White and black Robleys in Tobago

FILE PHOTO: An old sugar mill made from coral on what used to be part of the expansive Golden Grove Estate owned by John Robley Jr and his family in the 1800s. - JEFF K MAYERS
FILE PHOTO: An old sugar mill made from coral on what used to be part of the expansive Golden Grove Estate owned by John Robley Jr and his family in the 1800s. - JEFF K MAYERS


John Robley Jr was born in London, England on July 9, 1775 and was the second child of John and Mary Robley. His father was the eldest son of the Rev Isaac Robley, and brother of wealthy Tobago plantation owner and merchant, Joseph Robley.

Robley Jr and his wife Caroline had one son, Henry Robley, whom he never saw. In 1808, Robley Jr inherited a sprawling business enterprise from both his father and uncle who died within months of each other and left the bulk of their estates to him. He acquired his father’s business operations in the UK and his uncle’s Golden Grove, Friendship, Cove and Studley Park estates in Tobago and properties in St Vincent and Antigua. Thus he was advantageously positioned to command his business operations in both the UK and the Caribbean.

But Robley Jr was no newcomer to the business world. He was a businessman in his own right. He traded with several Caribbean colonies with ships he owned, and he had served as agent and manager of his uncle’s business operations in the UK and Europe, which included two merchant ships. Robley Jr came to Tobago as an experienced merchant, trader and plantation manager.

He left his family in England and moved to the Caribbean to manage his properties and businesses and took up residence in Golden Grove Estate in 1808. He brought his brother George to help him to administer his estates. But Robley Jr lacked the personal charm of his uncle, who was a colourful character and was considered “ruthless.” Nevertheless, he was determined to inherit the power and influence his late uncle wielded over his properties and the affairs of the island, and he wasted no time in getting himself established in Tobago.

He successfully lobbied foreign secretary Lord Castlereagh to support him for a position in the council, and by 1809 he had established himself as a very influential member. He captured the support of fellow council members and large planters because he pursued policies that served their interests. He piloted the attempt to adjust the island’s system of taxation to shift the tax burden away from plantation owners and used bullying tactics to get his way.

As was done in other colonial assemblies, Robley Jr and his associates refused to pass the annual vote for supplies which authorised payments to be made from the treasury to run the administration. Without this vote the administration was deprived of funding and was unable to pay salaries and fund the island’s administration. This policy strengthened his support in the council and embarrassed the governor, providing an opportunity for Robley Jr to serve his personal interest.

He used this withholding tactic as a weapon against governor Sir William Young, with whom he had strained relations, and used the fact that he had inherited a mortgage on the governor’s estates to humiliate him. Matters came to a head when Robley Jr foreclosed an old mortgage, causing Governor Young to write that he "broke every promise of competent supply to my family." The governor was hurt by the way the mortgage affair was handled and described Robley Jr as “manipulative of Council and self-seeking,” and a tax avoider.

In 1808, with his business partner, his brother-in-law Charles Brooke, Robley Jr acquired the properties owned by Sir William Young – Old Road in Antigua, Calliaqua and Pembroke in St Vincent, and Betsey’s Hope, with its enslaved African population, which had been heavily mortgaged to Joseph Robley. In 1819 he acquired Goldsborough, Goodwood, Glamorgan and Thirlmere estates in Tobago.

Robley Jr continued the tradition started by his uncle, to support missionary activity among his enslaved African workers in Tobago. He requested the assistance of the London Missionary Society to instruct his slaves, with the promise of £50 per year.

Despite the growing humanitarian effort in the UK and increased restlessness among the enslaved population in the region, this was not an act of benevolence and he remained stoutly anti-abolitionist. He cautioned the society that there was to be no preaching about liberty to the slaves on his estates. He wanted them to be taught obedience and it was the expected role of the “responsible” missionaries to shape the enslaved Africans into the type of workers that would serve the planter’s interest. The society sent a missionary to Golden Grove Estate.

Robley Jr also served as agent for Madame de Sahaquet, who, in 1814, accused him of being involved in the disappearance of a considerable sum of money.

But it was in his personal life that he was most colourful. He established liaisons with several women in Tobago, who bore him ten children, creating a black line of Robley descendants. He established a family with a mulatto woman named Eliza Mac Kenzie Robley, with whom he had four children.

He left a lengthy, detailed will in which he made provision for members of his family and all his children. While he provided for his wife Caroline and their children, he indicated that his two daughters by Eliza – Sybil and Clara – and other daughters Phyllis Aida Robley, Ann Allison and son Frederick should receive a similar amount to that given to his daughters by his wife, as specified in his will.

The same was to be given to any child of Eliza born after he was deceased, unless she co-habited with another man. To Eliza, he left £200 per year, his clothes and household furniture to the value of £100, lots 13 and 14 in upper Scarborough, and the use of two negro women and one negro man from the Golden Grove estate.

He also provided for three of his enslaved daughters – Peggy, Hagar and Fanny; his son John, who was born on Golden Grove Estate in 1804 and whose mother was a mulatto woman named Betsy Robley; and an enslaved woman named Eve and her son James.

Robley Jr died in Tobago at 47. His will, which was proved in London in 1824, stimulated a bitter episode of litigation among members of his family for generations, as well as between the executors and Brooke. The Robley estate came to be burdened by the provisions of the will, which was based on the assumption that estate earnings would continue at the levels Robley Jr knew. But it was stung by litigation-inspired debt and plagued by mortgage difficulties that were aggravated by falling sugar prices, emancipation and the reduced trade environment in Tobago.

The Robley properties fell victim to the same challenges that faced those estates Robley Jr had acquired. After his death the Robley plantation empire in Tobago crumbled and its legacy remains Joseph Robley’s introduction of breadfruit on the island and Robley Jr’s creation of a line of landless black Robleys to carry on the family name.

Dr Rita Pemberton -


"White and black Robleys in Tobago"

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