George Robinson, Vancouver Island Pioneer


The ceding of Vancouver's Island to the Hudson's Bay Company had not been absolute, at least in theory. The covering Royal Charter specified that the Company must form a colony of British subjects, who should be encouraged to immigrate by the sale of land at reasonable prices. Ninety percent of the money realized from land sales and mining royalties was to be used for further improvement and colonization. The remaining ten percent was to be retained by the Company to cover costs of administration. The Island was declared a British colony, and provision was made for administration by a Governor, a nominated Council and an elected Assembly.

If the theory was excellent, the practice was far different. The Company's profit-oriented and autocratic structure ruled the lives of all its servants. Democratic government had no part in their experience, and mass immigration had no part in their policies. The only sort of settlement they would welcome would be that of large-scale farms owned by men of means and worked by hired help. Only the squirearchy would be allowed any say in government.

To this end, the price of Island farm-land was set at one pound Sterling per unimproved acre, with the stipulation that each buyer must provide, at his own expense, five single men or three married couples per hundred acres to work it. Since most land on the Island was densely wooded where it was not bare rock, this meant that a prospective land-owner would have to support several people for many months until it could be cleared and brought into production. To ensure the land was used only for farming, the Company reserved all mineral rights. Additionally, all choice land near the Fort was set aside for Company use.

As can be imagined, only one optimistic would-be landowner bought land under these conditions. He was W. Colquhoun Grant, late Captain in the Scots Guards, who bought land at Sooke and tried farming for three years before selling out to former Hudson's Bay Company coal miner John Muir.

The British Government sent out Richard Blanshard, a well-to-do lawyer, as Governor of the Colony. The Company had proposed that its Chief Factor, James Douglas, be appointed Governor, and practically ignored the other appointment. From the time of his arrival in March, 1850 until his departure in September, 1851, Blanshard was frustrated at every turn by Company inertia and Company policies. He was given no salary and no quarters were provided for him. He did manage to appoint a provisional Council, two of whose three members were Company employees, but did not achieve even a vestige of an elected Assembly. There was no machinery to elect one, and no value to one if elected.

In accepting Governor Blanshard's resignation, the British Government bowed to the inevitable and appointed Chief Factor Douglas to succeed him. It is worth noting that Blanshard had been expected to serve for honour and glory alone. The canny Douglas took the job only after he had been assured an annual salary of eight hundred pounds.

Douglas proved to be precisely the type of man the Government had expected: forceful, resolute, autocratic and British to the core. He was also a Hudson's Bay Company senior employee, what we would now call an "organization man". The Company's needs came first with him, and any other considerations were secondary.

If George Robinson had been aware of what lay ahead, he might have thought twice about emigrating to Vancouver's Island. However, he was neither informed nor prescient, and when the opportunity came to leave the smoke and grime of the Black Country of central England for distant and greener lands, George eagerly accepted. So it was that he became employed as a mining engineer for the Hudson's Bay Company and was shortly on his way to the Company's private preserves on Vancouver's Island and the domain of Chief Factor and Governor James Douglas.

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