DUNLOP, JAMES, businessman and militia officer; b. November 1757 in Glasgow, Scotland, third and youngest son of David Dunlop, merchant and textile manufacturer, and his wife, a daughter of James McGregor of Clober; d. unmarried 28 Aug. 1815 in Montreal, Lower Canada.
James Dunlop received a “sound commercial education,” which included instruction in “bookkeeping, mathematics and navigation,” probably at the High School of Glasgow. Like many other young men of the city’s mercantile class, he was sent out to Virginia, the focus of the tobacco trade and the main centre of Scottish overseas enterprise; he arrived, it seems, early in 1773 and settled on the James River opposite Jamestown as an employee of William and John Hay, correspondents of his brothers Robert and Alexander Dunlop, partners in Glasgow. At the outbreak of the American revolution, according to James’s nephew, Alexander Dunlop of Clober, he served as a loyalist in several campaigns in Virginia and the southern colonies.
Early in 1779 Dunlop came to Quebec and, in the upper part of a house on Rue Saint-Pierre, established a small store in which he sold dry goods, hardware, groceries, and “fancy goods,” imported on credit from Glasgow. Having lost his slender working capital during the revolution, he formed a partnership with Andrew Porteous and worked closely with John Porteous and Daniel Sutherland*, all of Montreal. The Porteouses were members of a family connection which included a number of Patersons equally active in the trade of the colony, was already well established in the province, and was also of Ayrshire origin. Like many other Scottish merchants in the colony, Dunlop was involved in the scandal surrounding John Cochrane, agent at Quebec between 1779 and 1782 of a British firm responsible for providing Governor Haldimand with the specie needed by the colonial administration. Cochrane, without authorization, had advanced on credit to colonial merchants large sums in bills of exchange, and Haldimand’s suits at law against some of the tardy debtors, through judge Adam Mabane*, provoked a financial crisis in the colony. The amount given to Dunlop had been small in comparison with the advances to many of these merchants, but in 1787 he still owed £3,000.
Dunlop’s energy, resourcefulness, and desire to open new fields of endeavour had meanwhile driven him in 1781 to dissolve his partnership with Porteous, and, apparently the following year, to set himself up in Montreal, which was burgeoning as the centre of Canadian commerce. He continued, nevertheless, to import and export to some extent through Quebec where he maintained an agent, John Pagan. By 1785 Dunlop was established in a warehouse, with its own wharf, on Montreal’s main business thoroughfare, Rue Saint-Paul. It was probably from there that he sold the large assortments of dry goods, cutlery, alcoholic beverages, sugar, and other products that he continued to import. Foreseeing the possibilities in the flour and lumber trades, he began in the early 1780s to travel extensively throughout the colony, negotiating purchases of grain and timber. His activities in this business, and the wide range of contacts he established, had placed him in a strong position by 1788 when an act of the British parliament permitted vessels from Canada to carry lumber and provisions to the West Indies and to bring back, free of duty, sugars and rum to the value of the outward cargo. By 1789 he was also exporting shiploads of choice Canadian oak to Leith, Scotland.
Wines and spirits were another specialty. Dunlop imported high-grade rums and whiskies from Greenock and found a ready market among habitants and fur traders. His rum, identified by the initials J. D. and a thistle burnt into the barrel, was highly regarded. Before the war with Spain began in 1796, he imported from Cadiz shiploads of Spanish, Madeira, and Portuguese wines, supplying the domestic cellars of most of the fur-trade magnates, including Simon McTavish. Dunlop also imported from Cadiz on a large scale rum, sugar, and tobacco. He maintained a useful network of agents, mostly Scottish firms, in Tuscany (Italy) at Leghorn, in Spain at Cadiz and Barcelona, in Portugal at Lisbon, and on Madeira. Spirits also formed a large part of his trade with York (Toronto), where he supplied Alexander Wood* and William Allan* beginning in 1798. Dunlop was linked to Upper Canada as well through his association with Richard Duncan and his group of “insatiate” (according to Chief Justice William Osgoode*) land speculators, among them Coll McGregor and James Caldwell of New York State. In 1794 their petition for hundreds of thousands of acres in the Beauharnois region of Lower Canada was rejected, as was another in 1796 by less important men, in an association of which Dunlop was leader, for the entire 64,000 acres of Derry Township on the north shore of the Ottawa River.
In Montreal Dunlop rented a house on Rue Saint-Paul until March 1788. By 1795 he was ensconced, on the outskirts of the city, in a handsome mansion that became a social centre; visitors to Montreal testified to Dunlop’s warm-hearted hospitality, which was characteristic of Montreal’s Scottish nabobs. His liveried servants were invariably brought from Scotland. Like most of the city’s Scottish merchants, he had been a member of the Protestant Congregation of Montreal (Christ Church), an Anglican body, but he had joined the Scotch Presbyterian Church, later known as the St Gabriel Street Church, when it was formed in the early 1790s.
Dunlop also participated in the public life of the city. In 1792 he offered himself as candidate for the House of Assembly in the riding of Montreal West, but the electors preferred James McGill and Jean-Baptiste-Amable Durocher. As fear rose among the British population of the activities of French revolutionary agents operating in Lower Canada from the United States [see David McLane*; John Black], Dunlop became active in the British Militia of the Town and Banlieu of Montreal; he joined it as an ensign in 1790 and was promoted lieutenant in 1794.
Dunlop exploited fully the favourable economic conditions in the period of potential and open conflict with France and then the United States that lasted from 1793 to 1814. In 1797 he wrote that his business activities had become so numerous and so varied that he required additional staff from Scotland. By 1802 his headquarters on Rue Saint-Paul were among the largest mercantile premises in the colony. Dunlop’s exports for 1803 were estimated to be worth a total of £60,000, surpassed among Montreal firms only by the North West Company and Parker, Gerrard, Ogilvy and Company [see John Ogilvy]. His original import business had by then been overshadowed by new lines of activity; in 1800 he stated that his imports from Scotland made him no profit, but that he was rapidly accumulating a large fortune through bill brokering, shipowning, and the export of bulk products.
Dunlop had engaged in bill brokering since the Cochrane scandal, and in the interim he had learned to deal in government bills of all kinds, routing them via New York where good gains could be made in specie. It was the war with France, however, that launched him into the field of high finance. In the early 1800s he was purchasing bills drawn on the paymaster general – £21,000 worth in June 1800 alone – at a discount of almost two per cent and selling them in New York for specie at a premium of almost two per cent. Bill brokering was his major activity as a financier, and he conducted it with skill and foresight. By 1812 he was the most important operator in British North America and the recognized channel through which the mercantile fraternity of Montreal and Quebec disposed of army bills, as is evidenced by the records of his transactions with Frederick William Ermatinger* among others. The magnitude of Dunlop’s dealings entitle him to be considered Canada’s first large-scale bill broker.
The war with France had also spurred Dunlop to move into shipbuilding. In 1793 he took a long-term lease on a lot at Pointe-à-Callière, Montreal, where he constructed a shipyard, staffing it with skilled craftsmen brought from the Clyde and New York and local men and apprentices who were acquiring shipbuilding skills. From this yard came the vessels for his trade with Europe and the West Indies, as well as for privateering. In order to augment his fleet more rapidly he bought vessels, such as the schooner Marie in 1794 from the Quebec merchant John Munro, the sloop Peggy three years later, and, in 1805, the Industrie, constructed by the Quebec shipbuilders François and Romain Robitaille. In 1806 Dunlop’s fleet numbered three large ocean-going vessels, and seven smaller craft for the river and coastal trades. By the end of 1811 he had six vessels named after members of the Dunlop family, and that May the launching of the last of these, the James Dunlop, built at a cost of £10,000, attracted a crowd of 5,000. The following year Dunlop laid the keels of three more large vessels, one of them, the George Canning, of 482 tons. In 1814 he purchased the Earl St Vincent, an East Indiaman of over 900 tons, and was planning to buy several others. Shipbuilding costs in Lower Canada were approximately 35 per cent higher than on the Clyde, but Dunlop had faith in the future of the industry in British North America if first-class materials were used by competent craftsmen.
War had sharpened demand in Britain for bulk products such as potash, lumber, grain, and flour; in the autumn of 1797 Dunlop remitted bills to Glasgow for more than £17,000, derived from grain exports in the preceding eight months. By 1800 he was considering the ambitious project of cornering Canadian flour and potash supplies, and in 1805 he nearly succeeded in monopolizing the latter, which he exported on a large scale at a handsome profit for use in the cotton, linen, and woollen mills on the Clyde. Similarly, in the years 1812 and 1813, when Scotland suffered a crisis in provisioning that led to the formation of “meal-mobs,” Dunlop dispatched several thousand tons of flour from his stocks, the most extensive in the province, and was able to secure considerable returns. With the Scottish market, supply contracts for the British army on the Iberian peninsula, and provisioning of the forces in North America during the War of 1812, he bid fair to being the key operator in the Canadian grain trade.
The interlocking of Dunlop’s shipbuilding and privateering activities with his commodity operations is shown by the special permission accorded him on 22 July 1812 by the Legislative Council of Lower Canada: he was authorized to dispatch his large and heavily armed vessel, the James Dunlop, to Lisbon with army provisions despite Napoleon’s embargo, since “her force [of armament] . . . will in all probability be equal to her protection.” He was so confident in the strength of his ships, all of which were accorded letters of marque as privateers, that he refused to insure them throughout the war, apparently considering insurance rates excessive; his risk was justified, since he lost only the James Dunlop, wrecked in 1812 during a storm off the coast of Anticosti Island but well compensated for by the capture of an enemy ship. In 1814 he boasted in a letter to his sister in Glasgow that he had done “more good business since the War began than ever I did in the same space of time” and that he was the wealthiest man in the province. Even making allowance for his natural ebullience, there seems little reason to doubt the assertion: in November 1813 one of his cargoes of imported goods was valued at £50,000 including duty; six months later he remitted what was apparently the largest bill of exchange – £32,500 – yet sent from the colony; in August 1815 he had a stock of goods in hand estimated at £100,000; and that year the Montreal Herald noted that his fortune was “supposed to be greater than ever was acquired by any individual in this country.”
Dunlop’s ability to exploit the favourable economic climate in the 1790s and early 1800s was due in part to the wide range of business contacts that he had established in Canada and Britain. He had earned the confidence of the Montreal merchants from the time he settled in the city, and in the 1780s and 1790s was frequently called upon to act as trustee for the estates of deceased businessmen. He never engaged in the fur trade as did many of the Montreal merchants, but out of solidarity with them he had signed in 1782 and 1785 several petitions in which the fur magnates requested from the government protection and freedom in the prosecution of that trade. Although he separated from Andrew Porteous, Dunlop maintained his connection with the Paterson-Porteous group; its members, and especially the younger ones (the Robertsons, John Ogilvy, and their close allies), were active in opposition to the NWC in the 1790s and, as part of the Parker, Gerrard, and Ogilvy empire, the group became one of the most important elements in the trade between Quebec and Britain. Like John Porteous, Dunlop was on close terms with James and Andrew McGill, with whom he shared a Glasgow background, and in 1806 he was executor of the latter’s estate.
Unlike the merchants of the fur trade, whose business was transacted through London, Dunlop conducted his affairs in Britain largely with Scottish correspondents. He had contacts with James Dunlop of Garnkirk, the Dunlops of Lockerbie, and his brothers Alexander, a bookseller, and Robert, a linen manufacturer, who still acted in Glasgow as purchasing agents and exporters for the wide range of dry goods and other commodities Dunlop imported. However, his most important Scottish agent was Allan, Kerr and Company of Greenock, a leading firm in the trade to the Canadas.
Throughout the early 1800s Dunlop continued to participate enthusiastically in the Montreal militia. A captain in 1803, he became a major, commanding four companies of the 1st Battalion, including the artillery. In June 1811 he and Étienne Nivard Saint-Dizier were chosen to take an address from the citizens of Montreal to Governor Craig, who was about to depart for London. In November 1812 part of the militia, including Dunlop’s artillery company, was placed on alert. The following year he expressed the hope that the American invaders would penetrate to Montreal so that “my Great-Guns will make Thousands of them Sleep with their Fathers.” His military service, however, involved him in a dispute that led to his court martial in December 1813. He was accused of insulting a subordinate officer at Lachine named Hart Logan when an enemy attack was expected, and of being drunk at the time. Dunlop told Logan that he “esteemed him less than the driver of a milk cart,” an insult typical of Ayrshire parlance but perhaps also derived from the little dogcarts used to transport milk in the colony at this period. Ordered to apologize to Logan by a military court presided over by his friend James McGill, Dunlop refused and lost his commission. The incident did Dunlop no damage in the community; he was commended by many for his pride and sang-froid before the tribunal. Dunlop was distressed when the war with the United States ended in 1814, and he wrote to George Canning, ambassador extraordinary to Portugal, as well as to the member of parliament for Glasgow, that “we will never again have the same good opportunity of bringing the United States to our own terms.”
In August 1815, perhaps as the result of an excursion late in July to the Chaudière Falls near Quebec, Dunlop developed inflammation of the bowels, for which he seems to have put off medical attention. He died on 28 August in Montreal. At the time of his death he was full of new projects: planning more and larger vessels for his fleet, embarking on a massive scheme to import and speculate in thousands of tons of Irish flour, and pondering the possibility of instituting a regular passenger service across the Atlantic. In a letter in 1814 to his brother-in-law he had claimed to “have been more bold in my Speculations than any other person or Company in this Province,” and the Quebec Gazette acknowledged that he had been “one of the most eminent, respectable and enterprising” merchants in Montreal. In Dunlop the colony lost a lively businessman who might have made a great contribution in the ensuing period of commercial growth and formation of banks. Within two years of his death, the Bank of Montreal was founded, and his vision of regular transatlantic passenger service was being pursued by other men.
A colourful and imaginative figure, Dunlop was a worthy contemporary of Simon McTavish, also known as “the Marquis,” and other characters who composed the Montreal trading circle. Throughout his life, though very much a progressive businessman of the enterprising 18th-century type, he had been keenly conscious of his heritage, coming as he did from a cadet branch of the ancient Ayrshire house of Dunlop, and being linked as well to the Scottish national hero William Wallace. Dunlop’s pride in his lineage made him irascible if crossed and quick to take affront, although most who encountered him noted his good-natured hospitality, tolerance, and aplomb. To his relatives in Scotland he was extremely generous, but tended to be “steering.” They regarded him with some trepidation. During his visits home they experienced his impulsive rages, particularly over the education and upbringing of his nephews and nieces, matters that profoundly concerned him; as his nephew Alexander Dunlop of Clober recalled, “The Canadian was kind, but overbearing.” Dunlop’s characteristic sang-froid was manifested on the occasion of a fire that razed his Montreal warehouse; as he watched the blaze, seated on a sofa rescued from the building, he remarked, “Why should not a man enjoy his own fireside?” In Clober’s words, he was “a prompt, active and dashing fellow, with indomitable intrepidity, both in maintaining sword and pen. He took fortune by storm, and dared his all to secure it.”
The executors of Dunlop’s will, dated 12 July 1811, included James McGill (who died two years before Dunlop), John Forsyth*, Isaac Todd, William Lindsay* Jr, John Harkness, and Adam Lymburner Macnider* in Canada; Andrew McNair, his brother-in-law, at Glasgow; and Allan, Kerr and Company and John Denniston, Scottish mercantile and financial magnates at Greenock. Between £150,000 and £200,000, representing the bulk of Dunlop’s fortune, went to his nephews and nieces in Scotland; his sister received an annuity of £1,000. Dunlop also left an endowment of £5,000 to an illegitimate son, James, born in 1810 to Mrs Elizabeth Whitlaw, apparently of Glasgow. Dunlop and Company was wound up following the owner’s death, and it appears that the amounts received by Dunlop’s heirs fell far short of the real value of the estate.
James Dunlop was a mercantile man of outstanding talent and originality, far beyond his contemporaries, even the fur-trade magnates, in techniques and vision. He was directly responsible for opening up several important lines of Canadian commercial activity, and, certainly, he was one of the founding fathers of Canadian finance.
James Dunlop seems to be the only British merchant of prime importance in Canada in the 18th century whose personal business correspondence at the height of his career has survived. It may be consulted at the SRO, GD1/151, and at the PAC which holds a microfilm copy (MG 24, D42).
ANQ-Q, CN1-145, 26 July 1805; CN1-256, 12 Nov. 1794, 8 Nov. 1797; CN1-262, 18 juin 1805. PAC, MG 19, A2, ser.3, 33; E1, ser.1, 52: 19771 (copies); RG 1, L3L: 38841–44; RG 8, I (C ser.), 688E. Private arch., W. H. Dunlop of Doonside (Ayr, Scot.), Dunlop papers. PCA, St Gabriel Street Church (Montreal), Reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 31 Aug. 1815 (mfm. at ANQ-M). PRO, CO 42/48: ff.40–41 (mfm. at PAC). Alexander Dunlop of Clober, Reminiscences of Alexander Dunlop of Clober, 1792–1880 (Ayr, 1967). Town of York, 1793–1815 (Firth), 116–17, 126. Quebec Gazette, 1779–1815. Quebec almanac, 1791–1816. J. F. Bayne, Dunlop parish; a history of church, parish, and nobility (Edinburgh, 1935). R. Campbell, Hist. of Scotch Presbyterian Church, 96. Archibald Dunlop, Dunlop of that ilk; memorabilia of the families of Dunlop, with special reference to John Dunlop of Rosebank . . . with the whole of the songs, and a large selection from the poems, of John Dunlop (Glasgow, 1898). Macmillan, “New men in action,” Canadian business hist. (Macmillan), 44–103; “The Scot as businessman,” The Scottish tradition in Canada, ed. W. S. Reid (Toronto, 1976; repr. 1979), 179–202; “Demon of the bill brokers,” Canadian Banker and ICB Rev. (Toronto), 84 (1977), no.1: 14–18.
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Cite This Article
David S. Macmillan and A. J. H. Richardson, “DUNLOP, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 29, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dunlop_james_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:||David S. Macmillan and A. J. H. Richardson|
|Title of Article:||DUNLOP, JAMES|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1983|
|Year of revision:||1983|
|Access Date:||March 29, 2023|