Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 23
by David Lee
Part II: The Fisheries of Gaspé
Charles Robin and His Company
Charles Robin, the third and youngest son of Philip Robin and Anne Dauvergne, was baptised on 30 October 1743 in the parish of St. Brélade, on the Island of Jersey. Nothing is known of his early life save that he was orphaned when he was 11; however, it is evident that he received a good education for his letters and journals1 show him to be effortlessly literate in both English and French. (The Channel Islands had been under English suzerainty since 1066, but French was still the only language spoken by many of its people.) The Robin family had long held small seigneuries and official positions in Jersey, but Charles Robin's parents were shopkeepers in the busy seaport of St. Aubin.2 He was 22 years old when he first visited Chaleur Bay in 1766 and almost 59 when he left the bay for the last time in 1802.
On the Bay, 1766-1802
In the summer of 1766 Charles Robin scouted Chaleur Bay and evidently found it a fertile area for the fish trade. After a short stay he sailed down the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Arichat on Isle Madame, just off Cape Breton Island, where his brother John had established a fishing post the previous year.3 As a result of his report on the potential of Chaleur Bay, Charles was sent out the following year by the Robin, Pipon Company of Jersey to set up a fishing post on the bay.
The Pipons had been connected with the Robins by marriage for several generations, but their connection to the new company was solely financial. Philip Robin, Charles's eldest brother (married to a Pipon girl), directed the company from St. Aubin while John and Charles conducted the business on the fisheries. A contact with the London business community was provided by the financial house of DeGruchy and LeBreton (probably Jerseymen) who held a small interest in the firm.
On his 1766 reconnoitre of Gaspé, Charles Robin decided that the barachois at Paspébiac would be the best site to establish a fishing post. To this post he brought men from Jersey to fish for cod in Chaleur Bay and from it he did most of his trading. During his first few years on the bay Charles personally undertook to provide the local residents with salt, fishing equipment, butter, spirits, flour, biscuit, gunpowder, cloth, peas and salt pork. In return he took furs of all kinds, feathers, and fresh meat in addition to cod and salmon. With the Indians he traded spirits and powder for furs and skins. In most cases, he bartered with the fishermen although credit, and occasionally specie, were also used. (Many different currencies were in circulation: French livres, Jersey liards, American dollars and pounds sterling.)
The Robin, Pipon Company suffered a number of setbacks as it struggled to gain a foothold in the Chaleur Bay fisheries. From the beginning it was determined to own its own ships and not rely on charters to bring men, equipment and trade goods to Gaspé and carry fish back to Europe. In 1768 two of its ships were seized for having sailed directly from Jersey to Canada without clearing from an English port. The loss, amounting to nearly £2,000 plus the time lost in the fisheries, nearly destroyed the company, but eventually the Robins received a small recompense and remedial legislation was passed in the British Parliament allowing Jersey ships to clear directly for Canada.4
In 1774 the justice of the peace on Chaleur Bay forced Robin to post a £500 bond in an attempt to prevent him from landing two shiploads of Acadians whom he had brought from France (via Jersey) to settle on the bay as fishermen. The justice was concerned about the loyalty of the Acadians, but the governor at Quebec eventually allowed them to remain as immigrants if they swore allegiance to George III, and ordered Robin's money returned.5
With the outbreak of the American Revolution and the arrival of American warships and privateers in the bay, even more serious difficulties befell the company. In 1776 the post on Cape Breton Island was attacked and the following year Chaleur Bay was full of American ships. As a result the Robins lost several shallops, considerable fish and one ship. A second vessel captured by the Americans was retaken by a British warship, but Robin had to pay one-eighth its value to the Royal Navy as salvage.6 Charles left the bay in the fall of 1778, not to return until the war was over. While he was gone, the Indians of the Restigouche River, starving because the war had stopped all trade into the bay, pillaged his store, a loss Robin set at £1,500.7
Charles spent the war years in Jersey serving as a militia captain and taking part in the Battle of Jersey in 1781. When he returned to Paspébiac in 1783 it was with the intention of spending only a few years there while his three nephews (Philip's sons John, James and Philip Junior) gained enough experience in the business to take it over. Charles' brother John, also married to a Pipon girl, had only daughters and since Charles never married, the family was dependent on the three young boys to take over the business. It appears that John Robin did not return to his Cape Breton fishery after the war; he may have been in ill health for he died in 1793.
After the war two new companies were formed, Charles Robin and Company and the Philip Robin Company. Charles Robin himself only owned an eighth interest in the company which bore his name. John Fiott, a Channel Islander living in London, held a third of the shares while the remainder was divided among Charles's two brothers and minor shareholders like Francis Janvrin and Thomas Pipon. When Fiott died in 1796, Philip Robin purchased his interest from his estate for £6,000; he sold half (one-sixth of the shares) to the P. & H. LeMesurier Company of London and split the remainder between his sons James and Philip Robin Junior.
The Philip Robin Company was a smaller operation formed to continue the fishery begun by John Robin at Cape Breton Island. Charles and Philip Robin Senior and John Fiott each held one quarter of the firm while John Robin was among the minor shareholders. Philip Senior redeemed Fiott's interest in 1796 for £1,500 and sold some of it to the LeMesurier firm.8 Although one Robin company carried fish or merchandise for the other occasionally, the affairs of the two family firms were generally kept separate. The Philip Robin Company fishery was directed by an agent who lived at Arichat.
When Charles Robin returned to Chaleur Bay in 1783 he found the fisheries swarming with new competitors, but within ten years they had all failed. Robin won supremacy on the bay because of his previous experience on the fisheries before the war. He knew that success could only be gained by assuring that he had the authority to make virtually all important decisions concerning the operation of his company. He devoted all his energies to the business and he lived permanently on the fisheries. His competitors, on the other hand, were merely agents representing large investors in Quebec, London and the Channel Islands; they had little decision-making authority of their own. Robin also profited from his wide knowledge of the Chaleur Bay fisheries to secure the best beach properties for his company.
Although he complained about it constantly, Charles saw it as his family duty to remain overseas and direct the company operations in the Gaspé until such time as his nephews were able to take over. Philip Junior was only 13 years old when he came out in 1783 to learn the business. His younger brothers followed later. Each received an annual salary of £100 even after they were given an interest in the company.
Robin planned to retire in the mid-1790s, but two emergencies arose in 1793 which postponed this plan for nine years. First there were family problems. In 1793 his nephew and godson John fell seriously ill and it became evident that he was not suited to the rigours of life on the fisheries; however, Robin contrived a means of keeping him useful to the family business. In 1795 he gave John Robin £1,000 to become a partner with Joseph Axtell, a Lisbon importer and broker. The Robins had long sold fish to Axtell, who had been in business in Portugal for nearly 40 years. Portugal was an important market for dried cod and some of the poorer quality fish was transhipped to its Brazilian colony where it was a major dietary staple of the slaves. The firm of Axtell and Robin became an important European contact for the Robins.
With one departed, Robin now had only two nephews to help him and his relations with them were often strained. Robin was bitter that the two young men returned to Europe nearly every autumn, leaving him alone for the winter. The nephews normally travelled on a company ship taking fish to Spain or Portugal, thereby gaining valuable experience, but Robin remained resentful. He was particularly critical of Philip Robin Junior, considering him careless and unreliable. The oldest nephew seemed impatient for his uncle to retire and spent most of his time in the Percé Grande-Rivière area. Although the anchorages there were poor, it had good beaches and excellent fishing grounds; by the late 1790s Charles Robin and Company was getting most of its fish from this area. When Philip Robin Junior had achieved this, he left the fisheries for two years, spending his time travelling in Europe and dreaming of making his fortune in other fields.
The second emergency that made it impossible for Charles Robin to retire early arose in 1793 when Britain and France went to war. Again Robin's ships were exposed to capture on the high seas and his Iberian markets threatened with closure. Within a few years war had spread throughout most of Europe. Robin's communications and trading patterns were interrupted, his ships seized by the French and his crews impressed by the Royal Navy, but Robin remained on Chaleur Bay, unlike his actions during the war of 1776-83, and his company carried on.
By piecing together various data on his company's exports between 1790 and 1802, we can see that Robin was able to keep his sales close to an average of 14,000 quintals of cod per year during the war years.
The slump of 1792 was due to a poor fishing season, but those of 1793 and 1795 were directly attributable to war. In 1793 the company brig Paspébiac, which could carry 2,800 to 3,000 quintals of cod, was captured by the French and by 1795 the company had lost three more brigs and a schooner. In every case but one the ships had been captured after having sold their cargoes in Europe.
Losses to war demanded that the company become more independent in its supply of ships. Not only had the French captured four of their vessels, but also another was shipwrecked on the coast of Norway and others had to be retired because of old age. Ships for sale or rent were scarce during the war; the company was unable to buy any and on only two occasions did Robin charter a ship and crew. Robin was always apprehensive about this kind of arrangement because he felt he could not trust the captains.
In these circumstances Robin decided to have his own ships built at Paspébiac by Jersey workmen using the abundant local timber. He was particularly fortunate in finding an excellent shipwright, James Day, whom he paid handsomely to keep him content to work in this remote part of the world. The first ship, the Fiott, was launched in 1792; it had a burden of about 250 tons and could carry about 3,500 quintals of fish. It left on 19 November 1792 on its maiden voyage carrying 2,278 quintals of cod, 56 hogsheads of fish oil and 64 tierces of salmon to Santander, Spain. It also carried 49 men and their baggage home to Jersey for the winter, it being cheaper to send them home than pay and provide for them at Paspébiac. The Fiott made two voyages to Europe in July and November of 1793 but never returned; in the spring of 1794 it and two other company vessels were captured by the French from the Jersey-Newfoundland convoy which was protected by only one British warship. That autumn, however, the company produced its second ship; indeed, every two years the Paspébiac shipyard turned out a new vessel, six in all by 1802.
During the war years the Royal Navy employed so many sailors that crews were difficult to collect in Jersey and Robin was always short of men on the fisheries. Very little fish was sent to Halifax because of the danger that his men would there be impressed into military service. Voyages were often delayed and one year the company sent out one less ship due to lack of men. By 1800 Robin had to hire inexperienced and even illiterate men to captain his ships selling cod in the United States and Europe. Since the sailors worked on the beaches and shallops in the summertime, Robin suffered from labour shortages on the fisheries too. It was during this period that Robin recruited French Canadians from the parishes below Quebec to come each summer to cure cod on the beaches of Chaleur Bay.
Without the new ships the company would have died. Those which were lost or captured were insured, of course, but having a ship to take fish to market was more important than compensation from an insurance company. Even a new ship was insured for only £1,000, half its value. Insurance premiums were high in wartime; Robin paid three and one-half to four per cent of value for just the short trip from Paspébiac to Boston. He also had to worry that his vessels might be captured before insurance arrangements were made in England.
The war naturally disrupted Robin's trade patterns. For years he had operated a small but profitable three-cornered trade between Paspébiac, the West Indies and Quebec. He sent poorer quality dried cod to the West Indies where it was purchased for the slaves. His ships then returned with cotton, sugar, rum and molasses which sold well in Quebec where Robin bought much of his provisions and hardware. From 1793, however, he sent no more ships to the West Indies, feeling it was too dangerous because of French warships and privateers.
When Spain joined France against England in 1796, Robin's Spanish markets were closed to him, but he quickly adjusted by selling fish in Boston and New York. Although he continued to send cod to Axtell and Robin in Lisbon, in the next five years he sold tens of thousands of quintals of fish to the United States. Since the neutral United States still had access to the Spanish market, a great deal of Robin's fish was simply transferred to American ships which took it directly to Spain; however, this adjustment was strictly temporary for Robin's cod sold for somewhat less in the United States than in Europe. In 1801 Portugal seemed threatened by France so Robin sent all his fish to Boston, except for a small cargo to Halifax. His fears were unnecessary for that year a temporary peace was achieved in Europe. He estimated that the 13,000 quintals of cod he had sent to Boston could have brought between £4,000 and £6,000 more if he had known about the European situation and sent the fish to Portugal instead.
Communications were also disrupted by the war. It was most important for Robin to know how the war was going and where the best markets would be. He worried about France dominating Spain and Portugal and especially about the United States going to war with England. Communications were slow even in peace time, but during the war Robin had to rely on rumours and out-of-date letters. Correspondence from Axtell and Robin advising him of market conditions in Portugal in August and September 1795 did not reach him until May of the following year. Letters advising him on the United States market were often received more quickly if they were sent overland to Quebec and then brought down to Paspébiac, but in winter this was an expensive arrangement. Mail from Europe might travel through several ports on several ships before reaching Paspébiac and, naturally, some was delayed, lost or captured. To assure that his own correspondence got through, Robin sent copies on subsequent voyages and often by alternate routes. He arranged for the Quebec company which supplied him with many of his provisions to handle his local business and to open and forward his mail.
With regard to markets and weather, timing was very important. Sometimes Robin sent a ship off in June to try to be first to market, while on other occasions he would delay until ice began to form on Chaleur Bay so his fish would be last to arrive at its destination. At times he dispatched a ship before it was full, fearing that the fish already aboard would spoil before it reached port. Ships sent to the West Indies were timed to avoid the hurricane season. After pondering the latest rumours and his out-of-date mail, Robin often simply trusted to his own instinct; as he said, "Trade is a mere lotery." His luck served him well; he lost few ships and usually guessed correctly when the market would be best.
Charles Robin may have personally visited many of the Iberian ports earlier in his career for he knew his markets well. He was aware that some of his ships were too heavy to go over the bar in the harbour of Bilbao and that the bargemen there should not be trusted. He was familiar with seasonal wind conditions in the Straits of Gibraltar and knew the best unloading positions on the dock at Santander. When he was forced to shift his markets to the United States, he knew the most reliable merchants to deal with for he had spent a winter in Boston before the American Revolution. Although he had never visited the West Indies, he was knowledgeable about the weather conditions there.
The company captains played an important role in the commercial process. Robin supplied them with very detailed and precise instructions on every voyage and gave them many responsibilities. They were told to avoid port charges by bartering with the merchants without bringing the ship into the harbour. They could sell some of the fish in one port and then move on to another (Robin often suggested two or more alternative ports), with due care that the extra time spent did not spoil the fish. They had to make sure the fish was always unloaded quickly because of the danger of spoilage and because the merchants would often try to delay them until more ships arrived to drive the price down. The captains were expected to get the best possible deal, but, all things being equal, Robin preferred that they deal with the British merchants and brokers who lived in many of the Spanish and Portuguese ports. There was, indeed, a member of the Pipon family established in Bilbao.
The captains also had to procure ballast or, preferably, cargo for the return voyage; Portuguese salt was always in demand on the fisheries and Spanish wines and olives sold well at Quebec. The captains were charged too with handling mail, arranging insurance for the return trip, hiring new crewmen and asking ships along the way for the latest war news and market conditions. When they arrived back in Gaspé the captains were expected to work on the fisheries directing fishing and curing operations. In addition to either a salary or a percentage of the voyage's profits, they were usually given some of the fish to sell on their own.
Robin had to keep himself well informed on currency matters. He dealt in a great variety of British, French, Portuguese and Spanish coinage and assiduously advised his captains on what form of payment to accept. Normally the cargo sold for one-third cash and the remainder on short-term credit (three to six months) on which one-half per cent per month interest was credited to the company's account in London. Nervous about theft and piracy in Spain and Portugal, Robin instructed the captains to leave specie with the merchants until the day of departure and then hide it well on the ship. He preferred them to use specie to purchase cargo for the return voyage; cargo was not so susceptible to theft as money.
Occasionally Robin planned ruses for his captains to employ if they were stopped by pirates or warships. Inasmuch as most of his captains and crews were French-speaking Jerseymen, Robin, in one instance, told his captain that if stopped by the French he should claim to be a French ship bringing fish from Saint Pierre and Miquelon to Saint Malo; appropriate French hats were provided the crew. In other cases, captains were told to fly the American flag to trick the French. Robin planned deceptions at the expense of British interests as well. Business was business and, as he said, "Master's Interests . . . ought to be no rule in the least." For a trading expedition to Dominica and Martinique he devised a means of registering considerably less cargo with the British authorities than his ship carried; the money he saved on unpaid duties amounted to a handsome profit. Though he failed, he tried to use a similar device in his American trade by forging ships' registers and customs-house papers to indicate that his ships had sailed from Massachusetts, thus avoiding registration fees and customs duties. He was also alert to any threat from foreigners, especially Americans, entering the bay to compete with him for fish. In 1790 he went to great lengths to expose a group of American traders who were operating on forged registries.9
Robin normally paid 10 to 12 shillings per quintal for good quality dried fish which he sold in Portugal for around 23 shillings. Although it is impossible to determine how much of the 100-per-cent markup was net gain, Robin normally paid less than other traders for fish caught in Chaleur Bay. Because of his prominence in the fishing industry, he seldom had to raise his price for cod in response to the local supply. In 1796, for example, the catch was poor; Robin did not increase his price yet still managed to deliver as much fish to Europe as he had the previous year. His fish always sold for more than the current price in Spain and Portugal where, he said, "Our Fish is known." He established a reputation for being able, except in wartime, to deliver fish of standard good quality regularly.
A temporary peace in Europe finally allowed Robin to retire in 1802. He had invested his own money and his whole life in the firm and he had always been more interested in building a family business than in becoming a rich man. When Robin died in Jersey in 1824 he left an estate worth about £22,000; his financial rewards had certainly been adequate.10
By the 1790s only three fish exporters were still operating in Gaspé. The Janvrins and Daniel McPherson worked on Gaspé Bay while Charles Robin had a monopoly on Chaleur Bay. Robin felt that the Gaspé fishing industry required a monopoly; he said after his retirement that "it is evident that if there is no competition at present it is because the place is poor."11 Some historians12 believe that only a large concern like Charles Robin and Company could efficiently market Gaspé fish in Europe; in this way, at least, the local inhabitants benefited from the efficiency and size of the Robin organisation. Gaspé had suffered depopulation and starvation when trading ceased during the revolutionary war, but during the European wars of the 1790s Gaspé fish did not lose its market; however, the methods by which Charles Robin built his strong and efficient business were often unpleasant and pernicious for the people of Gaspé.
In order to ensure himself of a steady supply of dried fish at the lowest possible price, Robin introduced the truck system of credit into the Gaspé fisheries. After the fisherman caught and cured his fish, Robin would generally have his men inspect and weigh them. The value of the fish would then be credited against the accounts which the fisherman had run up at the Robin store in obtaining such imported necessities as food, clothing, fishing equipment and salt. The fisherman used fish as his medium of exchange to purchase store goods and Robin used goods (or "truck") as his medium to obtain fish. The fisherman procured many of his goods in advance on credit and sometimes, perhaps because of poor weather, he did not catch enough fish in the summer to pay off his accounts at the Robin store. In this case he often had to work for the Robins during the winter, repairing boats and making barrels. Some men were occasionally taken on as crew for Robin ships making their winter voyages to Europe. There were no other merchants on Chaleur Bay with whom the fisherman could trade; if he did not co-operate he could not sell his fish locally or buy salt to continue fishing. In effect, the truck system of credit allowed Robin to buy fish at a price no higher than what it took the fisherman to live on. An observer reported to Haldimand in 1783 that the system kept "the poor Inhabitants so much in debt as to oblige them to spend the whole Summer Season in fishing to pay up their arrears."13 The system also allowed Robin to compete successfully and consistently on the European market.
Another means by which Robin protected his investment in the fisheries was by gaining influence in the government. Lieutenant Governor Cox became, for a time, deeply in debt to Robin, and Cox's successor, Francis LeMaistre, was a Jerseyman whom Robin described as "an intimate Friend" of his brother Philip. With these connections Robin was able to secure a seat on the Gaspé Land Board, which had authority to grant lands to new settlers, and a term as judge of the Gaspé Court of Common Pleas.
Robin also allied himself with Felix O'Hara, long-time senior judge in the Gaspé district and the official who acted for the lieutenant governor in his absence. O'Hara's son Edward was the Gaspé representative in the legislative assembly in the 1790s. In 1796 Robin, concerned that Edward O'Hara might not try for reelection, attempted to get one of his Quebec business associates to run, for "its a good Man & Friend we want." In the end O'Hara ran again and was reelected. Percé was selected as the only poll for the entire District of Gaspé, chosen presumably by either LeMaistre or Felix O'Hara, but Robin too may have had a say in the matter. Although he and his employees were not able to vote because of the distance, Robin was not worried for he knew Judge O'Hara had "a great Influence in that quarter." Edward O'Hara was nominated by Philip Robin Junior and received four of the five votes cast.14 (The population of the Gaspé district at this time was about 3,000 souls.)
O'Hara did not contest the election of 1800 and Robin decided to remain neutral and offend neither candidate; however within a year he had fallen out with the winner and vowed to have him defeated at the next election, claiming he could deliver at least 30 votes. Robin retired to Jersey before the next election, but he had established a practice which was followed by his successors: for many years thereafter Charles Robin and Company controlled elections in Gaspé.
Robin's political influence did not win him many favours from the government, but he at least felt safe that his alliances would protect him from any government actions which could harm his interests. One such occasion arose in the 1780s when Robin was trying to secure his land holdings on Chaleur Bay.
A third means by which Charles Robin strengthened his position in the fishing industry was by gaining exclusive control of the best beach properties. In 1773 the British government had approved Robin's petition for land at Paspébiac, but war broke out before the governor at Quebec acted. When Robin returned after the war he found that the land around Paspébiac was being reserved for a settlement of Loyalists so he moved quickly to have Cox protect his interests. First, the land adjacent to the barachois at Paspébiac was set aside as a timber reserve, free to be exploited by any fisherman. Then in 1785 Robin was granted title to all the land at Paspébiac on which he had erected buildings besides an additional 1,000 acres at the mouth of the Cascapédia River. The latter was an important salmon fishery and the land Robin obtained at Paspébiac gave him control of the best beach property on Chaleur Bay. Furthermore, in 1786 the government decided that no more beaches would be granted to private individuals or firms on Chaleur Bay; the remaining ungranted shoreline was to remain in the public domain and left open for use by any British fisherman.15 This allowed Robin to enjoy his own private beach as well as the public beaches of the bay.
In 1793 he extended his holdings by having John Fiott arrange the purchase of the seigneury of Grande Rivière from its owners in England. The seigneury was a valuable acquisition for it was not far up the bay from the rich fisheries of Percé. The seigneury had a good beach for curing fish and within a few years it was supplying Robin with a substantial proportion of his fish production. The only other privately held shore properties on Chaleur Bay were seigneuries which, for various reasons, remained undeveloped for many years.
Charles Robin has been accused of making it his policy "to discourage the cultivation of the Lands."16 Although he stood to benefit if agriculture did not expand in Gaspé, the accusation is too strong. Certainly Robin wanted to be sure that there would always be enough local residents catching and curing fish for him to buy and that there would be enough men to work on his own fishing boats, beaches and shipyard; if they were farming he could not depend on them. It was also important that the forests near his fishing posts not be cleared for agriculture as Robin needed a nearby source of timber for his buildings, fish-curing flakes and shipyard. But there is no evidence that Robin used his influence with either the government or the fishermen to actively discourage agriculture on Chaleur Bay.
The most important characteristic Robin used to build his company may have been the personal attention he brought to his business. He lived permanently and frugally on the fisheries and devoted his life to the company which bore his name. He seems to have had little interest in things outside the business; he was concerned about European politics only insofar as they could affect his markets. He never married and, beginning in 1783, he spent 19 consecutive years on the Chaleur Bay fisheries. During that period the only time he left the bay was January to March 1787 when he walked to Quebec and back to lobby with the legislative council about fishing regulations.
Robin invested in the fishing industry not only his life and his money, but great physical exertion as well. For example, on his first day on Chaleur Bay in 1767 he landed at Paspébiac at 3:00 p.m., sailed in a shallop for the Acadian village of Bonaventure at 5:00 p.m., arrived there at 8:00 p.m. and traded with the inhabitants throughout the night. He left at dawn and arrived back at Paspébiac by 8:00 a.m. to leave on another trading trip three hours later. It was 20 years later that he undertook his journey to Quebec; in 1787 he was 43 years old and had spent most of his life on or by the sea, yet he walked 300 miles each way in winter along the route which later became the Kempt Road.17 He kept up a strenuous pace even in his later years, working a seven-day week and spending much of his time afloat in small, half-decked vessels in dirty weather trading for fish. Occasionally he would lend a hand loading and unloading fish or helping the shoremen cure their cod.
When he was not performing physical tasks, Robin's time was occupied by bookwork. He gave his personal and thorough attention to every possible detail of the business: watching over his shipyard, ordering provisions and equipment from Quebec and England, hiring workers, preparing cargoes, checking inventories and accounts, arranging insurance, instructing his captains and writing voluminous letters.
He was a superb example of the puritan ideal of hard work, self-denial and frugality. Nothing was wasted on Charles Robin and Company fisheries and he himself disputed the smallest apparent discrepancy with his suppliers at Quebec. He enjoyed no leisure time; the enforced idleness of winter was only to be endured impatiently. He complained constantly that his partners did not appreciate his sacrifices and that they did not support his enterprise sufficiently: ships arrived too late in spring, trade goods and provisions were poor in quality, vital correspondence was lost through carelessness and he was not supplied with enough skilled manpower.
The years of toil eventually resulted in stomach ulcers but Robin continued to pursue his life's work. He guided his company through the difficult war years and when he retired in 1802 the firm was in a position to take advantage of improved market conditions. Charles Robin and Company flourished in the 19th century by following the business methods implemented by its founder in the previous century.
Charles Robin and Company after 1802
Charles Robin's eldest nephew directed the company for the next 13 years and under his leadership it expanded enormously. Philip Robin Junior was only 32 years old when he took over the company, but he already had over 15 years' experience on the Chaleur Bay fisheries. After only a short peace, war resumed in Europe in 1803; hostilities continued for another ten years but this time the company was helped instead of harmed. Foodstuffs were scarce in war-torn Europe, fish prices rose and American competition was reduced; the company made good profits.18 Within a generation Charles Robin and Company was one of the most important enterprises on the entire Atlantic coast.
In 1811 Philip Robin Junior married Marthe Arbou of Percé by whom he had had an illegitimate son and daughter; there was no Protestant clergyman in the area at the time so the ceremony was conducted by a local justice of the peace. He left her and the children behind when he retired in 1814; he later married another woman and lived in Switzerland where he died in 1841. Even after retirement, however, he appears to have retained a measure of control over the general direction of the family firm.
In his will Philip Robin Junior left £2,000 to his "natural daughter" Elizabeth, who had married John LeBoutillier; a £3,000 trust fund for her and her children, and a grant of £100 annually for Marthe Arbou. He made no recognition of Marthe as his wife. She had had the document witnessed at the 1811 ceremony, the son of the justice of the peace swore it was in the handwriting of Philip Robin Junior and many residents attested that she had always been known as "Dame Philip Robin"; however, the courts refused to recognize her as Philip's widow and legal heir to his estate. The estate totalled £33,000 and £15,000 (United States currency) besides furniture, goods and shares in Charles Robin and Company and in the Philip Robin Company.19
The year that Philip Robin Junior was married at Percé, Monseigneur J.-O. Plessis travelled through Gaspé and left the following description of Paspébiac and the Charles Robin company:
After Philip Robin Junior's retirement the company was directed by his brother James and later by James's son Charles William Robin.21 A series of Jerseymen were appointed as managers at Paspébiac. In 1836 Abbe Ferland observed that the company
Abbé Nérée Gingras, who served as a missionary at Percé from 1849 to 1856, said:
The following is a sample indenture for the Jerseymen who contracted to come out to work for the company:
Over the years the company strengthened its marketing position by tightening its standards for fish exports, strictly grading its fish into three categories: (1) Merchantable the best fish, sent to Spain and Portugal; (2) Madeira sent to that island; (3) West Indies badly cured, salt burnt and broken fish, sent to the plantations, also the grade normally sold at Quebec.25 The fish sent to Brazil were packed in 128-pound drums (the Portuguese quintal) shaped to be conveniently carried in pairs on mules into the Brazilian interior.26
The first Paspébiac manager, William Fruing, wrote in 1828 that the company employed 330 men in Gaspé in the fishing season and that it had 1,640 tons (that is, nine square-rigged vessels built in the company's Paspébiac shipyard) of ocean-going shipping and 310 tons (seven schooners) for the coasting trade.27 Undoubtedly, the company was large and powerful if one may judge from the number of complaints about its influence in judicial and political matters. In 1830 François Buteau estimated that no more than ten per cent of the fishermen on Chaleur Bay were not indebted to the company.28 Abbé Ferland charged that if the people tried to sell their fish elsewhere, the company would call in its debt immediately. He said that the company would make no advances before a certain date even if the stores were full and the people starving. Since the people were paid in truck in advance, they could not put anything aside for the future. If they were owed more than they needed, they ended up taking payment in luxuries; thus some of the women were better dressed that those of the Quebec suburbs.29 The competition provided by the LeBoutilliers and others beginning in the 1830s brought prices down a little, but the truck system of credit and the "company store" continued to prevail in Gaspé.
Many people believed that the creation of free ports in Gaspé would be advantageous. After 1861, imports landed at these ports were allowed to enter free of duty; the policy was intended as a favour to the fishing industry in lieu of the bounty which it had long wanted. This legislation generated a great increase in shipping traffic in Gaspé and as a result more ships were available to which local fishermen could sell fish for cash.
Fortin reported in 1864 that
However, an 1865 report on the effect of the free ports claimed that although there had been a decline in local prices, "the chief advantage has gone to the principal merchants"; it was "useless for small capitalists to attempt competition" against the "Jersey houses" that "practically control the price of fish, which they regulate by an understanding among themselves." They outfitted the fishermen in advance "during winter on account of the succeeding season's fishing" and obtained "the whole season's catch for what it costs the fishermen to live through the year."31 The truck system of credit implemented by Charles Robin in 1767 lingered on in some parts of Gaspé into the 20th century.32
In 1886 another Jersey firm engaged in the Gaspé fisheries amalgamated with Charles Robin and Company to form the Charles Robin Collas Company. In 1910 further changes produced the Robin, Jones & Whitman Company with its headquarters in Halifax instead of Jersey.33 The firm is still operating under that name today, its headquarters at Paspébiac; however, the people of Gaspé still refer to the firm as "The Robins."
The impact of the fisheries on Gaspé was total. The pattern of life was moulded by one industry and it was controlled by only a few powerful companies. In the case of Charles Robin and his company, the fisheries dominated the lives of the managers as well as the workers; continued success in the fishing industry required management to devote full and constant attention to the business.
The predominance of the fisheries in Gaspé produced a society quite different from that prevailing in the rest of the province. In 1832, while debating the Gaspé fisheries in the assembly, Louis-Joseph Papineau asserted that the Province of Lower Canada was "essentially agricultural," that it should remain that way, and that the fisheries should be given no encouragement.34 In the face of this sort of attitude, the people of Gaspé could hardly feel that they were part of the Province of Lower Canada.