SLADE, JOHN, sea captain, shipowner, officeholder, and merchant; b. 1719 at Poole, England, one of eight children of John Slade, a mason, and his wife Ann; m. Martha Haitor (Hayter) and they had one son; d. 17 Feb. 1792 at Poole.
John Slade’s father was a man of modest means, leaving at his death in 1727 only a small plot of land with a tenement and a bequest of £10 to three sons – John, Robert, and Thomas. John, though orphaned at the age of eight, probably received some basic education in the Free School and an early apprenticeship as a mariner, for seafaring was the backbone of Poole’s economic life. Indeed it was during Slade’s childhood that Daniel Defoe visited Poole and in A tour through the whole island of Great Britain described it as the most considerable seaport in southern England. He further noted that the key to the town’s growth had been “ships fitted out every year to the Newfoundland fishery.” Yet in Defoe’s day Poole was but approaching its main period of expansion of trade with Newfoundland. In the early eighteenth century the trade consisted largely of seasonal migratory adventures, with fishing crews drawn from members of the ship’s company and divided into catching and curing crews during the summer months. Later the trade expanded rapidly and Poole merchants found it to their advantage to set up those of their servants who wished to settle in Newfoundland, and a trade based on the provisioning of these planters in return for their production of fish and other staples began to supersede the migratory fishery. It was during the years of dynamic growth and fundamental change that John Slade became involved. From the trade he amassed a respectable fortune, exerting in the process considerable economic and cultural influence upon the development of settlement in northeastern Newfoundland and Labrador.
The earliest known documentation of Slade’s maritime career is for the 1740s, when he captained several Poole merchant ships on voyages to the Channel Islands, the Mediterranean, Ireland, and Newfoundland. He made his first recorded visit to Newfoundland in 1748 as master of the trader Molly, a vessel he commanded until 1750, sailing between Poole, Newfoundland, Cork, and Lisbon. In 1750 alone, he completed three transatlantic crossings. At this time, he was apparently in the employ of Joseph White, a Poole Quaker, then the most substantial of the Poole-Newfoundland adventurers. In 1751 Slade took command of the 100-ton Dolphin, owned by William Kittier, and followed the familiar routes between Newfoundland, the Mediterranean salt fish markets, and Poole for another two years.
In 1753 Slade acquired ownership of his first ship, the 90-ton Little John, and struck out into the Newfoundland trade on his own account. This development was undoubtedly aided by some wealth acquired from his marriage to Martha Haitor, apparently the daughter of John Hayter, a Poole-Newfoundland merchant of a slightly earlier era. It was probably also through her inheritance that Slade advanced his social position in Poole and came to reside amongst the merchants of Thames Street (Spurriers, Lesters, and Westons) in a house that for decades afterwards was identified in Poole rate books as “Mr. Hayters tenement.”
Slade’s early experience in Newfoundland, especially with Kittier, had given him a thorough firsthand knowledge of an expanding frontier of English exploitation: the region to the north of Bonavista Bay, especially the large and varied Notre Dame Bay district. Up to 1728 the region had formed part of the French migratory fishery, which afterwards began to shift northward of Cape St John probably because of pilfering by the Beothuks and the northward thrust of the English, who were in the habit of overwintering and usurping the best fishing places. English migratory fishermen, mainly from Poole, first occupied the area between 1728 and 1732 and it became a regular resort after 1738. The territory not only added new inshore areas prolific in codfish but also provided in the numerous estuaries and river valleys at the bottom of Notre Dame Bay some of the finer timber stands, fur-hunting areas, and salmon runs on the island. Harbours such as Fogo and Twillingate, the first to be favoured by the English, were reliable ports from which to harvest both cod in the summer and harp seals in the winter and spring, and were convenient for strikes farther northwards, even to Labrador.
In the late 1750s John Slade was developing his trade in the northern regions in competition with other small shipowners and establishing a foothold within the ranks of the Poole-Newfoundland merchant community. He was one of 30 “principal merchants and traders” of Poole who in 1758 petitioned for the exemption of fishermen from naval service and for convoy protection of shipping between Poole, Newfoundland, and the fish markets. The Poole port books show that in 1759 he exported varied provisions to Newfoundland and imported train-oil (cod oil) and furs of beaver, fox, otter, and marten, as well as seal skins. Aggressive and persistent, by the 1760s Slade had expanded his business. Between 1764 and 1770 he owned and operated three to four ships (ranging between 40 and 80 tons and averaging 60) and deployed cod fishing crews in Twillingate, Fogo, and Tilting Harbour. Occasionally he ventured north of Cape St John, despite the injunction of Governor Hugh Palliser not to disturb the French fishery in this area. Although an intruder himself, in 1766 Slade even seized a fishing room at Fleur-de-Lys Harbour built by William Branscombe, a Devon ship’s captain, whom he undoubtedly regarded as an interloper. Towards the end of the Seven Years’ War other English traders had begun moving northward of Cape St John but only Slade persisted in this region beyond the period of the American revolution. Over the years he was to develop a significant and regular trade with planters there. To a far greater degree than most Poole traders, who concentrated on the cod fishery, Slade’s interest in Newfoundland was diversified and directed towards furs, salmon, and seals and in this regard he was a pioneer.
During the 1760s Slade also began trading on the Labrador coast. Governor Palliser was anxious to revive the fishery as a “nursery of seamen,” and in 1765 he encouraged English merchants to extend their activities to Labrador. Slade followed the other merchants including Jeremiah Coghlan of Bristol in partnership with Nicholas Darby of London, John Noble of Bristol and Andrew Pinson* of Dartmouth, and George Cartwright* of London, in establishing cod, seal, and salmon fisheries and a furring business there. Cartwright’s journal records Slade in Labrador with a winter sealing crew in 1771 and another Slade crew bound northward from Henley Harbour in September the following year.
John Slade divided his more active working years between his home port and his Newfoundland establishments, usually in a winter-summer cycle, but he occasionally overwintered on the island. His movements are well documented in the diaries of Isaac Lester, his next-door neighbour in Poole, and of Isaac’s brother Benjamin*. Their trading firm kept a keen eye on Slade’s business and Benjamin, though based in Trinity, had a close association with him in Newfoundland. The diaries document Slade’s migratory pattern until 1777 when he apparently gave it up in order to spend the rest of his life in Poole. He was then well enough established in Newfoundland to entrust the more vigorous aspects of business management to younger relatives.
By the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War Slade was firmly established at Twillingate, his main base, with a supply and staple collection system that served settlements and exploitation outposts throughout Notre Dame Bay and along the Labrador coast. Many of the migrant apprentices and indentured servants Slade recruited in Dorset and west Hampshire became planters once they had acquired the basic skills of fishermen, furriers, or sealers. Slade advanced supplies, food, clothing, and even servants to the planters mortgaged against their production, of cod, oil, and other staples. The planters thus became dependent on him for their continued existence, and Slade had an assured production unit when labour was scarce especially in war time, and increased his profits by acting as a retailer. Though the system was in use elsewhere, it was innovative in the area and the stability which it assured enabled Slade to resist incursions by the Lesters, whose main establishment from the 1760s was at Trinity. His shipping, though modest compared to the Lesters’ fleet of 15–20 vessels, now consisted of five ships between 30 and 120 tons, with an average of 93. The larger brigs plied the Atlantic; the schooners linked Twillingate and Slade’s various outports. Occasionally he sent a vessel to New York for foodstuffs.
In 1774 Slade had sought Isaac Lester’s help in securing an appointment as naval officer in Twillingate. He received the commission within five days, and was re-appointed the next year. Apparently this post was the only political office he sought or held. In Poole, apart from joining the conservative lobby of merchants led by the Lesters, Spurriers, and Westons in voicing opinions on Newfoundland affairs, he was not concerned with politics. Even in his active years, in Notre Dame Bay he was overshadowed by Jeremiah Coghlan at Fogo, the owner of eight to ten ships, who commanded significantly more economic and political influence.
The revolutionary years were difficult for Slade. American privateers plagued his ships and establishments. In August 1778 the privateer John Grimes captured one of his vessels at Charles Harbour in Labrador. Early the following spring another privateering vessel with only four guns ventured boldly into Twillingate, captured another of Slade’s ships laden with fish, broke open his stores, and distributed his goods to the “poor inhabitants of the place.” It next fell upon Slade’s Battle Harbour premises in Labrador and captured a sloop with 22 tons of seal oil and destroyed his goods. Natural hazards added to his problems. In the fall of 1775 he lost several vessels and ten fishing boats in a storm. His wharves in Fogo were destroyed in the fall of 1782 by a gale that also washed away his stages at Twillingate with some 800 quintals of cured fish. Wartime conditions in Poole made it difficult to recruit seamen and servants because of pressgangs and at one stage Slade was desperate enough to spirit away Lester’s men. In 1776 Isaac Lester noted, “John Slade our neighbour is mean enough to ship our people after they agreed with us, and conceal them. He or his son [in fact his nephew John] is at the door all day and watches to see who goes in and out of the house and nabs them and gets them into his house.” For all these reasons Slade’s trade suffered serious decline. In 1773 his tax rates in Poole were assessed at £3,000 annual trade; a decade later he was taxed on half that amount.
It was natural that Slade’s only son, John Haitor, should have been earmarked to succeed him. When he was 15 years old he began accompanying his father on the annual trip to Newfoundland, and within a few years acted in the absence of his father as chief agent in Twillingate. In 1773, however, he died of smallpox. Slade’s attention now focussed on his nephews. Several, including John, David, Robert, and Thomas, had had considerable experience with him in Newfoundland as mariners and ships’ captains. According to Isaac Lester, he took John Slade, eldest son of his brother Robert, into his household in 1776 and had also contemplated adopting a boy he had fathered reputedly by a Twillingate planter’s wife. From 1777 to 1792 Slade’s nephew, now called John Slade Jr, was chief Newfoundland agent of John Slade and Company and in 1793 became its Poole-based principal. David Slade assisted as company factor in Twillingate, Thomas Slade commanded ships, and Robert Slade took major responsibility for Labrador operations.
This placement of his nephews proved prudent for after 1783 Slade’s trade yielded the most profitable returns of his career. When Coghlan’s failed in 1782 Slade opened a second major establishment in Fogo. His firm was not without competition on the northeast coast until he died, but it was the only major resident firm. In his will he divided equally among his four nephews and cousin, George Nickleson Allen, his “fishing rooms, plantations, warehouses, stages, Salmon Brooks, Sealing Ports . . . in Newfoundland and on the coast of Labrador . . . with all my boats and crafts and all my goods and property there” and “all my ships and vessels.” He owned six ships between 60 and 150 tons, averaging 90 tons, and trading establishments in Fogo, Twillingate, Change Island, Conche, and Wester Head in Newfoundland and in Battle Harbour, Hawke’s Port, Hawkes Bay, Lewis Bay, Matthews Cove, Caribou Tickle, and Guy’s Cove in Labrador.
Slade’s trading system fostered migration from Poole and Dorset and the growth of permanent settlement in Newfoundland. The surnames of many of those who live in the Twillingate-Fogo region today are those of the settlers he recruited. The most important aspect of his Newfoundland career was thus the initiation in this area of the transition from the migratory fishery to permanent residency; his heirs and their successors were to further it. As Chief Justice John Reeves* stressed in 1793: “The merchants . . . were and still are the chief encouragers of residency.” In fact, only those merchants having a regular supply trade with planters survived for long in any district. The perseverance of Bideford and Barnstaple merchants in the ancient migratory mode has been given as the main reason these ports were driven out of the Newfoundland fishery. The inhabitant fishery secured for men such as Slade their major source of marketable staples during war, and if they survived they were in a better position to expand in peace-time.
The ledgers of John Slade and Company from 1783 onwards show that under the credit or truck system the firm was annually staking the ventures of some 90–100 planters in northeastern Newfoundland and employed 150–200 servants directly. In 1787–88 Slade collected from them some 2, 200 seal skins, 200 tierces of salmon, 400 bundles of hoops, 32 tons of seal oil, 2,000 gallons of train-oil, 3,000 quintals of fish, 24,000 wooden staves, 15,000 feet of board, 32 sets of oars, 30 pounds of beaver skins, 25 furs (fox, otter, and marten), and sundry smaller items. Slade was also closely associated in trade with independent frontiersmen such as John Peyton*, Henry Miller, William Hooper, and William Cull*, who as salmon fishermen and furriers were drawn into contact and conflict with the dwindling remnants of the ill-fated Beothuks.
There was little that Slade did in Newfoundland for which one could not find contemporary parallels or earlier precedents. He was one of a set of adventurers, who closely copied one another’s successful innovations and changing emphases in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage. Contending for the same resources, supplies, and markets, they hated one another, but they formed a closely knit community for common interests and survival. Slade’s distinction lies in his persistence and his continuity of effort; his single-minded attention to business was undoubtedly the reason his firm survived when Coghlan’s failed in 1782. At his death in 1792 his estate was estimated, perhaps conservatively, at £70,000, earned, as the Western Flying Post; or, Sherborne and Yeovil Mercury reported, from “many years extensive and lucrative trade to Newfoundland and Labrador.” Through his heirs his firm continued to be a major economic and social force in northeastern Newfoundland and Labrador until the 1860s, when it was sold out of the family.
Dorset Record Office (Dorchester, Eng.), D365/F2-F10; P227/OV1. Maritime History Group Archives, Memorial University of Nfld. (St John’s), Hayter name file; G. N. Horvath, “Social and economic background of Fogo Island as interpreted from the Slade Fogo ledgers, 1783–1792” (typescript, 1973); John Slade name file. PANL, GN 2/1, v.4, 6 (1766, 1769, 1774–75); Slade & Sons, Fogo, Ledgers, 1782–84, 1784–86, 1787–88, 1789–92. Private archives, H. Johnstone (Poole, Eng.), Peter Thomson, Diary, 1762. PRO, Adm. 7/87; BT 6/87, pp.2, 84; CO 194/21, 30; E 190; Prob.11, 1239/618.
George Cartwright, A journal of transactions and events, during a residence of nearly sixteen years on the coast of Labrador . . . (3v., Newark, Eng., 1792), 11, 361–62, 459–60. Daniel Defoe, A tour through the whole island of Great Britain, abridged and ed. Pat Rogers (Harmondsworth, Eng., and Baltimore, Md., 1971), 206. “The third report from the committee appointed to enquire into the state of the trade to Newfoundland,” G.B., House of Commons, Reports from committees of the House of Commons (16v., London, 1803–20), X, 470. London Chronicle, 24 June 1782. Western Flying Post; or, Sherborne and Yeovil Mercury (Sherborne, Eng.), 27 Feb. 1792. Register book of shipping (London), 1741–75. C. G. Head, Eighteenth century Newfoundland: a geographer’s perspective (Toronto, 1976), 57. J. P. Howley, The Beothucks or Red Indians: the aboriginal inhabitants of Newfoundland (Cambridge, Eng., 1915; repr. Toronto, 1974). Prowse, History of Nfld. B. C. Short, Poole: the romance of its later history (London and Aylesbury, Eng., 1932), 155.