MILLS, Edward (1696-1733)
Manuscript letterbook and financial accounts ledger of a Boston merchant and factor in the Newfoundland cod fishery
Boston and Placentia, Newfoundland: 1731-1732. Folio. Written recto and verso on approx. 90 leaves, plus blanks. With approx. 30 leaves of unrelated accounts dated 1827-1831. Some dampstaining and some leaves detached, but legible throughout.
Contemporary vellum. Housed in a cloth box.
A primary source for the study of American activity in the Newfoundland cod fishery in the early British period.
"Because of its splendid natural harbour, extensive anchorage, and spacious beach for drying cod, Great Placentia was the major centre for the ship fishery on the south coast. It had been since the sixteenth century when the French Basques established a huge dry fishery there. They were succeeded by the English after 1713" (Mannion). Much of the cod fishery was operated seasonally by West Country or Scottish migratory fleets. The ships would rent beach and warehouse space from the few resident "planters" -- year-round landowners and boatkeepers -- cure their fish on site before returning to Europe. Often, the larger vessels sold passage to Newfoundland to "byeboatmen" who operated smaller boats owned by masters (non-landowning merchants) in shallow waters, selling their catch to larger processors. "American trading vessels appeared at Newfoundland as early as the 1640s, and were regular visitors to the fishery by the 1670s. But throughout the 17th century the Americans had traded on a speculative basis. In the 18th century, the Americans became much more organized, with factors residing year-round, in charge of permanent warehouses. This enabled them to sell goods all year round, wholesale and retail. They received in exchange cash - though this was extremely rare - or bills of exchange. If bills were not available, the factor might accept refuse cod for sale in the West Indies. The fish could be exchanged there for bills of exchange, a return cargo, or a combination of both. This kind of trade was extremely important for the Americans, and their trade with Newfoundland grew steadily. Twenty American vessels were counted in 1721; in 1748 the number was 95" (The English Fishery and Trade in the 18th Century" https://www.heritage.nf.ca).
The present manuscript letterbook and accounts ledger belonged to one such Yankee merchant and factor, named Edward Mills. The ledger includes Mills's retained copies of approximately 130 letters written between 31 December 1731 and 14 November 1732, with the vast majority being written from Placentia, Newfoundland. Among his correspondents would appear to be his principal investor, Henry Hope. Hope, a Rotterdam merchant who had nearly lost everything in the wild speculation involving John Law and the Mississippi Bubble, came to Boston to rebuild his wealth. His son of the same name would eventually return to Europe, founding Hope & Co., among the most successful banks of the second half of the 18th century, establishing the Hope family as among the wealthiest in Europe (and eventually including ownership of the eponymous Hope diamond).
Of particular interest among the letters is a lengthy 25 September letter to Hope, recording a financial disaster. A ship filled with provisions, presumably outfitted by Hope, had arrived at Placentia after the fleet had left for the season; and without goods to trade, the promise of a large order of cod was withdrawn. Furthermore, a violent storm had hit Placentia and "all the boats belonging to this harbour were lost & ours among the rest" which in turn had caused a major "defficiency of fish." An agreement over the promise of fish from a Mr. Marshall had fallen through, "saying you had used him ill & therefore would not take your credit ... [Marshall] concluded by saying he would hinder you by all means from getting a load ... I cannot purchase Fish either on bill or otherwise. Certain it is a man's credit must be good when his warehouses are full of merchandise & a number of his owners's ships in port..." Mills' own losses were considerable, resulting in his being unable to return to Boston that winter, resigning himself to stay at Placentia, writing an unnamed "Madame" on 14 November 1732, "I am grown so melancholly that you would scarce know either my person or conversation. I am fully resolved to contract my affairs, if God gives me life, & be with you early next year..." Mills would die in Placentia the following year, evidently not making it through the winter to the next season.
Besides the letterbook, the ledger contains a journal with daily entries of Mills's voyage from Boston to Placentia, a list of "servants engaged in our fishery at Laperche" with their wages, a "list of ships in my service for the winter and ensuing summer", detailed statistics on Placentia and the fishery (including numbers of ships with types and nationalities, numbers of passengers, quintalls of fish caught, the number of inhabitants of dwellings in Placentia, etc.) and nearly 100 pages of accounts, detailing goods purchased and sold to numerous ships and sailors during the 1732 season, including rum, sugar, bacon, spices, chocolate, and general wares. Among the accounts are those belonging to David Power, Michael Boudett (who would appear to have been a business partner with Mills, operating at Boudett Mills & Co.), William Franklyn, Edward Tyer, Samuel Gledhill and many more. The organization of the accounts is somewhat haphazard, and this volume was evidently one of a series of ledgers belonging to Mills, this being the "supplemental ledger."
An incredible primary source on an American merchant in the Newfoundland cod fishery in the early 18th century.
John Mannion, "Population and Economy: Geographical Perspectives on Newfoundland in 1732" in Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, Vol. 28, No. 2 (2013).