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Robinson, Hercules George Robert (DNB01)

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ROBINSON, Sir HERCULES GEORGE ROBERT, first Baron Rosmead (1824–1897), colonial governor, was the second son of Admiral Hercules Robinson [q. v.] of Rosmead, Westmeath, Ireland, and Frances Elizabeth, only daughter of Henry Widman Wood of Rosmead. His brother, Sir William Cleaver Francis Robinson [q. v. Suppl.], was also a successful colonial governor. His uncle, Sir Bryan Robinson [q. v.], was a judge in Newfoundland. Lord Rosmead was born on 19 Dec. 1824 and was educated at Sandhurst. He joined the army as second lieutenant in the 87th regiment (Royal Irish fusiliers) on 27 Jan. 1843, became first lieutenant on 6 Sept. 1844, but retired in 1846, and accepted an appointment under the commissioners of public works for Ireland, and later under the poor law board. He did special service during the Irish famine of 1848. In 1852 he was appointed chief commissioner to inquire into the fairs and markets of Ireland.

On 3 March 1854 Robinson was appointed to one of those posts which for many years formed the nurseries of colonial governors, viz. that of president of Montserrat in the West Indies: he assumed office on 12 April 1854. This island he left in March 1855, and on 28 March arrived in the neighbouring island of St. Christopher, to which he was promoted as lieutenant-governor. The chief question in St. Christopher at this time was that of immigration from India, and it fell to Robinson to arrange for the introduction of a number of coolies. His brother, William Francis, began his colonial career under him here as superintendent of immigrants. In 1859 Hercules was promoted to be governor of Hong Kong, where he arrived on 9 Sept. 1859, so that he held the government during the war with China in 1860–1. He negotiated with the government of China for the cession of Kowloon, and carried out the arrangements for its annexation. He had also much to do in settling the finances and civil list of the colony. In 1863 he was a member of a commission to inquire into the financial position of the Straits Settlements. In 1865, on the expiration of the ordinary term of government, he went to Ceylon, arriving on 30 March 1865 at Galle, and assuming the government at Colombo the following day. Here he was brought into immediate contact with the question of developing a flourishing crown colony. Railway extension and telegraph construction were among the chief problems of the hour, and in such a colony the judgment of the governor is a leading factor in the final determination of routes and the districts to be served. Robinson reorganised the public works department of the colony on the lines which have made it perhaps the most efficient works department in the colonies. He was on leave of absence in England from August 1868 to May 1869, and finally relinquished the government at the end of his term in January 1872, coming to this country again on leave.

In February 1872 Robinson was gazetted to the government of New South Wales: this promotion to one of the great colonies even at that time showed that he had, in the opinion of the crown, succeeded unusually well in his previous appointments. His record in New South Wales was of course interwoven with the acts of his ministries, the chief of which were led by Sir Henry Parkes [q. v. Suppl.] and Sir John Robertson [q. v.], but Rusden considers that his personal firmness did much towards teaching local politicians that the state came before party interest. He arrived at Sydney on 3 June 1872, and on 13 Aug. first met the local parliament in proroguing it at the end of its ordinary session. The question of border duties as between New South Wales and Victoria and South Australia was one of the chief matters which occupied attention in this and the ensuing year. In the middle of 1874 the case of the bush-ranger Gardiner stirred a good deal of feeling, and the advice of ministers to the governor produced a vote of censure in the new parliament. Otherwise the politics of the period were not eventful. In September 1874, however, Robinson completed a work of national importance by negotiating the cession of the Fiji Islands, and he stayed at Suva administering the new government till the arrival of Sir Arthur Gordon (now Lord Stanmore), the first governor.

On 19 March 1879 Robinson left New South Wales, and on 27 March assumed the governorship of New Zealand, to which he had been previously gazetted. Here he found Sir George Grey's government in power, and a period of commercial depression weighing on the colony [see Grey, Sir George, Suppl.]; some small troubles with the natives were also pending. Gisborne describes Robinson's regime in this colony as that of a man prudent in counsel and energetic in action, who was still busy gathering materials for his own judgment when his administration was cut short by his transfer, in August 1880, to be governor of the Cape Colony and high commissioner of South Africa. The dual office demands peculiar ability; for the holder has his ministers to consider in the colony itself, while his position of high commissioner throws upon him the personal responsibility for action outside the Cape Colony.

Robinson went to the Cape at, one of the most critical periods of its history. On 16 Dec. 1880 the malcontent Boers in the Transvaal had declared their independence. He arrived in Cape Town on 22 Jan. 1881. In February he was called upon to negotiate terms of peace in circumstances which were a source of deep indignation throughout the greater part of the British Empire. When peace was concluded he had to face an extremely difficult situation. British and Boers were entirely out of sympathy. The antagonism was not only between the British colonies and the free republics, but between British and Dutch throughout South Africa wherever they came into contact. The native races also were restless and discontented. So far as his personal influence could affect such a situation, he handled the problem with rare tact and sagacity. He warded off in great measure the bitter hostility which the British in Africa at that time nourished towards the home government; he showed an active sense of the necessity of maintaining British influence; and throughout he fostered the idea that a cordial union between British and Dutch was the real foundation of peace and progress in South Africa.

It was not very long after the convention of 1881 that further difficulties with the Boers became inevitable owing to their action in the native territories immediately beyond their borders. In October 1881 the Bechuana chief Montsioa felt apprehensive and begged British protection, which was not conceded. Native disputes gave excuse for Boer interference. The Transvaal government professed to be unable to restrain its subjects from overrunning the Bechuana country. By the end of 1882 Robinson was satisfied that things could not drift on indefinitely (Mackenzie, Austral Africa, i. 157). But general negotiations with the South African Republic caused delay, and the Transvaal deputation to England in November 1883 brought Robinson also to this country to assist in settling the revised convention of 1884. On returning to the Cape in March 1884 he made great efforts to arrive at an understanding with the government of the South African Republic as to their responsibility for checking Boer raiders, and in November obtained the despatch of Sir Charles Warren's expedition, with a view to a definite settlement. The result was the annexation of Bechuanaland to the British dominions on 30 Sept. 1885. This settlement was to some extent marred by a dispute with Sir Charles Warren, as special commissioner, respecting the general control of the high commissioner. Sir Charles Warren, on his return home, urged the separation of the functions of high commissioner from those of governor of the Cape; suggestions were made as to the divergence of interest between the colony and the home government, and a controversy began which lasted for three years. The matter was strenuously taken up by Mr. John Mackenzie, who had been a commissioner in Bechuanaland. But there were strong arguments on the other side. Robinson was supported by the Cape parliament, and eventually the existing arrangement was maintained (Parl. Paper C. 5488 of 1888; Williams, British Lion in Bechuanaland, sect. ix. p. 47).

In October 1886 Robinson was commissioned by the imperial government to proceed to Mauritius to investigate the charges which had been brought against Sir John Pope-Hennessy [q. v.], the governor of that colony; he decided against the governor, whom he suspended from the exercise of his functions. He left Mauritius on 18 Dec. and returned to Cape Town on 1 Jan. 1887.

Although the ordinary term of a governor's administration had now run out, the value of Robinson's work was such that his term of administration was extended. He was now called upon to take a fresh step towards consolidating the British power in South Africa. It became known during 1887 that the Boers were contemplating an extension to the north, and early in 1888, by the energy and insistence of Mr. Cecil Rhodes, a treaty was made with Lobengula which secured for Great Britain the key of the great area to the northward. Robinson has been accused of being lukewarm in this matter; he certainly moved more slowly than Mr. Rhodes, but he cannot be denied credit for his share in the policy. This treaty was followed on 30 Oct. 1888 by the Rudd concession; but before the Chartered Company had its birth Robinson had ceased to be high commissioner. On 1 May 1889 he left the Cape, having been largely instrumental in establishing peace, in promoting good feeling, in improving internal communication, in opening up new territories to British enterprise, in securing to the Cape Colony a surer trade and improving revenue, and in fostering a sense of common interest with the Dutch republics, as shown by the customs union with the Orange Free State, which was consummated in 1889. His farewell speech created some stir in official circles because he declared that there was 'no permanent place in South Africa for direct imperial rule,' but probably too much importance was at the time attached to the dictum.

On his return to England Robinson looked upon his work for the empire as practically at an end, and settled down in London, devoting himself to the duties of various companies which claimed his services as a director. He was in particular a director of the London and Westminster Bank. In 1891 he was created a baronet. For six years he enjoyed this comparative rest, and then in the spring of 1895 came a call which he did not feel himself justified in refusing. He was asked by Lord Rosebery's government to return to South Africa in his old position. The time was an anxious one. The Transvaal Boers had recently had considerable diplomatic successes in their dealings with the British government; and they were inclined to be very high-handed. At the same time there was a deep feeling of resentment among the British who had made their home in Johannesburg, and were there subjected to vexatious and oppressive restrictions.

Robinson had no wish to return to South Africa, but the summons was a great compliment, and the call of duty was one which he felt bound to obey. At considerable personal sacrifice he took up the appointment on 30 May 1895. The choice of the government was fiercely assailed in the House of Commons (Hansard, 1895, xxxii. 426), among others by Mr. Chamberlain, who within a few weeks, by the turn of fortune's wheel, became himself the colonial secretary to whom Robinson was responsible.

Negotiations for substantial concessions from the executive of the South African republic were still in progress when, on 29 Dec. 1895, Dr. Jameson made his raid on the frontier of the republic, and Robinson was face to face with one of the worst situations that the history of the empire has seen. It is almost superfluous to say that Robinson had no sort of part in this ill-advised attempt. He had been kept in ignorance of the project because those who conceived it knew his character. Directly he heard of the attempt he endeavoured to stop it by telegraph, but was too late.

On 2 Jan. 1896 Robinson proceeded to Pretoria to negotiate for the release of the raiders. In this he succeeded, returning to Cape Town on 14 Jan.; but he could not expect to do much more. The troubles which were at the root of the raid were left to breed the war of 1899; but for this Robinson cannot fairly be held responsible. His personal influence at any rate glossed over the apparent friction between Dutch and British, and when in May 1896 he came on leave to England, he left comparative calm and good feeling behind him. Probably he was the only man who had sufficient prestige to cope with such a crisis and save a war. On 11 Aug. 1896 he was made a baron in the peerage of England, by the style of Baron Rosmead of Rosmead in Ireland, and of Tafelberg in South Africa. Immediately afterwards he returned to the Cape, where he proceeded with the work of conciliating all parties among the Dutch and British. But the failure of his health compelled him to ask to be relieved of his government. On 21 April 1897 he left the Cape for England. He never really recovered his health, and died at 42 Prince's Gardens, London, on 28 Oct. 1897. He was buried at Brompton cemetery on 1 Nov.

Robinson may be regarded as one of the greatest of the colonial governors whom Britain has sent out during the nineteenth century; and his name will always be particularly connected with the most vigorous period of the growth of South African empire. He was prudent, cautious, and businesslike; genial, kindly, and free from pomposity; above the middle height, of a dignified presence. An excellent appreciation of him is that of Sir Henry Parkes, the Australian statesman (Fifty Years, &c., i. 296). He was knighted in 1859, became K.C.M.G. in 1869, G.C.M.G. in 1875, and a privy councillor in 1882.

Lord Rosmead, besides being a good man of business and a good speaker, was a sportsman, and a great lover of horses and of horse-racing (Lang, History of New South Wales, i. 422). The best portrait (by Folingsby) of Lord Rosmead hangs in the hall of Government House, Sydney. Others are in the possession of his son, Lord Rosmead, at Ascot, and of his daughter, the Hon. Mrs. Durant, who also possesses a bust by Simonetti.

Robinson married, on 24 April 1846, Nea Arthur Ada Rose D'Amour, sixth daughter of Arthur Annesley Rath, viscount Valentia, and left a son, Hercules Arthur Temple, who succeeded him, and three daughters, all married.

[Mennell's Dict. of Australasian Biogr.; Times, 29 Oct. 1897, 2 Nov. 1897; Col. Office List, 1897; Colonial Blue Book Reports, &c.; Official Hist. of New South Wales; Parkes's Fifty Years in the making of Australian History, i. 296, 334, ii. 106; Rusden's Hist. of Australia, iii. 501 sq.; Gisborne's Rulers and Statesmen of New Zealand; Cape Argus, 29 Oct. 1897; Cape Times (weekly ed.), 3 Nov. 1897; Wilmot's Hist. of our own Times in South Africa, ii. 196 sq.; Mackenzie's Austral Africa, 1887, passim; Worsfold's South Africa, passim; Froude's Oceana, p. 68; Life and Times of Sir J. C. Molteno, 1900; Fitzpatrick's Transvaal from Within, 1899; G. E. C[okayne]'s Complete Peerage, viii. 248, 530.]

C. A. H.