Charles Robin, a forgotten Father of Canada

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From the Gaspesian Heritage web magazine: By Betty Le Maistre

Why would anyone want to leave the lush, prosperous, semi-tropical island of Jersey and sail for weeks half-way around the world to reach the cold, empty and desolate Gaspé Coast on the eastern seaboard of Canada?

Charles Robin

Robin Company founder

Charles Robin very much wanted to, and the story of the Jersey connection on the Gaspé is very largely the story of the Robin Company he founded, and its successors. The majority of the present inhabitants of the region owe their existence to the men – and a few women – who made their way to a new life on “La Côte” to work in the fisheries established by these companies.

Dry cod was the first food staple to be exported from Canada. Since very early times Europeans have left their homes and families each summer to cross the North Atlantic to the rich fishing grounds off Canada’s east coast in pursuit of a food source which was valuable only if it was caught in great bulk, and only obtained by great effort and drudgery. However, the fish would have been useless to them had these same Europeans not evolved methods of preserving it so that it could be transported.

Two of the most ancient techniques for preserving fish are drying and salting (or pickling in brine). During the 16th century the Basques of the Bay of Biscay entered the Newfoundland fisheries and developed what is known as the “dry cure”. This was a method that involved a combination of salting and drying, and was adopted by several countries, including Britain.

The dry cure process was an important advance because it preserved the cod effectively to survive longer voyages to more southerly and hotter regions, such as South America and the southern countries of Europe with their large Roman Catholic populations where fish was in great demand for consumption on fast days. Cod that is properly cured can last as long as a year and a half.

Some of the best cod-fishing grounds in the Atlantic were found along the Gaspé Coast where the banks extended from the shores of the Baie des Chaleurs around and into the St Lawrence River. These banks were convenient for the dry-cod industry because the fishermen did not have to go more then two or three miles from shore to catch substantial quantities of fish. In addition, the many fine gravel beaches along the shore were excellent locations for the drying process. The cool, dry, windy summers helped, too.

Gaspé and the Canadian Atlantic coastline

Island history

But why should Channel Islanders, and Jerseymen in particular, be interested in the Gaspé fisheries? The answer lies in the history of this group of almost sub-tropical islands lying some 12 miles from the coast of France.

The Channel Islands – Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark, Herm and Jethou - are the only remaining parts of Normandy owing allegiance to Her Majesty, and are termed “a peculiar of the Crown”. They belonged to the Duke of Normandy when he conquered England in 1066 and became King William I. In 1204, his descendant King John lost Normandy to the French and the Islanders were given the choice (they held a referendum) of remaining loyal to the English crown or returning to France. By this time they had established solid economic and political links with Britain so they chose to remain British.

As a matter of interest, the Islands’ loyalty is directed to the monarch and not to Westminster. The Queen becomes the Duke of Normandy when she steps onto Channel Island soil, The Islands send no representatives to the British government, having their own democratic governments instead – second oldest in the world after Iceland, incidentally. Jersey comprises one Bailiwick and another takes in Guernsey and all the smaller islands.

The largest of the Channel Islands is Jersey, which at 9 x 5 miles, or 45 square miles in area, is small by world standards. However, it is the closest to France and so had always been a highly important outpost for England, particularly during the centuries when those two countries were so often at war with each other.

The Island parliament is called the States, composed of twelve Senators, twelve Constables and twenty-eight deputies – all elected by popular franchise. The number twelve is significant here because there are twelve parishes on the island, and each one elects representatives. St Helier is the largest town, and this is where the States sits. The population of the island is about 85,000, well over 1,000 people per square mile. The population is concentrated in the towns, leaving plenty of room for agriculture.

The Protestant Reformation affected the Channel Islands just as it did all of Britain, and about the middle of the 16th century Protestantism became the predominant religion. And so the Islands and the French-speaking Islanders welcomed the Protestants escaping persecution in France after the Massacre of St Bartholomew in 1572. They were known as Huguenots. Among them were many craftsmen, such as silversmiths, who became assimilated into island life. Antique Jersey silver is very beautiful, very expensive, and almost impossible to find today.

Paspebiac

Importance of commerce

Commerce has always been important to Jerseymen. Because of the fertile soil and warm climate, until recently agriculture was the most important money maker. Nowadays tourism and finance – Jersey is a free port and tax haven – have taken the lead, but garden produce, flowers and cattle remain exceedingly important to the economy of the island.

No live cattle have been imported since 1789, and as a result the world-renowned Jersey cow has been bred and perfected. She is unsurpassed for the butterfat content of her milk. There is virtually no unemployment on the island and taxes are very low, but because it is such a small island several restrictions have been imposed to limit immigration. For example, to be allowed to buy land or a house any outsider has to have a yearly income of at least a million pounds sterling. In spite of this there is currently a list of over a hundred people who qualify and are waiting their turn.

Jersey folk of a hundred years ago were tri-lingual: that is to say they spoke English, French and jèrriais. The use of English crept in during the 18th century because of the close ties that existed with England, and it is now the common language. Until about the 1920’s most of the men who came to the Gaspé coast spoke three languages.

During my first visit to Jersey in 1959 I was taken by my aunt, my father’s sister, to visit her and my father’s step-mother who was then in her eighties. She spoke some French, understood no English, and very definitely preferred to carry on a conversation in the old language. The great majority of place names are still in French. The States members open each day’s deliberations with a prayer in French, although this practice is under discussion at the moment, and they are called upon to vote ”pour” or “contre” a motion, though the debate leading up to the vote has been entirely in English.

Jèrriais is a very ancient language, probably far closer to the language spoken by William the Conqueror and his men than is modern French. It had a bit of a renaissance during the German Occupation of 1940-45 when it became the perfect medium of communication between Islanders, not understood by their German occupiers. An association known as L’Assembliée d’jèrri sponsors classes for school children in what appears to be a successful effort to make sure the old language does not disappear completely.

Jerseymen have always been a sea-faring lot, and not averse to a little privateering when the occasion presented itself. Situated as they were near the coast of France, they were very well placed to prey on the ships of Britain’s enemies.

A stone commemorating Jersey's participation in the Canadian cod industry at St Aubin, where Robin was born

Gaspé connection

Now to the Gaspé connection. In 1758, James Wolfe, fresh from his participation in the siege of Louisbourg, was given the mission of destroying the French fishing establishments on the Baie des Chaleurs, and destroy them he did. He sailed into the Bay, set fire to the buildings and drove off the inhabitants. We are told that most of them escaped into the forest and managed to survive somehow, possibly by linking up with the Acadians. The site of a French fishing village at the Bourg de Pabos has been excavated and is open to the public in the summer.

We all know what happened the following year, 1759. Lower Canada came under British rule, and the stage was set for the involvement of a Jerseyman in the Gaspé fisheries. To come back to the opening question: why Channel Islanders?

They were a sea-faring people, they had the British business sense and connections, the money was attractive and they had the necessary languages. Also, quite a few of the young men very much wanted to leave for greener pastures.

Enter Charles Robin (1743-1824). Born in St Aubin, Jersey, the youngest of three brothers, Charles Robin had undoubtedly heard of the money to be made off the fisheries in the North Atlantic. In fact, one of his brothers had been to Newfoundland and seen that the fisheries there were becoming overcrowded.

Also, he must have heard stories of the old French fisheries on the Atlantic Coast of North America, and so he persuaded his family and his relatives, the Pipons, to invest in them rather than in Newfoundland. In 1765 the three brothers joined with two other family members to form the Robin Pipon Company.

Their first investment was the purchase of a brig, the Seaflower, and Charles and his brother John went to Cape Breton Island to investigate the potential of the old French fishing establishments near Louisbourg. In the next two years the company purchased two more ships and expanded their operations to the coast of the Gaspé.

Second Canadian company

Charles Robin and Company and its successors date the birth of the firm to 1766, the year of Robin’s first visit to the Gaspé Peninsula. That made it the second company to be founded in Canada, after the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Robin's Establishment, Percé, c1900. (Photo - Matthew Farfan Collection)

When he returned to the Gaspé the following year, Charles Robin was 23 years old. He had scouted the Baie des Chaleurs well the previous year and had recognized Paspébiac as one of the choice sites for the drying of fish. This tiny port became the North American headquarters for his fishing company.

There was a barachois (a triangular sandbar enclosing a lagoon) which was ideal for the small shallops used in the inshore fishery; they could be quickly beached on the sandbar or taken through the narrow passage into the sheltered waters of the lagoon in case of a storm. There was no protected harbour available for the larger ships, but the anchorage was secure: even in the heaviest gales his ships would not drag their anchors along the bottom.

At this point, to convey an idea of the character of Charles Robin, I will quote a paragraph from David Lee’s book The Robins in Gaspé, 1765 to 1825. This book is based to a large extent on Charles Robin’s journals and letters. He did us all the immense favour of keeping a detailed account of everything he did and all the transactions of his company during the years that he lived and worked on the Coast.

Some of the originals are owned by the Société Jersiaise in St Helier, some are in the British Museum, and some are on microfilm in the Public Archives of Nova Scotia. In addition, over 300 volumes of company correspondence covering the 19th and part of the 20th century are in the Public Archives of Canada.

To set the scene: Robin has just landed in Paspébiac after an unusually long trans-Atlantic crossing of some eight weeks. He had sailed from Jersey to Arichat, his brother’s post in Nova Scotia, where he picked up some lumber he needed for construction purposes, and then continued on to Paspébiac, where he arrived on June 2.

This was very late in the season and he had no time to waste. Ideally, he should have been there in early May in order to buy the best fish and have time to fill his ship’s hold and send her off to Europe before the weather became too cold.

Fishing for cod

Trade arrangements

When Charles Robin finally landed at Paspebiac at 3 o’clock in the afternoon of 2 June 1767, his patience could bear no further delay. Within two hours he was afloat again in a shallop headed up the Bay to talk with Acadian fishermen at the nearby barachois of Bonaventure. Robin got there before dark and negotiated all night, arranging to trade them salt in return for dried cod. He left Bonaventure at daybreak, was back in Paspebiac by 8 o’clock in the morning, loaded his shallop with trading goods, and set sail again at 11 o’clock southward across the Bay to Caraquet, where he arrived at 5 o’clock. He spent the next day (June 4) trading hardware and salt for “thirty quintals dry codfish and sundry kinds of furrs”.

He left Caraquet at 3:30 the next morning and returned to Paspebiac. The following day (June 6) Robin was off again in the shallop, this time to trade with the Acadian fishermen at Tracadigache and the Micmac Indians at the mouth of the Restigouche River. (‘’The Robins in Gaspé, 1766 to 1825’’. David Lee, Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1984, page 18)

With that kind of energy, small wonder that Robin’s firm was still in operation more than 220 years after its founding.

Life in the fisheries on the Gaspé was not easy during the last years of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th. Robin had to contend not only with the normal fluctuations of the market and the varying availability of cod, but also with the wars that broke out from time to time.

He lost his markets in the United States during the British American War of 1812-1814. American warships came into the Bay and he was forced to close down for a couple of years. As well, he had to do his best to keep abreast of developments in Europe in order to be sure that he was sending his vessels to friendly ports when they left Paspébiac in the autumn.

On more than one occasion when the British were at war with the French he fitted out his captains and crews with French uniforms and equipped his ships with French flags so that if they were challenged by a French warship, they could claim to be French. After all, the men all spoke French fluently.

Cod processing plants were established on the shore

Press gangs

It is interesting to note that his captains were not eager to call at British ports: they were terrified that their crew would be taken by the press gangs and forced into the British navy. Ships would sail from Paspébiac to Portugal, for instance, and then any of the passengers who wanted to go home to Jersey would have to book passage on another ship. Who were these fishermen and sailors who worked for Charles Robin and Company? Some of them were the men who had disappeared into the forest when Wolfe attacked and had subsequently been absorbed into the Acadian settlements along the Coast. As well, a certain number of men came from the Québec City area every summer because there was work for them in the fisheries.

But Robin also brought with him from Jersey each spring a number of Jerseymen, particularly skilled workers, such as carpenters and shipwrights, and - very importantly – men who knew how to “make fish”. In the early years they would return to Jersey for the winter.

When his establishments became more substantial Robin and his employees began to stay the year round on the Coast. In fact, from 1783, with the exception of a few weeks in Québec City in 1787, Charles Robin did not leave the Baie des Chaleurs area for nineteen years.

He spent the winters of 1767-68 and 1768-69 at his brother’s establishment at Isle Madame on Cape Breton Island where he found congenial company among the Acadians, especially the young ladies. When not visiting or dancing, he occupied himself in cleaning up his brother’s buildings, cutting firewood, mending sails, brewing beer, trapping rabbits and fighting a large army of rats that was threatening to devour everything in the storehouse.

Until about 1928 Jersey firms on the Coast continued the practice of bringing out a number of apprentices every year. The descendants of these men are there today. Back to the question: what conditions in Jersey would make these men so eager to leave? Besides the attractions I have already outlined, the inheritance laws were very restrictive. Eldest sons inherited the family farms and most of the money in any estate, which left second sons and any other children to fend for themselves.

The young men of fifteen or sixteen who came out to the Gaspé were too young to have families, and in the early years of the Company, particularly if they were in management positions, they were not allowed to marry without the approval of Charles Robin himself.

Canadian workers processing cod on the beach

Fishing monopoly

Robin soon had a monopoly of the fisheries on the Bay. There was a firm of Guernseymen farther to the north for a time, but they were not serious competitors. At a later date, Janvrin, another Jersey company, took over the fishery off Gaspé. Janvrin had been employed by Robin and was trained in his methods, so it was a friendly sort of collaboration rather than out and out competition. Their respective fishing grounds did not overlap.

Robin needed ships to transport his increasing output, so he brought out a shipbuilder from Jersey and constructed ships at Paspébiac at the rate of about one every two years He and his successors built 16 ships in all between 1792 and 1824.

He set up a chain of stores at his fishing stations along the Coast to supply fishermen with whatever they needed for their boats and their families. Everything functioned on the truck system: no money changed hands.

The fishermen would come to the store in the spring to get what they needed for the summer’s fishing, and then they brought their cured or raw fish to Robin to pay for it. This was a universal way of doing business at the time. It was abolished in England in 1831 when the Truck Law was passed, obliging every employer to pay his employees in cash.

The arrival of hundreds of Loyalists to the Baie des Chaleurs in 1784 alarmed and irritated Charles Robin. Until then, except for customs duties, he had not had to worry about any government regulations. He had been able to fish where he pleased, erect buildings wherever he wanted and cut timber wherever he found it.

Now, land titles became important. The Loyalists were not the passive Acadians he was used to dealing with, but rather aggressive English-speaking settlers who knew their rights. He quickly became disenchanted with the Loyalists; he found them to be quarrelsome, ungrateful and unruly malcontents. To his immense relief, by the following year many of them had left seeking better farmland farther west.

In February 1787 the Legislative Council in Québec took under consideration a projected ordinance to regulate the fisheries of the Gaspé Coast. Charles Robin was not invited to the hearings in Québec, but if the government was going to impose fishing regulations, he wanted to be there.

The only way to reach Québec from Paspébiac in the middle of winter was to walk. There were no roads except for farm tracks in the populated regions on the south shore of the St Lawrence, but Robin was determined. So he walked to Québec and back, 300 miles each way. He left Paspébiac on January 8, 1787 and crossed the St Lawrence on the ice-bridge at Québec on February 2.

Gaspé

Favourable ordinance

The trip had taken him 20 days. He spent the next three weeks meeting and dining with various government officials, including Lord Dorchester. The government eventually passed an ordinance which was quite favourable to his Company.

It is worth noting that whereas the governments of New Brunswick and Newfoundland had for many years been paying bounties to their fisheries, nothing of the kind had ever been paid to anyone in Québec.

It was only because the superior quality of Robin’s “Gaspé Cure” was recognized everywhere that he could compete in world markets. The Newfoundland fisheries were, after all, 200 miles closer to Europe than he was.

After spending so much time politicking in Québec, Robin was anxious to get back to Paspébiac where there were many things still to be done before the ice broke up in the Bay. It took him three weeks to walk back through the Matapedia Valley to his home base.

He was travelling with a group of four or five - possibly Acadians – and one of them was probably carrying the mail. To avoid having to struggle through the dense forests they followed the frozen rivers and hugged the edges of the lakes. He fell through the ice once but escaped serious injury.

So he continued for a total of 31 years. When he left Paspébiac for good on 28 September 1802, his company had extended to include general stores and fishing stations all along the Gaspé, with a few in Cape Breton and at least one on the Lower North Shore of the St Lawrence at Magpie.

His company was exporting somewhere in the region of 15,000 to 17,000 quintals (kin’tle: a quintal is equivalent to 112 pounds) of dry cod each year to ports in Europe – principally Spain, Portugal, and Italy – and the coast of South America.

He never married, His successors in the Company were his brother’s three sons. When he died on 14 June 1824 at the age of 81, he left assets worth about £22, 500. The second generation of Robins directed the Company affairs on the Gaspé until 1814 when it became expedient for the family to send a non-family manager to Paspébiac. The owners never again returned to the Gaspé but left the direction of Company business to a succession of loyal and efficient managers.

Paspebiac

Le Boutillier brothers

The owners kept a long-distance eye on their affairs from Jersey. During the 19th century a number of competitors established themselves along the Bay, notably the Le Boutillier Brothers, three brothers who had worked for Robin before striking out on their own. Their buildings in Paspébiac constitute the major part of what is left there today. A typical Robin establishment would have consisted of a general store, a house where the manager lived, a warehouse for dry fish, and a stage (or landing platform) where the fish were brought ashore. There would also have been a large area on or near the beach where flakes for drying the fish had been erected. These were waist-high frames on which the split cod would be spread out to dry.

Paspébiac was the headquarters. The Robin and Le Boutillier installations on the barachois resembled a small town. Each company had a warehouse four or five storeys high, a general store, a wharf, a carpenter shop, a sail loft, a blacksmith shop and forge, a cooper shop for making barrels, offices, a cook-house, a boarding house for the apprentices, and numerous other buildings – besides the large area given over to the flakes and the drying fish. Set on the hill away from the fishery there were the Robin farm buildings and a large house, known as The Park, where the General Manager lived.

The ownership of the Company underwent a number of changes and mergers during the 19th century. In 1886 their financial backers, the banks in Jersey, failed. There was a riot in Paspébiac and the store was looted when the Company could not pay its fishermen. The government had to intervene.

It was at this time that the firm became Charles Robin Collas. In 1924 they absorbed Le Boutillier Brothers. Robin, Jones and Whitman, as the Company was most recently known, at one point operated a string of seventeen establishments on the Gaspé, three in New Brunswick on the south shore of the Baie des Chaleurs, seven or eight on the North Shore of the St Lawrence, and three in Cape Breton.

A triangular voyage evolved over time. Ships would leave Paspébiac laden with dry cod bound for ports in the West Indies and South America. There they would take on cargoes of rum, molasses and sugar for Europe. From Europe they returned to Paspébiac with manufactured goods. The market for dry fish disappeared almost completely during the 20th century; the Company processed frozen fish for a number of years, but eventually that was given up as well.

Fire

There was a disastrous fire in 1964 that destroyed most of the original Robin buildings on Paspébiac Beach. The remaining ones on the site, which include the large Le Boutillier Bros warehouse, form the Site Historique du Banc de Paspébiac.

A Robin Jones Whitman store in 1915

Establishments

Robin, Jones and Whitman establishments, circa 1940:

On the Gaspé Coast –

  • Bonaventure
  • Paspébiac
  • Port Daniel
  • Anse-aux-Gascons
  • Newport Islands
  • Newport Point
  • Pabos
  • Grande-Rivière
  • Ste-Thérèse
  • Anse-à-Beaufils
  • Percé
  • Barachois
  • Malbaie
  • Gaspé (two stores)
  • Anse-à-Griffon
  • Rivière-au-Renard
  • In New Brunswick –
  • Caraquet
  • Shippegan
  • Lamèque

In Nova Scotia

  • Cheticamp
  • Inverness
  • Musquodobit Harbour

On the North Shore of the St Lawrence River

  • Magpie
  • Thunder River (Rivière-au-Tonnerre)
  • Sheldrake (Port-Cartier)
  • Eskimo Point
  • Seven Islands (Sept-Iles)
  • Mingan
  • St John River

References

  • The Robins in Gaspé, 1766 to 1925, (David Lee, Fitzhenry and Whiteside 1984) .
  • Everyday Life on the Coast of Acadia and in the Province of Québec, 1767- 1787, (Marguerite Syvret, Société Jersiaise Annual Bulletin 1976).
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