UNIACKE, RICHARD JOHN
Publication23 March 2023
Born Castletownroche, County Cork, Ireland, 1753. Died Mount Uniacke, Nova Scotia, Canada 1830.
Author: Mark McGowan
The Uniacke family were privileged members of the Protestant Ascendancy in 18th century Ireland. Long departed from Roman Catholicism, the family were scions of the Church of Ireland and held several estates in County Cork. Richard Uniacke studied law in Dublin, and much to his father Norman’s chagrin, engaged in popular politics, including support of Catholic emancipation. For reasons that are unclear, Richard suspended his legal studies and sought adventure in the American colonies, landing in Philadelphia in 1774. His new business partner was Swiss-born Moses Delesdernier, with whom he relocated to the Bay of Fundy, in present day New Brunswick, to establish a trading centre. There he married Delesdernier’s twelve-year old daughter, in 1775, and together they had twelve children, six boys and six girls.
With the eruption of the American Revolution, Uniacke became entangled in the Eddy Rebellion, which attempted to seize Fort Cumberland, Nova Scotia, from the British. The attack failed and Uniacke was taken prisoner and transported to Halifax as a traitor. Serendipitously, some well-connected Irishmen in the city manage to free him and he returned to Dublin to complete his legal studies. In 1781, he returned to Halifax, and was called to the Nova Scotia bar. Haligonian memories, however, were long and he was remembered as a “lubbery insolent Irish rebel,” a reputation that stuck to him, particularly as the colony filled with Loyalist refugees from the American Revolution, after the eventual British withdrawal from the Thirteen Colonies in 1784.
Undaunted, the Governor appointed this obviously talented legal mind as Solicitor-General for the colony in 1781, and Uniacke successfully stood for election to the Nova Scotia Legislative Assembly in 1783. In 1789, he led the pre-loyalist faction in the House and was elected speaker. Governor John Parr made him Advocate-General of the Vice-Admiralty Court, which would provide Uniacke with a steady and lucrative income. With the appointment of Loyalist Governor John Wentworth, Uniacke’s fortunes temporary floundered, particularly his ambition to be Attorney General for the colony. In 1793, he took time away from the legislature, as he fought to save his reputation against the Loyalists, and build one of the most successful law practices in Nova Scotia. When positions in the judiciary and Governor’s Council became available, Wentworth undercut Uniacke, explaining to the Under Secretary of the Colonies that “His conduct is dark and insidious, secretly connected with seditious purposes and giving advice against the service.” The Duke of Portland, the Home Secretary, thought otherwise and when the position of Attorney General became open again in 1797, Uniacke was promoted over Wentworth’s two recommended Loyalist candidates. One of the failed candidates assaulted Uniacke publicly with his fists and another challenged him to a duel.
Buoyed by this appointment, which he held until his death in 1830, Uniacke began a flurry of activity. In 1798 he was returned to the Assembly for King’s County and served as Speaker of the House from 1799 to his retirement in 1805. He complied Statutes Passed by the General Assembly held in Nova Scotia from 1758 to 1804 Inclusive (1805), which became a standard guide for the preparation of bills in the Assembly for nearly fifty years. As a legislator, he defended the establishment of the Church of England in the colony as an upholder of the moral order. Nevertheless, true to his early life in Dublin, he also championed a growing movement for Catholic emancipation in the colony, although he opposed giving “dissenting clergy,” particularly Presbyterians, further legal rights in the Province.
His most notable contribution to political life was his advocacy for free trade in the colonies, and his protest of Jay’s Treaty (1794) which gave British preferences to American ports, over those in the Atlantic colonies. In 1805, he headed a delegation to Westminster and argued effectively that the creation of free ports in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick would be a boon for the colonies and enhance the transatlantic trade triangle between Britain, the West Indies, and British North America. In 1808, because of Uniacke’s arguments, and the American embargo on British trade (Non-Intercourse Act), the ports of Saint John, Halifax, Shelburne, and eventually St. Andrews were declared custom-free ports, West Indian ports were given incentives to import fish from the Maritimes, and New England shippers could engage in illegal trade through Britain’s colonies. For Uniacke, economic independence of the colonies was concomitant to the gradual political autonomy of the colonies.
His growing fears of what he considered the democratic excesses, and the moral decadence of the United States, prompted him to propose a union of all the British North American colonies. He considered such a political union as the best defence against American ambitions, political, military, or economic. In 1821, his conception of a “confederation,” forty years before its time, won some traction among colonial leaders in the other colonies and was raised at Westminster. Although nothing came of the proposal, it is thought that a copy of his “Observations” may have landed in the hands of Lord Durham, the reform minded governor of the colonies in the late 1830s.
Uniacke’s role on the Vice-Admiralty court earned him a percentage of the assessed booty brought to Halifax by privateers. In a three-year span during the War of 1812, Uniacke earned £50,000. With this money, he built the palatial Mount Uniacke on a 11,000-acre estate outside of Halifax, near Lake Martha. Completed in 1815, the estate was reminiscent of his family’s “big house” in Ireland and was the focus of his family life. Uniacke was also active with the Charitable Irish Society, a philanthropic ecumenical Irish club, which he helped to establish in 1786. Despite the rebel leanings of his youth, he was also Lieutenant Colonel of the 8th Battalion, Halifax militia. When he died at Mount Uniacke in 1830, Uniacke would be remembered as a great legal mind, skilled politician, and loyal public servant to his adopted Nova Scotia. Like his fellow Irishmen John Parr and Richard Bulkeley, Uniacke did much to advance Nova Scotia’s development as a Province.
Brian C. Cuthbertson. “Uniacke, Richard John,” (1753-1830), Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6 (1821-1830). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.
Margaret Ells, “Governor Wentworth’s Patronage,” in G.W. Rawlyk, ed., Historical Essays on the Atlantic Provinces. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, Carleton Library Series #35, 1967): 61-81.
W.S MacNutt. The Atlantic Provinces: The Emergence of Colonial Society, 1712-1857. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1968.
Thomas H. Raddall. Halifax: Warden of the North. Halifax: Nimbus Publishing Ltd., 2010.