HYMAN, WILLIAM, exporter and politician; b. in 1807 in Russia; m. Amelia Hart, and they had five daughters and three sons; d. 8 Dec. 1882 in Montreal, Que.
William Hyman’s parents, who were of the Jewish faith, fled Russia at the beginning of the 19th century to escape Czarist oppression. They took refuge at Lódź, Poland, but their circumstances never improved and they both perished. In 1835 Hyman managed to get out of Poland with his young wife, Amelia Hart, and, attracted by its Jewish community, found asylum in Norwich, England. He entered the service of a jeweller named Hart, who sent him to New York in 1840 to represent his firm.
Hyman’s stay in the United States was brief; by 1843 he was living at Gaspé, Canada East, where he was developing an interest in the cod trade. It was not, however, until 1845 that he acquired from the Guernsey captain Francis Ahier his first fishing establishment, at Grande-Grève. At that time his immediate neighbour was Frederick Janvrin, who owned the largest fishing room on the Baie de Gaspé as well as several fishing posts on the north shore of the Gaspé. In 1855 Janvrin’s enterprises passed into the hands of the Jersey-based firm of William Fruing and Company, Hyman’s principal competitor for the rest of his life.
The large Jersey companies operating in the Gaspé sent agents there, but Hyman managed his business himself on the spot. It was not until 1875 that he officially gave his eldest son Isaac Elias responsibility for managing his establishments and renamed the firm William Hyman and Sons, while retaining until his death control of certain financial operations. From its beginnings in the 1840s, Hyman’s business experienced a steady and relatively rapid growth, considering the limited capital initially invested (£220). With the number of producers of dried cod increasing through the use of a credit system, he acquired fishing establishments, collecting posts, and warehouses in the major settlements of the Forillon peninsula and, farther away, on the north shore of the Gaspé. He exported more than 2,000 quintals of cod from the port of Gaspé in 1855 and 11,000 quintals in 1880. Hyman’s business ranked fourth in total exports from the port of Gaspé in the second half of the 19th century; it accounted for nearly 10 per cent of the shipments, a quantity half what his principal competitor, William Fruing and Company, exported, even though that firm had substantial capital at its disposal. At his death, Hyman bequeathed to his heirs a dock, storehouses and a warehouse at Gaspé, a hotel and several properties and mortgages in the Forillon peninsula region, and six fishing establishments – two at Grande-Grève, two at Rivière-au-Renaud, one at Cap-des-Rosiers, and one at Cap à l’Ours. He had also accumulated many securities in banks at Quebec City and Montreal, and owned a Montreal residence where he had spent the winters since 1874.
The major exporters in the Gaspé peninsula at that time were almost all Jersey islanders. They were the most important element in the economy of the cod trade. In fact, they were simultaneously financiers, brokers, exporters, ship-owners, and buyers of supplies in the Mediterranean. Hyman consequently depended on the Jersey men for the smooth operation of his business, whether for the financing of his cargoes, the supply of goods, or the sale of his produce. For the shipping and sale of his cod, he tried several times to get round the Jersey network by using agents at Halifax, N.S., or in Liverpool, but without success. However, the depositing of his capital in Canadian rather than European banks probably enabled him to come through the financial crisis that severely affected the Jersey companies from 1873. William Fruing and Company was unable to weather the storm and its holdings were finally acquired by William Hyman and Sons in 1918 and 1925.
Like the Jersey firms, the Hyman company based its power and wealth on the extension of both advances and credit to the fishermen. It not only exported cod but also imported the goods needed for the fishermen’s work and subsistence. From the outset, the establishment of a comprehensive credit system seemed desirable because of insufficient yield from the short fishing seasons and the special features of the production of dried cod which ensured that the fishermen would constantly turn to the company for supplies of salt, fishing tackle, and food. Thus indebtedness was integral to the way of life of Gaspé fishermen. The “committed” nature of their production guaranteed a regular supply of dried cod to companies such as William Hyman’s from the communities dependent upon the firm.
Brought to the fore by his position within the local society, Hyman was given various political and legal responsibilities. He was reeve in Cap-des-Rosiers Township from its formation in 1858 until 1882, the first Jew in Canada to hold such an office. In this capacity he promoted the installation of a telegraphic system, and then the building of the Cap Gaspé lighthouse which was completed in 1871. He also became a member of the county council (established in 1869), a justice of the peace, and a militia captain.
William Hyman’s death in 1882 coincided with the end of an era in which Jersey men ran the fisheries in the Gaspé. Four years later the powerful Paspébiac firm of Charles Robin and Company ran into serious financial difficulties and, with the turn of the century, the flow of Jersey capital to the Gaspé dried up. William Hyman’s business was able to adjust to the 20th century, thanks to his son Isaac Elias, who took it over, and to his grandson Percy, who ensured its continued existence until 1967.
David Hyman of Lahr, German Federal Republic, possesses private letterbooks of Isaac Elias Hyman, 1882–84, and letterbooks of William Hyman, 1864–66, 1874–77. Arch. de la Soc. hist. de la Gaspésie (Gaspé, Qué.), Livre des minutes de la municipalité de Cap-des-Rosiers, 1858–82. BE, Gaspé (Percé), Reg. B, 1, no.252; 2, no.159. PAC, RG 16, A2, 467. Canadian Jewish reference book and directory, 1963, comp. Eli Gottesman (Ottawa, 1963), 309. Sack, Hist. of the Jews in Canada (1945), 146. E. C. Woodley, “The Hymans of Gaspé,” Rev. d’hist. de la Gaspésie (Gaspé), 11 (1973): 74–78.