BLACKWOOD, JOHN, merchant, land speculator, seigneur, militia officer, office holder, and politician; b. probably in England; m. secondly 23 April 1793 Jane Holmes, widow of the merchant Charles Grant, at Quebec, Lower Canada; d. 24 June 1819 in Bath, England.
John Blackwood, whose career as a merchant spanned more than 40 years, was an excellent example of the colonial businessman who became rich by extending his activities to the economic, social, and political spheres, and who retired to the metropolitan centre at the end of his life, leaving to his family a heritage of experience and wealth. He combined skilfully the abilities of a businessman, a politician who knew how to secure favoured treatment and important alliances for himself, and a member of the bourgeois oligarchy who exerted his influence on the machinery of state by which control was ensured and the social order perpetuated. His capabilities found in the imperial system a favourable setting in which to unfold. In his case, as in that of so many merchants, to speak solely of personal initiative would be insufficient. The man and the system fitted together and backed each other up perfectly.
Blackwood is first mentioned as being in the colony at the time of the American invasion in 1775–76 [see Benedict Arnold; Richard Montgomery*], when he took part in the defence of Quebec. Subsequently, in 1783, he was in business at Quebec with Charles Grant under the company name of Grant and Blackwood. Upon his partner’s death the following year, Blackwood bought part of his buildings and fixtures for the sum of £2,000. In 1793 he succeeded in getting hold of Grant’s other assets by marrying Jane Holmes, his widow; through this marriage Blackwood became the manager of his former partner’s wharfs, warehouses, and store, located near Rue Saint-Pierre at Quebec.
Independently of the fortune of £6,237 net that Jane Holmes brought to the marriage and that he continued to administer even after her death in 1805, Blackwood became rich, largely from the import-export trade he carried on through different companies – among them John Blackwood and Company (1792–1816), Blackwood J. Sr and Jr, and Blackwood and Patterson (circa 1803–5) – in the areas of Quebec, Trois-Rivières, and Montreal, where his son John, who must have been born of his first marriage, settled early in the 19th century. As an importer of products such as rum, sugar, coffee, wine, and woollens, and also as an exporter of various kinds of produce, especially wheat, Blackwood was naturally very concerned about the accessibility of foreign markets. For this reason he formed a common front with other exporters in 1789, was interested in a plan to establish trade between the West Indian colonies and Lower Canada via Bermuda in 1807, and wanted the export of non-strategic products to the United States to continue after war broke out in 1812. His business led him, moreover, to travel frequently to England, where he made contact with large trading firms. Thus in 1809 he was the Quebec agent for the firm headed by John Inglis, Edward Ellice*, and John Bellingham Inglis of England, and even for Joseph-Geneviève Puisaye*, Comte de Puisaye.
Blackwood maintained excellent relations with the well-established trading houses in the colony such as E. Gray, and McTavish, Frobisher and Company. He also acted as trustee for the estates of several merchants. His business led him to lend money to various individuals, particularly merchants, sometimes in cash, sometimes in merchandise, for amounts from £434 to £1,643. During this period he had little compunction in having the sheriff seize and sell the assets of at least 14 debtors who had failed to honour their obligations. In 1806 he offered the government of Lower Canada £5,000, which he claimed to have collected from “my own small business,” in return for bills of exchange. When he died in 1819 he still had £7,361 of debts owing to him in Lower Canada.
Even though his career as a merchant was many-sided, Blackwood was also a large landowner involved in speculating. From 1793 to 1817 he made nearly a score of property deals, either in his own name or, on two occasions, as an administrator of the Union Company of Quebec, which he and other businessmen had founded in 1805. Being well regarded by the Executive Council in Lower Canada, he was granted favours that enabled him to increase his real estate holdings. For example, in 1796 the council authorized him to extend the pieces of land that he owned in the port of Quebec, convert them to free and common socage, and improve the quays to accommodate vessels of 300 tons burden. In 1801 he profited from a big reduction on his dues in lods et ventes to the crown, which went from £151 to £12, and two years later he received from the government a grant of 400 acres in Milton Township in recognition of his devoted services during the defence of Quebec against the American troops. In 1802 he paid the government £47 for lods et ventes, an indication of the large number of his transactions.
From the early 19th century Blackwood multiplied his purchases and sales of property, as well as his renting of farms, building sites, and waterfront lots all over the colony, in both town and country. In 1805 and 1807 he bought several lots on the Anse au Foulon at Quebec which he sold a few years later for £3,000. In addition he took advantage of sheriff’s sales to buy 12 of the 48 shares in the Dorchester Bridge in 1808 [see David Lynd], part of the seigneuries of Mille-Vaches and Mingan with trading posts that same year, and then the fief of Rivière-Magdeleine in the Gaspé in 1810. The last purchase, incidentally, caused a comical incident: as the new seigneur, Blackwood made bold to write to Governor Sir James Henry Craig in French with a view to rendering fealty and homage, and this action angered Craig, who could not accept a subject of British origin addressing him in a language other than English. Blackwood nevertheless rendered fealty and homage on 6 July 1810.
Blackwood had a manifest influence also in the numerous societies (civic, community, religious, and patriotic) with which he was associated. From 1789 until 1793, for example, he was a member of the Agriculture Society in the District of Quebec, and from 1790 until 1815 he belonged to the Quebec Fire Society, of which he was treasurer in 1791 and secretary in 1798. From 1793 to 1798 he sat on the governing council of the Quebec Assembly, which brought together people who had defended the province against American invasion, and from 1794 he took a militant role within patriotic societies; in 1813 he was president and treasurer of an association formed in 1794 to support British rule. In 1809 and 1810 he served as secretary of a society responsible for building a Presbyterian church at Quebec, for which the government had granted a lot. His most important contribution, however, was made in 1809 as a founding member of the Committee of Trade, the ancestor of the Quebec Board of Trade [see John Jones]; this body, which brought together merchants in particular, was organized to present to the government the views of businessmen on such matters as the creation of a banking establishment, the administration of the custom-house, and navigation on the St Lawrence. Blackwood also played his part in the social life of the community through public subscriptions: he contributed to funds to help the victims of the Rue du Sault-au-Matelot fire at Quebec in 1793, to aid Great Britain during the war from 1799 on (£10 a year), and to help the destitute passengers of the Neptune in 1802.
Blackwood belonged to the close circle of people who held prestigious offices connected with the direction of society and of those who benefited from government favours. Thus he was commissioned militia lieutenant in 1787, and then promoted captain in 1800. He held the office of justice of the peace in the District of Quebec several times between 1794 and 1815; in particular he was a magistrate at the time of the special sessions of the peace dealing with the malignant fevers that were raging at Quebec in January 1800. In 1797 he was a member of the jury of the Court of King’s Bench that delivered a guilty verdict against David McLane*, who had been charged with plotting revolution, and in 1812 he presided at the sittings of the Quebec grand jury. In addition Blackwood was often asked to act as a commissioner, whether to set up regulations for pilotage on the St Lawrence (1802–3), build a new market and prison at Quebec (1807–8), receive the oath of allegiance (1812), or administer the Jesuit estates (1814).
All these offices required not only social relationships, but also Blackwood’s participation in political life. Like other important people, when the occasion arose he signed petitions to governors and protectors such as Lord Dorchester [Guy Carleton], Prescott, and Prevost, and to eminent figures such as Prince Edward Augustus. As early as 1788 he had joined with other merchants to denounce the position of the Canadian seigneurs, who were opposed to the creation of an elective assembly in the colony; he and his colleagues demanded such an institution in 1789 and 1790, and he also came out in favour of a non-sectarian university. In 1805, through a by-election occasioned by the death of William Grant (1744–1805), he was elected to the Lower Canadian House of Assembly for the Upper Town of Quebec. It is not known whether his decision to enter the political arena was triggered by the debate on the Gaols Bill [see Jonathan Sewell*]. It is certain, however, that Blackwood, along with some British merchants, had signed a petition asking the Legislative Council to block this bill. Re-elected in 1808 and 1809, Blackwood also ran in 1810 but seems to have withdrawn before polling was completed.
Except for the 1806 session, when he was frequently absent, Blackwood sat, often as chairman, on committees of the assembly which dealt with matters as varied as the preparation of addresses in reply to the speeches opening the session, regulations to curb the desertions of apprentices (1807 and 1809), port regulations (1807), security of the state (1807, 1808, 1809, and 1810), the by-laws of the Quebec Benevolent Society (1807), construction of a prison at Quebec (1807 and 1809), parliamentary precedents (1807), justice (1807), public accounts (1807 and 1808), the taking of a census and road-building in the Eastern Townships (1807, 1808, 1809, and 1810), trade with the West Indies (1808), the founding of a bank (1808), exchanges between the United States and Canada (1809), weights and measures (1809 and 1810), and speculation on the Quebec markets (1810) .
On controversial questions such as the salary of assembly members in 1807, the Eastern Townships in the same year, the right of members of the Jewish faith to sit in the assembly in 1808 and 1809, and the expulsion of judge Pierre-Amable De Bonne in 1809 and 1810, Blackwood sided with the administration’s party, which included the British group and a few Canadian allies. He did, however, diverge from its stand on some issues, for example on the principle that judges should not be eligible to sit in the assembly, in 1808; the election as speaker of Jean-Antoine Panet, with whom he had business relations, in 1809; and the contesting of the election of Jean-Thomas Taschereau* and Pierre Langlois in 1810. But Governor Craig considered him a “respectable” man and approved publicly of his conduct in the 1809 session. As for the Canadian party, it classed him among the “anti-Canadians” and opponents of having the civil list paid by the assembly. In 1810 Blackwood (or his son John) was involved, together with some Montreal justices of the peace, in a plot to have the leaders of the Canadian party in Montreal accused publicly of disloyalty and then arrested [see Sir James Henry Craig]; but James Brown*, the proprietor of the Montreal Gazette, refused to play along, and the plan fell through.
From London Sir William Grant* (1752–1832), the former attorney general of the province, recommended in 1812 that Blackwood be appointed to the Legislative Council; having received a favourable opinion from Governor Prevost, the British government named him to that office on 9 April 1813. The appointment was not without irony in view of the fact that Blackwood did not approve of the “particular experiment” that the governor was pursuing in naming to important offices the people whom his predecessor, Craig, had dismissed.
In 1815 John Blackwood decided to liquidate his affairs and return to England. He gave to the four children born of his wife’s first marriage part of their inheritance, of which he had had the usufruct, and appointed an agent with power of attorney. His furniture, library, and house were later put up for sale at public auction. He came back to Lower Canada only in 1816, three years before his death, for a trip. Blackwood ended his days in England with a fortune and a prestige that had been acquired through decades of intelligent labour and carefully selected alliances in the colony.
John Blackwood is the author of Election circular published at Quebec in 1792 but a copy has not been located.
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Cite This Article
Jean-Pierre Wallot, “BLACKWOOD, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 29, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/blackwood_john_5E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Jean-Pierre Wallot|
|Title of Article:||BLACKWOOD, JOHN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1983|
|Year of revision:||1983|
|Access Date:||May 29, 2023|