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Gilbert Robertson (1794–1851)

by Margery Godfrey

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Gilbert Robertson (1794-1851), editor and agriculturist, was born on 10 December 1794 at Trinidad, West Indies, the son of Gilbert Robertson, who had large possessions in Demerara, British Guiana and died at Edinburgh on 10 March 1840.

Robertson served a four-year apprenticeship in agriculture in Scotland and took a farm, but lost it when the Corn Law caused prices to fall. He migrated to Van Diemen's Land in 1822 with his wife and child; five other children were born in the colony. He was granted 400 acres (162 ha) and rented another farm but was unable to carry out his plans with only two assigned servants. When a partnership failed, his farm was sold and he was in the debtors' prison at Hobart Town in 1824. He petitioned Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur in 1825 for employment on the government farm at New Town and was its superintendent for five years. When his services were dispensed with, he was granted land, which he named Woodburn, in the Coal River district, Richmond. As Richmond's chief constable he volunteered in 1829 to lead an expedition against marauding Aboriginals. This and a later expedition were unsuccessful, although they helped Robertson to appraise the agricultural possibilities of land he traversed. He outspokenly defended the Aboriginals. In February 1832 his convict labour was withdrawn and he was dismissed from the police force for supplying his assigned servants with wine for a harvest celebration, after which a man was found dead in the neighbourhood. He protested, however, that they were innocent of the murder.

Robertson was engaged as editor and reporter of the Colonist, first issued on 6 July 1832, owned by Thomas Gregson and George Meredith and printed by Andrew Bent. This arrangement did not last, and on 5 August 1834 Robertson published the True Colonist and Van Diemen's Land Political Despatch and Agricultural and Commercial Advertiser. From 2 January 1835 this paper became Tasmania's first daily, but Robertson was soon imprisoned for libellous charges of maladministration and accounting against Lieutenant-Governor Arthur and a Hobart attorney, W. T. Rowlands. Although helped by Andrew Bent, he could not bring out the paper daily from prison; after 20 March 1835 it reverted to semi-weekly and sometimes weekly publication. His defence against the alleged libels was that they were published for the public good, in hope of an inquiry into the colony's affairs. The last issue of the True Colonist appeared on 26 December 1844 when Robertson left to become superintendent of agriculture at Norfolk Island. He resigned in 1846 after a quarrel with the commandant, soon afterwards becoming a station overseer at Colac, Victoria. He was editor of the Victoria Colonist and Western District Advertiser when he fell from his horse in a fit of apoplexy and died at Geelong on 5 September 1851.

Robertson was a fiery opponent of the Arthur regime and his greatest influence was exerted through his vigorous, although one-sided, True Colonist. Most contemporary newspapers quarrelled with him, although the Britannia admitted that he was the first to show the colonial applicability of the Act of James I securing the rights of the subject against arbitrary ejectments by the Crown. He also published many scientific articles on farming, was interested in agricultural societies, and lectured on agriculture and colonization to the Hobart Town Mechanics' Institute, of which he was a prominent member.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Melville, The History of the Island of Van Diemen's Land from 1824 to 1835 (Hob, 1835)
  • E. M. Miller, Pressmen and Governors (Syd, 1952)
  • True Colonist (Hobart), Jan-Mar 1835
  • Britannia and Trades' Advocate (Hobart), 20 Aug 1846
  • Colonial Times (Hobart), 19 Jan 1847
  • Hobart Town Courier, 17 Sept 1851
  • Mercury (Hobart), 1 Apr 1872
  • CSO 1 (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

Margery Godfrey, 'Robertson, Gilbert (1794–1851)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

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