Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Robinson, John (1839-1903)

ROBINSON, Sir JOHN (1839–1903), first prime minister of Natal, son of George Eyre Robinson, was born at Hull, Yorkshire, in 1839, and came out to Natal with his parents in 1850. Coming to a colony which was only seven years old, where there were as yet no secondary schools, he had little chance of education, apart from the stimulus of 'cultured parents.' Entering the office of the 'Natal Mercury,' which his father started, he cherished leanings towards the life of a missionary, and then towards the law; but he finally accepted the career of journalism, and by the time of his majority was able to take over the active management of the paper from his father, whose health had failed (31 March 1860). In September 1860 he entered into partnership with Mr. Richard Vause, afterwards a prominent mayor of Durban; but himself remained editor.

Arranging for the conduct of the 'Mercury' during his absence, in 1861 he journeyed to England by the east coast of Africa, Mauritius, and the Red Sea, whence he passed through Egypt, Palestine, Syria, certain of the Levant and Mediterranean ports to Athens, Rome, and Paris. He stayed some five months in the United Kingdom, where he studied the International Exhibition of 1862, and lectured on the colony; he also visited part of the Continent before setting out 'for Natal again. Six months after his return in 1863 he was elected to the council for Durban, thus becoming one of the twelve elected members of the old legislative council, with the work of which he had been familiar in the first instance as reporter. But Robinson devoted himself chiefly to his newspaper and literary work. The 'Natal Mercury' passed from a weekly paper to three issues a week, and thence to a daily paper. He contributed to the neighbouring press at Capetown, and to home journals such as the 'Cornhill Magazine,' where his first article, 'A South African Watering Place,' appeared in 1868. He also found time to write a good novel, 'George Linton' (1876). He maintained a reputation as a lecturer, but this work became gradually merged in the more absorbing claims of the political platform. After some fifteen years' experience of administration by the crown, Robinson formed a strong opinion in favour of responsible government for Natal. He had been impressed by the troubles of the Langalibalele affair in 1873; he was a delegate for Natal at the South African Conference in London in 1876, and then had to face the Zulu campaign in 1879. Convinced that it was his mission to obtain self-government for the colony, he was opposed by his friend Sir Harry Escombe [q. v. Suppl. I], and his policy was defeated in the elections of May 1882, when he lost his seat for Durban. He was nevertheless back in the council in 1884, and in 1887 was chosen as their representative at the Colonial Conference in London of that year. On the occasion of this visit to England he was received by Queen Victoria and presented the colony's loyal address. In 1888 he represented Natal in the South African Customs Conference which led to the formation of the Customs Union. He was created K.C.M.G. in 1889. But he always kept before him the ideal of a self-governed colony, and his writings and speeches gradually convinced his opponents; in 1892 he had the satisfaction of finding Escombe fighting by his side. He was one of the representatives who proceeded to England in that year to press the colonists' views.

Robinson's efforts proved successful, and on 4 July 1893, when the new regime began, he assumed office as the first prime minister of Natal, with the portfolios of colonial secretary and minister of education. The gradual organisation of a responsible administration was effected quietly, and Robinson's nearly four years of office were uneventful. In March 1897 he resigned on account of failing health, hastening his retirement so that his successor might accept the invitation to Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. He went to England that summer in a private capacity, and thence on to Rome, of which he was fond, and which he revisited in 1900. In 1898 the legislature voted him a pension of 500l. a year. For the rest of his life he mainly lived in retirement at his home, the Gables, Bayside, Durban, where he died on 5 Nov. 1903. He was buried at the Durban cemetery; the staff of the 'Mercury' bore him to his grave.

Robinson's life was governed by the highest ideals and motives. As a journalist he aimed not only at style and lucidity but at justice and temperance of statement.

He married in 1865 Agnes, daughter of Dr. Benjamin Blaine of Verulam, Natal, who survived him; he had issue three sons and four daughters. A statue of him was erected in the Town Gardens of Durban, and some scholarships were also founded from the money subscribed.

In addition to the work cited, Robinson published: 1. 'The Colonies and the Century,' 1899. 2. 'A Lifetime in South Africa,' 1900.

[Natal Mercury, 6 and 7 Nov. 1903; Natal Witness, 6 Nov. 1903; South Africa, 7 Nov. 1903; Henderson's Durban, p. 217; Natal Blue Books, 1882 sqq.]

C. A. H.