BROOKING, ROBERT, Methodist minister; b. March 1813 near Tavistock, England; m. first 1843 Elizabeth, and they had at least one daughter; m. a second time in 1863 and had one daughter; d. 21 Dec. 1893 in Cobourg, Ont.
Robert Brooking was orphaned early in life and had to earn his own livelihood from the time he was nine. Always practical and hard working, he became a manual labourer and completed his elementary education at a night school. Brooking experienced his major religious awakening in 1832, the year before the anti-slavery coalition achieved the abolition of slavery in British colonies. Thereafter the anti-slavery movement was largely transformed into a missionary crusade to disseminate Protestantism and British civilization among aboriginal peoples, especially those in west Africa, the area of the worst atrocities of the evil commerce in human beings. In late 1839 Brooking, a newly ordained graduate of the Richmond Theological Institute, became an active participant in this significant episode in Christian evangelization. That year the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society sent him to the Gold Coast region of west Africa, where he preached for six years.
On the Gold Coast, Brooking worked closely with Thomas Birch Freeman, later the most effective Wesleyan missionary in west Africa. His own achievements were more modest. As he would do later in British North America, Brooking devoted a great part of his energies to constructing mission buildings and maintaining mechanical devices in good working order. By setting an example of disciplined Christian orderliness, he hoped to win natives away from the local religious leaders, or “fetish men” as he called them, whose practices appalled him.
In 1846 Brooking became ill and returned to England, where he spent a year convalescing. It is said that his hearing was permanently impaired thereafter. In 1847 he was sent to Upper Canada, largely because it was thought the climate would be advantageous to his health. Brooking indeed did thrive in the Canadian atmosphere. With his wife, he threw himself into missionary work among the local Indians, at Rice Lake with Shah-wun-dais* and then at the St Clair Mission. This experience prepared him for the greatest challenge of his career. In 1854 Brooking, his wife, John Ryerson*, and several other ministers went to Rupert’s Land. They were the first missionaries sent there by the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Canada, a quickly expanding evangelical enterprise with headquarters in Toronto.
Between 1854 and 1859 Brooking and his equally committed wife worked among the Indians at Oxford House (Man.) and Norway House (Man.) missions. During most of this period he also acted as chairman of the church’s huge Hudson’s Bay District. It was as a craftsman rather than as an administrator, however, that Brooking’s achievements can most readily be measured. His reports speak in abundant detail of the homes, churches, schools, fences, fish houses, and boats that he constructed from laboriously fashioned boards. As always, the practical tasks necessary to establish the physical infrastructure of missions most engaged the capacities of the energetic minister.
Unlike some missionaries in Rupert’s Land, such as James Evans*, Brooking seems to have had little interest in tribal or Hudson’s Bay Company politics. Achievement for him was measured by the number of boards cut or the number of souls saved. In the rare instances where he did express a political opinion, he sided with the HBC. Brooking charged in 1858 that those independent traders who defied the company’s trading monopoly regularly exploited and debauched the Indians and he wrote, “The philanthropic people of Canada will do well to consider the best means of protecting the poor Indians from that class of people.”
Brooking returned to the less expansive Indian mission field of Upper Canada in 1860 when he came to the Rama Reserve on Lake Couchiching. In 1862 he witnessed the passing of the mother of his colleague the Reverend Henry Bird Steinhauer*, an Indian of the Rama band with whom he had worked closely in Rupert’s Land. Later that year he also buried his first wife. Brooking left Rama in 1868, working at the Hiawatha Reserve and other locations in Ontario until 1881. He then moved to Cobourg where, it is said, he spent his remaining years in quiet and contented retirement.
Robert Brooking was a good and kindly man who did his utmost to share his Christian enthusiasm with indigenous people in west Africa and British North America. He seems not to have been a very complex individual; there was no doubt or ambivalence in his mind about the ultimate rightness of his calling. Undauntable and uncomplicated convictions made him an effective agent in the expansion of Methodism into the northwest. His career personifies something of the interrelation between Upper Canadian metropolitanism and British imperialism in the colonization of Indian lands in northwestern North America.
UCC-C, Robert Brooking papers. Methodist Church (Canada, Newfoundland, Bermuda), Bay of Quinte Conference, Minutes (Toronto), 1894: 10. John Ryerson, Hudson’s Bay; or, a missionary tour in the territory of the Hon. Hudson’s Bay Company . . . (Toronto, 1855). Wesleyan Methodist Church in Canada, Missionary Soc., Annual report (Toronto), 1855–59, 1862–63. Cornish, Cyclopædia of Methodism. Carroll, Case and his cotemporaries, 5: 10. P. D. Curtin, The image of Africa: British ideas and action, 1780–1850 (London, 1965). Frits Pannekoek, “The Rev. James Evans and the social antagonisms of the fur trade society,” Canadian plains studies 3: religion and society in the prairie west, ed. Richard Allen (Regina, 1974), 1–18. J. H. Riddell, Methodism in the middle west (Toronto, 1946). L. O. Sanneh, West African Christianity: the religious impact (London, 1983), 119–23. J. [A.] Gallagher, “Powell Buxton and the new African policy, 1838–1842,” Cambridge Hist. Journal (Cambridge, Eng.), 10 (1950–52): 36–58. H. D. Tresidder, “That old Rama Church,” United Church Observer (Toronto), 15 Jan. 1950: 18.