 1786 as an Admiralty agent, entrusted with the securing of masts and other choice timber, and as the representative of Blair and Glenie, a Scottish timber-trading firm that had moved its headquarters to London in order to tender for Admiralty contracts. He soon realized that the New Brunswick timber trade had good prospects and, sensing quickly that Saint John and Passamaquoddy Bay were potential entrepôts for a bilateral trade with the United States, and for trade involving the United States and New Brunswick on the one hand and the West Indies on the other, he established a mercantile house on his own account at Saint John in 1787. He later invited a number of his kin – a younger brother, William*, and two cousins – to join him in the venture.
Business in Saint John was dominated by Scots, the main commercial area being known as “Scotch Row” and McPherson’s Tavern serving as the exchange. Black found many useful friends and contacts through these countrymen, especially through the brothers William* and Thomas Pagan, who imported largely from the Clyde and had extensive connections in the timber trade. Supplying the fisheries with salt imported from Scotland, and with rum, clothing, and provisions, soon became one of Black’s main lines of business. It was the basis of yet another of his activities: the shipping of salted fish to the West Indies. This was a most lucrative undertaking if, in return, sugars and molasses could be obtained cheaply for shipment to Britain and a “triangular” trade thus constituted. Black was also, as early as 1790, acting as agent for several firms in other centres – notably for the Greenock shipbuilding firm of Scott and Company [see Christopher Scott], for the important Halifax merchant William Forsyth*, and for James Dunlop* of Montreal, Lower Canada’s most enterprising trader. By 1792 he had built up a shipping fleet of at least nine vessels, which carried lumber and salted dried fish to the West Indies and timber both to Greenock and to Aberdeen, where his firm maintained a full-time representative for the handling and sale of the cargoes. He was thus a pioneer of the British North American timber trade, and by 1805 there were branches of his firm at Miramichi, Fredericton, St Andrews, and Montreal.
Another of Black’s interests was the promotion of hemp-growing in New Brunswick. Britain, as the major sea power, needed cordage for her ships, and she was dependent on imports of hemp from Russia, which was becoming an expensive and unreliable source of supply. Black persuaded several farmers and estate-owners to cultivate the plant, financing the experiments himself, but they came to nothing. His other concerns flourished, however, and his role as importer especially brought him to the fore, large-scale shipments of woollens, ironware, iron stoves, bar iron, cordage, and gunpowder from Scotland finding ready, profitable sale. His West Indies trade developed as British conquests proceeded in that quarter after war was declared in 1793, and Trinidad and the Turks Islands were added to the destinations of his vessels.
Scottish merchants – and the Blacks, predominantly – headed the commercial life of Saint John. In 1798 they formed the St Andrew’s Society, a combination of mercantile club and social and welfare society that resembled a chamber of commerce. Black was the first secretary of the society and later served two years as president. An entertaining and convivial man, with a strong business sense, he was the natural leader of this group. In 1793, along with Ward Chipman, he had been elected member of the House of Assembly for Northumberland County, and he actively supported measures conducive to the improvement of commercial practice and the extension of the colony’s trade. In 1802 he served as a justice of the peace.
By 1804 Black had extended his shipping and trading empire to Halifax. Two years later, attracted by the wartime boom, he moved there, entering into partnership with William Forsyth and building a fine mansion near Government House, reputedly of granite brought out in his own vessels from Aberdeen, the principal destination of his timber cargoes. By 1808 he was serving as secretary of the Committee of Trade, the executive arm of an organization of Halifax merchants known as the Commercial Society [see William Sabatier]. Their major goal was the reservation to colonial exporters of the West Indies fish trade and they had already had considerable success in bringing effective pressure to bear on the home government. In 1808, as secretary, he organized support for their objectives among Quebec merchants. In this initiative he worked through his Quebec agents, the prominent firm of Irvine [James Irvine], McNaught and Company, part of the extensive network of contacts, all Scottish firms, which he had carefully built up in the North American colonies, the West Indies, England, Scotland, and the Mediterranean.
Black’s views were not narrow or parochial. He urged that all the colonies, and all the merchants in their ports and trading centres, should have freedom to develop their business, and that both colonial and home governments should encourage this freedom and give bounties and concessions if needed. To achieve these ends Black and the trade committee, which was dominated by Scots, made submissions to the British government through the influential Viscount Melville, head of the tory interest in Scotland, former president of the Board of Control, and first lord of the Admiralty from 1812 to 1827. In 1813 Black was appointed to the Nova Scotia Council, where he stressed the importance of the West Indies trade, and urged that no concessions in the Newfoundland fisheries be given to either France or the United States in the event of a peace settlement being made. Black used his influence with Melville to press these points in London, to secure for Lower Canadian, Nova Scotian, and New Brunswick shipbuilders substantial contracts for the supply of naval vessels, and to obtain for British North American suppliers large Admiralty orders for colonial masts and timber. His success helped to boom the whole wartime economy of the Atlantic region and Lower Canada.
As in Saint John, Black was regarded in Halifax as a leading light of the city’s large Scottish circle, serving as president of the North British Society in 1809. His intimates included John Young*, better known by his nom de plume, Agricola, who traded “on the line” at the captured port of Castine (Maine) during the War of 1812. There is good reason to believe that Black, like Christopher Scott and other respectable Nova Scotia and New Brunswick merchants, was deeply engaged in this lucrative, albeit illegal, branch of commerce and that Young was his agent. With the peace of 1814 the trade ceased, as did another of Black’s wartime activities – the speculative purchase of prize ships and cargoes condemned by the Vice-Admiralty Court at Halifax. A racket had developed by which captured ships and their contents, not properly inspected officially, could be knocked down at low prices to bidders who had inside information. Many naval officers, officials, and merchants were able to make large fortunes. Wartime trade, legal and illegal, and participation in prize-purchase and in privateering ventures all contributed to make the years 1806–14 the most active and profitable of Black’s business career. The last nine years of his life saw the onset of the post-war slump, but his firm was sufficiently well established and well funded to weather it, mainly because the export timber trade to Britain continued to thrive until 1825. In 1820 and 1821 he took an interest in bank promotion schemes, and he was associated with Christopher Scott of St Andrews, and with other Scottish merchants of Halifax and Saint John, in steamboat ventures. Unfortunately, he did not live to see the success achieved in both these fields.
A staunch British patriot, Black had been notable in Saint John for illuminating his house to celebrate the victories of the Nile and Trafalgar. He was an active member of Trinity Church there, subscribing £450 for the purchase of an organ, which he brought out free of charge in one of his own vessels. He continued his membership after moving to Halifax, where he was active in church affairs and a generous donor to charities. In 1797 he had married Mary, widow of John McGeorge, a member for Saint John in New Brunswick’s first house of assembly. She died two years later, and on 3 Feb. 1807 Black married Catherine Billopp, daughter of Christopher Billopp, a member of the New Brunswick Council. One daughter was born of the first union, and the second produced a son and a daughter; the younger daughter, Rosina Jane, became the wife of James Boyle Uniacke*.
Black’s health began to decline after 1819, and before his death he had been travelling for some time in Great Britain in the hope of restoring it. He had been one of the most constructive and enterprising merchants in the Maritimes, commanding respect and attention from his contemporaries. His obituary in the Acadian Recorder noted his “integrity” as a businessman, and praised “his reserved and quiet manners,” “the kindness of his heart,” “the soundness of his understanding, and the independence of his mind.”
Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), Wills, 4: ff.125–28 (mfm. at PANS). NLS, Dept. of mss,