Joseph Cunard was born in Halifax as the son of Abraham Cunard and Margaret Murphy. They were parents to four sons and one daughter.
Joseph Cunard attended the Halifax Grammar School before joining his father’s business in the same city. Around 1820, Joseph and his brother Henry relocated to Chatham, situated on the Miramichi River, where they established a subsidiary of the family firm called Joseph Cunard and Company. Their older brother Samuel also became a partner in this branch. The company quickly acquired a wharf and a store, and before long, they were engaged in the lumber, milling, and shipping industries on the river’s south side.
In 1832, Joseph Cunard was regarded as one of the most affluent and influential merchants in the province. In Chatham, his company owned multiple mills, including a sizeable steam mill that commenced operations in 1836, capable of processing 40,000 feet of lumber daily. The firm also operated a brickworks, several stores, a counting house with 30 employees, and at least two shipyards in the same town. They built additional mills downstream and opened a store in Shippegan. In 1830, the company established stores in Kouchibouguac and Richibucto in Kent County. By 1841, William Raymond reported that he had conducted £100,000 worth of business with Cunard in Kouchibouguac, with about a third of the sum paid in ships. Cunard’s ventures in Kent County briefly made Richibucto the third largest shipping port in New Brunswick. In 1831, the firm acquired stores, houses, and other buildings in Bathurst and began shipping timber the following year. Bathurst’s lumber exports surged from 1,300 tons in 1829 to 26,500 tons in 1833.
Cunard’s shipbuilding endeavors were expansive. Between 1827 and 1838, numerous vessels were constructed for him, and by 1839, he owned two shipyards in Chatham. At least 43 ships were built there, including the Velocity, the first steamboat made on the Miramichi, launched in 1846. Cunard started building ships in Bathurst in 1839 and was the sole shipbuilder in the region from 1841 to 1847. He built at least 24 vessels in Bathurst between 1839 and 1847. Additionally, at his shipyards in Richibucto and Kouchibouguac, which began operations around 1840, he oversaw the construction of at least nine vessels between 1840 and 1847.
By 1841, Joseph’s brothers were no longer actively involved in the Miramichi firm, allowing him greater autonomy, although Samuel remained a partner until 1846 and continued to offer advice on various business ventures.
Joseph made Chatham his base and participated in local affairs and politics. He held positions as a justice of the peace, member and chairman of the Board of Health for Northumberland and Gloucester counties, and commissioner of lighthouses. In 1828, he was elected as an MHA for Northumberland County and held his seat until his appointment to the Legislative Council in 1833. From 1838 to 1846, he also served as a member of the Executive Council, though he wasn’t a prominent figure within the organization and rarely engaged in controversies. As chairman of the Board of Health, Cunard contributed to the establishment of a lazaret on Sheldrake Island in 1844. In 1848, he, along with other Board of Health members and lepers living on the island, opposed the local magistrate’s plan to relocate the quarantine station for arriving immigrants from Middle Island, which Cunard owned, to Sheldrake Island. Despite their opposition, the buildings were moved in 1848, but the government later decided to transfer the quarantine station to Chatham within the same year.
Joseph Cunard was an imposing figure, standing over six feet tall and weighing over 200 pounds. He enjoyed riding his horse through Chatham from his mills to his store or home and was often seen yelling instructions to his workers while on horseback. He arrived at church in a coach accompanied by footmen in livery. His grand home was extravagantly furnished, with peacocks roaming the grounds. For the opening of his steam mill in 1836, about 300 people were invited to a large banquet. After returning from trips to England, he was often welcomed in Chatham with cannon salutes and ringing church bells. Sometimes he would announce his arrival from Richibucto so that Chatham’s residents could prepare a fitting welcome. “He was loved and hated, admired and feared, brusque, good-hearted when he wanted to be, grasping, domineering – all the contradictory qualities that made up that hard, crude, lavish Miramichi life of a century ago.”
In 1839, Joseph Cunard accompanied his brother Samuel to England, where Samuel secured a contract to transport transatlantic mail via steamship. Although no evidence suggests Joseph participated in these negotiations, he received a triumphant reception upon returning to Chatham. The implications of steam power development on wooden ships and the Miramichi region’s prosperity were not yet understood.
Cunard had numerous adversaries in addition to admirers. When he first arrived in Chatham, he entered into a fierce rivalry with the already established firm of Gilmour, Rankin, and Company in the Miramichi area. One of their earliest disputes involved vast timber reserves on the northwest Miramichi and Nepisiguit rivers. As part of Thomas Baillie’s plans for timber industry development, Cunard was granted over 500 square miles of these valuable reserves between 1830 and 1832, contingent on his commitment to improve the streams by constructing sluices and clearing obstacles. No other firm showed interest in the area until Cunard demonstrated its profitability. When Cunard failed to fulfill the promised improvements, Alexander Rankin led an attack on his privileges. In 1833, under orders from the Colonial Office, Cunard was compelled to relinquish the reserves, marking his first defeat to the Rankin firm.
Disputes between Cunard and Rankin persisted over timber ownership, trespassing on mill reserves, and the election of assembly candidates. The rivalry was especially intense during the “fighting elections” of 1842-43 in Northumberland County, when Cunard supported John Thomas Williston, and Rankin endorsed John Ambrose Street. During these campaigns, crowds of 500-1,000 men clashed, and eventually, troops were dispatched to restore order. Street’s election marked another loss for Cunard.
Cunard’s recklessness and overextension of his resources consistently led to problems. In 1842, the Cunards faced bankruptcy, and the provincial government took action against Joseph Cunard to settle his accounts. The Executive Council formed a committee to investigate his debts, recommending that Cunard post £3,000 in bonds and release his previously seized timber. The committee also called for an inquiry into the actions of deputy surveyor Michael Carruthers, whose conduct seemed to harm Cunard’s business in favor of Gilmour, Rankin, and Company. Carruthers was eventually relocated out of the county. Despite overcoming these challenges, Cunard found himself unable to fulfill his obligations by 1847. Economic downturns, fierce competition from Gilmour, Rankin, and Company, and hasty expansion of his businesses all contributed to his downfall. In November 1847, he declared bankruptcy, sparking panic in Chatham, where hundreds relied on him for employment. An enraged mob confronted Cunard in the streets, shouting, “Shoot Cunard.” Armed with two pistols in his boots, Cunard stood firm, allegedly demanding, “Now show me the man who will shoot Cunard.” The crowd dispersed. Newspapers reported that between 500 and 1,000 people lost their jobs due to Cunard’s failure, with many leaving the area to seek work elsewhere. Several local firms also went bankrupt. While Cunard’s failure contributed to a prolonged downturn in Miramichi’s timber trade, shipbuilding experienced a resurgence and boom in the 1850s.
In 1849, Cunard left New Brunswick but soon returned in an unsuccessful attempt to settle his affairs. His debts were not resolved until 1871, with Samuel Cunard shouldering most of his brother’s burden. Joseph permanently left Chatham in 1850, relocating to Liverpool, England, where he entered the ship commission business as a partner in Cunard, Munn, and Company. In 1855, he formed a new company, Cunard, Brett, and Austin, which became Cunard, Wilson, and Company in 1857. These firms, operating on commission for colonial merchants and lumbermen, traded ships and lumber and procured goods. The latter firm remained in operation until Joseph’s death in 1865.
Cunard was a vivid character who significantly influenced the commercial activities of Northumberland, Restigouche, Kent, and Gloucester counties. His failure in the late 1840s had severe, long-lasting consequences for the region’s economy.
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