Joseph Robley’s journey to wealth and power in Tobago

Dr Rita Pemberton.  -
Dr Rita Pemberton. -

DR RITA PEMBERTON

Joseph Robley, the planter who first introduced the breadfruit to Tobago was a prominent figure on the island and a very interesting and controversial character.

He propelled himself from a position of clerk in the Navy office to become a wealthy planter/ merchant, famous entrepreneur, influential political figure and, on three occasions acting governor of the island.

Born in Cumberland, England, he was the son of Reverent Isaac Robley and, at age 18, he travelled to the Caribbean. He first worked as an admiralty clerk in the Navy Office in Dominica for almost eight years before entering the sugar plantation business in Tobago.

On February 28, 1768, Robley, then aged 25, boarded the Tobago Planter in London and sailed to Tobago. He arrived with £1700, significantly less than the minimum £5000 pounds required to establish a sugar estate on the island, but how this naval clerk was able to amass the required sum to purchase, establish and operate a large estate, remains a mystery.

Once established in Tobago, Robley became a dominant plantation owner and politician.

He was the original purchaser of Lots number 40 of 60 acres on June 5, 1770 in the parish of St Patrick of the Sandy Bay division, and three years later he acquired Lots 30, 31 and 33 each of 100 acres, from their original purchasers.

Lot numbers 30, 31, 33 and 40 were merged to form Golden Grove Estate and he later acquired Friendship and Cove estates and interests in a number of others. The labour force on his estates, which totalled about 900 enslaved Africans, was worth £45,000 by 1804.

Attempts to diversify

Robley’s initial thrust into sugar cultivation was abandoned when the crop was destroyed by a pestilence of ants in 1775. Efforts at crop diversification with turmeric cultivation failed and cotton cultivation was substituted. Between 1789 and 1792, the cotton produced on his estates was reputed to be of the finest quality.

After the rise in sugar prices in 1791, his estates, powered by six windmills, were converted to sugar cultivation. Robley became a wealthy planter, which some ascribed to his “industry and frugality.”

Robley was also a merchant. He owned two ships, the Phoenix and the Laird, which were used to export his produce, import items for his estates and generate significant profits by sales to and conducting business for, other estates on the island.

His trading efforts were supported by his nephew John Robley, who owned six ships which plied between Britain and the Caribbean, who became his produce marketing agent in Britain and Europe and managed his affairs in Britain.

Robley became a member of the island’s council in the 1770s where he quickly established himself as a man of influence and, in 1793, he was appointed its president. Thus, he was an important figure in both the politics and economics of the island.

Praised for bringing breadfruit to Tobago

Robley was hailed in botanic and scientific circles in Britain for the introduction of breadfruit on the island and his associates lauded him for the conditions under which his enslaved population lived and worked.

The breadfruit was introduced to Tobago by Englishman Joseph Robley -

He was praised for allowing them to grind corn for their food in the wind and water powered mills on his estates, a pattern which was followed by other plantation owners on the island.

It was also said that there were no signs of whipping or other forms of punishment on his estates which matched the conditions of enslaved workers on the estates of Sir William Young in Tobago and St Vincent.

However, no mention was made of the draconian laws Robley piloted in council to punish enslaved rebels and crush resistance on the island and that, like Sir William Young, he was anti abolition.

He was a part of the strategy to undermine the efforts of the abolitionists by supporting the activity of religious bodies, among the enslaved population, to work and present a picture of contented workers on the island.

It is to be noted that Young, whose estates in Tobago were heavily indebted to Robley, held him in high disdain. Also excluded, were the many complaints of some planters about the excessive charges imposed by Robley to whom they became heavily indebted.

Accused of impropriety, suspended from council

From 1794 to 1795, Robley enjoyed almost complete control of the affairs of the colony while acting as governor. However, the new governor William Lindsay, who was not comfortable with the influence he wielded, complained to the Colonial officials that Robley was not fit to govern and his power needed to be curbed.

Robley was accused of impropriety for using his position to the financial advantage of his nephew John Robley. When the office of Collector of Customs became vacant, the position was offered to an individual on condition that half of the pay was given to his family.

In 1795 to1796, Lindsay suspended Robley from council and, as a result, his replacement James Campbell was appointed to act as governor from 1796 to 1797.

Appointed again to act as governor

After he fell ill in 1796, he was on his way to Boston in America to recuperate when, his ship was seized by a French privateer and taken to Guadeloupe where he was imprisoned for three months. Eventually, the British secretary of state secured his release and he returned to Tobago.

In 1798 he was restored to the Council as its president, and as trade picked up his fortunes increased. Robley received official favour once more, and between 1798 and 1800 was again appointed acting governor until the arrival of Governor Masters in January 1800.

On Master's untimely death he served as governor for a second term of nearly two years until Tobago was returned to France.

During this time he was commended by the secretary of state, the council and the assembly for his "wisdom and firmness" and he was presented with 100 guineas in recognition of his guidance in 1794-95 and for "the able and upright manner in which he governed this colony 1798-1800."

In 1802, in an unusual development, rather than the usual half pay remuneration, the secretary of state decided to pay him the full salary of £2000 per annum as the governor in respect of the periods that he had been in office.

Robley dies leaving estate valued £200,000

In 1803 during a trip to England, one of Robley’s ships and two others which he chartered were captured by four French merchantmen in the Caribbean. Despite his letter to the secretary of state and written intercessions of his nephew John, the Court of the Admiralty found that the vessels were “lawful prizes,” a judgement which cost him losses amounting to nearly £40,000.

Robley died in 1805 leaving an estate valued at £200,000, and he left £3000 each to his two nephews George and Joseph Robley and nine nieces among his other legacies to people in Britain.

Interestingly, and to the surprise of many, Robley also left a legacy to a Frenchman, Mons Lavagasse. However this is an indication of the nature of the relationship he developed with French officials during the period of the French occupation of the island which allowed his business to continue without interruption.

The greater part of his estate – his three plantations each of 400 acres with all their enslaved occupants – was left for his nephew John Robley. It is at this juncture that John emerges as a significant player in the history of the island in true Robley fashion.

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