MacBRAIRE, JAMES, agent, merchant, army and militia officer, office holder, and jp; b. 1757 in Londonderry (Northern Ireland); m. 29 March 1792 Elizabeth Bower in Bristol, England, and they had one son; he also had an illegitimate son with Mary Herald of Harbour Grace, Nfld; d. 24 March 1832 in Berwick-upon-Tweed, England.
Remembered mainly as a successful merchant and probably the greatest philanthropist of his generation in Newfoundland, James MacBraire was in his day distinguished for the unusual combination of attributes he demonstrated. He joined philanthropy and a genuine concern for the poor (especially the Irish poor) with a marked ability to win the trust of the island’s officials and a genius for staying outside the political and social squabbles which affected Newfoundland during the first 30 years of the 19th century. In addition, he was a keen and grasping merchant who probably took out more writs for debt against the fishermen and small tradesmen with whom he dealt than any other merchant of his day. He thus died both rich and generally esteemed by all classes, proving that a Newfoundland merchant could be at once successful and popular. Few have managed to emulate him since.
During his lifetime MacBraire seemed to cultivate a certain mystery about his origins and early life, which were not typical of the average man of his class. His place of birth was singular, for northern Ireland had limited connections with the Newfoundland fisheries. MacBraire liked to be regarded as one who had risen from humble origins, although this picture may not be completely accurate. He apparently enlisted in the British army at the age of 18 and served for five years during the American Revolutionary War before being discharged as a sergeant in 1780. He was then evidently apprenticed as a clerk to the firm of William Danson and Company of Bristol, which traded to Harbour Grace. MacBraire is said to have remained in their employ until 1786, when he purchased property in Harbour Grace. This story may be true, but if it is MacBraire did not acquire any immediate fortune or prominence. It is significant that when his name appears in records it is not as an independent merchant or trader but as the Newfoundland agent for the Bristol firm of Joseph Bower and Company.
On 29 March 1792 MacBraire married Elizabeth, only daughter of Joseph Bower; her father died shortly thereafter. Bower’s son James should have been the principal inheritor of the fortune, but for some reason Elizabeth received the entire estate, which consisted mainly of vessels and a property in Harbour Grace. Almost certainly, therefore, MacBraire, far from acquiring wealth painfully, had acted in a traditional way by marrying his employer’s daughter. There remains one mystery about MacBraire’s early life, namely how in those localized and class-ridden times a poor young sergeant from Londonderry could have secured promising employment from a Bristol firm engaged in the Newfoundland trade. The one possible clue is the marriage in 1765 of a man named Macbraire, partner in an ironmonger’s business, to a considerable heiress of Bristol. It is likely that this man was a kinsman of MacBraire and that his influence obtained James his entry into the commercial world of Newfoundland.
Whatever the true story, by 1793 MacBraire was established in a promising situation, but his prospects were probably comparatively modest. The Bower inheritance gave him a moderate capital and a small but solid trade in and around Harbour Grace. The area was relatively heavily populated, and thus the production of fish and the demand for supplies were substantial. For those reasons, however, competition was strong, probably more so than in any other part of Newfoundland, and chances for expansion were fairly slight. Moreover, the death of his father-in-law had left MacBraire without an “English house” essential in many aspects of the trade and placed him at a grave disadvantage when compared with other Conception Bay merchants. The most successful merchants of MacBraire’s era did at least one but preferably all of three things: establish themselves in St John’s, where communications with the outside world were far superior and trade could be carried on throughout Newfoundland; open up a business in some area of new settlement where the population was growing fast and established traders were either absent or slow to expand; and create through kinship or partnership a firm or branch in the United Kingdom, where the possibilities for international trading could be maximized.
MacBraire did all three, and by the time he left Newfoundland in 1817 he had amassed a fortune of some £80,000. He found a base in the United Kingdom by entering into partnership with the firm of James Henderson and Company of Falkirk, Scotland. Just how MacBraire and Henderson met is not known, but Henderson’s was a firm of shipowners and traders that apparently had vessels in the Newfoundland trade from the 1780s. Details of the partnership, which proved profitable for both parties, are unclear. However, there are indications that it began around 1796, and the partners certainly owned deep-sea vessels in the Newfoundland trade both jointly and separately. Probably the partnership affected only MacBraire’s import and export trade and not his dealings in Newfoundland.
In 1795 MacBraire had been commissioned a captain in Thomas Skinner*’s Royal Newfoundland Fencible Regiment. Two years later he moved to St John’s. He did not, apparently, begin by opening a fishery trade, but instead obtained an appointment as commissary to the naval hospital, a profitable but restricted position. In 1798 he brought his wife out from England and began to purchase property in and around St John’s. His timing was excellent, for that year the Newfoundland trade was greatly depressed by the closure of almost all European markets, and many traders and merchants were insolvent. Soon MacBraire had purchased a wharf and store and he rapidly became an important merchant in the St John’s region.
MacBraire’s last and most successful step came around 1806 when he established a branch of his firm in Kings Cove, Bonavista Bay. To manage the business he brought out a fellow Irishman, Michael Murphy, who turned out to be a singularly able and trustworthy agent. Bonavista Bay had been fished and settled by Englishmen since the 17th century, but until the American revolution the population was confined mainly to Bonavista, Greenspond, and Salvage, and the inhabitants were supplied by the traders of Trinity in Trinity Bay. By 1806 the population of Bonavista Bay was increasing rapidly and many new coves and islands were being settled. MacBraire was able to tap this promising area by creating a permanent and year-round business at Kings Cove, and as the settlement grew his trade was bound to follow suit.
Bonavista Bay provided more than codfish, for it was a prime sealing area and possessed good quantities of prime timber which proved excellent for shipbuilding. By 1810 MacBraire’s shipwrights had constructed ten vessels weighing between 30 and 140 tons, and in 1812 his production of codfish reached 15,000 quintals. From Kings Cove, MacBraire increasingly competed with the merchants of Fogo and Twillingate in supplying the trappers and fishermen of the Bay of Exploits region. By 1808 he had entered the Gander Bay salmon fishery.
Kings Cove eventually proved to be MacBraire’s most profitable and longest-lived business enterprise, but he seems hardly ever to have gone there, preferring the amenities of St John’s. Between 1800 and 1804 he had disposed of his interests and trade in Harbour Grace, but he restlessly extended his fishery dealings down the Southern Shore and, by 1810, into Placentia Bay. By 1809 the insured value of MacBraire’s premises in St John’s was the third highest in the town. He had clearly established himself as one of the community’s leading merchants and citizens, and this success inevitably propelled him into its social life.
MacBraire does not seem to have been active in any of the political or social squabbles that engaged the attention of most of the St John’s élite during this period, and his equable character and obvious business acumen evidently won him the trust and regard of his fellow residents. Instead of quarrelling he used his energies and position constructively. In 1807 he played a leading part in the formation of the Society of Merchants, the forerunner of the present-day Board of Trade, and was elected its president, a position he held for most years until his departure from the island. MacBraire’s work with the society brought him great esteem and recognition, but his role in the formation and development of the Benevolent Irish Society earned him the greatest applause and subsequent fame. By 1806 emigration to Newfoundland was building up rapidly, especially from southern Ireland, and much of this migration was into the larger centres such as St John’s, which saw its population double in less than 20 years. The town was without a system of poor relief and was overcrowded and poverty stricken, especially in the months between February and May when the landless poor, unemployed and with their earnings of the previous summer expended, faced acute distress and even starvation.
In this situation the more prosperous Irish residents combined to found the Benevolent Irish Society in 1806. Although the society was cordially supported by most of the middle-class Irish (and indeed in its early days by many English merchants and tradesmen), its creation and early leadership depended mainly upon Captain William Haly, a garrison officer, and MacBraire. Both were Protestant, but ecumenism flourished in Newfoundland during this era, and their work in the creation of the society was met with esteem and enthusiasm from all classes. In 1811 MacBraire assumed the presidency of the society from Haly, and in 1819 he was elected “perpetual president.” Although there should be no disparagement of the real benevolence which MacBraire displayed in the society and in general (for example, in the distresses of 1817 he donated far more free meals to the poor than any other individual), his generosity did him no harm in his commercial dealings, which were overwhelmingly with Irish fishermen. His charity seems to have outweighed the effects of his hard commercial attitude towards the fishermen and his penchant for obtaining writs and foreclosing on mortgages in cases of debt.
In 1812 MacBraire was involved in his one disagreement with the authorities. It was a personal rather than a political matter. The outbreak of war with the United States caused Governor Sir John Thomas Duckworth* to reactivate a local militia in the form of the St John’s Volunteer Rangers. As the most prominent merchant in the town and commander of the unit’s predecessor, the Loyal Volunteers of St John’s, MacBraire was asked to lead the rangers as captain commandant. Feeling no doubt that he deserved advancement from a rank he had already held, he demanded the grade of major. A temporary compromise was arranged and in 1813 the promotion came through.
By 1815, although he may not have realized it, MacBraire’s greatest days were coming to an end. His business flourished and he continued as the acknowledged leader of St John’s society, a position rounded out by his appointment that year as a justice of the peace for the town. This nomination was more unusual than might appear, for he was the only person not a government official to be appointed. The same year he served as an Anglican churchwarden. In 1817 MacBraire reached the age of 60. Although he had passed many winters in the United Kingdom, he had spent far more time in Newfoundland than most men of his wealth and prominence, and like them had always planned to retire and enjoy his declining years on an estate in the old country. On 10 July his partnership with James Henderson was dissolved, and he sailed for Scotland to the thunderous applause and tributes of St John’s, and above all of the Irish community, which remembered him annually at the St Patrick’s Day dinner.
After leaving Newfoundland, MacBraire leased out his St John’s premises but retained and even expanded his business in Kings Cove. During the 1820s that trade produced 16–20,000 quintals of fish and 4–8,000 seals annually. By 1827 he had taken his old agent, Michael Murphy, into partnership. MacBraire played no part in the agitation for representative government during the 1820s but in 1830 was elected to serve on a committee of prominent Britons who presented a petition in favour of political reform to the home government. By then, however, his life was nearly over. In August 1831 Murphy died in Kings Cove, and the following March, MacBraire himself died. He thus passed from the scene before the British government permanently changed the Newfoundland he had known by introducing representative government. One doubts if he was upset at missing the innovation; charity not politics, and business not rhetoric, seem to have been his principles.
The Kings Cove business passed to his son John Joseph, who declined to visit Newfoundland and left the concern in the hands of an agent. John Joseph was no businessman and by the time he died in 1839 the trade was a shadow of its former self. The property was left vacant until 1845, when a son of Michael Murphy took it over for his own use.
Professor Matthews died during the editing of the volume and did not leave a bibliography for the article. The dcb/dbc is grateful for the assistance of two members of the staff of Memorial Univ. of Nfld. (St John’s), Roberta Thomas of the Maritime History Group and Professor John Mannion of the Department of Geography, in providing citations from which to construct a bibliography.
Hunt, Roope & Co. (London), Robert Newman & Co., journal, August 1796 (mfm. at Maritime Hist. Arch., Memorial Univ. of Nfld.). Maritime Hist. Arch., Conception Bay plantation books, 1804, 1806 (copies); MacBraire name file. PANL, GN 2/1/A, 13–15, 17, 19–21, 24; GN 5/1/B, Harbour Grace records, 1798, 1790, 1793, 1795; GN 5/2/A/1, 1798–1800, 1802–4, 1807–8; GN 5/2/B, 1827; James MacBraire file, box 1096; P1/5; P3/B/22. Phoenix Assurance Company Ltd. (London), Jenkin Jones, report to Matthew Wilson on St John’s, 6 June 1809 (photocopy at PANL). PRO, ADM 50/111; BT 107 (copies at Maritime Hist. Arch.); CO 33/18, 33/23; CO 194/47, 194/54, 194/56; CO 199/18; WO 12/11020–23; WO 17/240. St Paul’s Anglican Church (Harbour Grace, Nfld.), Conception Bay mission, reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 7 Jan. 1778 (mfm. at PANL). Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal (Bristol, Eng.), 25 May 1765. Lloyd’s List (London), 1810. Newfoundland Mercantile Journal, 7 March, 11 April, 6, 8 June 1817; 25 Feb. 1819. Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser, 17 Feb. 1811; June 1813; 16 March, 31 Aug. 1815; 4, 17 March, 1, 8, 18 July 1817; 21 Sept. 1830; 16 Aug., 15 Nov. 1831; 1 May, 26 June 1832. The register of shipping (London), 1806–10. Centenary volume, Benevolent Irish Society of St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1806–1906 (Cork, [Republic of Ire., 1906?]). C. R. Fay, Life and labour in Newfoundland (Toronto, 1956), 168. J. W. McGrath, “James MacBraire, merchant and pioneer, 1795–1840,” Winning entries in the Newfoundland government sponsored competition for the encouragement of arts and letters, etc., 1970 (St. John’s, ). Prowse, Hist. of Nfld. (1895), 383.
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Cite This Article
Keith Matthews, “MacBRAIRE, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 8, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macbraire_james_6E.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:||Keith Matthews|
|Title of Article:||MacBRAIRE, JAMES|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1987|
|Year of revision:||1987|
|Access Date:||June 8, 2023|