BLACK, WILLIAM, shipper, merchant, and office-holder; b. 1771 in Aberdeen, Scotland; m. Jane Billopp, and they had five children; d. 18 June 1866 in Fredericton, N.B.
William Black spent his early life in Aberdeen where he took an arts degree at Marischal College. In 1798 he immigrated to Saint John, N.B., to join his brother John*, who had already established a prosperous shipping and timber export business, John Black and Company. In 1808 John Black moved to Halifax, leaving the New Brunswick branch of the firm in William’s hands. By 1812 it dominated Saint John’s timber trade. Aside from developing their own fleet of ships, the Blacks established branches of the firm at Fredericton, St Andrews, Montreal, and on the Miramichi River. This commercial circuit was closed by their contacts in the West Indies and at Aberdeen and Greenock in Scotland, and by their position as the principal New Brunswick supplier of masts to the British Admiralty. By 1812 they possessed one of the largest business enterprises in British North America. The brothers Black further strengthened their position in the loyalist-dominated society of Saint John by their marriages to the daughters of Christopher Billopp, a leading loyalist businessman and member of the Council of New Brunswick.
Doubtless this combination of circumstances led to William Black’s appointment to the Council in 1817; Lieutenant Governor George Stracy Smyth* was adding new members to that body to reduce the influence of the executive and judicial officers of government in it. The decade following his appointment was an uneventful period for the Saint John businessman, highlighted only by the succession crisis of 1823 following Smyth’s death when Black joined with another councillor in supporting Billopp’s unsuccessful claims to the presidency of the Council and to the right to administer in the absence of a governor. His political fortunes rose sharply in the years following the arrival of Lieutenant Governor Sir Howard Douglas, who appointed Black to the mayoralty of Saint John in 1828 over the opposition of several members of the city’s Common Council. The following year Douglas returned to England on leave of absence, and the Colonial Office proscription against the holding of executive posts by members of the judiciary cleared the way for Black’s appointment to the presidency of the Council over the heads of two Supreme Court judges.
Black’s two-year administration of New Brunswick during Douglas’ absence was clouded by conflict. The assembly and the Colonial Office were involved in discussions concerning the control of crown lands and the disposition of the customs revenue in the province [see E. B. Chandler*]. At the same time, the Council itself was divided about giving support to the controversial commissioner of crown lands and surveyor general, Thomas Baillie. Black’s reactions to these problems reveal a Briton whose metropolitan loyalties had been tempered by his experiences as a Saint John businessman. He consistently upheld the constitutional prerogatives of the imperial government, and displayed a profound mistrust of both the legal establishment represented in the Council and the movement towards local autonomy and popular sovereignty within the assembly. Thus he supported Baillie against his loyalist enemies in the Council, advocated the removal of the puisne judges of the Supreme Court from the Council, and condemned as “sweeping and extravagant” the demands of the assembly that it should control the casual revenues of the province. But if Black was prepared to acknowledge the constitutional sovereignty of the British government, he was equally prepared to argue that this authority should never be used to the economic detriment of the colony. In 1829, in the face of British disapproval, he strongly defended the colonial bounty on wheat grown in New Brunswick on the grounds that it was necessary to assist the development of a viable milling industry in Saint John, and the following year he led the provincial assault on the British government’s proposed reduction of tariffs on imports of foreign wood products into Great Britain.
Black surrendered the administration of the province on the arrival of the new lieutenant governor, Sir Archibald Campbell*, on 8 Sept. 1831. He had little influence with Campbell and his successors. One of his last major functions as administrator had been to make recommendations to the Colonial Office regarding the creation of separate Legislative and Executive councils; in the subsequent reorganization in 1832 he was relegated to the Legislative Council. He served as president of that body from 1843 until his death in 1866, though he rarely presided in the last decade of his life. During these years he was twice appointed mayor of Saint John, in 1832–33 and again from 1840 until 1843.
William Black was a Conservative, a Scottish Episcopalian, and a founder and leading member of the St Andrew’s Society of Saint John. He had evidently withdrawn from direct management of his trading activities in the 1820s, though he had large holdings in the city for many years afterward, and may have continued to invest in many of the shipping and financial enterprises of the 1830s and 1840s. Neither of his sons followed him into business.
[Unfortunately there remains little documentation relating to Black’s early business activities. The best sources for his political life are PRO, CO 188/39, 188/41; N.B., Council, Journals, 1817–29; and Legislative Council, Journals, 1832–66. There are also scattered references to the Black family in the Saint John newspapers of the early 19th century; Common Clerk’s Office, Saint John, N.B., Common Council of Saint John, minutes, 1828–33, 1840–43; and City and County of Saint John, Court of Probate, Records, book D, pp.146–55; E, pp.84–85 (mfm. at PANB). The principal secondary sources include Hannay, History of N.B.; I. A. Jack, History of St. Andrew’s Society of St. John, N.B., Canada, 1798 to 1903 (Saint John, N.B., 1903); MacNutt, New Brunswick; and D. S. Macmillan, “The ‘new men’ in action: Scottish mercantile and shipping operations in the North American colonies, 1760–1825,” Canadian business history, selected studies, 1497–1971, ed. D. S. Macmillan (Toronto, 1972), 44–103. t.w.a.]