HOMER, JOHN, ship’s captain, merchant, politician, and author; b. 3 Sept. 1781 in Barrington, N.S., son of Joseph Homer and Mary Atwood; m. first 1812 Elizabeth B. White, and they had three sons; m. secondly 21 July 1823 Nancy Crocker, a widow, in Halifax, and they had two sons and two daughters; d. 3 March 1836 in Halifax.
John Homer’s grandfather was a Boston merchant who established himself in Barrington at the beginning of the American revolution. His father, Joseph, was for more than 20 years clerk and bookkeeper to John Sargent*, another Barrington merchant. Like many other boys living on the coast of Nova Scotia, John went to sea. When he was 17 he took up residence in the United States and “to answer Commercial purposes became a Citizen of that Country.” In 1814, because of the war between Britain and the United States, he took the oath of allegiance to George III, erected a house in Barrington, and moved his family there.
After the end of the war in 1815 Homer and other Nova Sçotians carried cargoes of fish to the West Indies, invested the proceeds in produce, sailed to the United States, where they purchased flour and breadstuffs, and then returned home. When Nova Scotia–registered vessels were banned from American ports in September 1818, Homer “went in vessels belonging to Boston, ostensibly as pilot, but in reality as master.” In five years he made about 50 voyages, carrying from “three to thirty thousand dollars” each time to pay for flour and other goods in the United States. He also traded to Holland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
On 6 July 1826 Homer was elected to the House of Assembly from Barrington Township. There were no organized political parties when Homer sat in the assembly, but he was generally in the minority when votes were taken. For instance, in 1829 he was one of only 10 members who voted to rescind the resolution to imprison assemblyman John Alexander Barry*, and in 1834 he was among the minority who voted for an elected Council. In the latter year, during the debate on the size of the civil list, Homer stated that “it had been published that he said he would vote against every thing – he would vote against every thing that was wrong, and he would certainly vote against making any additions to the Civil List whatever.” “Was it consistent with justice and human rights,” he asked, “that any one man should receive 69 times as much in a public office as a labouring man could earn?”
Homer was most active in the fisheries committee, where he served from 1827 to 1835. The high cost of outfitting fishing expeditions was a constant complaint and, as member for a township where almost the entire male population was employed in the fishery, shipping, or shipbuilding, Homer advocated that the provincial government pay generous bounties on salt, fish, and the tonnage of vessels. He and other representatives from fishing regions were able to have bills passed for that purpose, only to see them defeated in the Council, which was more interested in exports than in the fishery. In 1828, however, a compromise was reached when the legislature appropriated £15,000 to pay bounties on dried codfish of a merchantable quality for export and on every ton of registered shipping owned in Nova Scotia and employed in the bank, sea, or Labrador fishery.
In 1833 the fisheries committee recommended that £12,000 be set aside to aid the fisheries for three more years, but the report was not adopted. The following year masters of vessels in the Labrador fishery from Barrington asked for a bounty “to encourage our Fishermen to make their voyages from their own homes in our own vessels” rather than in American ones. As chairman of the fisheries committee, Homer pointed out that the American government paid a bounty of four dollars per ton and noted that many fishermen from Barrington and Argyle were working on vessels owned in Eastport, Maine. He asked that a tonnage bounty be paid to offset the American one, and also requested that a bounty be paid to those who took “mackerel with the hook, between Cape Sable and Cape Canso.” The assembly agreed to grant a tonnage bounty for three years, but the bill was rejected by the Council, and aid to the mackerel fishery was not approved in the assembly.
Homer was not only involved in political efforts on behalf of the fishery. The Halifax and Barrington Fishing Association was founded by him and operated for several years with three vessels. Although the schooner Betsey’s voyages made some profit, there were unexpectedly large losses in the business as a whole. At a meeting of the shareholders in Halifax in February 1835, Homer declared that the association was “a ruinous concern,” and the shareholders resolved to sell the vessels and any other property at public auction.
Homer represented a constituency where the fishing interest was paramount, but he was “a warm friend to the agricultural interest,” served on the agricultural committee of the assembly from 1829 to 1835, and was president of the Barrington Agricultural Society, founded in 1831. In 1834 he published in Halifax A brief sketch of the present state of the province of Nova-Scotia, with a project offered for its relief. In it he urged the protection of Nova Scotian farmers by means similar to the corn laws of England: a ban on the importation of American flour, government aid to encourage oat and flour mills, and a central granary at Halifax where local flour could be inspected, packed, and distributed. These measures would, he claimed, also be of tremendous assistance to the fishermen because they would stop “the constant drain upon our specie to purchase flour and meal from the United States.”
Homer died of pulmonary disease while the legislature was in session, and the Council and assembly prorogued to attend his funeral on 5 March 1836. His tombstone in St Paul’s cemetery declares that as an assemblyman he had “honestly and Steadely Advocated the rights of the people.” The Acadian Recorder paid tribute to his “frank sincerity of character [and] unvarying independence of conduct,” while Alexander Lawson* of the Yarmouth Herald and Western Advertiser stated that “his abilities were always assiduously and earnestly directed to what he conceived to be objects of advantage to his native land.”
In his will, Homer left half his estate to his sons by his first marriage and half to his wife. Unfortunately, he died insolvent, with debts totalling £1,238. The inventory of the estate indicates that Homer possessed more lavish furnishings than were usually associated with a fisherman or trader, for there was a considerable amount of mahogany furniture, china, glass, silver, and books, among the last being works by Adam Smith, Joseph Addison, and Sir Walter Scott. His widow was allowed to keep some furniture and utensils necessary for herself and her four young children, but the rest was sold.
PANS, MG 3, 1873; RG 1, 227, docs.20–21; RG 5, P, 42, 1834; 121–22; RG 14, 58, no.61. St Paul’s Anglican Church (Halifax), Reg. of marriages, 21 July 1823; reg. of burials, 5 March 1836 (mfm. at PANS). “Barrington, Nova Scotia, vital records,” ed. A. A. Doane, Mayflower Descendants (Boston), 8 (1906): 140. N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 1826–36. Acadian Recorder, 11 Nov. 1820, 7 Feb. 1835, 5 March 1836. Novascotian, or Colonial Herald, 11 March, 1, 29 April, 17 June 1830; 8, 16 Feb., 29 March 1832; 27 Feb., 10, 17, 24 April, 4, 11, 25 Dec. 1834; 3 March 1836. Yarmouth Herald and Western Advertiser (Yarmouth, N.S.), 12, 18 March 1836. Directory of N.S. MLAs. Edwin Crowell, A history of Barrington Township and vicinity . . . 1604–1870 (Yarmouth, ; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1973), 293, 298–99, 311, 418–20, 492–93. A. A. Lomas, “The industrial development of Nova Scotia, 1830–1854” (ma thesis, Dalhousie Univ., Halifax, 1950), c.4. W. G. Crowell, “John Homer, M.L.A., of Barrington,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 32 (1959): 31–54.