The merchant has always been treated as one of the villains in Newfoundland history. A contrast has been drawn between the honest, patient, hard-working fishermen and the greedy, sly and unscrupulous merchant who supplied him with goods and took of his fish; indeed, at various times the merchant has been blamed for just about every bad thing which has happened to Newfoundland with the possible exception of the weather.
Our contemporary dislike of merchants was shared by many who lived two hundred years ago, and their opponents ranged far beyond the ranks of the fishermen with whom they dealt. A man of education and high social rank but apparently little money in Poole described the Newfoundland merchants in the 1760's as being "infamously intent on Trade, proud of their quick raised fortune, unsociable amongst themselves and envious of any success that strangers who settle among them meet with; so that it is not exceeding the bounds of charity to say of them that they are very little influenced either by principles of religion or morality."
They were heartily disliked by leading English politicians and administrators of the day who saw them as greedy, narrow and intent only upon their own interests as opposed to national ones William Pitt the Younger found the Newfoundland merchants "a very discontented body of men who did not fail to misrepresent any action of government which went contrary to their desires."
In the early nineteenth century, educated visitors to Newfoundland saw them as monopolists who, through their absolute control over the fishery, made vast and rapid fortunes at the expense of the fishermen, while as the campaign for local self-government grew in the 1920's Patrick Morris - himself a merchant - and his fellow propagandists saw the old West Country merchants as mainly responsible for the "retardation" of colonial development. It is true that he and his neighbours tried to distinguish between the old merchants who were different, but the attempt failed and from that time onwards merchants as a class have been thought of as inherently selfish - perhaps almost inherently evil.
Not surprisingly, the merchants did not see themselves like this at all. They seldom bothered to argue about it in public, and perhaps being powerful and essential to the fishery they did not need to. However, if we look at such things as the tributes they paid to dead colleagues we can obtain some idea of their principles and aims (however far short they fell as individuals). They stressed honesty, diligence and application to ones's trade, thrift and, perhaps surprisingly, charity to the poor. Thus the epitaph to John Masters of Poole who died in 1755 talked of his "sincerity to his friends, liberality to the poor and general benevolence to all mankind" which rendered him universally esteemed; Pat Ryan of Ross in Ireland (died in 1814) was praised for being a liberal benefactor to the poor. One suspects that the merchants many have overestimated the extent of their charity for certainly John Masters had a reputation for hardness in his dealings beyond even the normal merchants of his day. Whatever they were like as benefactors to the poor, they mainly saw themselves as hard-working, practical men of affairs who alone sustained the fishery and population of Newfoundland in the face ignorance on the part of the fishermen and foolishness on the part of the government, which they saw as very prone to interfere in the fishery by making laws that would lead to the downfall of the trade. Witness the statement of John Jeffrey, a merchant at Trinity, in 1792:
...there is no species of speculation so precarious or full of danger to those who have not been properly trained to it. It is the stationary merchant only who is able to follow out his pursuits, neither elated by temporary success nor depressed by partial disappointment... The merchants are, generally speaking, men of such stirling honour, liberality, and conscientious principle as any professional may boast, [but a Newfoundland merchant could only survive by practising] the closest application and the most rigid economy.
We thus see a very wide gap between the merchants' view of themselves and that generally taken by their fellow men. This was not surprising for the merchants obviously saw themselves in perpetual danger of becoming bankrupt unless they acted with thrift and prudence, while outsiders saw only the apparent results of that thrift and prudence upon the rest of society without appreciating the reasons for it. Thus, in a sense, we cannot say whether the merchants or their opponents had a truer or fairer view of their character, but it does seem that the arguments against them have been overstated. John Reeves, the first chief justice of Newfoundland, and no great admirer of any sort of merchant, gradually changed his mind as he learned about the fishery.
I went to Newfoundland with strong prejudices against the merchants upon the score of their conduct towards the fishermen, but what I have seen upon the spot has rather induced me to doubt than to strengthen that prejudice. The merchant's hazardous property depend not only upon the success of the fishing season but upon the integrity of the fisherman. If the season is bad, then the fisherman's necessity is more pressing than his obligation to pay the merchant in which case he sells his catch to other merchants, and his supplier is irrevocably the sufferer.
Thus, if the merchant did appear grasping and hard towards the fishermen, the latter were not blameless either.
In one sense what really matters now is not whether they were good or bad, but why they were talked about so much. The answer to that is simple: good or bad, settlement and fishing in Newfoundland depended absolutely upon the existence of merchants who alone possessed the money and shipping to import supplies and export fish. Without them the fishery must die, and the inhabitants starve. If they had not been so important they would not have been so controversial.
Is it possible now to define the merchants as a class, separate and distinct from other groups in Newfoundland? There are many problems for there were many sorts of merchants. Their role changed greatly between 1600 and 1830 and the smallest merchants - called dealers - by 1800 were often planters or fishermen as well. However, it is possible to define a fish merchant proper as he was in the early years of the nineteenth century. He was a man who owned his own seagoing vessels and possessed the capacity to import goods into his own stores in Newfoundland, and to export fish directly to the market abroad. This type were the prototype of the Water Street merchants of the nineteenth and early twentieth century and although, like all men, they differed as individuals, they seem to have generally possessed a certain common outlook on life.
To begin with, they were socially and politically conservative, fearful of change and often looking backwards to some golden age when things were better than they seemed at the present. They were genuine free traders, competitive, independent - not to say paranoid and suspicious of the activities of their fellow merchants - and hostile to the idea of government legislation in the fisheries. The attitude of the Devonshire merchants in 1620 that "they now know how to manage their affairs well enough and are totally unwilling to be told by others" still held good in 1820. They were extremely hard-working personally and expected their servants and planters to be the same; they both practised and expected thrift, sobriety and laid great stress upon personal honesty in their dealings with others. "A man's word is his bond." They saw themselves as realists, stoical in the face of good and bad fortune alike; in practise they were very fearful men, constantly wondering what the future might bring and they intensely disliked speculators - gamblers who could upset the precarious balance of the fishery by crazy and impulsive actions.
This combination of attitudes is not so much good or bad in itself. It all depends upon the viewpoint of the critic. They are not particularly attractive virtues to modern society, which prefers kindness, humanitarian concern and gentleness and a much wider interest in the affairs and needs of other people. But our present society is very different from that of the pre-industrial, early nineteenth century, and to judge men of that age by our present morality is pointless. What we must do is rather to try to see why the merchants possessed this sort of mentality. If we examine the nature of their business, their outlook becomes perfectly explicable. To begin with, they were engaged in a fishery - one of the most unpredictable and dangerous occupations in the world. The West Country merchant in 1800 had to start spending money and planning the season's trade in January. He laid out large sums by purchasing goods from England, Portugal, Canada or the United States; he had to buy and repair his ships and hire and advance wages to his seamen and the fishermen who were coming out to work for the planters. In May his store in Newfoundland would have to advance these supplies out on credit to the fishermen - all this before he even knew what the fishery was going to be like, let alone whether the markets abroad would pay a profit.
A million and one factors could ruin a voyage; the fishery might be a failure; the weather might be bad for curing the fish; ships might be lost or delayed even in peacetime; and when the fish finally arrived at the foreign markets, they might prove to be worse than expected and the merchant would not only fail to make a profit, but might even make a loss on the sale. We must remember that in those days there were no telephones, steam ships or cables and communications between Newfoundland and Europe were, at the very least, three weeks in either direction. Thus the merchant could never be sure as to the actual state of his business once he had dispatched his vessels from England in February or March. What news he received was always weeks, or sometimes months, old and yet he had to do the best he could. He was at the mercy of the agents, ships' captains and planters he employed, depending upon their own capacity and honesty as well as the general success of the fishery. A bad agent especially could ruin a merchant in one or two fishing seasons. In wartime, of course, the problems and dangers became enormously worse. The merchant no less than the fishermen was trapped by the credit system of supply. The fishermen might go into debt in bad times, but the merchant who had supplied him also had to find the money to pay those who had supplied him with the goods and provisions. Prudence and thrift in good years, which resulted in the building of capital reserves, could be expected to tide both the merchant and the indebted fishermen over the bad year, but a continuation of bad seasons must in the end ruin the merchant. Indeed this happened increasingly after 1780 as the population grew and each merchant dealt with an increasing number of fishermen and their families. In 1784 one individual gave a list of the forty-four firms which controlled the fishery. By 1810 only thirteen of them survived - the vast majority of the others had become insolvent. And over the next forty years almost all the others gradually followed suit. Not one of those firms could be numbered among the Water Street giants of the nineteenth century and only one, the incredibly well-managed firm of Newman and Company, survived intact into this century.
The fish merchants of old are a dying breed now. Modern technology and the impact of Confederation has destroyed both the system of life and the fishing upon which they depended. Even now the Water Street merchants are talked of as holding great power in our province. This may or may not be so, but they have nothing in common with the fish merchants of old. Dry goods stores and finance houses have nothing in common with the speculative fisheries and their owners and managers would not dream of taking the risks of the old fish merchants. This was inevitable and foreseen in 1850 when the principals of Newman's wrote to their agent in Harbour Breton:
Remember, we are not in Newfoundland to buy fish but to sell goods.
Now at last the merchants can sell goods for money instead of fish. It is infinitely safer and more profitable.
table of contents.