Joseph Robley of Tobago

The first Robley to venture to the American Continent was Joseph, the son of the Rev. Isaac Robley of St. Johns-in-the-Vale, who went to the West Indies in 1760 at the age of 18 years. There he was employed in the Navy Office in Dominica as an Admiralty Clerk. After he ceased to work for the Admiralty in 1768 he established himself in the sugar plantation business in Tobago. It must be assumed that he would have needed a considerable capital sum to get started. Five thousand pounds sterling seems to have been the figure quoted at the time as a minimum stake. It is hardly likely that Joseph would have been able to save enough money on his clerks' salary to start a plantation from scratch or indeed to buy one that was already established without a considerable mortgage.

Nor is it likely that his father, Isaac, a country clergyman, would have been able to provide much assistance. Further, it is unlikely that he became an owner by the well recognised track of first becoming an 'Overseer' on an established plantation to learn the trade and then graduating to 'Estate Manager' and eventually to become a 'tenant' as there was too little time available to him. In fact Joseph established himself with a capital of only 1,700 pounds sterling, considerably less than the figure quoted as a minimum stake!

Guthrie, in his book, 'Geography', written in 1806 writes that establishing a plantation was only for men of consequence, however he goes on to describe that once the capital of five thousand pounds had been raised that crops and markets could be almost assured. The lot of a tenant was quite advantageous and it is recorded that, provided tenants were, 'industrious and frugal', they could soon make good estates for themselves.

Guthrie writes that slaves produced, on average, 10 to12 pounds worth of crop per head, annually. Joseph with a slave workforce of approximately 400 to 500 could expect to have an annual turnover of at least 5000 pounds making him a very wealthy man. It has also been quoted that in 1796 one acre of Bourbon Cane, on moderate quality land, produced 70 pounds sterling per annum which was double the cost of the land!

Slaves took little looking after. The common practice was to allocate a small parcel of land to each and to allow them two days per week to cultivate it, i.e. on Saturdays and Sundays. Alternatively they were provided with a ration of corn and salt fish or pork. Each was supplied with cap, shirt, breeches and a blanket. The price of slaves, newly landed, was in the order of 45 to 50 pounds per head with women and mature boys, 20 shillings less. Experienced slaves fetched about 60 pounds each. On this basis, in 1803, the capital value of Joseph's' workforce was in the order of 45,000 pounds, a tribute to his 'industry and frugality'.

From correspondence it appears that Joseph established his estates round about 1768 which would mean that he was in a good financial position to start a bare 8 years after his arrival in the West Indies as an Admiralty Clerk. Even allowing that profits may have been easy make, his is a quite remarkable success story particularly as he is described as the 'creator of his own fortune.'

Joseph's time in Tobago was one of turmoil. In 1771 there was an insurrection by the slaves, which was put down by the local Militia. Joseph, as a member of the Council at the time, must have been involved in the measures to re-establish control. An account written in 1774 describes how seven slaves were executed at one time. Their right arms were cut off and they were dragged to stakes and burned to death. One slave called Sampson was hung alive, in chains, and took seven days to die. Their crimes were murder and destruction of property.

It was in 1774 also that Joseph, then aged 25 took the ship, ''Tobago Planter' out of the Port of London, bound for Tobago on 28th.February, it may be that the two events were linked.

On the political front, there were frequent changes in administration between France and Britain although there seemed to be minimal disruption during these changes as both favoured a non-confrontational approach. Joseph was in Tobago at the time when ownership of the island changed frequently between France and England. The Island was originally British but was taken over by the French in 1781 at the time of the American war of Independence. In a treaty with France in 1783 it was officially ceded to France in what amounted to a sharing of islands in the West Indies between the two Nations. In 1797 however, Britain again gained control during the Napoleonic wars.

Joseph was a man of importance in Tobago. Sometime after 1766, perhaps while still working for the Admiralty, he became deputy Naval Officer (akin to a customs supervisor). He was a member of the Island's Council from the 1770s and in 1793 was appointed it's President . He was appointed acting Governor in 1799 on the death of Governor Stephen Lacey and again in1800 on the death of Governor Richard Master. Joseph would have had the necessary political patronage and influence to survive with comfort during the French occupation regardless of non- confrontational policies.

Between 1789 and 1792 Joseph's estates were said to produce the finest raw cotton in the world, but as the world price for sugar rose after 1791, Joseph began to convert his plantations to sugar. Cultivation of sugar cane is reported to have been discontinued in 1775 when the entire crop was destroyed by a species of ant and a change was made in favour of cotton as the main crop. Earlier attempts to diversify his crops by planting Tumeric had failed as could not find a satisfactory market. As well as economic problems there was the constant threat of hurricanes and one of these occurred in 1790. Guthrie describes the ferocity of these storms including, 'among the things that happen, whole fields of canes are whirled into the air and ponderous copper boilers and stills of several hundredweights are wrenched from the ground'.

When Joseph arrived in Tobago there was a very small white population which was outnumbered about thirty to one by the slaves. A census taken in 1793 identifies a total population of 15,019 of which 14,170 were slaves and 531 were white. Of these latter, 434 were men.

Joseph established himself very quickly indeed and fifteen years following his arrival, after the capture of Tobago by the British under General Cuyler, he was appointed president of the governing Council of which he had been a member since the1770s. In the same year the Treaty of Versaille, ceding the Colony to France, saw the majority of plantation owners remaining as they were as they were unable to sell their property to their advantage.

In general the terms of the new administration were favourable to the British and there was little change to the composition of the Council. New elections, held in 1784 still preserved the 'status quo'.

From 1794 to 1795 Joseph enjoyed almost complete control of the affairs of the Colony while acting as Governor. Following anxiety expressed by the planters about the continued presence of a French minority, he issued a proclamation requiring all inhabitants to take an oath of allegiance and fidelity to the British Crown. Many of the French minority refused to take the oath, declaring themselves to be Republicans and wishing to be considered 'prisoners of war'.

In 1796 Joseph took a trip by sea to Boston in America to recover his health. 'En route', his ship was seized by a French privateer and taken to Guadeloupe. Although several of his fellow passengers were released, Joseph was held and remained in prison for about three months during which time he was treated very harshly. Eventually the British Secretary of State secured his release and he returned to Tobago.

In 1796/97 the new Governor, Sir William Young, suspended Joseph from the Council on the basis that his power needed to be curbed and accusing him of using his position to advantage financially his nephew John Robley..

John Robley was the son of his brother, John, and was born in London in 1768. Although quite a young man, John was probably responsible for Joseph's affairs in Britain as well as the marketing his produce in Britain and Europe. Certainly, by 1807 he had power of attourney for Joseph and was his principle agent. He was a very wealthy man in his own right being the owner of at least six ships plying between Britain and the West Indies.

In 1798 Joseph was restored to the Council as it's President. With his return to favour, his fortunes went from strength to strength and between 1798 and 1800 was once again made 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 won the aprobation of the Secretary of State, the Council and the Assembly, the latter commenting on his" Wisdom and firmness" and he was presented with 100 guineas of plate in recognition of his guidance in 1794-95. They later passed a resolution for " the able and upright manner in which he governed this Colony 1798-1800". Joseph was generally a very popular man among the white inhabitants.

In 1802 the Secretary of State decided to pay him the full salary of 2000 pounds per annum as the Governor in respect of the periods that he had been in office. Half pay was the normal remuneration.

A valuable insight into Joseph is given in a letter written by L.L. Steele following a visit to Tobago which was found in a desk in an old Steele residence in Cumberland in1907, nearly 100 years later. The Steeles were to become closely associated with the Robleys when two daughters of Joseph Robley (1778-1869) of St. Bees in Cumberland married Steele brothers. However at the time of the writing there was no connection.

The letter describes the visit.

"'Our earliest aquaintance with the West Indies was at the ever smiling little island of Tobago, and it's beauty, variety and happiness are still vividly perfect to the recollection. Our host was the ----- Mr. Joseph Robley, and the estates at Golden Grove and Sandy Point presented an appearance of happiness which we have never seen excelled, a fact we state upon communication with all parties, planters, overseers and slaves. The worthy old gentleman returned to England in company with us in the fall of 1803, after a parting which each seemed to regret, as much as if he had been their father- Lest some rabid imaginations should expect our euconiums of partiality, we will here introduce the scene as drawn by a Frenchman Mons. Lavagasee.(Lavaysse)

Extracts from Jean-J Dauxion Lavaysse and Edward Blaquiere , A Statistical Commercial and Political Description of Venezuela, Trinidad, Margarita and Tobago.

The cultivated part of this island is in a most flourishing state, I have never seen better farming or finer negroes, The principle plantation ,which belonged to the late Mr. Joseph Robley, at Sandy Point is perhaps the best colonial establishment in the Antilles. It consists of six windmills for bruising the cane and three for grinding maize. This property is divided into three sugar plantations each having a double set of boilers. The negroes inhabit the streets, near the plantations to which they are attached. Their huts are built of stone and covered with slates. In 1803 theyammounted to one thousand of all ages and both sexes.

Everything about this plantation has the appearance of order and abundance, I went there several times during the Peace of Amiens and never did I hear the sound of a driver's whip.

Next to plantation of Sir George Young at Saint Vincent's I do not believe that there were any men in existance more happy than the negroes on the Robley plantations in 1803.This Great Proprietor had all the tradesmen necessary for such establishments on his property, such as Masons, Carpenters, Wheelwrights, Smiths, Farriers etc.

Once I was at his house, the wind broke a vane of one of the windmills, and we heard a moment later afterwards that a similar accident had happened to a neighbour.

"Come " said he "and you will see how soon I can repair the damage". A conque shell was blown and I immediately saw one hundred negroes appear, with some pulleys, others dragging a capstan, and the rest an enormous triangular ladder, at last a large wagon drawn by six fine mules brought a mill vane, always kept ready in case of accidents it was put up in half an hour and they then lifted the sail on to it in short, four hours after the accident , the mill worked as well as ever. Mr. Robley then observed, "This is one of the many advantages a large proprietor posesses, in having workmen at home I have a double set of everything necessary for sugar works on these three sugar plantations, which are on the same estate, and may be called six, as there are six mills and three double sets of cauldrons and their appendages, mill works, boilers etc. All are numbered and ready in my stores; so that if any accident happens it can be repaired in a few hours without interrupting the manufactory of sugar.

My neighbour who has just experienced the same accident, has neither workmen nor materials of his own; so while he goes to town to purchase these articles , for which he will be required to pay fifty percent, more than they have cost me in England; and while his overseers are running about to seek workmen, and three or four days may be lost in procuring them,there are no longer any sign of the accident on my premises. My neighbours canes, already cut will ferment and perhaps he will lose four or five hogsheads of sugar, without calculating the time of his negroes". I believe no man ever fealt more happy than Mr. Robley whilst he explained the above details and others relative to the management of his plantation.

This gentleman was the creator of his own fortune he was born of a respectable family in Cornwall (Cumberland) and had gone to the West Indies at the age of eighteen employed as a clerk in the Navy Office. He established himself in Tobago in 1768 and began to cultivate the cotton plant with a capital of about 1,700 sterling; already in 1789, which was only twenty two years afterwards, beside the magnificent establishment at Sandy Point, he posessed another plantation with a water mill of great value which he had presented to one of his nephews. He had besides at the Peace of Amiens, a large sum in the Public Funds.

His fortune he owned entirely to his activity, prudence and the fertile soil on which he had fixed his establishments.

The Great Cultivator had besides two vessels which were his own property the first time I saw them lying at anchor before his house, I mistook one for a Ship of the Line and the other for a Frigate. They came twice a year and lay in front of his residence for the purpose of taking his produce to Europe, and of bringing all that was necessary for him and his negroes but also merchandise which he sold to the merchants of Tobago, and on which he gained considerable profits. No man in any country obtained more respect and authority than Mr. Robley in his limited sphere; he was president of the Colonial Council and consequently Governor when the other was absent.

Joseph Robley was the first inhabitant of this Island and perhaps in all the West Indies, who went to the expense of constructing water and wind mills expressley with a view to the grinding of maize for the negroes and it was not long before his example was imitated by his neighbours.

Before his time and even at present in the other colonies the negroe are obliged to grind the maize with small iron mills, which fatigue them extremely, causing a great loss of time when they return from work at mid-day or in the evening. On these estates they do not have even sieves for separating the bran; but on the Robley estate they receive their rations in maize flour well sifted and all the grain they bring to the mill is ground gratis.

Mr. Robley neglected nothing that would induce them to prefer this food; from its stimulating qualities he thought it the best vegetable nourishment for men who cultivate the ground in hot climates. He also made considerable plantations of the Bread Fruit Tree of Otaheite and other plants brought from the South Seas by Captain Bligh as well as those cultivated in the magnificent garden of Saint Vincent by Mr, Anderson.

Mr Robley returned to England after the peace of Amiens and was then about sixty years of age. He had not seen his native land from the age of eighteen; but he did not long enjoy the fruits of his industry having died a year after his arrival. He bequeathed several legacies, among others, one to a Frenchman who had rendered him some services.The first instance I have found in the Colonies of any other Englishman who had left a legacy to a Frenchman!

In 1803 the English frigate, Venus 'cut out' four French merchantmen in the Caribean. One ship, the Phoenix, was owned by Joseph Robley and two others were chartered by him and loaded with his sugar and rum bound for France. Despite writing to the Naval and Military Authorities and the Secretary of State and with his nephew, John in London, interceding on his behalf, the rule of exemption from capture for British property was deemed not to apply in his case. The Court of the Admiralty found that the vessels be 'lawful prizes'. This demonstrated the confusion which existed in the relations between France and England in that era . . Joseph put his losses as nearly 40,000 pounds.

When Joseph died in 1807 his estate was valued at 200,000 pounds and the majority was left to his nephew, John. In England he left a legacy to Elizabeth Dunglison, the daughter of his sister Mary Jackson who was then a widow. Her husband, Richard Dunglison had been a wool merchant in Keswick in Cumberland but died at the age of 35 years. It had been intended that their son, Robley Dunglison would join his Uncle Joseph in Tobago . However, Joseph's very generous legacy of 3000 pounds enabled young Robley to embark on his very successful career in medicine.

It is at this juncture that nephew, John Robley, emerges as a significant player in the history of the Colony. A measure of the influence that he could bring to bear can be gauged from the fact that at the time he was described as merchant, consignee and mortgagee of the estates of the then Governor of Tobago, Sir William Young.

Immediately following the death of Joseph and his inheritance,

John wrote to Lord Castlereagh, the British Foreign Secretary, seeking his support to authorise his appointment to the Council in Tobago. This was granted.

While Joseph was a man of considerable personal charm, albeit with a propensity to make use of his considerable influence when it suited him, His nephew, John appears altogether more ruthless.

By 1809 he had become a very influential member of the Council heavily involved in a move to mould the colonies taxation system to the advantage of himself and other wealthy plantation owners. His tactics included witholding 'supply' thus starving the administration of money to run the affairs of the Island. During this period almost the sole voice of reason and opposition to John and his supporters in the Council was his brother, George Robley.

Such was his behaviour that the Governor, Sir William Young, declared him as "manipulative of Council and self seeking in trying to shift the burden of Taxation to the personal advantage of himself and his friends".

John held a large mortgage over Sir William's estates and relations between the two men was never good! This came to a head when John forclosed an old mortgage in circumstances which led Sir William to write that he " broke every promise of competent supply to my family"


Despite his wealth, John seems to have been unscrupulous when it came to his own economic gain. In 1814 he was somehow involved in the disappearance of moneys belonging to Mme. de Sahuquet who claimed that as her appointed agent, John Robley, had some responsibility for a considerable sum of money going astray!

Joseph had always supported the efforts of missionaries in Tobago and in 1802 had publicly commended their efforts. In 1807, John who had continued this support asked the London Missionary Society (L.M.S) to instruct his slaves and offered to subscribe 50 pounds per annum. John thought that a missionary might mould the slaves to the planter's advantage and he warned the L.M.S. at the outset that he wanted "a man who conduct himself with propriety and not preach liberty to the negroes"..A missionary was sent who established a mission based on John's Golden Grove estate.

In Tobago today there is a flourishing 'clan' of Robleys and it may be that they have a connection to either Joseph, John or George Robley by association if not by blood.

References and acknowledgements.

GUTHRIE. WILLIAM, A New Geographical, historical and commercial grammar. 1805.

JEAN-J DAUXION LAVAYSSE and EDWARD BLAQUIERE A Statistical Commercial and Political Description of Venezuela, Trinidad,Margarita and Tobago. London 1820

LAURENCE. K.O. Tobago in Wartime, 1793-1815, University of WI 1995.

Written by John Robley, Research by John Robley and Marian Foster 2001. Revised by John Robley, July 2008.