SABATIER, WILLIAM, office holder, merchant, jp, and lobbyist; baptized 10 May 1753 in London, son of Jean Sabatier and Susanne Pouget; m. 26 Oct. 1785 in Halifax Margaret (Peggy) Hutchinson; they had no children; d. 22 Sept. 1826 in Devonport (Plymouth), England.
In 1817 Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay*], then lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, said of William Sabatier: “I think him very intelligent, inquisitive, and instructing on the history and commerce of this part of the New World. Here [in Halifax] he is considered a meddling ‘Busy Body’ in all concerns whether public or private.” The subject of this assessment, a “tall, rather coarse featured, and deeply pock-marked” individual, had been born into the family of a Huguenot silk weaver. As a young man, Sabatier immigrated to Maryland, where he combined trade with commercial farming. Following the outbreak of the American revolution, he took refuge as a loyalist in New York City and secured employment with the British commissariat. Official duties brought him to Halifax in the early 1780s and he returned in 1785, establishing himself as a dealer in whale oil, the raw material being supplied by fishermen recently removed from Nantucket Island, Mass., to Dartmouth, N.S., thanks to encouragement from Governor John Parr*. That same year, he married the 19-year-old daughter of a local lawyer and former high office holder in colonial Massachusetts. Sabatier remained on the move over the next few years, spending time at Philadelphia, New York, and London, before settling down in Halifax at the end of the 1790s. By this time, the provincial whale fishery had collapsed, leaving Sabatier with no explicit occupation, but the income from British investments, combined with local family connections, assured him a position of prominence within the loyalist-dominated oligarchy taking shape in Halifax during the ascendancy of Lieutenant Governor John Wentworth*.
After 1800, Sabatier’s business interests were concentrated on real estate. Acting in partnership with his brother-in-law, Foster Hutchinson Jr, he acquired 8,000 acres, including Joseph Scott*’s estate, at the head of Bedford Basin, where he built an impressive summer residence out of Norwegian oak and took up farming, experimenting with such crops as hemp and fruit. As well, Sabatier joined a number of Halifax notables who in 1803 obtained a crown land grant of some 8,500 acres on the St Marys River, territory rich in timber and with potential for settlement. Official influence further assisted Sabatier in the accumulation of public offices: trustee of the Halifax Grammar School in 1802, justice of the. peace and chairman of the Halifax Poor House Commission in 1803, and sheriff of Halifax County in 1814. Sabatier also sought election to the House of Assembly in 1811, but lost out to more popular members of the oligarchy.
The most prominent aspect of Sabatier’s Nova Scotian career involved his participation in the Halifax Committee of Trade. Organized in 1804 as the executive arm of the larger Halifax Commercial Society (later known as the Society for the Encouragement of Trade, Agriculture and the Fisheries), the committee functioned continuously over the next 15 years, lobbying on behalf of the local merchant community. Sabatier’s familiarity with business and official circles in London, as well as his personal withdrawal from trade (obviating any conflict of interest), were qualifications which enabled him to secure election as chairman of the committee. He retained the position throughout his remaining years in Nova Scotia.
Sabatier’s committee was dedicated to the promotion of colonial resource development, within an orthodox mercantilist design. British North America, its members claimed, had immense potential which could be realized if Britain would just secure local merchants from foreign competition. Exclude Americans from the northern cod fishery and from the West Indies carrying trade and, the committee predicted, British North America would rapidly become a new New England, acting as a supply base and market for imperial interests. Corollary measures sought by the committee included the establishment of protected markets in Britain for colonial produce, permission to exploit Nova Scotian coal deposits, the relaxation of restraints on colonial trade with Europe, the incorporation of a bank in Halifax, and aid in construction of a canal linking Halifax with the Bay of Fundy. The committee’s case, reiterated in petition after petition, was gathered together by Sabatier into a 75-page pamphlet entitled A letter to the Right Honorable Frederick J. Robinson . . . on the subject of the proposed duties on colonial timber, which he published privately in London in 1821, three years after his return to Britain.
The Committee of Trade often played a controversial role in provincial public affairs. Although no one disagreed with the broad outline of the merchants’ development program, many did question it in terms of detail and priority. Most notably, farm spokesmen demanded tariffs to curtail the entry of cheap American foodstuffs into Nova Scotia. Merchant opinion opposed such tariffs, arguing that the effect would be to increase costs in the fishery, thereby compromising provincial efforts to capture the British Caribbean market. Controversy also erupted over committee initiatives toward the suppression of smuggling, the introduction of fish bounties, the appointment of a provincial agent in Britain, and the establishment of a chartered bank. Alignments often became obscure, but basically the committee found itself embroiled in the underlying conflict of interests between Halifax and the outport settlements. Sabatier possessed enough diplomacy to maintain generally friendly relations with the assembly and, from time to time, he secured grants to assist with the committee’s work. Privately, however, he denounced the assemblymen for being “narrow, contracted, unsteady and selfish.” Moreover, he castigated the mass of farmers, who dominated the electorate, as being “the most prejudiced of human beings.”
These local quarrels ultimately proved to be of less significance than the opposition which the Committee of Trade encountered in London. Mercantilist assumptions fell rapidly out of favour in post-Napoleonic Britain. After 1815 the committee was on the defensive and found itself either overruled or ignored. That ineffectualness, combined with the onset of hard times and Sabatier’s removal, probably accounts for the committee’s collapse about 1820. Within the context of metropolitan society, Sabatier had become an anachronism by the time of his death. His ideals persisted, however, within the Halifax merchant community. These colonial entrepreneurs remained defiant opponents of free trade into the 1850s. Thus, in the end, Sabatier, the expatriate “Busy Body,” embodied values that were quintessentially Haligonian.
William Sabatier is the author of A treatise on poverty, its consequences, and the remedy (London, 1797) and A letter to the Right Honorable Frederick J. Robinson . . . on the subject of the proposed duties on colonial timber, and on some other colonial subjects . . . (London, 1821); the anonymously published Hints toward promoting the health and cleanliness of the city of New-York (New York, 1802) has been attributed to him.
Halifax County Registry of Deeds (Halifax), Deeds, 35: f.684; 36: f.179. PANS, MG 1, 1845, no.5; RG 1, 172: ff.122, 131; 173: f.274; 224, no.154; 225, no.20; 226, nos.74–75, 79; 287, no.171; 288, nos.55–56; 303, nos.68, 73; 304, nos.14, 61, 66, 79; RG 32, 135, 26 Oct. 1785. PRO, CO 217/79: 217, 243; 217/84:57, 144, 146; 217/88: 3; 217/91: 141. N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 1790, 1803. Acadian Recorder, 11 Nov. 1815, 28 Feb. 1818, 21 Aug. 1819, 25 Nov. 1826. Nova-Scotia Royal Gazette, 21 Feb. 1786, 17 Aug. 1790, 16 April 1799, 9 Feb. 1804, 11–18 Sept. 1811, 6 May 1812. Weekly Chronicle, 15 Feb. 1811. Murdoch, Hist. of N.S., 3: 172. G. F. Butler, “The early organisation and influence of Halifax merchants,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 25 (1942): 1–16. C. B. Fergusson, “William Sabatier – public spirited citizen or meddling busybody,” N.S. Hist. Quarterly, 5: (1975): 203–30. N.S., Provincial Museum and Science Library, Report (Halifax), 1934–35: 43.