OUGIER, PETER, ship’s captain and merchant; d. July 1803 in Dartmouth, England.
Some men are remembered because of their personal qualities, and others for their roles in great events. Still others are remembered merely because they happen to be mentioned in easily accessible documents and can be used as examples of the thought or groupings of their time. Peter Ougier falls into the last category. The West Country merchant is a prominent villain in the historical mythology of Newfoundland, and it fell to Ougier to appear as a witness at a well-known parliamentary inquiry into the Newfoundland trade in 1792–93. He was voluble, emphatic, and reactionary, and, in addition, the evidence of the inquiry was published in three reports. Thus whenever historians wanted a live West Country merchant, they reached for Ougier or two of the other merchants who appeared and presented them shining before the world.
It is perhaps a mistake to see Ougier as typical of the merchants of his day, although his trading methods and general outlook were much the same as those of his fellows. The merchants were fearful of change, and especially of government intervention in the affairs of Newfoundland; Ougier was, if anything, more reactionary than his colleagues. The merchants were generally pessimistic about the future of the fishery and their fortunes; Ougier was even more so. It might be said that, like a tradesman’s son at a 19th-century English public school, he embraced the philosophy of his class by personal choice rather than by heredity, which would explain his fervent identification with its traditional approach to life. There are certain features of his career which lend support to this theory. To begin with, he was probably not a West Country man; his father was likely a Guernsey ship’s captain who traded coastwise and to the Caribbean, Virginia, and the Carolinas, but never to Newfoundland. Ougier himself stated that he entered the Newfoundland trade from the port of Dartmouth around 1760 and that he remained constantly in it thereafter, but the available facts do not seem to bear this claim out. His first recorded appearance was in 1769, when he commanded a merchant vessel owned by Arthur French of Dartmouth which went to Newfoundland not to fish, but merely to carry fish to a Mediterranean market. In 1771 he temporarily gave up his connection with Dartmouth to command ships owned in London, and these vessels were by no means “constant traders” to Newfoundland as he claimed. Thus his early experience was in command of shipping, and not with the techniques and organization of the fishery. However, in 1775 he suddenly entered the Newfoundland fishery on his own account and in an unusually substantial way, for he purchased a plantation at Bay Bulls and began trading with no fewer than three ships. One can only surmise that he had received an inheritance, for this scale of operation was not made possible by the savings (legal or otherwise) of a merchant ship’s master in the 1770s.
Ougier was probably therefore of a type which he himself was to condemn heavily in 1792, the “New Adventurer” or speculator. By entering into a trade of which he knew little, Ougier would claim, the speculator overturned the careful balance of competition between those already in the trade, and thus ruined himself and everyone else as well. Ougier’s career, however, contradicted his forecasts for the “New Adventurer,” since he prospered so well that by 1788 he owned eight ships, had expanded his trade into St John’s, and gave employment to between 600 and 800 fishermen and seamen annually. He had also purchased an estate near Dartmouth for 5,000 guineas, and was renowned for his liberality to his friends. Even more surprisingly, he had somehow persuaded the clannish Dartmouth merchants to accept him as their leader and spokesman in a campaign to remove the “oppressions and vexations” of recent legislation such as Palliser’s Act of 1775 [see Sir Hugh Palliser*] and allow them to return to the good old days in Newfoundland when laws were few (and easily broken), lawyers non-existent, and relationships between all classes of men supremely happy. Ougier’s first venture into lobbying came between 1783 and 1786, when he firmly assured the British government that any restoration of trade and contact between Newfoundland and the new United States would inevitably lead to the speedy collapse of the fishery. The government was only partly impressed, intercourse was allowed, and Ougier and the rest of the merchants continued to prosper, so much so that by 1787 they were demanding that the government be more liberal in granting licences for trade with the United States.
By 1790, however, Ougier was much more alarmed at the prospects for the fishery. The postwar boom had collapsed because of overfishing and an overextension of trade, and widespread mercantile failures had ensued. The litigation caused by these failures led to the breakdown of the legal system in Newfoundland, and thus to yet more government intervention in the shape of a bill in 1791 to create a court of civil jurisdiction [see Mark Milbanke] and another to improve the regulation of the fishery. The merchants became hysterical; they saw the legislation as the cause of the depression, and in a carefully coordinated campaign that involved every port in Great Britain active in the Newfoundland trade, they forced the government to hold a parliamentary inquiry in 1792–93 into the state of the trade. A host of official and mercantile witnesses including Aaron Graham, George Cartwright, Sir Hugh Palliser, and John Waldron attended, the three leading merchants being John Jeffrey of Poole (former partner of Thomas Street) and William Newman (cousin of Robert Newman) and Ougier of Dartmouth. Ougier vied with Newman in the violence (and incoherence) of his arguments against existing and proposed legislation, but the government was not impressed. Although the regulating bill was abandoned, Palliser’s Act, the so-called Amending Act of 1786, which made minor changes to the previous act, and the judicial measures stood intact. Ougier and Newman repeated their prediction that the trade would collapse overnight; the government disagreed. The parliamentary committee issued a report that contained no recommendations whatsoever, and by the time it was published war with France had driven the problem out of everyone’s mind.
Ougier and his fellow merchants had overstated their case, and by incoherence and repeated exaggeration had bored the government into complete antagonism. However, their predictions that the fishery was doomed did have some validity. The Newfoundland trade suffered some very serious moments during the French revolutionary wars, but soon recovered. The trade as carried on from Dartmouth did not. By 1800 severe losses had sent many of its merchants into bankruptcy, and Ougier himself could operate only two ships. Ougier also suffered a personal disappointment. His first son, Benedict, had died at the age of ten, and his surviving son, Peter, betrayed no interest in the Newfoundland trade. He in fact reverted to the ancestral instincts of his Channel Island forebears, becoming a fairly successful privateer captain. Taken prisoner himself, on his release he settled in London.
In the absence of personal correspondence or ledgers we do not know precisely why Ougier became seriously worried about his business affairs. But he was a gloomy man at heart. In the period between 1793 and 1802 he had seen other Dartmouth merchants become insolvent and drop out of the trade; moreover, like others he found himself facing a growing list of bad debts. One may imagine that in July 1803 he could also no longer bear the thought of renewed war with France and the danger to his business, which in any case would not be taken over by his son. In a moment of depression over what he supposed was his bankruptcy he committed suicide. Generous to the last, his fellow citizens gave him a Christian burial. His affairs were left in such a state that the final dividend to his creditors was not paid until 1813. But, sad irony, they were paid 19s. ld. in the pound. Poor Ougier had probably never been bankrupt at all.
BL, Add. mss 37219. Devon Record Office, 2992A; 2993A. Hunt, Roope & Co. (London), Robert Newman & Co., ledgers and letterbooks (mfm. at PANL). PANL, GN 2/1. PRO, ADM 1/471–76; ADM 7/154–55; 7/317–19; BT 1; BT 5; BT 6/86–87; BT 98/3–17; CO 194; CO 324/7; CUST 65; E 190; HCA 26. Lloyd’s Evening Post and British Chronicle (London). Lloyd’s List. St. James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post (London). Sherborne Mercury or the Weekly Magazine (Sherborne, Eng. ). Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, or Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser (Exeter, Eng.). Reg. of shipping. Keith Matthews, Lectures on the history of Newfoundland: 1500–1830 (St John’s, 1973). Prowse, Hist. of Nfld. Keith Matthews, “Historical fence building: a critique of the historiography of Newfoundland,” Newfoundland Quarterly (St John’s), 74 (1978–79), no.1: 21–30.