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FORSYTH, WILLIAM, merchant, office holder, and politician; b. c. 1749 in Scotland; d. 14 Oct. 1814 in Tealing, Scotland.

Prior to the American revolution London merchant houses virtually monopolized trade between Nova Scotia and Britain [see Sir Brook Watson]. By the 1780s, however, this English hegemony was disintegrating as a result of Scotland’s rise as a commercial power. One reflection of this development was the large number of Scottish entrepreneurs who emigrated to post-revolutionary Nova Scotia. The most notable of these was William Forsyth.

Little is known of Forsyth’s background. He was a Presbyterian, apparently of Lowland stock. Having gained business experience in and around Glasgow, he moved to Halifax where he began advertising as a general merchant in July 1784. The British and European goods handled by Forsyth were mostly shipped to him by his two Greenock-based partners, George Robertson and James Hunter. In common with other Halifax merchants of the post-revolutionary era, Forsyth avoided exclusive dependence on the local garrison market. He established commercial contacts across the Maritime regional hinterland, and by the late 1780s Forsyth and Company was trading along the coast from Saint John, N.B., to the Gaspé and Newfoundland. Indicative of the scale of his operations was the fact that between June 1787 and December 1788 Forsyth received goods valued at £48,786 6s. 4d. from his Scottish partners. Additional quantities were brought in during this same period for sale on a commission basis for various British manufacturers. These imports were then exchanged with a host of Halifax and outport merchants mostly for timber and fish, which Forsyth and Company shipped to markets in Britain, the Caribbean, and the United States.

A company letterbook which survives for the period 1796–98 provides insight into the difficulties experienced by Halifax merchants in carrying out their complex, multilateral trade relations. The lack of reliable information on the all-important but rapidly fluctuating commodity prices in the Caribbean remained a source of constant anxiety. Additional problems came in the form of squabbles over the quality of cargo, disputes over late payments, incompetent and often drunken captains, mutinous and deserting crewmen, thievery, losses from storm and disease, and harassment from customs officers. Further complications arose from the fact that war then raged between Britain and revolutionary France. Forsyth and Company repeatedly complained of being deprived of continental markets, of suffering losses to enemy privateers, of having crews depleted by press-gangs, and of seeing the Royal Navy raid American shipping to the point where war with the United States threatened. As compensation, the firm found that war allowed it to sell to an expanded garrison market while simultaneously speculating in the prize-goods market.

The single greatest advantage derived from war by Forsyth and Company related to a surge in the Royal Navy’s demand for ship timber. In 1788 the firm won a seven-year contract to provide the navy with masts, yards, and spars; on one occasion, in 1789, Forsyth secured these materials by entering into an arrangement with William Davidson*, the New Brunswick lumber merchant. As a timber contractor, Forsyth became intimately associated with John Wentworth, surveyor general of the king’s woods. When Wentworth became Nova Scotia’s lieutenant governor in 1792 he used his authority to promote the interests of Forsyth, whom he termed “my most respected valuable Friend.” As a result, government contracts continued to flow to Forsyth; he was appointed a magistrate and overseer of the poor; and in 1801 he formally joined Wentworth’s inner circle as a member of the Council. Wentworth and Forsyth were also associated in two abortive development schemes, one to build a canal from Halifax to the Bay of Fundy, and the other to establish a chartered bank in Halifax. Further, in 1802 Wentworth granted Forsyth and two other Halifax merchants a 21-year monopoly on coal-mining in the province. This patronage coup was foiled, however, when the imperial government refused to ratify the lease.

Forsyth’s entrepreneurial success was reflected in the various partnership changes that took place within his firm. In 1797 William Smith, a new son-in-law, joined Forsyth and Company. Smith subsequently moved to Liverpool, England, where he conducted a branch operation in conjunction with Forsyth’s son Thomas. In 1806 John Black*, manager of the firm’s Saint John branch and an important merchant in his own right, moved to Halifax as a partner. Three years later Forsyth left Nova Scotia to live permanently in Greenock. Although he remained involved in the business of the transatlantic firm, Black now assumed control of the Halifax operations.

Forsyth’s departure from Halifax aroused no comment, largely because he had never played a major role in community affairs. On his arrival he had joined the North British Society, and in 1788 he served as its president. During the mid 1790s he was on the executive of the short-lived Halifax Marine Society, a philanthropic organization established in 1786 by a group of shipmasters and merchants. But, in essence, Forsyth maintained a low social profile and after 1802 displayed a decreasing interest in Nova Scotia; frequent absences in Scotland gave him a poor attendance record in Council. Wentworth’s ouster as lieutenant governor in 1808 probably contributed to Forsyth’s decision to return to Scotland. Under the direction of John Black, however, Forsyth and Company remained an active force on the Halifax waterfront for more than a decade. Furthermore, the link between Nova Scotia and Glasgow that William Forsyth had helped to forge persisted throughout the 19th century.

D. A. Sutherland

Halifax County Registry of Deeds (Halifax), Deeds, 37: ff.273–75; 39: ff.29–31, 35–36; 61: ff.66–67 (mfm. at PANS). PANS, MG 3, 150–51; MG 13, 2: ff.626–35; 3, Alexander Anderson to Forsyth, Smith and Co., 12, 22 Sept. 1802; 4: 37–38; RG 1, 49, John Wentworth to S. W. Prentice and John Henderson, 28 July 1792; Wentworth to George Pyke, 25 Nov. 1805; 51: ff.45–47; 52: 259–61; 53: 222–23, 458–61; 458, doc.1. PRO, CO 217/78: f.248. N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 21 June 1798. Perkins, Diary, 1766–80 (Innis); Diary, 1780–89 (Harvey and Fergusson); Diary, 1790–96 (Fergusson); Diary, 1797–1803 (Fergusson). Acadian Recorder, 26 Nov. 1814, 30 Dec. 1815, 14 Sept. 1822. Nova Scotia Royal Gazette, 12 Oct. 1784; 11 Jan. 1785; 16 Dec. 1794; 20 Sept. 1796; 12 Sept. 1797; 20 Sept. 1798; 21 March, 25 July 1805; 28 April, 7 July 1807; 20 Feb., 21 Nov. 1810. An almanack . . . calculated for the meridian of Halifax in Nova-Scotia . . . , comp. Theophrastus (Halifax), 1799. North British Soc., Annals of the North British Society, Halifax, Nova Scotia, with portraits and biographical notes, 1768–1903, comp. J. S. Macdonald ([3rd ed.], Halifax, 1905). Murdoch, Hist. of N.S., vol.3. J. R. Armstrong, “The Exchange Coffee House and St. John’s first club,” N.B. Hist. Soc., Coll., 3 (1907–14), no.7: 60–78.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

D. A. Sutherland, “FORSYTH, WILLIAM (d. 1814),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 22, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/forsyth_william_1814_5E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/forsyth_william_1814_5E.html
Author of Article: D. A. Sutherland
Title of Article: FORSYTH, WILLIAM (d. 1814)
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1983
Year of revision: 1983
Access Date: October 22, 2014