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AINSLIE, GEORGE ROBERT, army officer and colonial administrator; b. 1776 near Edinburgh, eldest son of Philip Ainslie and Elizabeth Gray, daughter of Lord Gray; m. 17 Dec. 1802 Sophia Charlotte Nevile, niece of the 4th Earl of Gainsborough, and they had two sons and three daughters; d. 16 April 1839 in Edinburgh.

George Robert Ainslie entered the army as an ensign in the 19th Foot in 1793 and then served in Flanders. That same year he joined the 85th Foot as a lieutenant, and he was given a company on 15 April 1794. He served in the Netherlands, initially on Walcheren and after September 1794 on the Waal River, fighting against the French in these areas until 1799, when he was promoted major. Ainslie failed to distinguish himself in the expedition to northern Holland that year, and in January 1800 he was given the position of lieutenant-colonel in the Birmingham Fencibles, a non-regular unit. Despite his family connections his career did not advance until 1807, when he was reappointed to the regular army as a lieutenant-colonel, first in the 5th Garrison Battalion and then in the 25th Foot. On 25 July 1810 Ainslie was promoted brevet colonel.

Though Ainslie had no administrative experience, he used his family influence to obtain in 1812 the governorship of St Eustatius, in the Leeward Islands; two months after his appointment he became lieutenant governor of Grenada. Made brigadier-general the same year, he was named governor of Dominica in April 1813. The appointment to Dominica proved unfortunate. Ainslie had an excitable temperament which did not fit him for civil administration, and he was reprimanded for suspending the secretary and registrar of the colony. More serious, he reacted with undue violence towards a maroon uprising by beheading one of the leaders and threatening to kill all runaway men, women, and children. There was an outcry in parliament, and Whitehall recalled him within a year of his appointment. In retribution he was forced to accept an inferior post, lieutenant governor of Cape Breton.

Though he was the tenth head of the colony, which had been founded in 1784, Ainslie was only the third lieutenant governor; his predecessor as lieutenant governor, William Macarmick*, had held the office in absentia from his departure in 1795 until his death in 1815, a succession of administrators taking his place. Ainslie was deeply disappointed by the posting, and he had had to accept a drastic reduction in pay. Moreover, his liver was in poor condition and he had amaurosis, a partial blindness – ailments which he blamed on over-exposure to the tropical sun. Since snow glare exacerbated his eye complaint, Cape Breton can hardly have appealed to him. Though he was offered the lieutenant governorship in December 1815 he did not reach Sydney until 4 Nov. 1816, having found his own passage via Paris, Amsterdam, and Halifax. His tardy arrival allowed a crisis to develop which would eventually destroy the colony.

In September 1815 Colonel Jonas Fitzherbert, the commander of the garrison, had become administrator. A former attorney general, Richard Collier Bernard DesBarres Marshall Gibbons, took advantage of Fitzherbert’s lack of administrative experience to circulate a petition which demanded that a house of assembly be called. The colony had been granted an assembly at its inception, but none had ever been called because most of the island’s administrators considered it could not draw upon sufficient financial resources or educated electors. The result was that no taxes had been collected until a duty on imported rum was imposed by John Despard* in 1801. The colonial élite continued to be divided over the legality of this tax, opposition to it being headed by Gibbons. In 1813 Hugh Swayne, the administrator, had forced Gibbons to resign as attorney general, thus putting a temporary end to the debate. Unlike Swayne, Fitzherbert was not concerned by the pro-assembly movement, and he treated Gibbons’s petition lightly. Since he had suffered no reprisals, Gibbons went further and persuaded his ally Ranna Cossit, the assistant collector of the rum tax, to cease collections in June 1816. Fitzherbert realized that matters were out of hand and in August threatened Cossit with removal. Cossit backed down and began collecting taxes again, including those unpaid in the interim. The operators of the island’s coal mines, Ritchie and Leaver, refused to pay the back taxes, and Fitzherbert had no alternative but to take the firm to court. There the chief justice, Archibald Charles Dodd*, agreed with the firm’s lawyer, Gibbons, that taxes were illegal in Cape Breton because they had not been authorized by an assembly.

Ainslie, arriving in the midst of this crisis, found that the collection of revenues had been halted by Dodd’s decision just when money was badly needed to assist destitute settlers because of the “summerless year” of 1816, when snow and frost had struck during the growing season. He could only beg the Colonial Office for assistance, which was not forthcoming. When in 1817 he began to collect a duty on exports of gypsum in order to raise funds, Gibbons protested. Ainslie’s temper flared, and he asserted his authority by decreeing that Executive Council meetings would be rigidly structured and the powers of councillors limited. He dismissed from office and council, as in Dominica, those who questioned his decisions, including Thomas H. Crawley, the long-serving surveyor general, and Richard Stout*, the colony’s most important merchant. There was soon warfare between Ainslie and almost all local officials, who, despite political differences, banded together against their common enemy. Ainslie could thus accomplish very little, and by 1818 he was complaining that the colonials were “linked together by . . . Roguery.” Cape Bretoners also complained, probably hoping that Ainslie’s reputation would lend credence to their arguments.

In the mean time, in April 1818 Gibbons had presented to parliament a petition for an assembly which claimed that all ordinances of the Executive Council were illegal since an assembly had never been called to approve them. The colonial secretary, Lord Bathurst, asked the English law officers to determine if Gibbons’s position was justified, and was told it was. Ainslie, however, had previously asserted that the people of Cape Breton were too poor and illiterate to support an assembly. It was therefore decided that the colony would receive representative government by being reannexed to Nova Scotia.

When he was secretly informed of the plan early in 1819, Ainslie reacted with delight. He deeply disliked the islanders, seeing them as “the refuse of the 3 Kingdoms,” and hoped that reannexation would lessen their “petty importance.” His existence must have been miserable when word of the impending takeover was made public in Sydney, but permission for him to leave came too late in 1819 and he did not depart until June 1820. On 16 Oct. 1820 Lieutenant Governor Sir James Kempt* of Nova Scotia officially proclaimed the end of Cape Breton as a separate colony

After arriving in England, Ainslie sought a retirement allowance of £500 out of the revenue from the Cape Breton coal mines, but the pension was refused because of official disapproval of his conduct in the colony. His failures haunted him for the rest of his life, and though he was promoted lieutenant-general in May 1825 he obtained no further employment. He used his leisure to pursue his hobby of numismatics, and published in 1830 a magnificent quarto volume entitled Illustrations of the Anglo-French coinage.

It is obvious that Ainslie was better suited to learned pursuits than to military life or to colonial administration. The industry and zeal he displayed in his study of coins soured to impatience, irascibility, and vituperation when he was dealing with people. In Dominica this attribute brought on a public outcry, and in Cape Breton it precipitated the long-delayed decision on the political fate of the island. His tenure represented a bitter end to Cape Breton’s existence as a separate colony.

R. J. Morgan

George Robert Ainslie is the author of Illustrations of the Anglo-French coinage: taken from the cabinet of a fellow of the antiquarian societies of London, and Scotland; of the royal societies of France, Normandy, and many others, British as well as foreign . . . (London, 1830).

PRO, CO 217/134–36, 217/138–39. Annual reg. (London), 1839: 333. Gentleman’s Magazine, January–June 1814: 509. DNBThe royal military calendar, containing the service of every general officer in the British army, from the date of their first commission . . . , ed. John Philippart (3v., London, 1815–[16]), vols.2–3.

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Cite This Article

R. J. Morgan, “AINSLIE, GEORGE ROBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 24, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/ainslie_george_robert_7E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/ainslie_george_robert_7E.html
Author of Article:   R. J. Morgan
Title of Article:   AINSLIE, GEORGE ROBERT
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   April 24, 2024