ROBSON, JOSEPH, stonemason, surveyor, engineer, critic of the HBC; fl. 1733–63.
Joseph Robson entered the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1733, and was engaged as a stonemason for three years at an annual salary of £25 to help build the massive stone Prince of Wales Fort (Churchill, Man.). He returned to the bay in 1744 for another three-year period at a salary of £32, this time as “Surveyor and Supervisor of the Buildings,” first at York Factory (Man.), and then during his last year at Churchill again. One of the reasons for the dual nature of his second appointment was probably the desire of the HBC to obtain more precise information about the country near its bayside posts, since the lack of such knowledge brought it under attack from Arthur Dobbs and other critics. Robson’s published maps and the HBC records show that he took his surveying duties seriously. Equipped with a box of surveying instruments he explored 40 or 50 miles up the Nelson River and produced charts of its course and soundings, as well as a plan of York Factory. At Prince of Wales Fort he similarly drew a plan of the post and a map of the lower reaches of the Churchill River.
This final year at Churchill, where he had been sent after quarrelling with other servants at York, was a turbulent one. Within a few days of arrival he was involved in disputes with the factor, Robert Pilgrim, about the construction of the fort, and these, together with the rumour that “the Govr was an odd sort of a man,” determined Robson to keep a journal of his experiences. This has survived, and reveals continual quarrelling between Pilgrim and Robson which reached a climax just before Robson left for England in August 1747, when he was accused with others of near-mutiny. In his letter to the London committee that autumn Pilgrim commented that Robson and two others had “Declar’d themselves Your Honrs. Enemys.”
With this history behind him, it is not surprising that after his return to England Robson became involved in the campaign mounted by Dobbs against the HBC, and he gave evidence before the parliamentary committee of 1749 investigating the trade of Hudson Bay. His statements were moderately critical of the company, which he thought adopted too harsh a trade standard with the Indians, and whose servants were reluctant to expand inland; but on the whole his evidence, which comes to life only when he is castigating the factors at York and Churchill for their amateurish interference with construction work at the forts, must have been a disappointment to Dobbs. This impression is confirmed by Robson himself in his book, An account of six years residence in Hudson’s-Bay, published in 1752, when he refers to his appearance before the parliamentary committee: “for want of confidence, and an ability to express myself clearly, the account I then gave was far from being so exact and full as that which I intended to have given.”
Robson’s book was of prime importance, since it was the earliest to reflect first-hand knowledge of service with the HBC, and was written by someone who had spent six years in Hudson Bay. (Other authors such as Henry Ellis had spent only one winter there.) Displaying maps of the Nelson, Hayes, and Churchill rivers, tables of winds and tides, and statistics of the costs incurred in building Prince of Wales Fort, it had an authentic ring, “honest and just” as one reviewer described it. Its criticisms of the HBC were consequently the more telling, with stories of oppressive behaviour by the company factors, their refusal to explore the interior, and their incompetence in building work. In one vigorous sentence Robson summarized the case of the company’s critics: “The Company have for eighty years slept at the edge of a frozen sea; they have shewn no curiosity to penetrate farther themselves, and have exerted all their art and power to crush that spirit in others.” This general allegation was supported by a 64-page appendix which scrutinized the company’s history and the evidence produced by its spokesmen before the parliamentary committee of 1749. Recent investigations have shown that Dobbs, not Robson, wrote this long and polemic appendix, that he also revised Robson’s text, and that he intended the book to “further expose the management of the Company.” In brief, although on certain technical points connected with the construction of the forts Robson’s evidence is probably reliable, his more general comments on the company’s policies must be regarded as those of a biased and partial critic.
After 1752 Robson slips from sight, to emerge again briefly in 1763 when his second book, The British Mars, was published. It was a work devoted in the main to techniques of coastal warfare and the art of fortifications, but contained a short section which repeated the allegations Robson had made against the HBC many years earlier, and suggested yet another attempt to find a northwest passage through Hudson Bay. In the preface Robson referred to his “Practice and Experience of above Thirty Years, in almost all kinds of Foundations and Walls, both in the Sea and on dry Land”; no other evidence has been discovered about his later career.
[References to Robson’s career with the company are in HBC Arch. A.1/36, p.145; A.1/122, p.83; A.6/7, ff.92d, 95; A.11/13, ff.24d, 101, 102; A.11/114, f.121. His Churchill journal of 1746–47 is in B.42/a/30 and his statements before the parliamentary committee of 1749 in G.B., Parl., Report from the committee on Hudson’s Bay, 215–17. Evidence of Dobbs’ co-authorship of An account of six years residence in Hudson’s-Bay, from 1733 to 1736, and 1744 to 1747 . . . (London, 1752) is in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, D.162/62, and has been examined by Glyndwr Williams in “Arthur Dobbs and Joseph Robson: new light on the relationship between two early critics of the Hudson’s Bay Company,” CHR, XL (1959), 132–36. For some contemporary comments on Robson’s book, see Gentleman’s Magazine, 1752, 290; Monthly Review (or Literary Journal) (London), VII (1752), 75–76; Jacques Savary Des Bruslons, The universal dictionary of trade and commerce, by Malachy Postlethwayt (2v., London, 1751–55), I, 961. Robson’s second book was The British Mars: containing several schemes and inventions, to be practised by land or sea against the enemies of Great-Britain . . . (London, 1763). g.w.]